Bad Bishop (Perfect Play #2) by Layla Reyne

bad bishop

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a marriage of convenience becomes more than either husband bargained for…

Special Agent Levi Bishop needs to:
Keep his son and family safe.
Prove his boss was framed for a crime she didn’t commit.
Convince his selfless cowboy husband that his needs matter too.
Make a bold play before love slips through his fingers.

Special Agent Emmitt Marshall needs to:
Protect his husband and stepson.
End the nightmare that’s haunted him since his mentor’s murder.
Hack through layers of deception to identify the real threat.
Stop hoping someone will choose him.

Marsh is determined to go it alone, to guard his family and his heart.
But Levi’s life and heart are on the line too.
Cornered, Levi will chance any play to save the marriage and man he needs.
Rings were exchanged and promises made.
Marsh kept up his end of the bargain.
Now it’s Levi’s turn.

Rating: B

Bad Bishop is the second book in Layla Reyne’s Perfect Play trilogy, and if you haven’t read book one, Dead Draw, it won’t make a great deal of sense; this is a ‘same couple’ series with one overarching plotline, so the books need to be read in order.

Bad Bishop picks up just a few hours after Dead Draw ended, with Marsh and Levi realising that their enemies have upped the stakes of the game. The suddenness of all the upheaval has thrown a wrench in the middle of the couple’s burgeouning relationship; both men had begun to realise that their marriage of convenience was turning into something real, but any acknowledgement of that had to be put on the back burner when they were targeted by the traffickers they’re trying to bring down, Levi’s boss was framed for murder, and two of their colleagues were injured and ended up in hospital. With the help of Redemption Inc. (the company run by Brax (Silent Knight) and Mel (Whiskeyverse)) Levi, Marsh and David (Levi’s fourteen-year-old son) were able to get away under the radar, and when Bad Bishop begins, are en route to Marsh’s family ranch/compound in Texas.

Once settled, Marsh and Levi set about taking stock of where they are with the investigation and deciding on their next moves. It seems their most likely suspect has decamped to Europe, so it’s back to The Hague for Marsh (he was working there as a Legat at the beginning of Dead Draw) and then on to Vienna and Salzburg – but this time he won’t be alone. Confident of David’s safety at the ranch with Marsh’s moms, Holt, and Brax, Levi will be going with him, and then they’ll meet up with some of Marsh’s former colleagues and contacts to see what they know and start to plan the take-down. Meeting up with Sean (What We May Be), Marsh and Levi start picking their way through a complicated network of connections, progress made even tricker by the knowledge that someone Marsh and Sean have worked with may be in the traffickers’ pocket. There’s no way they’re getting away with everything they’re doing without someone high up covering for them and allowing them to operate unchecked throughout Europe. Marsh and Levi already know this is true of the operation in the US, where the gang has some pretty influential people on its payroll. While trying to work out how far the corruption extends, they’re also presented with some new – and uncomfortable – information about Sophie, the friend and mentor whose murder set Marsh onto the path which ultimately led him to Levi… and the web becomes even more tangled.

Ms. Reyne does a good job here of giving the romance space to breathe and embed without losing any of the momentum surrounding the suspense plot. There’s plenty going on – mostly gathering information and following leads rather than shoot ‘em up action – but the tension is mounting and the ending is a nail-biter. It’s probably no surprise that there’s a cliffhanger ending given that this is essentially part two of a single story being told in three instalments – but there is one and it’s one guaranteed to have you chomping at the bit for King Hunt (out early 2023).

On the relationship front, the tables are turned somewhat here as the events at the end of the previous book have spooked Marsh a little; he’s riddled with guilt over what he’s brought to Levi and David’s door and his deep-seated insecurities about not being enough have come flooding back. He’s one of those guys with a protective streak a mile wide and such a big heart that he wants desperately to look after those he loves and fails to do the same for himself. He needs someone who recognises that about him and who will do their best to show him that he IS enough – that he could be everything – and luckily for him, he’s found that person in the man he proposed to in order to get in on an op.

Although Levi wasn’t completely sure that marrying a stranger was a good idea, by the end of Dead Draw he had decided he needed Marsh in his life and was ready to trust him with his happiness and his son’s and make a new life with him. Knowing Marsh pretty well by now, he knows why his husband seems to be pulling back, and is determined to show Marsh that he absolutey, one-hundred percent, means what he says:

I will have your back, however I can do that, however you need me to, and I will give you a home and heart to return to. I promise I won’t leave you.

I like Levi and Marsh both individually and as a couple – they have terrific chemistry and I love the relationship Marsh is continuing to build with David – I like the way their romance is playing out, and I’m intrigued by the plot, so I enjoyed a lot about the book as a whole. But once again, I’m knocking off grade points for over-complication, because the first section is bursting at the seams with cameo appearances, and it was hard to keep track of who was who and who did what – and I’ve read almost all Ms. Reyne’s romantic suspense titles! Sure, it’s fun to see familiar faces again, but at the same time, it’s over-egging the pudding when no less than seven characters (Helena, Brax and Holt from Fog City, Cam Byrne from Trouble Brewing, Sean, Trevor and Charlotte from What We May Be) all drop in alongside the secondary characters from this series. (One scene features around a dozen speaking characters on a big video/conference call.) Sean and, to a lesser extent, Holt and Brax, do have larger roles to play in the wider story, and I’m completely behind the concept of ‘why create a new character to do X when I can use one that already exists?’ – but even so, I couldn’t help wondering if the story really needed ALL of them. There are also half-a-dozen villains and at least three more new characters introduced once the story moves to Europe – it’s a lot to keep track of.

That criticism aside however, once past those early chapters and with the action moving to Europe, the story kicks up a gear and the twists and turns come thick and fast. Slick, sexy, suspenseful and entertaiing, Bad Bishop is a strong follow-up to Dead Draw, and I’ll be back next year to watch Levi and Marsh bring down the bad guys and get their well-deserved HEA.

Dead Draw (Perfect Play #1) by Layla Reyne (audiobook) – Narrated by Christian Leatherman

dead draw
This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a marriage of convenience is the only play left…

Special Agent Emmitt Marshall knows how to:
Wear a cowboy hat.
Hack anything.
Win at chess.
Fall in love with emotionally unavailable men.
He even knows the perfect play to catch the terrorists who killed his mentor.

