Victoria Dahl is a great storyteller, and her current series (Jackson Girls’ Night Out) that takes place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and follows a group of female friends who find love is some of her best stories yet. The latest novel in the series is Flirting with Disaster, about Deputy US Marshal Tom Duncan and professional artist Isabelle West. Isabelle has skeletons in her closet, ones she doesn’t want revealed to anyone involved in law enforcement, but she’s not very good at hiding it. They meet when Duncan, in town on assignment to protect a local judge who is under threat from the relatives of a man whose case the judge is hearing, stops by to introduce himself and to meet everyone who lives in close proximity to the judge. He can tell two things instantly: 1) Isabelle has secrets and 2) he likes her.
What I find so wonderful about Dahl in this book (and in almost all of her writing) is her ability to create fully-rounded-out characters who somehow seem to fit into each other’s lives in ways that just make sense. These characters are intricate puzzle pieces, and if they weren’t just so, the edges would not perfectly align, the chemistry and that intangible quality that makes two protagonists click for the reader would have that forced quality that too many romance novels have. But that never happens here and that, I think, is because of the level of detail in their lives and personalities that complement one another. Isabelle isn’t just an artist, she’s a very specific type of artist — she is an anatomical painter: “I work on commission for textbooks and medical art companies,” Isabelle tells Tom when he first discovers this about her. He can barely handle it because it pokes at feelings and events Tom would rather not acknowledge. He is vulnerable with her in parallel ways that she is with him, whether or not the two characters ever really know that.
The two do a dance, as Tom discovers on his own what Isabelle is hiding but he can’t bring himself to tell anyone about it, including her. They fall hard and fast, but secrets never stay hidden.
There’s more to say about this book, including the great side plot involving Isabelle’s neighbor and Tom’s partner at work. But I want to end by talking about one particular scene. By this point in the book, a lot has been revealed about Isabelle and she knows that Tom knew about her without ever telling her so. She is confused and angry and possibly facing dire consequences for lying. She doesn’t know anymore if he slept with her because he liked her or because he was digging up information on her. They go into her attic together so she can get something she’s hidden for years but could get her out of those dire consequences, and when they come back down the ladder, they end up having sex there, on the ladder.
It’s hard to describe this scene in any way that does Dahl’s writing justice. Isabelle hates herself for still wanting a man whom she no longer knows if he ever wanted her. The scene is coursing with anger and overwhelming emotion, and it makes it almost impossible to keep reading, though you can’t really stop either. I found myself reading it too fast, almost, trying to process it all but to get through it as quickly as I could. The way Isabelle uses sex to be close to this man she cares deeply for but also to push him away as punishment for how shitty he has been to her, how he doesn’t really seem to get any of it while it is happening, the devastation of the aftermath of that moment as she tells him to leave and never return, the sadness of their goodbyes, it is beautiful, heartbreaking storytelling. Flirting With Disaster is wonderful.