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Professionally, the FBI team of Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker is as good as it gets, closing cases faster than any team at the Bureau. Personally, it’s a different story. Aidan’s feelings for Jamie scare the hell out of him: he won’t risk losing another love no matter how heart-tripping the intimacy between them. And loss is a grim reality with the terrorist Renaud still on their trail, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake.
Going undercover on a new case gets them out of town and off the killer’s radar. They’re assigned to investigate an identity theft ring involving a college basketball team in Jamie’s home state, where Jamie’s past makes him perfect for the role of coach. But returning to the court brings more than old memories.
As secrets and shocking betrayals abound, none may be more dangerous than the one Jamie’s been keeping: a secret about the death of Aidan’s husband that could blow his partner’s world apart and destroy forever the fragile bonds of trust and love building between them.
Note: Because this is the second book in a series with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the previous book, Single Malt in this review.
Cask Strength, the second book in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey series picks up a few months after the events of Single Malt. At the end of that book, Aidan Talley and Jameson Walker were instrumental in foiling a terrorist plot – and Jamie’s investigations into the car crash that killed both Aidan’s husband and his FBI partner have revealed that both the deceased were somehow connected to the very same terrorist, Pierre Renaud. He is sworn to secrecy by their boss – who is also Aidan’s sister-in-law – and even though he hates deceiving the man he loves, Jamie agrees to keep what he knows under wraps until he can find out more.
As Cask Strength opens, Aidan and Jamie are in a good place professionally and are celebrating their position at top of the FBI’s clearance board. Personally, however, things are far from perfect. They’re lovers; they enjoy each other’s company and the sex is great, but Jamie wonders how much longer he can keep what he knows from Aidan, and Aidan continues to be reluctant to commit to Jamie for fear of once again losing someone he cares for. At the end of the previous book they agreed to keep things casual between them – or rather, Aidan decided he didn’t want to embark on a serious relationship and Jamie went along with it, willing to do whatever it took to keep Aidan in his life and in his bed.
But it’s getting harder and harder for Jamie to pretend he doesn’t want more, especially as part of “keeping it casual” for Aidan means he dates other men. Aidan’s desperation to keep himself emotionally closed off is – perhaps – understandable, but it’s still frustrating to watch as he continually pushes Jamie away, even though deep down, it’s clear that he’s in denial about his true feelings for Jamie – and yet he persists in hurting him anyway.
Jamie’s investigations into Renaud lead him and Aidan to question the two detectives who worked the case of the crash that killed Gabe (Aidan’s late husband) and his FBI partner Tom Crane – and not long after that, those detectives are gunned down in the street. Judging it best to get Aidan and Jamie out of the spotlight for a while, their boss sends them to North Carolina – Jamie’s home state – to look into accusations of match fixing, illegal betting and identity theft involving a college basketball team. Jamie goes undercover as himself – Jameson “Whiskey” Walker, former star college and NBA player who is joining the team as assistant coach, while Aidan poses as his agent, Ian Daley. Jamie is thus best placed to work out who – if anyone – among the players could be suspect, and Aidan can do the same among the department and administrative staff.
Once again, Ms. Reyne has crafted an intriguing and exciting suspense plot which kept me eagerly turning the pages, and which at the same time throws more light on the personalities of our two protagonists and further develops their relationship. Jamie is practically floored by lust the first time he sees Aidan in all his red-headed Irish glory as Ian – and green-eyed with jealousy at the flirtatious – albeit fake – relationship Aidan embarks upon with the college’s athletic director in order to get closer to the criminal operation. But the jealousy isn’t all one-sided; Jamie’s former lover, Derrick Pope, is back on the scene, and makes clear – in no uncertain terms – his interest in picking up where they left off.
Given Aidan’s insistence that there’s no long-term future for them, Jamie starts to question his past decisions and wonder if he did the right thing eight years ago, getting out of professional sports. His brief stint as assistant coach at CU shows him that he’s got a real aptitude for working with players off the court, and I enjoyed seeing that side of him, briefly unencumbered by terrorist threats or FBI cases, and just wanting to do the best by his team members; it’s a glimpse of what “Whiskey” Walker might have been had he not left the game.
There’s a lot going on in this story, what with the identity theft case, the search for Renaud and the development of the romance, but I never felt as though things were moving too fast for me to take everything in. The balance between the different plot elements is just about right; there’s plenty of nail-biting action mixed in with moments of tenderness, humour and scorching sex scenes (*cough* pool table *cough*) and Ms. Reyne skilfully drives everything along to a highly suspenseful conclusion that ultimately forces both protagonists – Aidan especially – to confront the truth of their feelings for each other.
The sexual chemistry between the two men is intense, but the author does a great job of creating emotional closeness and intensity between them, too, so there’s never any doubt in the reader’s mind that these two need and care very deeply for each other. There’s a well-drawn secondary cast (I hope we’ll see more of Nic and Cam, Jamie’s best friend) and I once again enjoyed the glimpses of the strong familial ties between Aidan and his younger brother Danny, who, it seems, is now dating Mel Cruz, Aidan’s boss and sister-in-law. The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, as Jamie and Aidan wrap things up at CU and are set to head home when Aidan’s brother Danny appears with potentially devastating news, setting the stage for what I imagine are going to be some pretty explosive developments in the final book, Barrel Proof.
Cask Strength is a riveting read, and one I’d strongly recommend to fans of romantic suspense. One word of caution; it doesn’t really work as a standalone, so I’d advise reading Single Malt first.