Layla Reyne is an author who can be a bit hit and miss for me, yet something about her writing keeps me coming back to her books. I thoroughly enjoyed her début series, (Agents Irish and Whiskey) but was less enthusiastic about the follow up (Trouble Brewing), even though I liked the characters and most of the plotlines. In fact, there are a lot of things I like about her books – likeable characters, complex plots, snappy dialogue and steamy love scenes, plus Ms. Reyne’s ability to write movie-style action scenes is impressive. All those ingredients were there in her last couple of series, but they didn’t seem to gel quite as well as before.
So I’m really pleased to report that her latest novel, Variable Onset, turned out to be a welcome return to form. It’s a standalone, and is one of her best books to date, containing a well-executed, complex plot and two fully fleshed-out leads whose romance unfolds at a pace that allows the author to properly develop the chemistry between them and really build the UST.
The story revolves around the hunt for a serial killer who has managed to evade capture for decades. The notorious Dr. Fear preys on couples, kidnapping and torturing them, preying on their deepest fears (fire, claustrophobia, drowning…) until the victim begs for death – and then repeats the torture with the second victim. The killer strikes in cycles and goes to ground after each one; now it seems that they may have just become active again and for the first time, the FBI may have a clue as to where this person might be.
Special Agent Lincoln Monroe has been with the FBI for fifteen years, the last ten of them at Quantico, where he teaches courses in forensic science. He loves what he does, but his specialty in forensic genealogy has seen him being pulled into more and more active investigations recently. Field work doesn’t really play to his strengths, but when he learns Dr. Fear appears to have embarked upon his next killing cycle, he immediately accedes to his boss’ request for help on the case. Even more bad news awaits however; the latest couple to have been abducted are the daughter of Lincoln’s former mentor (who was the last agent to have tracked Dr. Fear) and her fiancé. If the killer remains true to form, they have less than forty eight hours to find them alive.
It’s truly a race against time, and Lincoln makes his way to the small town of Apex, Virginia, to meet with the agent he’ll partner in their search for the couple and the killer. In his rush to get underway, Lincoln wasn’t even told the agent’s name – and the last thing he expects is to arrive at his new ‘home’ to find a party in full swing. Even more unexpected, the door is opened by Carter Warren, a former student – the trainee of his nightmares, and of the occasional fantasy – who drags him inside, presses a wedding ring into his hand and immediately introduces him around as Professor Lincoln Polk, the new university librarian – and his new husband.
Carter had a huge crush on Lincoln back when he was at the academy, and thinks his geeky professor has grown even hotter with age. He wanted Lincoln on the case because he’s the Bureau’s resident expert on Dr. Fear and created their cover as a couple in the belief that it might draw them out – but is also determined not to pass up the chance to broaden his working partnership with Lincoln into something more.
The suspense plot is clever, twisty and dark as Lincoln and Carter realise that not only is Dr. Fear killing again, but they’ve got a copycat to deal with as well – whom Dr. Fear seems to want them to catch. Suspects and red herrings abound but clues don’t – and even when one does surface, it seems to offer more questions than answers, and I changed my mind about the identity of the villain several times. Layla Reyne’s research is always impeccable, and her forays into investigative detail are fascinating; plus she does a great job evoking the small college town atmosphere and of fleshing out the secondary characters.
The two leads are strongly characterised and three dimensional, and their slow-burn relationship is full of crackling sexual tension. Lincoln is in his early forties and co-parents his teenaged daughter with his ex-wife (who he counts as one of his best friends). He’s meticulous, dedicated and a bit prickly, his daughter is the most important person in his life and he’s cautious about relationships, having been burned in the past, but can’t deny the pull he feels towards Carter – has felt since the first time they met eight years earlier. Back then, Carter was an aggravating smartarse – and one of Lincoln’s brightest students. Too smart, too cocky, too flirtatious and too damn attractive for his own good, he was exactly the sort of trouble Lincoln didn’t need, and not much of that has changed in the last eight years. Or that’s what Lincoln believes at first. Quickly he comes to see that while Carter is still gorgeous, talented and outgoing, he’s also kind, highly competent and clever, and that they’re a good fit, both professionally and personally.
Variable Onset is a terrific read – a fast-paced, suspenseful mystery combined with a sexy, slow-burn romance that is just right for this particular story. I liked how the fake relationship adds to the romantic tension with both men wondering whether their growing feelings are due to their enforced proximity or something more; it’s not an uncommon trope, but I liked the way it was handled here. I would perhaps have liked to see a little more of Carter and Lincoln’s togetherness at the end of the book, but ultimately I’m happy with the way things played out between them. I did, however have a couple of issues with the plot; one, I found the resolution of the main Dr. Fear plotline a little clumsy and two, I’d have liked a little more time spent on the personal quest that led to Carter’s being in Apex in the first place.
But none of those issues affected my enjoyment of the book one whit. I’m sure Ms. Reyne’s many fans will enjoy it, and if you haven’t read anything of hers before, this would be a great jumping-in point. Carter and Lincoln are engaging, relatable characters, and I’ll be at the front of the queue if Ms. Reyne decides she’s got more of their stories to tell.