Special Agent Levi Bishop doesn’t know how to:
Move on after his wife’s death.
Help his grieving son.
Pay off his mountain of debt.
Fix the mess some cowboy cyber agent made of his case.
The same cowboy who proposes a marriage of convenience to stop a common enemy.

Marsh is either the answer to Levi’s prayers—or a handsome nightmare in a Stetson.
Levi doesn’t know.
But both men do know their cases and lives are at a dead draw.
There’s only one play left…
I do.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

I’ve said before that Layla Reyne’s books can be hit or miss for me, so I was pleased to find that Dead Draw, the first book in her new Perfect Play series, was mostly a hit. It’s fast paced, with plenty of action and a steamy central romance, and although loosely tied to the Fog City series, and one of the principals appeared as a secondary character in her standalone novel, What We May Be, there are no overlapping story threads, so a new listener could start here with no problems.

Special Agent Emmett Marshall, a legal attaché with the FBI, has been working to bring down the group of terrorists responsible for the death of his best friend and mentor some three years earlier, but a serious mis-step sees him screwing up an FBI operation in the US. His intention had been to try to flush out the people funding the terrorists, but instead, he ends up sending them to ground and completely blowing eighteen months of hard graft put in by Special Agent Levi Bishop and his team, who have been hot on the trail of a group of people traffickers.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dead Draw (Perfect Play #1) by Layla Reyne

dead draw

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a marriage of convenience is the only play left…

Special Agent Emmitt Marshall knows how to:
Wear a cowboy hat.
Hack anything.
Win at chess.
Fall in love with emotionally unavailable men.
He even knows the perfect play to catch the terrorists who killed his mentor.

Special Agent Levi Bishop doesn’t know how to:
Move on after his wife’s death.
Help his grieving son.
Pay off his mountain of debt.
Fix the mess some cowboy cyber agent made of his case.
The same cowboy who proposes a marriage of convenience to stop a common enemy.

Marsh is either the answer to Levi’s prayers—or a handsome nightmare in a Stetson.
Levi doesn’t know.
But both men do know their cases and lives are at a dead draw.
There’s only one play left…
I do.

Rating: B-

Layla Reyne begins a new romantic suspense series with Dead Draw, in which two FBI agents who turn out to be working the same case from different angles enter into a marriage of convenience so that they can continue to work it under the radar after an operation goes badly wrong. MoC is one of my favourite tropes in historicals, but it’s less easy to pull off in contemporaries (unless it’s in a Harlequin Presents novel!) – and quite honestly, I didn’t buy the reasons for it here. But I decided to go with it – I know I’m in for complicated, fast-paced and doesn’t-always-make-sense in a Layla Reyne book, but the characters sounded interesting and she’s always very readable so I parked my suspension-of-disbelief hat by the door and dove in.

Special Agent Levi Bishop is furious when the raid he’d organised to bring down a people trafficking organisation is screwed up. That’s eighteen months of gruelling work out the window, not to mention ten victims snatched out from under his nose, thanks to unwanted interference by Special Agent Emmitt Marsh. Marsh has been hunting down the terrorists who murdered his best friend and mentor some three years earlier, and had established their links to human trafficking and to Levi’s case; but in trying to get to someone higher up in the organisation, he inadvertently tipped them off.

Needing to find a way not only to atone for his screw-up, but also to continue to work the case and collaborate with Levi’s team, Marsh hatches a plan which will mean he can do just that. A day later, he tracks Levi down to a San Francisco restaurant and proposes they get married; it’s not against the rules and it means that Marsh will be able to keep tabs on the case unofficially. To say Levi is stunned is an understatement, but he also recognises something of a kindred spirit in the handsome cowboy, a man who, like him is tired of the dead ends and the near missses, tired of the relentless pace and the long hours. As a widower and single parent drowning in debt and worried he’s failing his teenaged son, Levi has a lot on his plate – and Marsh’s offer of money in exchange for Levi marrying him is most definitely tempting. As is Marsh himself. But… it’s a ridiculous idea. Isn’t it?

Well, yes, it sort of is – I never quite understood why they had to get married – but the chemistry between the pair is evident from the moment they meet and the slow-burn that follows is worth getting past that unlikely plot point.

As in most of the books I’ve read by this author, the mechanics of the case/suspense plot are quite complicated and it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of who is who and how everything relates to everything else. The main thing is that Levi’s traffickers are linked to Marsh’s terrorists and the two men are pursuing the same goals – preventing more women being trafficked, flushing out the terrorists and bringing the operation down altogether. There’s also a secondary case Marsh is assigned by the Special Agent in Charge (who might as well have a flashing neon sign over his head saying “dodgy bastard”) which turns out to be much more than a side issue, and I did like the way it’s worked in to the main plotline.

On the whole, Dead Draw balances the plot and the romance pretty well, although as this is book one of a trilogy, there’s no HEA – but the romance does end on a strong HFN with the promise of more. Levi and Marsh are likeable, complex and flawed characters, both with significant baggage, which is to be unexpected given their ages (Levi is thirty-eight, Marsh, forty-six). Prickly, sharp-tongued Levi lost his wife to cancer two years earlier and is still grieving while trying to cope with the demands placed on him by his job and with being a father to his fourteen-year-old son David. He’s a good dad, but he feels like he’s failing David, and also worries about how he will react when Levi is ready to move on and perhaps make a life with someone else. Marsh is flirty and charming and confident, but has a habit of falling for men who are emotionally unavailable, so Levi is his catnip and he knows he should steer well clear. But the more he gets to know Levi, to see the man who is so in need of someone to lean on sometimes, the more he wants to be that someone. Their arrangement was only ever meant to be temporary, but Marsh hadn’t counted on feeling so at home with Levi and David – on finding a home with them – and he can’t help himself from falling hard, even though he knows he’s setting himself up for a world of hurt.

