Desert Isle Keeper
Spoilers ahead: If you haven’t read the first book in the Agents Irish & Whiskey series, Single Malt, it ended with a cliffhanger and this review contains spoilers.
Single Malt concluded with Aidan Talley (Irish) and Jameson Walker (Whiskey) solving their case, but Ms. Reyne left us with cliffhanger concerning a terrorist plot that has personal and professional ties to Aidan’s past. Jamie, at the behest of his boss, Special Agent Melissa Cruz, is still secretly investigating the car crash that killed Aiden’s husband Gabe (also Melissa’s brother) and his FBI partner Tom Crane. When Single Malt concluded, Jamie had discovered a link between the terrorist Renaud, Gabe and Tom, and he knows that the information will devastate Aidan. Aidan and Jamie are lovers, but Aidan’s fear of losing another lover and Jamie’s investigation threaten to derail their relationship before it can really begin.
Layla Reyne kicks off book two on a high note. Arriving at Jamie’s San Francisco townhouse, Aidan tells him they’re at the top of the FBI’s clearance board and proposes a celebration. They’re riding high professionally and personally and Cask Strength lulls you in with their happy celebration – a super hot and intense kitchen sex scene. Then, well, it breaks your heart, because shortly afterwards, Aidan announces he has to go. When Jamie suggests they go away for the weekend instead, Aidan tells him he can’t, because he’s got a date with Dominic – Nic – Price, the federal prosecutor on the Galveston case. In short order we discover Aidan, still unwilling to commit to Jamie, has decided that dating other men is the only way to maintain his distance. Jamie is gutted each time Aidan goes on one of these dates, and so are we.
Not long after this, Jamie discovers a financial link between Renaud and the same two FBI agents who shut down the investigation into Aidan’s car accident. Nic tips Aidan off as to their location, and he’s on his way to intercept them when Jamie senses something isn’t quite right. Shots ring out and chaos ensues. Spotting Aidan prone on sidewalk, Jamie races to his side. Quickly ascertaining the blood on the pavement isn’t Aidan’s but that the other two agents are dead, he’s relieved to discover Aidan is alive but unconscious. Jamie doesn’t linger – a manhunt is underway and the scene needs to be secured. By the time Jamie arrives at Aidan’s hospital room, he’s frantic with worry, nearly losing it when he discovers Nic already there, and angrily orders him out. As soon as Nic leaves, Jamie breaks down, confessing his fears and love for Aidan – until Aidan, who’s already had his own mini-freak out and decided he can’t go through this again, abruptly breaks up with him.
With Renaud ratcheting up the pressure in San Francisco, Special Agent Cruz reassigns the men to North Carolina (Jamie’s home state) to investigate an identity theft ring involving a college basketball team. Despite the obvious schism in their partnership, she insists they work together. Jamie, a former standout college and NBA player, is placed on the team as an assistant coach. At a press conference, he tells reporters he’s decided to leave law enforcement and return to his first love – basketball. Aidan goes undercover as Jamie’s agent, Ian Daley, in town to negotiate his contract. Jamie’s in a perfect position to identify suspect players and coaches; Aidan, in his guise as Jamie’s agent, can shortlist possible guilty athletic department and administration suspects.
Though the identity theft case is interesting and really, it’s just the sort of brilliant scam you hope isn’t actually happening in college sports, Cask Strength is mostly about the relationship between Jamie and Aidan. Secondary characters – the athletic director, Ethan Reynolds, for whom Aidan pretends an attraction in order to infiltrate the criminal ring, and Jamie’s former lover Derrick Pope – also play pivotal roles. Jamie loves Aidan and wants him to give a romantic relationship a try. Jamie is consumed with jealousy about Aidan’s other boyfriends; he particularly hates the flirtatious (fake) relationship Aidan has with Ethan. Aidan loves Jamie, but he fears losing another lover.
There’s a lot of complex casework in Cask Strength and it both grounds the story and keeps Jamie and Aidan in close proximity. This time out they’re in Jamie’s home state, and wind up living together in a home Jamie owns in the area. Much like how the relationship evolved in Barrel Strength, living together and keeping their affections under wraps proves all but impossible. After a delicious scene in the NC airport when Jamie picks up Aidan and nearly flips out when he sees his partner undercover as Ian, these two circle around their intense attraction to each other while living together. They struggle to live and work together, and over games of pool (Aidan is a pool shark; Jamie is terrible) they vent their pent up sexual and emotional frustrations while Jamie drinks expensive Scotch and they privately long for each other. Ms. Reyne keeps ratcheting up the professional and personal tension until something has to give. And it does. BIG TIME FOLKS. IT’S AWESOME.
When Aidan and Jamie finally have sex again it’s scorching hot and Ms. Reyne (again) vividly finds a way to balance their intense chemistry and tender affection. Friends, these too are so hot and awesome together. Sexy, intense, romantic…more please! Aidan finally confesses he loves Jamie, and I may have squealed with happiness. (Okay. I did.) But much like that first evil chapter, just when their affection is at an all-time high – things go sideways. The identity theft case intersects with their personal relationship (I didn’t love this development) and the reunion comes to an abrupt end. In a frantic final few chapters, the case is split wide open, Aidan is forced to confront his fear of losing Jamie, and Jamie makes new discoveries in the on-going Renaud investigation.
When Cask Strength concludes, Irish and Whiskey are partners, both professionally and personally. But Renaud is still on the loose, and Jamie is still keeping secrets from Aidan about his husband and former partner. In a cliffhanger, the novel abruptly concludes when they discover someone they trust might be working with the terrorist. The revelation will leave you (me) shouting “no!” at the screen, and quickly checking when the next book is out. Not soon enough my friends! Not soon enough.