Rating: 4.5 stars
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Miller Sutton has always been good at his job as an FBI agent. He likes the black and white, right and wrong nature of the job. He is finding himself feeling a little adrift lately, however, having trouble separating himself emotionally from his job and the criminals he arrests quite as easily as before. But nothing has prepared him for meeting Danny Butler.
When Danny gets arrested on gun possession charges, it signals the end of Miller’s long hunt to catch the drug lord Roberto Hinestroza. Miller uses all the pressure he can bring to force Danny to testify against Hinestroza, even though Danny is putting his life at risk.
In order to keep Danny alive until the trial, Miller takes on protection duties. Spending all this time with Danny causes those clear lines to which Miller has always clung to blend even more. He begins to see Danny as more than a criminal, but instead as a man who made one bad decision when barely out of his teens that set him up for his life of crime and destroyed his future. Miller doesn’t want to think of Danny as anything other than a bad guy. His ability to do his job depends on being able to keep some distance, to see a clear right and wrong. But being with Danny makes that impossible, especially as Miller begins to find himself attracted to the man.
Miller has never even let himself think about being gay. He has been engaged to his girlfriend Rachel for five years. He has a life mapped out that is everything he should want, but being with Danny makes him realize that is a cover for his true desires. Slowly Miller begins to come to terms with his feelings for Danny, giving in to the lust and passion that is between them. But getting involved with a witness is career suicide. Even if they can keep it a secret, as soon as Danny testifies he will be off to witness protection. Not to mention that Hinestroza has Danny in his sights and is determined not to let him escape. Miller and Danny are both trying to put their pasts behind them and look to the future. But with all their baggage it remains to be seen if it is even possible for them to build a future together.
Shades of Gray was another book that I read early on in my m/m romance life and I was really excited to pick it up again and see how well it holds up to my memories, especially five years after it was published. I seem to be on a bad boy kick lately and was happy to revisit this story of the criminal and the FBI agent who fall in love and must figure out if there is a way for them to ever be together. I am pleased to say that I really enjoyed this one the second (or maybe third or fourth) time around and I still think the story is quite well done.
While there are some thriller elements as Hinestroza and his men begin to circle, and definitely some terrifying moments, this story is largely about the relationship between Miller and Danny and their individual growth. We catch both these men at a crossroads in their lives, a time when they must figure out who they want to be going forward. For Danny the question is whether he is ready to move on from his life of crime, to break free of the hold Hinestroza has on him and build a new life. It would seem to be an easy decision. After all, Danny got lured into this world at just 18 and once he was in, there was no escape. Hinestroza is a monster in many ways, and Danny lives in fear quite a lot of the time. What McKinley does so well is show us how emotionally dependent Danny has become on Hinestroza, how alluring the man can be. As a drug runner Danny has responsibilities, people who count on him, and people who are proud of him — all things he has never had before. It shouldn’t be a life he wants, and a large part of him is eager to be free, but he still has a hard time separating himself from Hinestroza.
How was it possible to loathe and love someone all at the same time? To know they were responsible for the cesspool of your life and yet live for their approval? To know they were capable of the most evil acts and still find the humanity buried underneath? It wasn’t only fear that kept Danny bound to Hinestroza. It would have been less painful if it were. But there was loyalty, too, a fierce need in Danny to make Hinestroza proud. It shamed Danny to know it, but didn’t diminish the yearning.
Added to his complicated relationship with Hinestroza is Danny’s own feelings of his lack of self worth. He sees himself as a bad guy, has so many regrets, and one in particular that continues to haunt his dreams. Danny can’t see how he is worthy of Miller, how is worthy of anything given his past. So Danny struggles with the future he wants with Miller and the fears that he can never move beyond his past, and the worry that he may not actually want to.
Miller faces the same type of struggle as his feelings for Danny finally force him to have some self reflection, to face things he has been hiding. Miller can’t deny his feelings for Danny, and with that thread everything begins to unravel for him — his relationship with Rachel, his future with the FBI, his ideas of the type of man he has always wanted to be. Miller knows he is taking steps beyond the point of no return. And while the part of him that is falling hard for Danny wants to take that leap, the part of him that has always craved control and clear cut lines is terrified. McKinley does such a wonderful job really showing these guys right there on ledge, both looking back at their pasts and the lives they always thought they would live, and just daring to look forward to what might be.
The focus on the character development in this book makes it really fascinating and takes it in a slightly different direction than many other law enforcement thrillers. I did miss a bit of the excitement that normally is part of a story like this. As I said, there are some definite thrilling moments, but the case and the threats from Hinestroza really take a back seat to the emotional side of things. At times the book felt a little drawn out to me. We spend a lot of time developing the relationship between the two men and I think things could have been tightened up through the middle especially.
This story makes liberal use of flashbacks, both to recount specific scenes from the past, as well as to give us a more general idea of the character’s mindset at a previous point in time. For the most part I think these worked fine, though there were times I wished these elements were a little more integrated into the story rather than told in flashbacks. I also had some confusion at times about when these events were taking place. We get a couple of flashbacks to events during the time frame of the book (rather than before the men meet) and so it was somewhat confusing to figure out where they fit in the story timeline.
I also want to mention that this book definitely has a cheating component, as Miller is engaged to Rachel and hiding his relationship with Danny from her for most of the book. Personally I am fine with the way this plays out; Miller is clearly not ready to admit to himself that he is gay, or that what he wants from life has changed, even as he is building his relationship with Danny. So I totally understand why he doesn’t tell Rachel or break things off. It would be something he is in no way emotionally capable of at that point. But I want to mention it as I know some people have an aversion to cheating in any form. I also appreciate that McKinley makes Rachel a pleasant, if bland, woman. It is clearly no fault of hers that this is happening and she is never made into a villain. McKinley manages to walk the line between making Rachel’s plight sympathetic, but not so much so that it ruins our feelings for Danny and Miller’s partnership.
So I really enjoyed Shades of Gray and was pleased that it held up to my memories of the story. The book really delves into the characters of Miller and Danny and I loved watching them grow throughout the story. It is lovely to watch these men finally find themselves and realize what their futures can hold. So a great story and one I’d definitely recommend.