The romance has the feel of a slow burn and the author builds the sexual tension really well, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches all contributing to the growing heat between the two men. When they do finally give in to their attraction I appreciated that Marsh makes it absolutely clear that he isn’t pushing Levi to move past his grief, or expecting (or wanting) to replace his wife, but rather, he’s offering to help lighten the load, just for a little while. I was also really pleased that one of the few people in on the truth about their marriage is David and that Levi and Marsh don’t lie to him; I also liked the way David and Marsh connect through their love of chess.

On the downside, I had a real problem with the way Marsh goes about suggesting to Levi that they get married. In fact, he doesn’t really suggest it – he turns up at the restaurant where Levi and his late wife “toasted their vows with friends and family” sixteen years earlier (so I infer it’s his anniversary) and tells Levi his hacking has got him all sorts of information about him, from his financial situation to his sexual preferences, and the way I read it, he all but blackmails him!

“You wouldn’t.” He was out as pansexual, but he’s rather not have the details of his sex life combed through by a stranger, or worse, leaked to the wrong person.

“I won’t if you marry me.”

If that’s supposed to be funny – it isn’t. Not cool, Marsh.

Then there’s Levi’s mother, who meddles far too much in his love life (setting him up when he clearly doesn’t want to be and pushing him to get back out there) and some sort of weird family competition between his mother and aunt, who it seem have made it their mission to one-up each other at family weddings, which felt ridiculous and completely unnecessary.

I had a few smaller niggles as well (again, there’s an over-reliance on the genius hacker who can save the world with a few keystrokes), but as I’ve said before, Layla Reyne spins a good yarn, her stories move along at a swift pace and there’s plenty of action and steam. They’re like TV shows in book form, and sometimes, reading about hot FBI agents and sexy cowboy hackers running around and putting down the bad guys is just what the doctor ordered. I enjoyed Dead Draw in spite of my reservations, and will be picking up book two, Bad Bishop, when it’s released later this year.

Variable Onset by Layla Reyne (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

variable onset

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When the serial killer known as Dr. Fear seemingly reemerges after a cooling-off period, Special Agent Lincoln Monroe wants on the case. He knows his research on the calculating criminal, who targets couples and uses their worst fears to kill them, could prove invaluable. But nothing can prepare Lincoln for the agent waiting for him in Apex, Virginia: a brash and cocky former student. Carter Warren is everything Lincoln is not, and somehow everything he wants. And they’ll be going undercover. As newlyweds.

For Carter, seeing Lincoln again—and flustered to boot—pokes his raging bear of a crush something fierce. He thinks posing as lovers will provide the perfect bait for Dr. Fear. But pretending to be married forces them to confront fears of their own…like giving in to the very real chemistry between them.

With evidence pointing to the possibility of a copycat killer, Lincoln and Carter will have to race to separate truth from fiction. But when another couple goes missing, finding the killer will test every ounce of their training, skills and the strength of their bond like never before.

Rating – Narration: C+; Content – B+

I have a somewhat hot/cold relationship with Layla Reyne’s books. They can be a bit hit and miss for me, but I keep coming back to them because despite their flaws, they’re pretty entertaining. The author can create intensely likeable and compelling characters, and she’s great at constructing fast-paced action sequences and interesting plotlines, but at times those plots have been overly complicated and a bit frenetic, so much so that they’ve overshadowed the romance and left little space for character and relationship development. I loved her début Agents Irish and Whiskey series, but was less convinced by its spin-off, Trouble Brewing (even though I really liked the central characters) – so I was pleased when her standalone romantic suspense novel Variable Onset marked a welcome return to form.

The plot revolves around the hunt for an elusive serial killer known as Dr. Fear, who has been killing for many years but has so far evaded capture. Dr. Fear targets couples, kidnapping them and then torturing them by confronting them with their deepest fears until they beg for death – and acts in cycles, killing several victims and then going to ground for years before starting up again. When Variable Onset begins, they’ve just become active again – and for the first time ever, the FBI might just have a plausible lead as to their whereabouts.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Silent Knight (Fog City #5) by Layla Reyne

silent knight
This title may be purchased from Amazon

I won’t let anything happen to you.

Fourteen years ago, Braxton Kane’s feelings were forbidden.
As an officer, he couldn’t fall for an enlisted… no matter how much he longed for Holt Madigan.
Now—as a police chief in love with a digital assassin—his promise to always protect Holt is becoming harder to keep.

I’ll protect you.

Holt doesn’t understand why his best friend has been pushing him away for months.
But when Brax’s life and career are threatened, Holt refuses to allow the distance any longer.
The Madigans protect their own, and Brax is family, whether he believes it or not.

I won’t let anything happen to you either.

Forced together, Holt realizes his feelings for his best friend have changed.
His desire to explore the promise their single night together held is undeniable.
His resolve to protect the man who has always protected him is unshakable.
But if Holt wants a future with Brax, he’ll have to search and destroy the person who attacked him—before Brax activates the kill switch and sacrifices himself.

Rating: C

NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous books in the series.

Layla Reyne’s Fog City series was originally a trilogy – or perhaps more accurately, one story in three parts – that featured the three Madigan siblings, the heirs to one of the most powerful organised crime families in the Bay Area of San Francisco. When the family patriarch and head of the business – their grandfather – dies after a long illness, Hawes Madigan – the eldest – steps into the role he’s been groomed for, but his decisions to turn away from some of the more illegal aspects of their work and towards more legitimate business interests aren’t popular, and the trilogy deals with uncovering and foiling the plot to bring him down. On the way, Hawes falls in love with Chris Perri (formerly an undercover ATF agent), and we’re introduced to a typically large secondary cast, which includes Hawes’ twin Holt, their sister Helena and various other operatives and villains. Among that cast is the character of Braxton Kane, Chief of SFPD, who was in the army with Holt over a decade earlier – and although Holt is married with a young daughter, it was very clear throughout the trilogy that there was something bubbling along between them that was considerably more than friendship. (And no, there’s no cheating involved.)

The relationship between Holt and Brax intrigued me (I do love me some yearning and UST) and I had hopes that maybe Ms. Reyne would write a story for them; and she did. Silent Knight is it.

It’s a book of two halves. The first, in Brax’s PoV, tells the story of how he and Holt met in the army and follows them in a series of vignettes (eight in total) over a period of some fourteen years, and then we get Holt’s PoV in the present day suspense storyline.

