The Last Move by Mary Burton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Catching monsters helps FBI agent Kate Hayden keep her nightmares at bay. Now an urgent call brings her back to San Antonio, the scene of her violent past. A brutal new murder shows hallmarks of a serial killer nicknamed the Samaritan. Tricky part is, Kate already caught him.

Either Kate made a deadly error, or she’s got a copycat on her hands. Paired with homicide detective Theo Mazur, she quickly realizes this murder is more twisted than it first appeared. Then a second body is found, the mode of death identical to a different case that Kate thought she’d put behind her.

Now Kate and Detective Mazur aren’t just working a homicide; the investigative pair is facing a formidable enemy who knows Kate intimately. While Mazur is personally trying to protect Kate, the closer they are drawn to the killer, the clearer it becomes that in this terrifying game, there is only one rule: don’t believe everything you see…

Rating: B

The Last Move is a new standalone novel from popular romantic suspense author Mary Burton featuring a prickly but pragmatic FBI Forensic linguistics expert who is frequently called in to consult on complicated cases that need to make use of her skills to analyse the language employed by murderers, kidnappers and other unsavoury characters in order to effect rescues and arrests.  It’s a very readable, well-plotted story that seems to be heading in one direction until the author pulls a handbrake turn and sends it beetling off elsewhere – and I was completely gripped by it throughout.  On the downside, if you like a romantic suspense novel to have an actual romance in it, then you might be a bit disappointed, because while the story has romantic elements and ends with an HFN which clearly has the possibility of becoming more, the balance here is firmly in favour of the mystery and the romance is very low-key.

Seasoned detective Theo Mazur gave up his job at the Chicago PD to move to San Antonio when his ex-wife moved there with their teenaged daughter, Alyssa.  He has just been called to the scene of a murder on the interstate – I-35 – which bears a number of similarities to other killings that were carried  out on the same road over the past couple of years; the victim is a woman alone in her car, the car malfunctioned in some way, she’s been shot in the heart at point-blank range  and the killer has left a video and a message on a burner phone for the investigators.  More specifically, he leaves it for FBI profiler, Dr. Kate Hayden.  Mazur recognises the M O of a serial killer nicknamed The Samaritan and puts in a call to his boss, who duly contacts Kate, the agent responsible for arresting and identifying him as one Charles Richardson. But there’s a snag. Richardson is currently in prison awaiting trial.

While the evidence linking Richardson to the Samaritan’s murders is strong, this new killing could completely blow Kate’s case out of the water, so she has to drop her current investigation – into a sick bastard who kidnaps young girls, keeps them locked in boxes and takes them out to repeatedly rape them before letting them die – and head to her home town of San Antonio, somewhere she’s avoided at all costs since the murder of her father ripped her family apart when she was just seventeen.

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

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Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Eva Kaminsky and Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. While an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets – secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she left behind.

Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon never met.

Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers that surrounded Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – B

Having very much enjoyed listening to The Wicked City earlier this year (and being a fan of this author’s alter-ego, Juliana Gray), I was keen to listen to Beatriz Williams’ latest offering, Cocoa Beach, which follows a young widow as she tries to discover the truth about the estranged husband who recently perished in a house fire at his Florida home. It is loosely linked to both The Wicked City and the book which preceded it, A Certain Age, insofar as some of the characters have either appeared or been mentioned in one or both of those novels, but otherwise Cocoa Beach can be enjoyed as a standalone.

In 1917, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York to drive ambulances back and forth between the trenches and the field hospitals of Northern France. The USA has not yet joined the war, but she and a group of other volunteers led by the wealthy and formidable Mrs. DeForest are out there “doing their bit”, in whatever capacities they can be useful. On a trip to pick up some wounded men and take them to the hospital Mrs. DeForest has set up in an old château, Virginia meets the handsome, charismatic Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, an army surgeon, and he ends up travelling back to the hospital with her in order to inspect the facilities. There’s an instant frisson of attraction between the two, although Virginia is wary; not only is he quite a bit older than she is (she’s twenty-one, he’s mid-thirties) and almost too good to be true, but her complicated relationship with her stern, reclusive father means she has little experience with men and is uncomfortable around them. Yet by the end of this brief time spent together, Virginia is desperately smitten and so, it seems, is Simon, and he tells her he’s going to write to her. Virginia is on cloud nine – until one of the other girls in her unit tells her Simon is married, with a young son.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Rating: B+

