Although I wasn’t wild about Imperial Stout, the first book in Layla Reyne’s new Trouble Brewing series, I wanted to read book two, Craft Brew, because I was intrigued by what was clearly going to be the series’ overarching plotline, and hoped for progression. I got a little of what I wanted, but Ms. Reyne is clearly keeping her powder dry for the final book, Noble Hops, so Craft Brew focuses on a different story and shines a light on a past tragedy and a desperate search for closure.
In Imperial Stout, Assistant US Attorney and former Navy SEAL, Nic Price, discovered that his father – from whom he has been estranged ever since he came out more than twenty-five years earlier – was in hock to some pretty unsavoury characters. Knowing them to be ruthless gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, Nic tried to keep this news to himself out of concern for those around him, especially for his lover, Special Agent Cameron Byrne. Of course, the truth will out, and Cam found out about the threats made against Nic and his father, but Nic fears for Cam’s safety should anyone discover they’re a couple, which is why he stubbornly avoids giving Cam an answer to the latter’s suggestion they move in together.
Nic has just returned from five weeks spent in San Diego covering for an absent colleague and he’s pretty much just set foot inside his front door then where’s a fire in his apartment block – in the apartment right above his – which is quickly proven to be arson. This convinces him more than ever that he can’t afford to move forward with Cam until he’s got to the bottom of things – and in the middle of all this comes really bad news for Cam. His mother has had a heart attack and is in a bad way, and he needs to go home to Boston at once. Cam is understandably cut up and preoccupied as he gets ready to head home, and Nic senses there’s something else lurking behind his concern for his mother, but it’s not the time to tackle it. Cam sets off for Boston accompanied by Jamieson ‘Whiskey’ Walker, his long-time best friend and husband of Cam’s FBI partner, Aidan Talley.
The Byrnes are a close-knit family, and Ms. Reyne sketches the familial relationships well. Cam is closest to his brother Bobby, with whom he shares a bit of a chequered past, but is not on the best of terms with his youngest brother Keith, who still blames Cam for the disappearance of their sister, Erin, some twenty years earlier when she was just twelve years old. Cam has been weighed down by guilt he has never been able to assuage over what happened that day, because he was supposed to have met Erin to take her home, but instead, went off with Bobby to “score some real cash.” (We’re not told what that involved.) Cam has tried several times to find out what happened to Erin, but the case is so cold it’s dead and buried, and he’s been unable to make any progress. But now, his mother begs him to take it up again, and even though the rest of his family are against the idea, Cam can’t possibly turn down what might turn out to be Edye Byrne’s dying wish. Unbeknownst to him, she’s embarked on an investigation of her own over the years, making notes in the backs of her beloved romance novels; Cam agrees to go through them and then see if he can tie them into something that will give them some more concrete leads.
Craft Brew is a more cohesive read than Imperial Stout, which was short on character and relationship development, with a frenetically paced, somewhat superficial plot that required way too many suspensions of disbelief. By the time this book opens, Nic and Cam are in a relationship although still keeping it quiet, and we’re learning a little more about what makes each of them tick. The storyline concerning the mystery of Erin’s disappearance – which turns out to be linked to a number of other disappearances of young girls over the past twenty years – held my interest, although I can’t deny that there are still some very creaky plot elements (how was Cam’s mum able to come up with so much information while Cam, a highly trained FBI agent, wasn’t able to?) and unlikely coincidences along the way that stretched my credulity paper thin.
After reaching the section where Cam goes to Boston leaving Nic behind, I wondered whether they were going to spend the rest of the book apart, which is never a good recipe for a romantic novel. Fortunately, one of those coincidences I mentioned means that Nic’s presence is required in Boston and naturally, there’s no way he’s not going to haul ass in order to be with and help the man he can now admit he’s in love with. But that little niggle Nic had as Cam was leaving? It turns out that Cam has never told his family he’s bisexual; and it’s obviously not the right time to come out to them now. Nic is understanding and supportive, and puts no pressure of any kind on Cam, rightly saying that telling them is his decision… but he also makes it clear that while he’s prepared to wait for Cam to come out to them in his own time, he doesn’t want to wait forever.
I like Cam and Nic, I like the secondary cast of familiar characters from the Irish and Whiskey series and the close-knit relationships between them and I enjoyed meeting Cam’s family and finding out a bit more about his past, which was something missing in the previous book. We also learned more about Nic and the secrets he’s keeping, although it’s clear there is more to come, and Cam has yet to learn some of the things the reader is now privy to – which I’m guessing will happen in the next book.
But the plot contrivances I mentioned above drag the book down as a whole, and I lost count of the number of times Nic told Cam to ‘just breathe’ at times of stress and worry. I also had to wonder at the way the author so often brings up Nic’s former rank as a SEAL captain as a way of impressing people or getting them to do things. Would it really be that big of a deal given he’s been a civilian for well over a decade? Small things maybe, but they took me out of the story each time I came across them.
I’m going to give Craft Brew a cautious recommendation with the caveat that if you haven’t read the previous book – or the Agents Irish and Whiskey series – you’re likely to be completely lost. If you’re already invested in the Trouble Brewing series and characters, then this is an enjoyable, if flawed read that satisfied at least some of this reader’s need for more character growth and development in the central relationship.