I was pleased to get their backstory, but OMG, it contains probably the worst case of Love at First Sight I’ve ever read, when Holt steps off the transport plane in Afghanistan and Brax – his captain – takes one look at the young, redheaded, fucking beautiful – and so off fucking limits – man and vows never to let anything happen to him:

He’d do whatever it took to make sure this soldier walked back up that ramp and made it home when his tour was over.

– before he’s so much as spoken to him. I mean – seriously? Holt could have been a complete dickhead for all he knew – or straight, or both. We do get to see some relationship development across the years (although not much, as each vignette is basically a snapshot of a single day) but I just couldn’t get past a thirty-six year-old career soldier thinking like a teenaged girl. (With apologies to teenaged girls everywhere.)

We follow the two men through Holt returning home after his tour, Brax completing his twenty years and going to take up a post with Boston PD, Holt falling in love (with a woman) and getting married, and Brax finally moving to SF a few years later to become assistant Chief of Police. It’s here that he finally learns the truth about Holt’s family – and even though he’s horribly torn, he still stands by his determination never to let anything bad happen to Holt if he can help it. (If you’ve read the Fog City series, you’ll know that Brax walks a fine line, but never falls on the wrong side of it.)

When the narrative switches to Holt’s PoV, we’re in the present day, a few months after the plot to oust (and kill) Hawes was foiled, and for reasons Holt can’t fathom, Brax is trying to put some distance between them; reasons which become apparent when it emerges that someone is out to discredit Brax and strike at the family through him.  With IA called in to investigate the allegations, Brax wants to keep Holt as far away from him as possible, so as not to put him and his daughter in any danger.  Of course, Holt is having none of it – Brax is family, and the Madigans look after their own.  Helena and Hawes (and their partners) are on board, too – they all know how Brax feels about Holt and how Holt feels about Brax even if Holt hasn’t quite worked it out yet.

But readable though it is, Silent Knight is plagued by the same problems and inconsistencies that have beset a number of Ms. Reyne’s recent books, and indeed, the other books in this series.  I like the characters and the relationships between them; the Madigans are a close-knit family and there’s no question there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another.  Ms. Reyne is also very skilled at creating a slick, fast-paced, action-filled story that feels like an action movie in book format; they’re filled with super hawt, super clever characters who are incredibly good at what they do, and things move at a dizzying speed.  But there’s a serious over-reliance on technology – each of her series/books has one or more genius hacker characters who can do pretty much ANYTHING with just a few keystrokes – and that started feeling like a major cop-out a few books ago. (The exception to this is her recent standalone Variable Onset, which is one of her best books to date.)

When it comes to inconsistencies – apart from the Love at First Sight thing, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that Amelia – Holt’s ex-wife who is in prison for her part in the plot against the family  – is able to help out by doing a bit of complicated hacking FROM THE COMPUTERS IN THE PRISON.  I mean – what?!  Most of the hacking stuff goes right over my head and I kind of zone out until it’s finished, but that?  Made no sense to me.

The romance is… well, Brax has been in love with Holt for years, but it seems Holt hasn’t recognised his feelings for what they are (and have always been),  so really there’s not a great deal of romantic development as these two have been in love for ages.  And, as has also been the case in previous books, the dialogue in the sex scenes strays dangerously close to the line between hot and funny-for-the-wrong-reasons.  The author is going for intensity but some of the things these characters say to each other makes me want to cringe.  The prose might not quite be purple, but the overblown nature of the sentiment certainly is.

I keep thinking that maybe it’s time I called it quits and stopped reading Layla Reyne’s books – and then she comes out with something as good as Variable Onset and I’m sucked back in, hoping for something else of that calibre from her.

To sum up – if you enjoyed the other Fog City books, chances are you’ll enjoy this one, but if, like me you like a coherent plot that doesn’t rely too heavily on technological deus ex machina and a romance that doesn’t make you want to roll your eyes so hard they hurt, then maybe this won’t be the book for you.  Bonus points for cameos from characters from the Whiskeyverse aren’t really enough for me to be able to rate this one above the average.

Variable Onset by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When the serial killer known as Dr. Fear seemingly reemerges after a cooling-off period, Special Agent Lincoln Monroe wants on the case. He knows his research on the calculating criminal, who targets couples and uses their worst fears to kill them, could prove invaluable. But nothing can prepare Lincoln for the agent waiting for him in Apex, Virginia: a brash and cocky former student. Carter Warren is everything Lincoln is not, and somehow everything he wants. And they’ll be going undercover. As newlyweds.

For Carter, seeing Lincoln again—and flustered to boot—pokes his raging bear of a crush something fierce. He thinks posing as lovers will provide the perfect bait for Dr. Fear. But pretending to be married forces them to confront fears of their own…like giving in to the very real chemistry between them.

With evidence pointing to the possibility of a copycat killer, Lincoln and Carter will have to race to separate truth from fiction. But when another couple goes missing, finding the killer will test every ounce of their training, skills and the strength of their bond like never before.

Rating: B+

Layla Reyne is an author who can be a bit hit and miss for me, yet something about her writing keeps me coming back to her books.  I thoroughly enjoyed her début series, (Agents Irish and Whiskey) but was less enthusiastic about the follow up (Trouble Brewing), even though I liked the characters and most of the plotlines. In fact, there are a lot of things I like about her books – likeable characters, complex plots, snappy dialogue and steamy love scenes, plus Ms. Reyne’s ability to write movie-style action scenes is impressive.  All those ingredients were there in her last couple of series, but they didn’t seem to gel quite as well as before.

So I’m really pleased to report that her latest novel, Variable Onset, turned out to be a welcome return to form.  It’s a standalone, and is one of her best books to date, containing a well-executed, complex plot and two fully fleshed-out leads whose romance unfolds at a pace that allows the author to properly develop the chemistry between them and really build the UST.

The story revolves around the hunt for a serial killer who has managed to evade capture for decades.  The notorious Dr. Fear preys on couples, kidnapping and torturing them, preying on their deepest fears (fire, claustrophobia, drowning…) until the victim begs for death – and then repeats the torture with the second victim. The killer strikes in cycles and goes to ground after each one; now it seems that they may have just become active again and for the first time, the FBI may have a clue as to where this person might be.