I’ll start this review by saying that while The Mech Who Loved Me could be read as a standalone novel, it probably won’t make much sense to you unless you have read at least some of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk books. In that series, the author introduces and develops her alternative vision of Victorian London in which the city is ruled by the elite blue bloods while other races – humans, mechs and verwulfen – are second class citizens (and in the case of verwulfen, even lower). At the end of the final book, Of Silk and Steam, the corrupt ruling elite – the Echelon – was overthrown by an alliance comprising all the races, including many blue bloods who opposed the harsh rule imposed by the prince-consort. This new series, London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy is set three years after those events, in a London where all the races now have freedom and equality, although things are by no means easy. Distrust, suspicion and hatred built up over generations doesn’t just disappear overnight; and now it appears that there is someone out there trying to stir up all those old feelings and open up all those old wounds to set the races at each others’ throats once more.

In book one, Mission Improper, readers were introduced (or re-introduced, as some appeared in minor roles in earlier books) to the characters who make up the newly formed Company of Rogues, a small, hand-picked team who are charged with finding out exactly who is trying to incite unrest among the population of London. Under the direction of the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn, this group of blue bloods, a verwulfen and a human/mech discover the existence of a shadowy organisation called the Rising Sons, a group intent on creating anarchy in order to disrupt the uneasy peace between the races, perhaps even on bringing down the queen. They also learn of the existence of a creature called the dhampir, something stronger, faster and even more powerful than a blue-blood which, given blue bloods are almost indestructible, poses a serious threat to anyone who dares to oppose them.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up pretty much where Mission Improper left off, and we’re plunged straight into the action with the discovery of a mysterious virus that appears to be killing blue bloods. Ava McLaren, who was previously a crime scene analyst for the Nighthawks (the organisation that polices London) is now a member of the Company of Rogues, and is eager to prove her skills as an investigator rather than being someone who works behind the scenes all the time. She is pleased when Malloryn assigns her to discover the nature and source of the virus, although the fact that the gruff, cynical mech Liam Kincaid is appointed as her bodyguard takes some of the shine off. A human made mech when he lost his hand, Kincaid has never hidden his dislike of blue bloods and he and Ava couldn’t be more different. He’s big, terse, rough round the edges and makes no secret of his womanising ways whereas Ava is dainty, almost ethereally lovely and prone to letting her words get away from her – and is a virgin to boot. She’s fiercely intelligent, logical and tired of being seen as weaker than the others in the team and someone who must be protected at all costs. I loved that she’s the sort of heroine who doesn’t have mad-fighting-skillz and who puts her intellect and her emotional strength to good use instead. She really shines as she works her way through clues and puzzles to uncover the truth, all the while she and Kincaid are plunged into one dangerous situation after another – and the attraction that has long simmered between them reaches boiling point.

At the beginning of the book, Ava is contemplating her spinsterhood and is somewhat depressed at the idea that she’s unlikely to ever experience passion, when a friend points out that she doesn’t have to have an actual relationship with a man for that. Ava is rather traditional, and hadn’t really given that possibility much thought… or she hadn’t until she met Kincaid and developed the sort of awareness of him that makes her breath hitch and her insides flutter. And Kincaid isn’t blind; Ava is attractive and he knows she’s interested in him, but the other Rogues have already warned him off on pain of many not nice things and besides, he doesn’t seduce virgins. It’s only when the virgin in question asks to be seduced that things get complicated and what was intended to be an affair of finite duration gains the potential to be something much more. The author does a great job of developing this ‘opposites attract’ romance, showing how what starts as a working relationship spills over into the personal as the pair begins to appreciate, trust and open up to one another. The chemistry between Ava and Kincaid is terrific, the sex scenes are hot and earthy and Kincaid proves to be a truly swoon-worthy hero, his ability to really see Ava for the brilliant woman she is helping her to stand up for herself and conquer her insecurities.

