Mine: A Novel of Obsession by J.L. Butler

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Young divorce lawyer Francine Day has methodically built her career doing everything right. She’s one big case away from securing her place among London’s legal elite. But when she meets her new client, Martin Joy, the natural caution that has protected Francine and fueled her rise melts away. Powerless to fight the irresistible magnetism between them, client and counsel tumble into a blistering affair that breaks every rule.

Though Martin insists his marriage is over, Francine doesn’t believe him. Certain details he’s told her don’t quite add up. Consumed with a passion she cannot control and increasingly obsessed with Martin’s relationship with his wife, Donna, Francine follows the woman one night . . . and discovers her having dinner with her supposedly soon-to-be-ex-husband.

The next morning, Francine awakens in her neighbor’s apartment with blood on her clothes and no recollection of what transpired after she spied Donna and Martin together. Then Francine receives more devastating news: Martin’s wife has vanished. That dinner was the last place anyone has seen Donna Joy alive.

Suddenly, Francine finds herself caught in a dangerous labyrinth of deception, lies, and secrets, in which one false move could lead to her undoing. What happened that night and why can’t Francine remember? Where is Donna and who is responsible for her disappearance? The further Francine goes to find answers, the tighter the net seems to draw—around her lover, herself, and the life she’s meticulously built.

Rating: B

The premise for J.L Butler’s Mine sounded really intriguing, as did the idea of a barrister heroine, so I jumped right in and was immediately pulled into the story.  I don’t read many mysteries (I tend to prefer romantic suspense), but this one grabbed me right away, and even though there were a few things about the plotline and central character that made me scratch my head, I was pretty much gripped from beginning to end.

Francine Day, a hard-working barrister in her late thirties is a bit of a misfit in her profession. She comes from a working class family, she doesn’t have a public school education and she’s from Lancashire, her voice still carrying a bit of the northern twang she grew up with.  She works mostly in the field of family law, and has made herself a reputation as one of the best divorce lawyers around, specialising in the marital splits of the very wealthy.  It’s this reputation that brings her a client by the name of Martin Joy, an obscenely wealthy investment banker whose wife is out to take him to the cleaners for everything she can get.  Donna Joy wants half of everything Martin owns, including half his future earnings – and he wants to protect the company he and his friend, Alex Cole, have built from nothing.

The initial meeting over and arrangements made for the preliminary hearing, Fran is surprised to bump into Martin a few days later, in Selfridges of all places, and he invites her to have a drink with him.  One drink leads to another and eventually leads to their ending up in bed at Martin’s East London apartment and to a passionate affair that is completely outside Fran’s normal experience of sex and relationships.

This should perhaps ring the alarm bells.  She’s built a career on being upfront and doing what’s right – possibly as a reaction against her rather ‘wild-child’, rebellious adolescence – and she’s being encouraged by her colleagues and superiors to apply to take silk (which means she will become a QC, Queen’s Counsel, which is a prestigious appointment in her profession), and needs to keep her nose clean.  But she’s never felt this way about anyone and the thrill of being with Martin pushes all thoughts of her career into the back seat.  Eventually, however, the stress of keeping their relationship a secret begins to take its toll, and Fran finds herself gradually drowning amid the lies, her heavy workload and the hints of resurgence of the bi-polar disorder that she normally keeps under control through medication.  Even as she recognises the absurdity of her actions, when she suspects Martin is lying to her, and that perhaps his marriage is not as dead as he claims it is, Fran follows him one night and sees him meeting Donna, for a meal and then continues to watch them as they return to her house late that night.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.


Dangerous (The Outcasts #1) by Minerva Spencer

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What sort of lady doesn’t make her debut until the age of thirty-two? A timeless beauty with a mysterious past—and a future she intends to take into her own hands…

Lady Euphemia Marlington hasn’t been free in seventeen years—since she was captured by Corsairs and sold into a harem. Now the sultan is dead and Mia is back in London facing relentless newspapermen, an insatiably curious public, and her first Season. Worst of all is her ashamed father’s ultimatum: marry a man of his choosing or live out her life in seclusion. No doubt her potential groom is a demented octogenarian. Fortunately, Mia is no longer a girl, but a clever woman with a secret—and a plan of her own . . .