Special Agent Lincoln Monroe has been with the FBI for fifteen years, the last ten of them at Quantico, where he teaches courses in forensic science.  He loves what he does, but his specialty in forensic genealogy has seen him being pulled into more and more active investigations recently.  Field work doesn’t really play to his strengths, but when he learns Dr. Fear appears to have embarked upon his next killing cycle, he immediately accedes to his boss’ request for help on the case.  Even more bad news awaits however; the latest couple to have been abducted are the daughter of Lincoln’s former mentor (who was the last agent to have tracked Dr. Fear) and her fiancé.  If the killer remains true to form, they have less than forty eight hours to find them alive.

It’s truly a race against time, and Lincoln makes his way to the small town of Apex, Virginia, to meet with the agent he’ll partner in their search for the couple and the killer.  In his rush to get underway, Lincoln wasn’t even told the agent’s name – and the last thing he expects is to arrive at his new ‘home’ to find a party in full swing.  Even more unexpected, the door is opened by Carter Warren, a former student – the trainee of his nightmares, and of the occasional fantasy  – who drags him inside, presses a wedding ring into his hand and immediately introduces him around as Professor Lincoln Polk, the new university librarian – and his new husband.

Carter had a huge crush on Lincoln back when he was at the academy, and thinks his geeky professor has grown even hotter with age.  He wanted Lincoln on the case because he’s the Bureau’s resident expert on Dr. Fear and created their cover as a couple in the belief that it might draw them out – but is also determined not to pass up the chance to broaden his working partnership with Lincoln into something more.

The suspense plot is clever, twisty and dark as Lincoln and Carter realise that not only is Dr. Fear killing again, but they’ve got a copycat to deal with as well – whom Dr. Fear seems to want them to catch.  Suspects and red herrings abound but clues don’t – and even when one does surface, it seems to offer more questions than answers, and I changed my mind about the identity of the villain several times. Layla Reyne’s research is always impeccable, and her forays into investigative detail are fascinating; plus she does a great job evoking the small college town atmosphere and of fleshing out the secondary characters.

The two leads are strongly characterised and three dimensional, and their slow-burn relationship is full of crackling sexual tension.  Lincoln is in his early forties and co-parents his teenaged daughter with his ex-wife (who he counts as one of his best friends). He’s meticulous, dedicated and a bit prickly, his daughter is the most important person in his life and he’s  cautious about relationships, having been burned in the past, but can’t deny the pull he feels towards Carter – has felt since the first time they met eight years earlier.  Back then, Carter was an aggravating smartarse – and one of Lincoln’s brightest students.  Too smart, too cocky, too flirtatious and too damn attractive for his own good, he was exactly the sort of trouble Lincoln didn’t need, and not much of that has changed in the last eight years.  Or that’s what Lincoln believes at first. Quickly he comes to see that while Carter is still gorgeous, talented and outgoing, he’s also kind, highly competent and clever, and that they’re a good fit, both professionally and personally.

Variable Onset is a terrific read – a fast-paced, suspenseful mystery combined with a sexy, slow-burn romance that is just right for this particular story.  I liked how the fake relationship adds to the romantic tension with both men wondering whether their growing feelings are due to their enforced proximity or something more; it’s not an uncommon trope, but I liked the way it was handled here. I would perhaps have liked to see a little more of Carter and Lincoln’s togetherness at the end of the book, but ultimately I’m happy with the way things played out between them.  I did, however have a couple of issues with the plot; one, I found the resolution of the main Dr. Fear plotline a little clumsy and two, I’d have liked a little more time spent on the personal quest that led to Carter’s being in Apex in the first place.

But none of those issues affected my enjoyment of the book one whit. I’m sure Ms. Reyne’s many fans will enjoy it, and if you haven’t read anything of hers before, this would be a great jumping-in point.  Carter and Lincoln are engaging, relatable characters, and I’ll be at the front of the queue if Ms. Reyne decides she’s got more of their stories to tell.

King Slayer (Fog City #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Never fall for a mark. Mission fail.

Christopher Perri—a.k.a. Dante Perry—infiltrated the Madigan organization with one goal: vengeance for his murdered partner. Falling for the assassin at the head of the table wasn’t part of the plan, but Hawes Madigan is not the cold, untouchable Prince of Killers Chris expected. Everything about the newly crowned king is hot, and every inch of him eminently touchable…and off-limits once Chris’s cover is blown.

Exposure couldn’t come at a worse time. Hawes’s throne is threatened, and Chris suspects the same person who killed his partner is behind the coup. Working with Hawes benefits them both, but Chris’s employer has other ideas. Dismantling criminal organizations is what Chris does best, and his boss expects the King Slayer to deliver.

But Hawes is taking the Madigans in a new direction, one Chris can get behind, and the two men form a shaky alliance strengthened by the irresistible attraction between them…until Chris learns who killed his partner. Once he knows the truth, the King Slayer is unleashed, and Chris will stop at nothing to destroy those who betrayed him, including the king who stole his heart.

Rating: C+

King Slayer is the second book in Layla Reyne’s current Fog City trilogy about the Madigans, a powerful family in the criminal underworld of San Francisco.  For the past three years, owing to a massive change of heart by Hawes Madigan, the family has been cleaning up its act and getting out of the shadier side of the business, and in this, he’s aided by his twin brother, Holt, and their sister, Helena.

In book one – told entirely from Hawes’ PoV – we met the Madigan siblings, their formidable grandmother and police chief, Braxton Kane – who served in the military with Holt – and learned that someone was out to take down the Madigans – principally Hawes – and that whoever it is could be someone from within the operation who is unhappy with the direction Hawes is taking the business.  Private investigator Dante Perry confronted Hawes with those suspicions and, in Prince of Killers, started working alongside the Madigans, trying to work out who was behind the attempts on Hawes’ life and at destabilising the company.  Over the course of about a week, lots of shit went down and Hawes and Dante quickly acted on the mutual attraction that sizzled between them right from their first meeting.  Hawes was surprised to find himself so quickly coming to rely on Dante in spite of his siblings’ urging him to caution, but something about Dante drew him like a moth to a flame – and ultimately to getting burned when it was revealed at the end of the novel that Dante, aka ATF agent Christopher Perri – was pursuing his own agenda; he’d infiltrated the business and got close to Hawes in order to find the truth about the death of his partner three years earlier.