I also love the wider dimension Bec McMaster brings to her stories; her steam-powered world is already well-established, the politics and intrigue of this alternative London are intriguing and well thought-out, and I’m already loving the way she is developing the overarching plot, revealing a little more in each book while also making sure that each one is a satisfying story and romance in itself. My one complaint about this story is to do with the rather too convenient resolution to the situation that threatens Kincaid and Ava’s HEA – I can’t see what else the author could have done in order to resolve the issue, but even so, I wasn’t wild about it.

But that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of The Mech Who Loved Me, which is richly detailed and strongly written, featuring complex, well-developed characters, a well-paced, action-packed plot and a steamy romance, all of which kept me thoroughly engrossed and invested in the outcome. Believably dangerous villains help to keep the stakes high for our heroes; well-developed secondary and recurring characters add colour and depth (I’m already very intrigued by Malloryn and eagerly anticipating his story) and the next book in the series really can’t appear soon enough.

Dirty Deeds (Dirty #1) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No dirty deed goes unnoticed in a seductive game of cat and mouse. But for Alec and Gaige, the wrong move could get them killed.

Alec Drummond didn’t make his billions by playing nice—or by playing much at all. When it comes to pleasure, Alec only has time for whatever’s quick and easy, which is exactly what he gets from his company’s hot new computer genius. But Gaige Owens isn’t some pushover. He pushes back, and it’s giving Alec a rush. The question is, could Gaige be the one who’s leaking trade secrets? Just to be safe, Alec keeps him close at hand . . . night and day.

Gaige never thought he’d roll over for a man like Alec again, but who could resist sex this mind-blowing? Then there’s the draw of Alec’s mysterious side: his cutthroat ambition, his covert CIA connections, and the murder in his past. For Gaige, a deeper look proves an irresistible temptation. But when Gaige and Alec are stripped of their defenses by an unseen danger, everything they don’t know could bring them closer together—or tear them apart. Only one thing is certain: Before it’s all over, someone’s going down.

Rating: B-

Dirty Deeds is a fast-paced, action-packed story that begins when billionaire businessman and all-round hardass Alec Drummond catches Gaige Owens breaking into his company’s vault.  It transpires that Gaige has been ’employed’ (or rather, had his arm twisted) by the enigmatic, equally hardass Seth Lang (Guarding Mr. Fine) to deliberately trigger Drummond Enterprises security systems  and thereby force Alec to sit up and take notice of Seth’s requests for a meeting.

Alec’s company is one of the world’s leading food/food-hybrid manufacture/bio-research companies that also dabbles in research into alternate fuel sources – and Seth thinks that someone is setting it up for a fall, most likely terrorists or regimes who want to be able to control people by means of controlling the food supply.  It’s all very cloak-and-dagger, and Seth is reluctant to say any more than he has to.  It’s clear that he and Alec have locked horns before and the testosterone flies liberally as they face-off against each other while a puzzled and not too pleased Gaige looks on.

While all this is happening, Gaige and Alec are sizing each other up in a different way and very much liking what they see.  It’s an odd moment, perhaps, for insta-lust to strike, but strike it does, with a very large ‘clang!!’  Seth wants Gaige to pose as an external security expert at Drummond to see if he can trace who is setting them up – but Alec isn’t happy; he doesn’t want a total stranger poking his nose into his company.  Still, he also needs to find out who’s trying to sabotage him and agrees to Seth’s plan, intending to keep Gaige on a firm leash and keep an eye on him 24/7.

Alec installs Gaige in his Munich home and pretty soon the intense attraction the two men feel for each other is impossible to resist.  Alec is a workaholic, Gaige – a hot nerd with a wry sense of humour – was badly burned by his previous lover, so neither is looking for anything long-term.  They agree to keep it to casual, no-strings-sex, but it’s not long before they find it impossible to remain detached, and start to share confidences.

The insta-lust from practically the first page is a bit much although the author does it well, and keeps it running into the sex scenes, which are frequent and nicely steamy.  I liked how she showed Alec and Gaige gradually lowering their defences, although given the story takes place over about a week, this is perhaps somewhat unbelievable, especially for Alec, who doesn’t trust easily and whose privacy is intensely important to him.

