Layla Reyne begins a new romantic suspense series with Dead Draw, in which two FBI agents who turn out to be working the same case from different angles enter into a marriage of convenience so that they can continue to work it under the radar after an operation goes badly wrong. MoC is one of my favourite tropes in historicals, but it’s less easy to pull off in contemporaries (unless it’s in a Harlequin Presents novel!) – and quite honestly, I didn’t buy the reasons for it here. But I decided to go with it – I know I’m in for complicated, fast-paced and doesn’t-always-make-sense in a Layla Reyne book, but the characters sounded interesting and she’s always very readable so I parked my suspension-of-disbelief hat by the door and dove in.
Special Agent Levi Bishop is furious when the raid he’d organised to bring down a people trafficking organisation is screwed up. That’s eighteen months of gruelling work out the window, not to mention ten victims snatched out from under his nose, thanks to unwanted interference by Special Agent Emmitt Marsh. Marsh has been hunting down the terrorists who murdered his best friend and mentor some three years earlier, and had established their links to human trafficking and to Levi’s case; but in trying to get to someone higher up in the organisation, he inadvertently tipped them off.
Needing to find a way not only to atone for his screw-up, but also to continue to work the case and collaborate with Levi’s team, Marsh hatches a plan which will mean he can do just that. A day later, he tracks Levi down to a San Francisco restaurant and proposes they get married; it’s not against the rules and it means that Marsh will be able to keep tabs on the case unofficially. To say Levi is stunned is an understatement, but he also recognises something of a kindred spirit in the handsome cowboy, a man who, like him is tired of the dead ends and the near missses, tired of the relentless pace and the long hours. As a widower and single parent drowning in debt and worried he’s failing his teenaged son, Levi has a lot on his plate – and Marsh’s offer of money in exchange for Levi marrying him is most definitely tempting. As is Marsh himself. But… it’s a ridiculous idea. Isn’t it?
Well, yes, it sort of is – I never quite understood why they had to get married – but the chemistry between the pair is evident from the moment they meet and the slow-burn that follows is worth getting past that unlikely plot point.
As in most of the books I’ve read by this author, the mechanics of the case/suspense plot are quite complicated and it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of who is who and how everything relates to everything else. The main thing is that Levi’s traffickers are linked to Marsh’s terrorists and the two men are pursuing the same goals – preventing more women being trafficked, flushing out the terrorists and bringing the operation down altogether. There’s also a secondary case Marsh is assigned by the Special Agent in Charge (who might as well have a flashing neon sign over his head saying “dodgy bastard”) which turns out to be much more than a side issue, and I did like the way it’s worked in to the main plotline.
On the whole, Dead Draw balances the plot and the romance pretty well, although as this is book one of a trilogy, there’s no HEA – but the romance does end on a strong HFN with the promise of more. Levi and Marsh are likeable, complex and flawed characters, both with significant baggage, which is to be unexpected given their ages (Levi is thirty-eight, Marsh, forty-six). Prickly, sharp-tongued Levi lost his wife to cancer two years earlier and is still grieving while trying to cope with the demands placed on him by his job and with being a father to his fourteen-year-old son David. He’s a good dad, but he feels like he’s failing David, and also worries about how he will react when Levi is ready to move on and perhaps make a life with someone else. Marsh is flirty and charming and confident, but has a habit of falling for men who are emotionally unavailable, so Levi is his catnip and he knows he should steer well clear. But the more he gets to know Levi, to see the man who is so in need of someone to lean on sometimes, the more he wants to be that someone. Their arrangement was only ever meant to be temporary, but Marsh hadn’t counted on feeling so at home with Levi and David – on finding a home with them – and he can’t help himself from falling hard, even though he knows he’s setting himself up for a world of hurt.
The romance has the feel of a slow burn and the author builds the sexual tension really well, with lots of longing looks and glancing touches all contributing to the growing heat between the two men. When they do finally give in to their attraction I appreciated that Marsh makes it absolutely clear that he isn’t pushing Levi to move past his grief, or expecting (or wanting) to replace his wife, but rather, he’s offering to help lighten the load, just for a little while. I was also really pleased that one of the few people in on the truth about their marriage is David and that Levi and Marsh don’t lie to him; I also liked the way David and Marsh connect through their love of chess.
On the downside, I had a real problem with the way Marsh goes about suggesting to Levi that they get married. In fact, he doesn’t really suggest it – he turns up at the restaurant where Levi and his late wife “toasted their vows with friends and family” sixteen years earlier (so I infer it’s his anniversary) and tells Levi his hacking has got him all sorts of information about him, from his financial situation to his sexual preferences, and the way I read it, he all but blackmails him!
“You wouldn’t.” He was out as pansexual, but he’s rather not have the details of his sex life combed through by a stranger, or worse, leaked to the wrong person.
“I won’t if you marry me.”
If that’s supposed to be funny – it isn’t. Not cool, Marsh.
Then there’s Levi’s mother, who meddles far too much in his love life (setting him up when he clearly doesn’t want to be and pushing him to get back out there) and some sort of weird family competition between his mother and aunt, who it seem have made it their mission to one-up each other at family weddings, which felt ridiculous and completely unnecessary.
I had a few smaller niggles as well (again, there’s an over-reliance on the genius hacker who can save the world with a few keystrokes), but as I’ve said before, Layla Reyne spins a good yarn, her stories move along at a swift pace and there’s plenty of action and steam. They’re like TV shows in book form, and sometimes, reading about hot FBI agents and sexy cowboy hackers running around and putting down the bad guys is just what the doctor ordered. I enjoyed Dead Draw in spite of my reservations, and will be picking up book two, Bad Bishop, when it’s released later this year.