DEA Agent Fallon Hargis has a personal stake in her latest undercover assignment. She wants to bring down drug supplier John Cavanaugh no matter what it takes. But when her cover is blown, she finds herself trying to elude two of his men who’ve been assigned to kill her in a Dallas hotel. With a bullet in her gut and only her wits and an empty gun to depend on, she breaks into a hotel room and tells the man she finds inside to strip.
Wade Tanner’s vacation takes an interesting turn when the woman appears in his room and orders him to get naked. He’s not about to argue with her when she has a gun aimed at him. When her two pursuers break into the room, they find a couple in the throes of passion instead of the sole woman they’re looking for. Fallon’s ploy worked – a little too well, as she and Wade move from pretending to be having sex to actually having it.
When the coast is clear, Fallon explains who she really is to Wade. Concerned, he offers her a place to stay while she figures out who betrayed her in the agency. With nowhere to go, she accompanies him back to tiny Two Creeks, Texas, where Wade happens to be the sheriff. But as they share a roof, they also take advantage of the attraction between them, leading to some steamy encounters. Of course, Fallon knows there’s no hope they could ever make a relationship work. Wade isn’t so easy to convince.
Southern Comfort is part small-town-set contemporary romance, part gritty romantic suspense novel, in that order. The first part of the story is fairly light, with quippy dialogue, sexy scenes, and an array of meddlesome small-town characters. The suspense subplot is pushed so far into the background it’s easy to forget it’s there, as the author concentrates on Wade and Fallon spending time together, with occasional interruptions from the locals. In the final third, Fallon’s investigation picks up again, the small town is left behind, and the story enters darker suspense territory, with evil villains and edgier scenes. The tone is so different it’s almost like entering a completely different book, and readers who become engaged in the earlier stages of the story may find the switch off-putting. This approach also means the mystery of who betrayed Fallon is way too obvious, because we see so little of the DEA that it’s too easy to see who the traitor is. While they were very different, I actually liked both parts about the same. There are plenty of good lines and choice moments in the first part, while the second was gritty and gripping. They each work well enough on their own terms, if not really as a cohesive whole.
Fallon is a great heroine, a multi-faceted woman who’s tough yet vulnerable, strong yet possessing a softer side even she doesn’t know about. There are some key moments, like when she faces down a young punk taking advantage of a teenage girl, where she really kicks butt. Wade is a less interesting character next to her. He’s a little bland and doesn’t come to life the same way Fallon does. But they’re both likable people, so the relationship works well enough.
This is a Brava release, but I have to admit I didn’t find it to be as sexy as I expected. While the sex scenes are more explicit and plentiful than the usual romance, they are also relatively short. This is particularly true of the first few, which are over before they can generate much steam. While the sex scenes are well written, I only wish they had been developed more so the reader could get more of an idea of what’s happening in the characters’ minds at these moments and savor the experience with them. The first time Wade and Fallon have sex is kind of baffling. She’s been shot, and there are two goons standing in the doorway watching them. Would anyone really get turned on in those circumstances? (It also makes it really annoying every time Wade refers to this encounter as the first time they “made love.” I don’t know what they were doing, but love didn’t have anything to do with it.) If the scene had been better developed, allowing the reader to feel that the characters are caught up in these intense feelings at that moment, it might have been believable. Instead, it was kind of odd.
This was my main problem with the book, although the author’s breezy and light style of writing is occasionally a little too light. The story often moves so quickly, zipping past moments that could have been expanded or developed more, that it isn’t as effective as it could have been. There are plenty of good moments that do stick, but also ones that are over so quickly it seems like the story has moved on without the reader.
While Kelley’s debut needed a dash more polish and development, overall I did like the book, so I’m giving it a somewhat marginal recommendation especially since gets better as it goes along. The later sex scenes are better than the first few, and the story improves with the introduction of more secondary characters near the middle. The author has an engaging voice that comes through in her writing, and while it would be nice if she blended them better, she shows she can pull off both humor and suspense. Not everything in Southern Comfort works, but it’s a respectable enough start that the author will hopefully build upon. I look forward to her next book.