Adam de Courtney’s first two wives died under mysterious circumstances. Now there isn’t a peer in England willing to let his daughter marry the dangerously handsome man the ton calls The Murderous Marquess. Nobody except Mia’s father, the desperate Duke of Carlisle. Clearly Mia must resemble an aging matron, or worse. However, in need of an heir, Adam will use the arrangement to his advantage . . .

But when the two outcasts finally meet, assumptions will be replaced by surprises, deceit by desire—and a meeting of minds between two schemers may lead to a meeting of hearts—if the secrets of their pasts don’t tear them apart . . .

Rating: B+

There’s been a shortage of really good historical romance so far this year.  I can count the number of DIKs I’ve given  on the fingers of one hand, and sadly, the lists of upcoming releases for the second half of the year don’t look to be offering much to shout about either.  But a shortage isn’t a complete absence; there have been a few gems, and début author Minerva Spencer’s Dangerous – the first book in her new series The Outcasts – is among them.

I am going to raise my hand and admit that when I first read the synopsis – our heroine was kidnapped by pirates, sold to a Sultan and lived in a harem for seventeen years – I had my doubts.  Not just because of the old-skool connotations associated with the premise, but because so many of the historicals published at the moment are setting aside character and romantic development in favour of mystery and adventure plots – and I was leery of reading yet another poorly conceived  story featuring a hero and heroine in the grips of insta-lust who gallivant around breaking all the rules that governed male/female interactions in the early nineteenth century and jumping into bed in chapter three.   So I picked up Dangerous with a bit of trepidation, but was quickly engaged by the confident, lively writing and breathed a sigh of relief at the realisation that my preconceptions had been unjustified.

Lady Euphemia Marlington, daughter of the Duke of Carlisle, has recently returned to London following the aforementioned seventeen years spent in the harem of Baba Hassan, Sultan of Oran.  Now aged thirty-two, she is well beyond marriageable age  and is already an object of curiosity and gossip given her prolonged absence from society – and her father is desperate to find her a husband before she does something scandalous that will render her completely unmarriageable. Her vivacity, wit and forthright manner already set her apart from the other ladies of the ton, and she’s most definitely not the demure, biddable sort so many men want to take to wife – but Carlisle hopes that the enormous dowry he’s offering will outweigh the fact of Mia’s lack of societal polish (and her advanced age.)  To Mia’s dismay, most of the men dangling after her (dowry) are either past their prime or young striplings; but ultimately, her plans don’t require her to like or spend much time with her husband.  What she wants is a man who will marry her and then leave her alone so that she can pursue her scheme of returning to Oran in order to reunite with her son, Jabril.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Relentless (Somerton Security #2) by Elizabeth Dyer

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Ethan Somerton doesn’t do safe or easy. He’s all about the challenge. The risk. In order to rescue one of his agents, Ethan must infiltrate the ruthless Vega cartel. One tiny error—just one—and he’s dead. Which means he needs Natalia Vega. Bright, beautiful, and cut sharper than the most lethal blade, she’s finally reached her breaking point. Now Ethan must find a way to make her surrender.

Caught between desperate choices and no-win situations, Natalia has survived the unthinkable by becoming dangerous, relentless, and feared. When it comes to protecting her sister, there’s no line Natalia won’t cross. But when Ethan storms into her life with his cocksure arrogance, stone-cold competence, and seductive promises, Natalia wonders if she’s finally found a way out. But discovering whether Ethan is salvation or destruction is going to require the one thing Natalia doesn’t have—trust.

As the cartel implodes and loved ones are threatened, Ethan and Natalia are going to have to choose between love, loyalty, and the lies they cling to. They could run, knowing they’ll never be safe. They could fight, knowing they’ll probably die. Or they can trust in each other…and do something far more dangerous.

Rating: B

I’m always on the look-out for reliably good new authors of romantic suspense, and in Elizabeth Dyer, I think I’ve found one.  Relentless, the second book in her Somerton Security series (and her second published novel), is a strongly-written, fast-paced story featuring a team of ex-military types who work for a specialist security firm that also runs off-the-books black-ops for the government.  While that isn’t an especially original concept, Relentless is nonetheless a very readable tale; the author has created a suspenseful and intriguing plotline that packs an emotional punch in just the right places, the central characters have great sexual chemistry, and the knife-edge walked daily by the heroine is well-depicted. While characters from book one (Defenseless) reappear here, Relentless works perfectly well as a standalone and I didn’t feel as though I’d missed anything by not reading it first.