This instalment of the story picks up immediately where book one finished and the PoV switches to Dante/Chris (I’m going to refer to him as Chris from now on).  At this point, readers know the reason behind Hawes’ decision to start pulling back from the less legitimate operations of MCS (the ones that involve killing people!) and who killed Chris’ partner, but Chris and Hawes still have secrets to reveal and uncover; and it becomes clear that someone is manipulating the Madigans, Chris and Kane, and that Chris and Hawes need to work together if they’re going to find out exactly who that is. But can Chris convince Hawes to trust him, even a little, after his betrayal?  And besides, with their mutual desire and need for one another showing no sign of abating – if anything it’s growing stronger – what sort of future can there possibly be for an (ex) assassin and a Fed?

There’s a bit less action in this book, which focuses more on developing Chris’ character, introducing his family members, and showing why he’s so determined to find out who was responsible for the death of his partner, who was there for him at an incredibly difficult time in his life and kept him on an even keel when he was in danger of going off the rails. We see less of the Madigans in action – although I found seeing Hawes through Chris’ eyes gave him the edginess that was missing in the first book – but there are some exciting plot developments, and once again, we end on one helluva cliffhanger that certainly whets the appetite for the next instalment.

Layla Reyne certainly knows how to tell a good yarn, but I still find myself wishing for more depth in the characterisation, romance rather than insta-lust, and side-eyeing some of the more implausible parts of the story (techies/hackers in Ms. Reyne’s books seem able to do pretty much everything at the touch of a key and in ten seconds flat, for instance).  But there’s usually something about her books that intrigues me enough to make me want to keep reading them.  Which means she must be doing something right, I suppose – and I’ll be back for book three in the series.

Prince of Killers (Fog City #1) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No indiscriminate killing. No collateral damage. No unvetted targets.

These are the rules Hawes Madigan lives by. Rules that make being Fog City’s Prince of Killers bearable. Soon, he’ll be king–of an organization of assassins–and the crown has never felt heavier. Until the mysterious Dante Perry swaggers into his life.

Dante looks like a rock god and carries himself like one too, all loose-limbed and casually confident. He also carries a concealed weapon, a private investigator’s license, and a message for the prince. Someone inside Hawes’s organization is out to kill the future king.

In the chaos that follows the timely warning, Hawes comes to depend on Dante. On his skills as an investigator, on the steadiness he offers, and on their moments alone when Hawes lets Dante take control. As alliances are tested and traitors exposed, Hawes needs Dante at his back and in his bed. But if the PI ever learns Hawes’s darkest secret, Hawes is sure to get a knife to the heart – and a bullet to the brain – instead.

Rating: C+

Prince of Killers is the first in a new trilogy of romantic suspense novels from Layla Reyne. Set in and around San Francisco, and focuses on a family that made its name and fortune from organised crime but which, owing to a tragic incident a few years earlier, is changing direction and turning its hand towards legitimate business… and vigilante justice.

The novel is fairly short, clocking in at around 200 pages (according to Amazon) and it does a decent job of introducing the overarching plot that will run throughout the trilogy and the major players.  Hawes Madigan is the heir to the organised crime empire built and run by his terminally ill grandfather.  Together with his younger (by two minutes) twin brother Holt and their sister Helena, he has been running MCS (Madigan Cold Storage) for the past five years, and is now facing the prospect of fully stepping into his grandfather’s shoes, as the man doesn’t have long left to live.  A man in his position naturally has many enemies, which is why he’s sceptical when he receives information from enigmatic private investigator Dante Perry that someone is trying to kill him.  The difference is, however, that Dante believes it’s someone from within Hawes’ organisation.

Hawes quickly discovers that Dante’s information was accurate when two of his trusted lieutenants turn on him later that very day – and would quite possibly have succeeded in killing him had it not been for Dante turning up out of the shadows to save Hawes’ life.  From here on in, Hawes finds himself starting to… if not completely trust Dante, then coming to depend on him to have his back and provide the sort of stabilising influence Hawes so desperately needs at this point in his life.  Losing their parents fairly young, the Madigan siblings were brought up by their grandparents and, as the eldest, Hawes has been groomed to one day take over the ‘family firm’.  But something happened three years earlier that made him decide to get out of the business of indiscriminate killing and clearly there are those within the company who are not happy about this new direction.  So what with preparing to say goodbye to his grandfather, continuing with his plans to dismantle certain parts of the business, and his priority of protecting his family at all costs, Hawes carries a huge burden of responsibility, and the prospect of at last having someone who can help lift those burdens, even for a little while is an undeniably attractive one.

The big problem with the book, however, it that it’s really difficult to accept the ease with which Dante – a complete stranger – is accepted into Hawes’ inner circle. There’s no question the relationship between the two men is based on insta-lust, and that’s okay as we’ve got two more books to go to develop something deeper between them, but I just couldn’t buy that the Madigans, for whom caution and mistrust are pretty much default positions, just let Dante waltz in and start offering opinions and becoming part of the team almost without batting an eyelid. Hawes takes the guy home with him the day they meet (okay, so that night Dante sleeps on the sofa) and after that Dante’s all but moved in! – which just didn’t make sense for the sort of character Hawes is supposed to be. And as an extension of that, I really couldn’t buy him as having been this badass assassin who was feared by all – he just wasn’t edgy enough.

On the upside, the characters are likeable, the family dynamics are well done, and the continuing plotlines are promising. I want to know more about the Madigans’ relationship to the chief of police (I get the impression he may have served with Holt – and that there’s more to be said on that front), and the truth of what happened ‘that fateful night’ three years earlier. Unlike the novels in the Whiskeyverse, which are told from both protagonists’ points of view, Prince of Killers is narrated entirely by Hawes, which means that at this stage Dante is something of an enigma; we’ll get his PoV in book two. Oh, and I should warn you that this one ends on one helluva cliffhanger, so you might want to take that into consideration before you start.

