Rachel Grant is one of my favourite authors of romantic suspense (if not THE favourite) and I was thrilled when she announced she’d be continuing her long-running Evidence series following the winding up of her excellent Flashpoint trilogy. Tainted Evidence is the tenth Evidence book, and the author shows no sign of running out of steam, presenting just the sort of high-stakes, clever plot I’ve come to expect together with interesting, complex characters that are easy to root for, and a number of tense, edge-of-the-seat storylines. One of the things I always enjoy about Ms. Grant’s books is their topicality – I recall some of the scenarios in the Flashpoint books being all-too-scarily plausible for example – and that is definitely the case here, as the suspense plot deals with some sensitive and very current topics about things happening in America today. I know that not everyone is up for a dose of real-life politics in their romance novels, so I’ll say right now that while I do recommend the book, some readers may find certain aspects of it cut a little close to the bone.
Museologist Maddie Foster has been employed to examine over two hundred sets of remains housed at the mansion – formerly a private museum – of the Kocher family in Troutdale, Oregon. Almost a century earlier, Otto Kocher had looted hundreds of ancient and indigenous graves, stealing both funerary objects and human remains, and circumvented the law about displaying the remains by housing them in underground vaults. But now the state has finally ordered the museum’s closure and the disgruntled family can’t sell the house until all the remains have been catalogued prior to repatriation. When the book opens, Maddie is on her first day of at least ten in the musty basement of the house – and as if being cooped up for days underground weren’t bad enough, Otto’s grandson Toby, who is – ostensibly – acting as a security guard, is creeping her out. He stands too close, repeatedly draws attention to the gun and taser he wears, obviously in an attempt to intimidate her, and while she hates admitting it, even to herself, Maddie IS intimidated. On her lunch break, she calls her best friend, Trina Sorensen (Witholding Evidence), who is now happily married to Keith Hatcher, CEO of Raptor, a high-end private security and military training company. A few weeks earlier, Trina had mentioned that one of Keith’s best friends, Josh Warner, was moving to Portland and tried to set them up, but Maddie had just gone through a break-up and wasn’t interested in dating anyone. Now, however, she needs someone to get Kocher to back off, and she asks Trina if maybe Josh would be able to show up and pretend to be her boyfriend for an hour.
Josh Warner grew up in Oregon, and, following his stint in the Navy, has been working for Raptor out of their DC office for the past five years. When he received news that his brother was being sent to prison, Josh knew he needed to get home to look after his seventeen-year-old niece, Ava, a troubled young woman with anxiety and abandonment issues. He’s now Ava’s legal guardian and is determined to do his absolute best to provide the safe, loving environment she needs. But between his responsibilities to Ava, to Raptor and his friend and former comrade Owen, whom Josh has been helping to get back on his feet following injury and addiction, Josh has no time for a personal life – which is a real bummer, because the minute he sets eyes on Maddie he feels an instant pull of attraction… and knows it’s mutual.
Maddie and Josh have terrific chemistry and move very quickly from that initial attraction to heated making out, but both agree that the timing is bad and that they should put the idea of anything more than friendship onto the back burner. The trouble is that it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and I rather liked what became their running gag about going on ‘not-dates’ and having a ‘not-relationship’, because it was clear as day to them and everyone around them that they were pretty far gone for each other even after just a few days. That’s not to say that everything is plain sailing for them; the conflict in the romance comes as the result of a bad judgment call and takes considerable effort to undo.
The suspense plot is, as I’ve said, fast-paced and complex, and the author tackles a number of issues that are hugely relevant all the time, but are perhaps even more so at the present moment. Maddie’s research leads her to uncover a plot by a group of white supremacists to debunk years of scientific exploration and theory as part of a larger scheme to … well, no spoilers, but it’s a doozie; and Josh comes up with a plan to train groups of volunteers to peaceably protect those wishing to protest the planned rallies by the neo-Nazi White Patriot group. The author packs a lot of hot topics into the story – political corruption, media perception, doxing, tribal rights, a woman’s right to choose, to name but a few – and weaves them in skilfully, but even though my personal views align pretty closely with hers, there is a degree of heavy-handedness here which I haven’t felt in her other books. I’m always impressed with the amount of fascinating information Ms. Grant imparts and love it when I can learn new things while I’m being solidly entertained, but some of the hammering home here lacks her usual subtlety.
Josh and Maddie are engaging characters in their thirties who are confident in their abilities and know who they are and what they want. Josh is one of those heroes with a protective streak a mile wide, something Maddie susses out right away, which prompts her to wonder who takes care of him while he’s so busy looking out for everyone else. Maddie is determined and resourceful, and I particularly enjoyed her interactions with Ava, being open with her but also setting clear boundaries. The attraction between Josh and Maddie comes to a boil quickly, but as the book progresses, it becomes clear they really are a very good fit and that they’re prepared put in the work needed to move forward together.
Tainted Evidence is a great addition to the excellent Evidence series, an enthralling, cleverly-plotted, hard-to-put-down novel with a satisfying balance of steamy moments and nail-biting tension. I enjoyed it, and the reservations I’ve expressed don’t prevent me from giving it a strong recommendation.