It was just one night.
It was just one mistake.
FBI Agent Noah Downing had questions about his sexuality that a single night in Vegas should have answered. But dawn finds him on a plane back to Iowa, back on the trail of a vicious serial killer who disappeared six years ago and has suddenly resurfaced. There’s nothing like a murder investigation to escape an existential crisis.
FBI profiler Cole Kennedy is still reeling after finding a heart-stopping connection with a seemingly perfect man, only for him to vanish. When he’s sent to Iowa to profile the killer terrorizing America’s heartland, he finds more questions than answers – both about the murderer and about Noah, the last man he ever expected to see again.
A twisted secret stretches between Cole and Noah, tangled with questions they both have about each other. But now, thrown together, they’ll have to unravel the killer’s profile and follow his trail… back to the very beginning, to where everyone’s questions are answered once and for all.
With a prompt like “Secrets and Lies”, my mind immediately flew to romantic suspense and a book I’ve wanted to read for a while but, as usual, haven’t managed to squeeze in yet. Tal Bauer’s The Murder Between Us boasts a couple of well-drawn and engaging protagonists, an intriguing plot and provides the sort of balance between romance and plot I’ve been missing in so many of the m/f romantic suspense titles I’ve read recently.
Special Agent Noah Downing has been struggling with his sexual identity for many years. He thinks he’s gay but has never felt able to explore that side of himself and has instead filled his life with work and, since his divorce, looking after his teenaged daughter Katie, who has recently come to live with him. When the book opens, he’s decided it’s finally time to give himself permission to be himself, even if it’s just for one night; he ventures to the bar of the hotel he’s staying in with a view to… well, he doesn’t really know what, and is about to leave when his eye is caught by an attractive blond man who makes his way over and offers to buy him a drink. He introduces himself as Cole, they start chatting and Noah is surprised at how comfortable he feels and how much he enjoys Cole’s company. There’s a lot of chemistry and a definite sense of connection between them right from the start, and after the best evening out Noah has had in a long time – maybe ever – they spend a wonderful, passionate night together that answers all Noah’s questions about his sexuality.
They arrange to have dinner together the next night, but not long after Noah gets back to his room in the morning, he’s called back home to Des Moines and he leaves straight away – without stopping to call Cole and tell him why he can’t make their dinner date.
The reason for Noah’s abrupt departure is the brutal murder of the Sherrif of Boone County and his daughter by the same person believed responsible for the deaths of a number of bright, accomplished young female college and university students several years before. Noah led the task force charged with apprehending the Coed Killer, but whoever it was took care to leave no clues and no forensics – then disappeared without a trace and was never caught. But it appears that after a gap of six years, the Coed Killer is back – and this time, not only is he targeting young female college students, he’s killing their fathers too. Noah makes his way to the home of Bart Olsen and his daughter Jessie, where it appears Jessie was strangled and then her father was killed as he tried to intervene. As if the murder of a fellow LEO isn’t bad enough, the Olsens aren’t the only victims of the newly returned serial killer. Three months earlier, another young woman was strangled in her home, and although at the time, it was believed her obsessive boyfriend was responsible, Noah now believes her to have been another victim of the Coed Killer. He knows the pressure to catch them is going to be intense – his boss instructs him to get a task force up and running and Noah asks him to request a profiler form the BAU – “the best profiler they’ve got.”
Dr. Cole Kennedy is still smarting over Noah’s non-appearance the day after their fantastic night together, and is starting to think that maybe the intensity of the desire he’d seen in Noah’s eyes had been more for the experience Cole offered him than for Cole himself. It’s been quite some time since a guy has got so under his skin so quickly and he’d really wanted the chance to explore their connection further – even if it had been just dinner and no more. But Noah made his feelings quite clear by blowing him off so rudely, and Cole has to forget him. Which only makes the irony of his being headed to join a task force in Noah’s home state that much richer.
Well, yes, we all knew where this was going, but the ‘oh, shit’ moment is nicely done.
Both men have to work to hide their shock when Cole walks into the conference room where Noah’s team is assembled. Noah is obviously scared of being outed and does everything he can to keep Cole at a distance, and while Cole realises why Noah is being so stand-offish, he’s also angry at the way Noah treated him, and wants answers – and I can’t say that I blamed him.
Fortunately however, this stalemate doesn’t last for too long, and the men manage to find the opportunity to talk about what happened. Noah doesn’t have a great reason for not calling Cole the day he left, but they talk it out, and decide they’d like to try to see more of each other while Cole is in town, but they’ll take it slow and maybe Cole can help Noah through coming out if that’s what he wants to do.
I liked the fact that the book focuses on the relationship before the suspense plot comes into play, as it really helps the reader to get a handle on Noah’s character in particular. His yearning to be able to live as his true self is palpable, but the reasons hemming him in aren’t easily dealt with, from his concern that he could lose custody of his daughter to worry about how his colleagues would treat him if they knew he was gay. He’s a bag of nerves and a bit highly-strung at times (!), but thankfully Cole is there to ground him; he knows who he is and is secure in himself both personally and professionally, he’s kind and perceptive and it’s clear from the start that he really cares about Noah and wants him to be happy. If I have a criticism about the romance it’s that it’s a bit reliant on insta-love in the way these two fall head-over-heels for each other so quickly, but somehow the author makes it work.
The suspense plot is tense and well-paced, with plenty of twists and turns and a bit of gruesome detail here and there (no worse than you’ll find in most novels of this type, though). As with the romance, I had a niggle or two – at one point I did have to wonder if Cole really was “the best profiler” the FBI had because he missed something I thought was obvious (and I’m rubbish at working out whodunit!) – but even so, I was completely hooked by the story as a whole and couldn’t put the book down, so I’m inclined to be forgiving 😉
The Murder Between Us delivered pretty much everything I want in a romantic suspense novel; an interesting mystery, strongly characterised protagonists and a romance with plenty of sparks and sexual chemistry. Yes, there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me, but overall, it was a compelling read, and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel, The Grave Between Us, as soon as I can.