cask strengthRating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

It’s been about five months since FBI agents Aidan Talley and Jamie Walker became partners. In that time, they have become one of the top teams for closing cases. The men have also continued their secret affair, though on Aidan’s insistence they are keeping it casual. Jamie knows he has fallen for Aidan, but Aidan still bears scars from the loss of his husband, Gabe, and is wary about giving up his heart again. But knowing that Aidan is seeing other people and keeping him at a distance is a struggle for Jamie.

The men are also continuing their hunt for the terrorist Renaud following their case in Galveston. They are also still looking into the hit and run that killed Gabe, along with Aidan’s FBI partner. What Aidan still doesn’t know, however, is that these two cases are connected. Jamie wants to come clean with Aidan, but their boss has made it clear that she wants to hold off until they have more information. And Jamie understands, feeling like he wants to have the complete picture of what is happening before he shatters Aidan with the news that Gabe seemed to be involved with something shady. But Jamie also knows that learning the truth is going to throw a wrench in the already fragile relationship between him and Aidan.

Things get a bit of a respite when Aidan and Jamie are put on a new case. There is sports gambling and identity theft scheme going on that involves a college basketball team. With Jamie’s background as a star player, he is the perfect person to go undercover to try to learn who is behind the crime ring and to stop it. Jamie is going to pose as the college’s new assistant coach with Aidan as his agent as they attempt to infiltrate the ring. The case brings up a lot of old wounds for Jamie as his break from basketball was a difficult one, between fears of being outed and the ending of his relationship with Derrick. At the same time, basketball is his first love, and immersing himself in the sport again brings out lots of positive memories.

With the investigation underway, things continue to be stressful. Aidan and Jamie have to figure out if they can really keep things casual, or if Aidan can be brave enough to take a chance on love with Jamie. Jamie has to face hard choices about his future and whether returning to the sport he loves is something to consider. The gambling and identity theft investigation heats up and threatens their lives and their safety. The investigation into Renaud  brings shocking revelations. And Jamie still hasn’t told Aidan the full story about the connections with Gabe. Even as Jamie and Aidan are growing closer, their relationship and their lives hang in the balance.

Cask Strength is the second book in Layla Reyne’s excellent Agents Irish and Whiskey series. It is once again a full throttle story that combines a suspense and investigation plot with a great romance. As you can see from my lengthy summary above, this isn’t a book that suffers from the often problematic “middle of a trilogy” syndrome. Instead, this story continues the excitement, the romance, and the thrills from the first book and really moves the overall series arc forward in interesting ways.

There are a few different conflicts going on here. The first one we encounter is the relationship end. We can see right away the passion and intensity between the men as they have a super hot hookup. And we know how strongly Jamie feels for Aidan. But Aidan is also forcing himself to hold back. He has gotten over the idea that he is betraying Gabe and that he is no good for Jamie. But he still fears the heartbreak that can come from losing someone else he loves, so he is determined to keep it casual, including dating other people. So right away we see the tension as Jamie wants Aidan however he can get him, but it also hurts him to have Aidan keep him at a distance, especially after how close the guys got in Galveston. Part of me found Aidan’s reticence here frustrating, especially coming on the heels of his previous back and forth about whether to get involved with Jamie for different reasons. But I think Reyne manages to keep it from dragging on too long, and it is really rewarding seeing these guys ultimately give in to their strong connection.

The other relationship conflict is that Jamie is hiding the breadth of this investigation into the car accident and the connection with Renaud. I am not always a fan of the “big secret” plot, especially when it is the ticking time bomb that carries the conflict. But I think it works here for a couple of reasons. First off, Jamie’s reasoning makes sense. He doesn’t want to come to Aidan with partial information, knowing the truth is going to crush him. Second, their boss Mel is clear that she doesn’t want Jamie disclosing all this to Aidan just yet and several times stops Jamie from telling. So we can understand his reasoning and although the issue lingers in the background of the book, it is far from the only conflict carrying the story.

Aside from the relationship end, we have multiple suspense storylines happening here. Again, Reyne manages to keep things twisty and exciting. There are some surprising reveals and interesting paths things take, both with the basketball case and with the Renaud investigation. I also liked how this case serves to give us a lot more backstory on Jamie, something I felt was missing from the first book. We are on his home turf here and we learn a lot more about his past and get to see him get some closure on a variety of issues.

So I am super excited about this second book and the series overall. If you like romantic suspense, you really need to be reading these books. Jamie and Aidan are great characters, the mysteries are interesting, and the overarching series plot is being well developed over the books. Once again we get resolution to the story within this book, but the series arc continues to develop. We are left with some really exciting revelations and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out in the next story. So I am loving this series and highly recommend it.

P.S. The third book, Barrel Proof, comes out in August.

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