Natalia Vega’s father was head of the Vega cartel – until, that was, her uncle murdered him in front of her and her sister when Natalia was just seventeen.  When she attacked Hernan Vega in an attempt to protect her mother from his cruelty, Natalia wasn’t strong enough to do much damage, and an enraged Vega retaliated by giving her to an associate of his as payment of a gambling debt.  That night forced Natalie to make a choice, and since then, she has learned to keep her mouth shut and her eyes open, honing her skills with knife and hands to become one of Vega’s most ruthless killers, while at the same time striving to fulfil the promise she made to her dying father to protect her younger sister, Ana Maria. But Natalia is no fool.  She knows she’s expendable and that every day could be her last; Hernan Vega is cruel and unpredictable and she suspects it won’t be long before he decides she’s outlived her use – but until then she will continue to do everything she can to ensure her sister’s safety and that Ana Maria has the chance of a decent life.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Girl in the Moss (Angie Pallorino #3) by Loreth Anne White

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Disgraced ex-cop Angie Pallorino is determined to make a new start for herself as a private investigator. But first, she and her lover, newly promoted homicide detective James Maddocks, attempt a quiet getaway to rekindle a romance struggling in the shadows of their careers. The peace doesn’t last long when human skeletal remains are found in a nearby mossy grove.

This decades-old mystery is just what Angie needs to establish her new career—even as it thrusts her and Maddocks back into the media spotlight, once again endangering their tenuous relationship.

Then, when Angie’s inquiry into the old crime intersects with a cold case from her own policing past—one that a detective on Maddocks’s new team is working—the investigation takes a startling twist. It puts more than Angie’s last shot at redemption and a future with Maddocks at risk. The mystery of the girl in the moss could kill her.

Rating: B+

In this final instalment in her trio of novels featuring Angie Pallorino, Loreth Anne White delivers another compulsively readable, complex mystery that hooks your interest from the get-go and gradually tightens its grip until you literally can’t put the book down.   It’s like reading a snowball; an impactful start sees it start rolling down the hill, gradually getting larger as it picks up and encompasses other clues, plot-threads and information and travels faster and faster until it hits bottom to reach an explosive and immensely satisfying dénouement.  Here, that snowball starts rolling when former detective Angie Pallorino and her boyfriend, Detective James Maddocks are taking a four day trip down the Nahamish River on a quiet, romantic getaway.  It’s been a tough few months for Angie, who was busted down to a desk job after she was judged to have used excessive force to take down a serial killer.  Furious and frustrated, Angie broke the twelve-month probation imposed upon her and went rogue, continuing to work on the case of the bar-code girls (in book two, The Lullaby Girl) which also led her to her discovering the truth about her parentage and true identity as the daughter of a sex-trafficker and major crimelord.  Unable to return to the job she loved, Angie is trying to pick up the pieces of her life, and is now working towards getting her PI license, but given the intense publicity generated by the news of her identity, her backstory as the “angel’s cradle baby” and her part in bringing down a major sex-trafficking ring, there are almost no PI agencies willing to hire her (she’s too high-profile) so she can get the required number of hours under her belt she needs before she can branch out on her own.

Things between Angie and Maddocks are uncertain, too.  He’s the golden boy of the Metro Victoria PD and has been appointed to head up a prestigious new task-force while she is struggling to find out who she is if she isn’t a cop.  She knows she loves Maddocks and wants to be with him, but Angie is subconsciously pulling back – and Maddocks knows her well enough to realise it but is worried that she’ll run if she gets the chance.  Their relationship isn’t in the best place, but they hope that a little time spent together with nothing to interrupt or distract them will get them back on track.  Unfortunately, that is not to be when on their last night at the camp, a skeleton is found near the banks of the river.  It’s going to be the morning before local law-enforcement can get to such a remote location and secure the scene, so Maddocks and Angie spend what should have been a romantic evening, complete with gourmet dinner, wine and hot tub, camped out next to a crime scene.

The remains are eventually identified as belonging to a young woman named Jasmine Gulati who died while on a fishing trip on the Nahamish some twenty-four years earlier.  She had been part of a group of women anglers who were taking part in a documentary being filmed by Rachel Hart, who had chosen her subjects to be from different walks of life and in different stages of their lives.  Much as the producers of shows like Big Brother do today, Rachel had hoped that their differences would produce interesting viewing – but after Jasmine’s death, the project was canned and the documentary never appeared.