I keep picking up Layla Reyne’s books hoping for a return to the form she showed in her début Agents Irish & Whiskey series, in which she managed to achieve a good balance between the plot and fast-paced action sequences while also developing her characters and the relationships between them. Her last series – Trouble Brewing – didn’t manage to achieve the same sort of balance, and this latest offering suffers from similar issues; the overarching plot of the Fog City series is very intriguing, but the characterisation is a bit on the superficial side, and the story is pretty rife with implausibilities. I’ve come to the conclusion that Ms. Reyne is great at constructing and delivering a TV show in book format – filled with good-looking, super-hot, wisecracking characters, lots of action, perilous situations and things going ‘boom!’, her books kinda race by and generally entertain, but I find myself having to ignore inconsistencies and wishing for more character development and character insight.

After saying all that, though, I expect I’ll be picking up the next book; I want to know more about Dante and to find out how that bloody cliffhanger resolves! Prince of Killers might work for you if you’re looking for a quick, fast-paced, sexy read with lots of action and aren’t too worried about the inconsistencies that show up along the way.

Noble Hops (Trouble Brewing #3) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Everything Dominic Price has worked hard to uphold is about to come crashing down on everything he holds dear.

So much for the quiet life. Just as assistant US attorney and brewery owner Dominic Price is settling into a comfy new chapter with his partner, FBI agent Cameron Byrne, the sudden death of Nic’s father puts their happily-ever-after in jeopardy. Nic immediately suspects foul play, his prime suspect a notorious gangster his father was indebted to—only now the loan shark is out for blood.

Cam has been longing for Nic to finally let him in on this very personal case. But when Nic’s belief that he’s the sole Price heir is upended, the line between personal and professional starts to blur, leaving Cam unsure of where he stands.

Nic is depending on Cam’s kidnap and rescue expertise to save his recently discovered family member before it’s too late. But with a dangerous threat closing in, the ghosts from Nic’s past cast long shadows. Any relationship could crack under the pressure, but for Nic, finding his family might mean losing the love of his life.

Rating: B-

Although I haven’t given as high grades to the books in Layla Reyne’s Trouble Brewing series as I did to some of those in her earlier Agents Irish and Whiskey one, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the novels in spite of their weaknesses. This is primarily because I like the two principals – FBI agent Cameron Byrne and Assistant US Attorney Nic Price – and the sense of family and connections the author has created between them and the recurring secondary characters, most of whom appeared in the earlier series. These are quick, easy reads that are rather like TV shows or action movies in book form; the heroes are impossibly handsome, the ex-SEAL-turned-Lawyer gets to kick ass physically as well as in the courtroom, and the computer experts can hack pretty much everything in the world without breaking a sweat, or turn up all sorts of information in the five minutes it takes most laptops to simply boot up!

So. Taking a degree of suspension of disbelief as read, Noble Hops brings to a close the overarching plotline of the series, in which Nic discovered that his father Curtis Price, a wealthy businessman, was heavily in debt to Duncan Vaughn, a dangerous criminal and slippery character with a finger in many, many pies, that nobody has – as yet – been able to pin anything on. Vaughn tried threatening Nic and his business – the small craft brewery he co-owns with a former SEAL buddy – as a way to force Curtis to pay off his loans, and then to force Nic to pay them – and the fear of putting those he loves in harm’s way led Nic to try to conceal what was happening from Cam and those he’s closest to. Fortunately, by the end of book one, Nic was brought to see that he didn’t have to deal with the situation alone, and now, he and Cam are openly living together and obviously in it for the long haul. That’s not to say Nic isn’t still carrying around a large crate of worry and guilt over events in his past, but he’s at last adjusting to the fact that he has a family now – maybe not a family by blood, but one forged of strong bonds of friendship and loyalty – people who love him and he can trust to have his back.

The book opens as Nic and Cam are attending a ceremony honouring a former colleague of Nic’s when a phone call comes in that changes everything.  Curtis Price is dead, and now it’s time to step up the investigation into Duncan Vaughn and start putting the squeeze on him.  Cam is worried at the stoic way Nic takes the news – he might have been estranged from Price but the man was his father – but he offers the emotional support Nic needs in order to focus on setting  the endgame into play.  Nic and the FBI team that includes Cam and his boss, Aidan Talley, have been gradually amassing evidence of Vaughn’s felonious activities and are finally in a position to make a move and bring him down.  They have also ascertained the identities of Vaughn’s moles on the inside, one of them a young FBI agent, the other a much more senior staff member whose complicity they’ve long suspected but have not, so far, been able to prove.  Everything is in place. Nic is to take his evidence to the Grand Jury in order to obtain the necessary indictments, while Cam and his team will bring Vaughn in – but the discovery of a long-buried family secret and the reappearance in his life of Nic’s first love threaten both the operation and Cam’s peace of mind.

As was the case with Barrel Proof (book three in the Irish and Whiskey series), the focus in Noble Hopsis more on the suspense element of the plot than on the romance, but I didn’t mind that.  Nic and Cam have been firmly established as a loving, committed couple; I liked that their personal connection makes them so compatible professionally, and the way that Cam keeps Nic grounded when things look like they might go to shit.   I did find Cam’s insecurity about his place in Nic’s life a little unnecessary, but Ms. Reyne doesn’t drag anything out, and watching them pull together in spite of the unfolding chaos around them was sufficient to convince me they have a successful future ahead of them.

But as with the other books in the series, I found some things about the writing that were a bit cheesy and kept taking me out of the story.  Ms. Reyne knows how to construct a fairly tight plot and create likeable characters, but some of her dialogue and sentiment is repetitive and a bit creaky.  In Craft Brew, Cam kept telling Nic to ‘just breathe’ when he got stressed, and here we get several reminders of how they each need to be ‘Nic/Cam the SEAL/FBI agent’ rather than ‘Nic/Cam the boyfriend’ or ‘Nic the federal prosecutor rather than Nic the brother’. There are several instances where Nic’s internal monologuing about his guilt over his perceived failure to protect his family years earlier crosses the line into the melodramatic, which just felt wrong for a forty-something ex-SEAL Captain and terror of the San Francisco courthouse.

