Lori L. Harris is an author I’ve been keeping an eye on since her promising debut last year with Someone Safe. Even so, I had my doubts at first about her latest, Secret Alibi. With the cover illustration of the heroine clutching her pregnant belly, there was every reason to believe this was yet another book suffering from series romance formula-itis. But my lowered expectations merely allowed me to be more than pleasantly surprised, as I read with ever growing delight at how good it was.
All pharmaceutical rep Lexie Dawson wants is to finalize the settlement paperwork on her divorce. Months after their split, her ex-husband continues to drag out the proceedings, challenging her ownership to the house her grandparents left her when they died. When she gets a text message telling her to come get the signed paperwork before he changes his mind, she heads over to the house, only to find him dead of a gunshot wound to the head.
Two months earlier, police chief Jack Blade had a one-night stand with Lexie. They met in a bar where she was clearly trying to drown her sorrows, he offered to take her home, and one thing led to another. He tried calling her afterward to see her again, but she made it clear she had no interest in pursuing anything with him. Now he’s in charge of the investigation into her ex-husband’s murder, and she’s the prime suspect. Both the mayor and his lead detective are eager to make an arrest, but Jack isn’t convinced of her guilt. With the evidence stacked against her, Jack is her only hope to get to the truth.
There’s an elusive quality I (and I’m sure many other readers) am looking for when I pick up a book, where it’s clear that this is an author who has real talent and knows what she’s doing. I sensed it in Harris’s first books, and it’s even more apparent here. She has “it.” I read a lot of series books, and most I’ve read lately, especially in the Intrigue line, tend to be shallow, sketchy and slapdash. That’s not the case here. Harris’s writing is taut, sharp and engaging. It delivers the style and tone of a mainstream romantic suspense, only in a shorter format. This book grabbed me from the very beginning, mostly because the author’s storytelling was instantly involving.
That remained true throughout the book. This is that rare series romance that delivers some real tension. The storyline itself is highly predictable (more on that in a moment), yet the author is able to maintain the suspense of the situation and let the reader feel the tension of Lexie’s predicament, as everything seems to be working against her. Even knowing everything would end happily, I experienced a true sense of unease I usually don’t while reading series suspense. The way the author deals with Jack’s conflict of interest was also excellent. Jack handles the situation professionally, making a decision early on that raised both him and the book in my eyes. Not only is it the right thing, it makes him seem truly heroic.
This is the second book in Harris’s The Blade Brothers of Cougar County duet, and it stands on its own. Events from the previous book are alluded to (like the marriage of Jack’s brother to the heroine of that book), but in an unobtrusive way that doesn’t leave newcomers feeling like they’ve missed much. I especially appreciated that the author doesn’t spoil the killer of that one, making it possible for readers who missed it to go back and try it if they so desire. That may seem like an obvious thing, but I’m amazed how many writers blab the identity of the killer from one book in the next for no good reason.
As for the pregnancy, yes, Lexie discovers during the story that their one-night stand left her with child. While she takes her time revealing this to Jack, the issue is handled reasonably. It really doesn’t add too much to the story and could have easily been omitted, but it doesn’t detract from it either. The best I can say about it is that the inclusion of such an obvious gimmick in the story didn’t bother me. Much.
To be honest, I was flirting with giving this book DIK status; it really was that sharp, so much better than any series suspense book, and most series books period, that I’ve read in a while. In the end, I couldn’t ignore the weaknesses in the story itself. For one thing, the mystery is far too obvious, with the solution and ultimate revelations easily guessable from very early in the book. That it’s still as suspenseful as it is speaks to the author’s skill. In addition, the characters could stand to be developed much more than they are, certain plot points could be fleshed out further, and the ending is abrupt.
Even so, Secret Alibi kept me engrossed and involved in a way I’m not used to anymore from today’s series romances. If it’s not an extraordinary read, it’s still a very good one, with crisp writing and strong storytelling. Those seem to be rare commodities in the series world these days, but it’s nice to see they’re not completely extinct.