A while later, Angie is surprised to receive a phone call from a retired judge, Jilly Monaghan, who explains that Jasmine was her granddaughter and offers Angie a large fee if she will find out what really happened to her.  Her death has been ruled accidental, but the judge wants to know if that is really the case or not; either way, she wants the closure that knowing the truth will bring.

Angie’s investigation soon leads her to suspect that Jasmine’s death wasn’t an accident at all, and as she digs deeper, she exposes the web of secrets, lies and conspiracies that have lain buried in the small community of Port Ferris for almost twenty five years.  The mystery is gripping; tightly constructed and incredibly well-written, and the author makes fantastic use of her wilderness setting, which is both beautiful and terrifying, at the same time brilliantly conveying the insular nature of a small, close-knit community such as this one.  The men resent Angie and what they see as her interference, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their own.  It would be easy to laugh at this unsophisticated group of ‘hillbillies’ but no, they’re actually extremely disturbing and Angie is in real danger, probably more than she’s ever been, considering that she’s no longer a cop and doesn’t have the weight of authority behind her – or a gun.

There’s an intriguing secondary plotline in which Maddocks sets up a new cold case unit placing Angie’s former partner, Kjel Holgerson, at its head.  This storyline serves to bring us back neatly to some of the events of The Drowned Girls, but it also opens up the possibility of more stories set in this ‘universe’;  I would certainly not be averse to reading more about the enigmatic and oddly endearing Holgerson.  I also liked the author’s subtle exploration of the ethics of cold cases; in a situation such as this one, where one family needs closure, another is ripped apart, so it’s difficult – or impossible – to achieve a balance.  But Angie is, as ever, focused on finding the truth, no matter how hard it is.  Her own experiences have taught her that it’s better to know and deal than to deny, and ultimately, the needs of justice have to be served.

My one niggle about the book is that Maddocks is (necessarily) MIA for almost all of it, even though there’s no question he’s a huge presence in Angie’s life and her desire to come to him as a woman who knows who she is and where she’s going is the impetus for her becoming involved in the Gulati case.  Still, the brief glimpses we get of their relationship are well done, and while I’d have liked a bit more of them together, I think they needed the short separation in order to remind one another of exactly what they have together.

A complex, atmospheric thriller with a pervading sense of menace, especially in the second half, The Girl in the Moss is a terrific finale to a terrific series, and I really hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Angie, Maddocks, Holgerson – and Jack-O.

Echo Moon (Ghost Gifts #3) by Laura Spinella

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A past life, a past war, and a past love. Peter St John can’t foresee a future until he confronts his past sins.

When photojournalist Peter St John returns home after a two-year absence, the life he’s been running from catches up. For years his mother’s presence, coupled with Pete’s own psychic gift, has triggered visits to 1917. There, he relives battles of the Great War, captures the heyday of Coney Island on canvas, and falls in love with an enchanting and enigmatic songstress named Esme. Present-day Pete still pines for Esme, and his love endures…but so does his vivid memory of killing her.

When he discovers family heirlooms that serve as proof of his crimes, Pete will have to finally confront his former life. He also meets a young woman—who is more than what she seems—with a curious connection to his family. As century-old secrets unravel, can Pete reconcile a murder from his past before it destroys his future?

Rating: B+

The first two books in Laura Spinella’s Ghost Gifts trilogy of paranormal mysteries introduces readers to Aubrey Ellis, a woman who has been able to communicate with the dead since she was a child.  These novels centre around Aubrey and her husband, a hard-nosed investigative reporter, but in Echo Moon, the final book in the set, the focus shifts to Aubrey and Levi’s son, Pete, a talented photojournalist who spends his life reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous places.  It’s an intriguing story that, after a slow start, becomes a compelling one, as the author skilfully weaves together two interconnected stories – one, the story of a young singer in the early part of the twentieth century, and the other concerning Pete’s search for the truth about a shattering event that took place shortly after the end of the First World War.

Aubrey Ellis’ psychic gifts – or her curse – have been passed to her son, who has, for as long as he can remember, been aware that he has lived a past life.  He has memories and/or visions of events from the early part of the last century and remembers fighting, and then documenting events as a war photographer, in World War One.  Pete also lives with a massive burden of guilt, knowing that he killed the woman he loved – whom he knows only as Esme – in that past life, and that weight is so heavy that it often threatens to consume him utterly.  The images of war that haunt him day after day and night after night are so disturbing that he can’t bear the idea of spending more time with his memories and trying to find out the truth about Esme; and the violent outbursts that inevitably follow his visions make him even more determined to leave his past in the past.  Being around his mother seems to intensify his ‘gift’ and increase the number and vividness of his recollections; and when Echo Moon opens, Pete has just returned home after two years spent embedded with troops in the Middle-East and other war-torn places. He spends his life searching for numbness by way of twenty-first century wars, running from his past life by throwing himself into untold dangers in this one.