Still, all ends well, Nic, Cam and the crew come out on top and there’s a hint at a possible couple and new direction for a future book or series.  Trouble Brewing hasn’t been as big a hit with me as I’d hoped, but Noble Hops rounds out the series nicely, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Layla Reyne’s next venture.

Craft Brew (Trouble Brewing #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Assistant US attorney Dominic Price is staring down the barrel of his father’s debts. The bull’s-eye on his back makes him a threat to everyone he cares about, so when his lover wants to go public with their relationship, he bolts. Not because he isn’t in love—he can’t stomach the thought of putting Cam in danger.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne is determined to figure out what trouble Nic is running from, but devastating news from home brings him back to Boston and to the cold case that has haunted his family for two decades. Shoving aside his pride, he calls Nic for help.

Together they search for answers, navigating the minefield of Cam’s past. But when they get too close to the truth, Cam must use every skill in his arsenal to save the man he loves… before it’s too late.

Rating: B-

Although I wasn’t wild about Imperial Stout, the first book in Layla Reyne’s new Trouble Brewing series, I wanted to read book two, Craft Brew, because I was intrigued by what was clearly going to be the series’ overarching plotline, and hoped for progression. I got a little of what I wanted, but Ms. Reyne is clearly keeping her powder dry for the final book, Noble Hops, so Craft Brew focuses on a different story and shines a light on a past tragedy and a desperate search for closure.

In Imperial Stout, Assistant US Attorney and former Navy SEAL, Nic Price, discovered that his father – from whom he has been estranged ever since he came out more than twenty-five years earlier – was in hock to some pretty unsavoury characters. Knowing them to be ruthless gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, Nic tried to keep this news to himself out of concern for those around him, especially for his lover, Special Agent Cameron Byrne. Of course, the truth will out, and Cam found out about the threats made against Nic and his father, but Nic fears for Cam’s safety should anyone discover they’re a couple, which is why he stubbornly avoids giving Cam an answer to the latter’s suggestion they move in together.

Nic has just returned from five weeks spent in San Diego covering for an absent colleague and he’s pretty much just set foot inside his front door then where’s a fire in his apartment block – in the apartment right above his – which is quickly proven to be arson. This convinces him more than ever that he can’t afford to move forward with Cam until he’s got to the bottom of things – and in the middle of all this comes really bad news for Cam. His mother has had a heart attack and is in a bad way, and he needs to go home to Boston at once. Cam is understandably cut up and preoccupied as he gets ready to head home, and Nic senses there’s something else lurking behind his concern for his mother, but it’s not the time to tackle it. Cam sets off for Boston accompanied by Jamieson ‘Whiskey’ Walker, his long-time best friend and husband of Cam’s FBI partner, Aidan Talley.

The Byrnes are a close-knit family, and Ms. Reyne sketches the familial relationships well.  Cam is closest to his brother Bobby, with whom he shares a bit of a chequered past, but is not on the best of terms with his youngest brother Keith,  who still blames Cam for the disappearance of their sister, Erin, some twenty years earlier when she was just twelve years old. Cam has been weighed down by guilt he has never been able to assuage over what happened that day, because he was supposed to have met Erin to take her home, but instead, went off with Bobby to “score some real cash.” (We’re not told what that involved.) Cam has tried several times to find out what happened to Erin, but the case is so cold it’s dead and buried, and he’s been unable to make any progress.  But now, his mother begs him to take it up again, and even though the rest of his family are against the idea, Cam can’t possibly turn down what might turn out to be Edye Byrne’s dying wish.  Unbeknownst to him, she’s embarked on an investigation of her own over the years, making notes in the backs of her beloved romance novels; Cam agrees to go through them and then see if he can tie them into something that will give them some more concrete leads.

Craft Brew is a more cohesive read than Imperial Stout, which was short on character and relationship development, with a frenetically paced, somewhat superficial plot that required way too many suspensions of disbelief.  By the time this book opens, Nic and Cam are in a relationship although still keeping it quiet, and we’re learning a little more about what makes each of them tick. The storyline concerning the mystery of Erin’s disappearance – which turns out to be linked to a number of other disappearances of young girls over the past twenty years – held my interest, although I can’t deny that there are still some very creaky plot elements (how was Cam’s mum able to come up with so much information while Cam, a highly trained FBI agent, wasn’t able to?) and unlikely coincidences along the way that stretched my credulity paper thin.

After reaching the section where Cam goes to Boston leaving Nic behind, I wondered whether they were going to spend the rest of the book apart, which is never a good recipe for a romantic novel.  Fortunately, one of those coincidences I mentioned means that Nic’s presence is required in Boston and naturally, there’s no way he’s not going to haul ass in order to be with and help the man he can now admit he’s in love with.  But that little niggle Nic had as Cam was leaving?  It turns out that Cam has never told his family he’s bisexual; and it’s obviously not the right time to come out to them now.  Nic is understanding and supportive, and puts no pressure of any kind on Cam, rightly saying that telling them is his decision… but he also makes it clear that while he’s prepared to wait for Cam to come out to them in his own time, he doesn’t want to wait forever.

I like Cam and Nic, I like the secondary cast of familiar characters from the Irish and Whiskey series and the close-knit relationships between them and I enjoyed meeting Cam’s family and finding out a bit more about his past, which was something missing in the previous book.  We also learned more about Nic and the secrets he’s keeping, although it’s clear there is more to come, and Cam has yet to learn some of the things the reader is now privy to – which I’m guessing will happen in the next book.

But the plot contrivances I mentioned above drag the book down as a whole, and I lost count of the number of times Nic told Cam to ‘just breathe’ at times of stress and worry. I also had to wonder at the way the author so often brings up Nic’s former rank as a SEAL captain as a way of impressing people or getting them to do things.  Would it really be that big of a deal given he’s been a civilian for well over a decade?  Small things maybe, but they took me out of the story each time I came across them.

I’m going to give Craft Brew a cautious recommendation with the caveat that if you haven’t read the previous book – or the Agents Irish and Whiskey series – you’re likely to be completely lost.  If you’re already invested in the Trouble Brewing series and characters, then this is an enjoyable, if flawed read that satisfied at least some of this reader’s need for more character growth and development in the central relationship.