I’m not sure I completely bought into the plot and the characterisation isn’t especially deep, but Dirty Deeds is an enjoyable, undemanding read that kept me entertained for the couple of hours or so it took me to read it.  If hot nerds and hard-ass billionaires wrapped up in industrial espionage and each other are your thing, I imagine you could do worse than pick this one up!

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell
September 1914

Rating: B+

As often happens, I’m doing things the wrong way around, because I’m finally reading this AFTER I’ve read Spectred Isle, which isn’t really a sequel, but which is set in the same world as the Simon Feximal stories. But better late than never.

The Casebook of Simon Feximal is a set of short stories featuring the eponymous “ghost hunter” and the man who becomes his long-term partner, both professionally and personally, Robert Caldwell. K.J. Charles has penned a set of extremely imaginative and, in many cases (I’ll never look at a butterfly the same way again!), downright scary stories that span a period of over twenty years during which Simon is summoned to deal with any number of hauntings, evil manifestations and things do a fair bit more than go “bump” in the night. When the pair first meet, Robert is making his living as a journalist and has employed Simon to exorcise the spirits that are causing the walls to bleed in the house he has just inherited. Simon sees his role as setting the ghosts free by allowing them to tell their stories rather than simply banishing them back to wherever they came from, and in this particular case, the story involves a promiscuous relative who appears to have expired coitus interruptus and who wants to complete his final sexual encounter 😉 Yes, I’m going to make the joke – K.J. Charles really knows how to start a book with a bang!

*ahem*

While these are all short stories, there are some plotlines that run through more than one story, like the machinations of the horrible Dr. Berry, the Machiavellian Mr. Parker and the mysterious Fat Man. I also loved the nods to the literary creations of other authors of mystery and suspense, especially Karswell, from M.R. James’ Casting the Runes (which, as Night of the Demon, is one of my favourite old horror movies!).

The ending is incredibly poignant and brought tears to my eyes – and by sheer coincidence, I happen to be staying something like twenty miles from Ypres, where the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele on 30 and 31 July 1917 is taking place as I write. In one of life’s odd coincidences, I had no idea that Robert’s final letter would be from Passchendaele in 1917 and it added an extra note of sadness as I closed the book.

This is a great collection of stories that can be dipped into (although I’d advise reading in order) – but I defy anyone to be able to stop reading once they’ve started. The relationship between Simon and Robert begins quickly but over the years they develop a beautiful, intense connection which is largely unspoken – but their bond is so strong that it really doesn’t need words.

If you’re a fan of paranormal romances, I don’t see how you can go wrong with this one.

The Hunting Grounds (Hidden Sins #2) by Katee Robert

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Maggie Gaines used to be an FBI agent—top of her class and one of the bright, up-and-coming stars—until she spectacularly fell apart during her first high-profile case. That was eight years ago. Now she’s a ranger at Glacier National Park, and she’s found some measure of peace. But when the body of a murdered woman is discovered, she must finally put the past behind her and work with the one man she thought she’d never see again.

For months, Vic Sutherland has been hunting a killer who’s been targeting unsuspecting hikers in national parks—and now the predator has come to Glacier. Vic knows the case will bring him face-to-face with his former partner, yet nothing can prepare him for seeing Maggie again after all these years, or for the memories of passion it stirs in both of them.

As the investigation brings them closer together—and closer to the killer—Maggie and Vic fear they have only each other to trust. But even that might not be enough to make it out of Glacier alive.

Rating: B-

I enjoyed Katee Robert’s first foray into romantic suspense, The Devil’s Daughter, earlier this year, even though I felt that the balance between the two elements wasn’t quite right and that the suspense plot worked better than the romance. I’m afraid I have similar reservations about The Hunting Grounds, which, while it is well-written and has an intriguing plot about a serial killer who is hunting and murdering his victims in national parks, suffers from somewhat uneven pacing and a lack of strong chemistry between the leads.

Seven years earlier, Maggie Gaines was a rookie with the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit partnered with Vic Sutherland, one of the unit’s most experienced and successful agents. Her first case proved to be an incredibly tough one – involving a child killer – and after a year of working on it, it broke her and she left the Bureau, burned out and feeling like a failure. At her lowest ebb, she reached out to her partner for comfort – which turned into a passionate kiss, even though she knew Vic was married and off limits.