Aubrey is naturally concerned for her son, and can see the toll his way of life is taking on him.  She knows he is haunted by the belief he was a murderer in his past life, and wants him to seek help in the form of regression therapy, but Pete is dead set against it.  But when, for the first time ever, he feels Esme’s spirit reaching for him in his present life, he starts to realise that something is changing, as his past and present lives have never intersected before.  When he offers to go to Long Island to check out a property that Aubrey has recently inherited from her grandmother, Pete is staggered to discover yet more connections between his family and his past life.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Making Up (London Celebrities #3) by Lucy Parker

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Once upon a time, circus artist Trix Lane was the best around. Her spark vanished with her confidence, though, and reclaiming either has proved…difficult. So when the star of The Festival of Masks is nixed and Trix is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, it’s exactly the push she needs. But the joy over her sudden elevation in status is cut short by a new hire on the makeup team.

Leo Magasiva: disgraced wizard of special effects. He of the beautiful voice and impressive beard. Complete dickhead and—in an unexpected twist—an enragingly good kisser.

To Leo, something about Trix is…different. Lovely. Beautiful, even though the pint-size, pink-haired former bane of his existence still spends most of her waking hours working to annoy him. They’ve barely been able to spend two minutes together for years, and now he can’t get enough of her. On stage. At home. In his bed.

When it comes to commitment, Trix has been there, done that, never wants to do it again. Leo’s this close to the job of a lifetime, which would take him away from London—and from Trix. Their past is a constant barrier between them.

It seems hopeless.

Utterly impossible.

And yet…

Rating: B+

Lucy Parker is pretty much the only author of contemporary romance whose books are a must-read for me, and I suspect that there are many, many readers out there in Romancelandia who, like me, have been eagerly awaiting Making Up, the third book in her London Celebritiesseries.  Set in the world of London’s West End, the stories take place amid the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd, the backstage backstabbing, the gossip, rivalry and intense camaraderie of theatre companies mounting high-status, high profile productions.  Ms. Parker completely nails the London setting and the sheer amount of graft from all involved required to mount a commercially successful West End production; her characters work hard, play hard and show readers that not all is glitz and glamour behind the footlights.

So… what you want to know is – was Making Up worth waiting for?   Absolutely.  Is it as good as Act Like It and Pretty Face?  Weeeeeell…  not quite.  Don’t get me wrong – it has all the ingredients that made the other books in this series such great reads.  The two principals are appealing, the dialogue sparkles, the banter zings back and forth and the romance is well-done… but it lacks the emotional depth of its predecessor which, for my money, is the strongest of the series.

Towards the end of that book, Trix Lane, best friend of the heroine, Lily, was just emerging from an emotionally abusive relationship with a guy who had gradually been separating her from her friends, belittling her profession and eroding her self-esteem.  Fortunately, Trix managed to extricate herself before things got worse, but it’s left some big emotional scars and serious dents in her self-confidence.

At the beginning of Making Up, the lead aerial performer in Festival of Masks – an odd mix of carnival, rock concert and dark fairy tale with a bit of smut thrown in for good measure –  is hospitalised after an accident on-stage.  A combination of circumstances conspires to catapult Trix into the limelight to take over the role at the next performance and for the foreseeable future.  But Trix – who would in the past have jumped at the chance to get out there and show what she’s made of – is terrified.  It doesn’t help that the stage manager is a prick who never has a kind word or word of praise for anyone, but Trix knows the problem goes deeper than that.  She is fully aware that this newly found lack of assurance is a hangover from her relationship with Dan St. James; somehow his backhanded compliments and subtle and not-so-subtle digs and jibes insidiously wormed their way into her psyche and they’re hard to shake off.

Leo Magasiva has known Trix on and off for years, ever since they were at school.  They had been good friends once, but a nasty, unguarded comment from Leo, followed by Trix’s departure for a posh boarding-school put paid to their friendship, and they’ve been at daggers drawn ever since.  Somehow, though, they have never been able to completely avoid each other, running into one another at various events and gatherings over the years, and taking advantage of the opportunity to indulge in a game of verbal one-upmanship.

A talented and widely respected make-up artist, Leo’s career has taken a nose-dive courtesy of an actor who failed to disclose his skin allergies.  Which is how come Leo is prepared to take a short-term gig in the West End; he can lie low for a bit and also get ready for a major make-up and special effects competition being held in London which he’s hoping might open doors for him in the movie industry.

As soon as Trix and Leo set eyes on each other, old wounds are reopened and old hurts resurrected.  Leo isn’t thrilled about working in close proximity with Trix, and she’s openly hostile to him while she’s friendly with her cast-mates, and one guy in particular.  Leo immediately labels her as a fake and a flirt, although it’s very clear that his antagonism is rooted in jealousy and something else that relates to their past.  Fortunately, however, the author doesn’t string out the issues that lie between them for too long and the misunderstandings that led to the end of their youthful friendship are cleared up well before the half-way point.  The sexual tension that has been simmering between them since their first scene (and for the past decade!) finally boils over, but it’s clear that keeping things casual is going to be difficult for both of them and Trix, especially, is terrified.  Insecurites continue to plague her about her professional ability, and the thought of trusting a man again, no matter that she knows Leo is nothing like her ex… it’s all too much and she’s finding it hard to cope.

Fortunately for Trix, Leo is an amazing guy.  He’s generous of spirit, insightful and incredibly supportive, knowing when to push and when to hold back, watching out for Trix even as he’s worrying over his younger sister who, for most of the book is a total  bitch and is clearly unhappy about something but won’t open up to him.   He refuses to allow Trix to lose sight of who she really is – “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met” – or to give up on herself or on them.

There are many things to enjoy about the story, not least of which is the fact that Leo and Trix come across as adults who have real conversations dealing with complex issues and emotions.  Their banter is witty and perceptive; Ms. Parker has a way of using verbal sparring between characters to illuminate their weaknesses as well as their strengths and while the level of snark varies from the gentle to the punishing, it’s never downright nasty.  The secondary characters are well-drawn and the backstage camaraderie is the perfect mixture of heartfelt and cynical; Trix and Leo are talented people, both ambitious, dedicated to – and supportive of – their careers, and the overlying message of the book is one we can all identify with, the need to find happiness where we may, amid “life in all its occasional shittiness.”

While Making Up doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the previous books in the London Celebritiesseries, it’s nonetheless an extremely entertaining and enjoyable novel and one I’m more than happy to recommend.  Funny, sexy, poignant, warm, intelligent – and I haven’t even mentioned the cute baby hedgehog yet – it’s the perfect summer read.

Her Last Word by Mary Burton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Fourteen years ago, Kaitlin Roe was the lone witness to the abduction of her cousin Gina. She still remembers that lonely Virginia road. She can still see the masked stranger and hear Gina’s screams. And she still suffers the guilt of running away in fear and resents being interrogated as a suspect in the immediate aftermath. Now Kaitlin has only one way to assuage the pain and nightmares—by interviewing everyone associated with the unsolved crime for a podcast that could finally bring closure to a case gone cold.

But when a woman Kaitlin questions is later found stabbed to death, she fears that she’s drawn a killer out of hiding. It’s Detective John Adler’s fear that the murders have only just begun. Now his job is to keep Kaitlin safe.

As a bond between Kaitlin and Adler builds, the past closes in just as fast—and it’s darker than Kaitlin remembers. Soon, her wish will come true. She’s going to find out exactly what happened to Gina. Someone has been dying to tell her.

Rating: C+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Mary Burton’s romantic suspense novels and have generally found them to contain complex, intriguing mysteries with a reasonably-sized helping of romance that is enough to satisfy my shippy little heart.  Unfortunately however, Ms. Burton’s latest standalone title, Her Last Word is a bit of a mixed bag.  The mystery element is once again based on a cold-case, this time the disappearance of a teenaged girl some fourteen years earlier, and there are plenty of red herrings and wrong turns – but the way the story is constructed proved something of a barrier to my becoming fully engaged and the romance, such as it is, is perfunctory; the overall story would have made perfect sense without it and the book’s single sex scene feels as though it has been inserted for the sake of it.