Maggie now works as a Park Ranger at Glacier National Park in Montana. She’s good at her job and is happy with her quiet life and small circle of friends; she’s not an especially social person and likes it that way. But when she is called to the scene of a gruesome murder within Glacier, she finds herself thrust headlong back into the world she thought she had left behind seven years ago.

Vic Sutherland has been working the case of a killer who has so far murdered two victims in two different national parks. The MO in each case is the same – and is the same as the newly found victim in Montana, making three killings in nine months. The FBI has a serial killer on its hands and the lack of time between the last murder and this latest one indicates that he’s escalating and that there is likely to be another one soon. Vic arrives at Glacier and meets with the medical examiner, who confirms to him that the latest victim was hunted and ‘field dressed’ in the same gruesome way as the others. His next step is to interview the rangers who found the body – one of whom is Maggie Gaines, who, he feels sure, isn’t going to be all that pleased to see him.

Maggie is surprised to see Vic after all this time – and equally surprised to discover he’s been divorced for five years  – and it doesn’t take her long to figure out that his presence signifies that they are dealing with more than a ‘simple’ case of murder.  Plus, seeing him again is unsettling; they haven’t had any contact since she left the Bureau, but even so, she has never forgotten their ill-judged kiss and having him around stirs up feelings she’d thought long buried.  She’s curt and off-hand with him to begin with, but they soon find their way back to something resembling their old working relationship, bouncing ideas and theories off each other and generally working as a good team.

Their focus quickly turns to a group of five twenty-something hikers who had arrived at the park earlier in the day with plans for a ten day hike.  When one of the group is found dead, her body horribly mutilated by a bear, it seems that Maggie and Vic’s suspicions that the earlier killings were a ‘trial run’ for a concerted attack on that particular group of friends were well founded.  While they try to find the killer and work out why those people are being targeted, a search and rescue operation gets underway to try to find the rest of the group and get them to safety before the killer can strike again.

I did enjoy the book, but it has quite a few flaws that have prevented me from rating it more highly.  I like second chance romances as a rule, and in a story such as this one where there is a split focus, incorporating a relationship between people who already know each other can be an advantage because less time is needed to set it up.  On the plus side, Vic and Maggie act like sensible adults;  they don’t have time to engage in silly misunderstandings or mind games -they fancy each other, they’re single adults and they don’t waste time acting on their mutual attraction. But they haven’t seen or otherwise communicated with each other in seven years, and while we’re told the mutual attraction they experienced back then has never gone away, the on-the-page chemistry between them wasn’t strong enough for me to buy that they’d be talking about a long-term relationship within two or three days of reconnecting.  The book ends abruptly, with hasty ILYs and with the suggestion of an HFN, which brings the deficiencies in the romance into even sharper focus.

The suspense plot is well executed and although it moves fairly slowly, that gives the author time to build a sense of menace, allowing readers to wonder who will be the next victim as we, along with Maggie and Vic, try to see the pattern and work out the killer’s motive.  I didn’t mind the slower pace, but some of the PoV switches – from Maggie and Vic to the hikers and then to the odd flashback which tells us more about why they’re such a dysfunctional group of friends – interrupt the flow of the narrative, which I found frustrating on more than one occasion.  I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the flashback parts would have worked better in a prologue.

I’m the first person to admit that I’m not that great at working out whodunit, so I was surprised by the final reveal of the killer’s identity, and I also enjoyed Ms. Robert’s vivid descriptions of the wonderful scenery and the sheer majesty of the surroundings in which most of the book is set, which put the reader right in the middle of what sounds like one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

The Hunting Grounds is the second book in the Hidden Sins series but as it’s only loosely linked to the first – Vic appeared briefly in The Devil’s Daughter as Eden Collins’ FBI partner – it can easily be read as a standalone.  I’m giving it a qualified recommendation because the suspense angle is well done and held my attention sufficiently that I was eager to find out what was going on, but the romance takes a back seat, so if you prefer your romantic suspense to have a better balance between those two elements, you might want to adjust your expectations if you’re planning on  picking this one up.

Cask Strength (Agents Irish and Whiskey #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: B+

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.