Kaitlin Roe has spent much of the last fourteen years feeling guilty over what happened the night her cousin, Gina Mason, was abducted.  Kaitlin, Gina and two of their friends, Jennifer and Erika had snuck away with a bottle of spiked lemonade and proceeded to get very drunk; Jennifer called her sister, Ashley, to come and get her and Erika, leaving Kaitlin and Gina to make their way home on their own.  Not long after the other two girls were picked up, a man wearing a clown mask grabbed Gina and yelled at Kaitlin to run.  Even though she was drunk and, as it was later revealed, drugged, Kaitlin refused to leave until her cousin’s assailant pulled a knife, put it to her throat and then, when Kaitlin still didn’t leave, cut off Gina’s ear while threatening to do worse if Kaitlin didn’t do as she was told.  So she ran. And Gina was never seen again.

Fourteen years later, Kaitlin – after some years studying and working in Dallas – has returned to Richmond and is now a professor of communications at Virginia University.  She had a reputation for being something of a ‘wild child’  – hanging out with the wrong boys, regularly getting drunk – but now older and wiser, she’s cleaned up her act and is determined to find out what happened to Gina.  She decides to tap into the recent trend for making ‘true-crime’ podcasts, hoping that talking to people who knew Gina and were involved with the investigation may jog memories – either those of her contributors, or people who listen to the finished product.

Detective John Adler, recently returned to active duty after being injured in an arson attack, is called to the home of a young woman who has been found dead  – obviously murdered – in her bathtub.  Her throat was cut, and she was posed in such a way as to indicate that the killer wanted to humiliate her; there are no signs of sexual assault, but the perpetrator obviously planned meticulously, because there is no trace evidence at the scene or on the body.  The dead woman is Jennifer Ralston, and as Adler and his partner canvass family, friends and neighbours, it emerges that for some time Jennifer had the feeling she was being followed.  When Adler learns that Jennifer had been one of the girls present on the night of Gina Mason’s disappearance, and that she had recently met with Kaitlin Roe, he starts to believe that there may be a link between the recent murder and the fourteen-year-old cold case.  And if his hunch is right, then digging up the past in her quest for the truth has put Kaitlin right in the killer’s sights.

The suspense plot is well-conceived and while the identity of Gina’s murderer is known fairly early on, the story focuses mostly on the hunt for Jennifer’s killer and whoever is out to harm Kaitlin, and on working out the links between the two cases.  The identity of the villain isn’t obvious, and Adler pursues various leads, all of which point towards an ex- of Kaitlin’s and his friends.  Or do they?

The story should have been compelling as Kaitlin gradually pieces together the events surrounding Gina’s disappearance and Adler pieces together the pieces relating to the present day murder – but the structure of the novel, in which the author switches back and forth between the current investigation, notes about Gina’s disappearance from over a decade earlier and transcripts, and recordings of Kaitlin’s interviews made it hard for me to engage fully with it.  Normally, I enjoy stories that feature flashbacks or dual timelines, but this one just didn’t work for me.  The interview/transcript chapters are quite short – some of them no more than a paragraph or two – but the switch was often jarring; I’d be into something meaty and then I found myself being pulled out of the action and into something else that had a completely different feel to it.  I’m sure this is one of those times where ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, but the execution made it difficult for me to immerse myself in the mystery.

The central characters are somewhat underdeveloped, too.  What we’re told about them is intriguing, but there’s little built on what we know. Adler comes from a wealthy family who don’t like his being a cop, and he was injured when he hauled his partner out of a burning building; his partner lost a leg and is undergoing gruelling rehab and Adler can’t help feeling guilty that he got out in one piece.  The teenaged Kaitlin turned to drink and drugs as a way of coping with the pain of her brother’s suicide, and is stlll viewed with suspicion and dislike by many of the people she grew up with because of her reputation for being a liar, a drunk and ‘trouble’.  I liked her bloody-mindedness in facing down those same people as part of her investigation, but otherwise, there’s no real depth to either protagonist, and the romantic elements are thrown into the last ten percent of the story; there’s no chemistry between them and they don’t spend a great deal of time together.  I would have been quite happy had Adler and Kaitlin simply acknowledged a mutual attraction and agreed to see where it would take them at the end, rather than the rushed ILYs we actually get.

Her Last Word isn’t a terrible book by any means, but I won’t deny I was disappointed.  I can’t, in all honesty, give it a wholehearted recommendation, and would advise anyone who has never read Mary Burton but wants to give her a try to make a start elsewhere.