Romance is a dangerous game, especially when you fall for a man who kills for a living.
Strays tells the story of Jackie, an aspiring artist who moves to a new town with her best friend, Tyler. Her stark introduction to the town comes at the end of a shift at work, when she stumbles over some local bikies roughing up a double-crossing rat.
Tyler’s skills as a hacker soon have him in demand, and Jackie is horrified when he takes up with the same biker group, the Red Kings. As he begins spending more time with the group, she slowly starts to join them so she can hang out with him and, in turn, the other bikies.
Her love story, for this is a romance novel above all else, is slow to blossom. Emma Kendrick instead preferring to build a world around her characters, avoiding the trap of many other romance writers who stick explicitly to one storyline, and one storyline alone.
As Jackie spends more time with the bikers, it’s their muscle man Dean, who she falls for. Given her disgust for his behaviour in the opening chapter, it’s an odd jump, but the pair hook up one night and from then on neither can keep the other off their mind.
“They had been playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse since their previous bedroom encounter. Dean was too proud to admit he wanted Jackie again, and she was too afraid of him to do the same. But now that those admissions were out of the way and he was touching her again, she couldn’t wait for round two.”
While there are plenty of positives to the story, there are negatives too. The bikers have formed one of the nicest, friendliest groups around. Other than their regular parties and occasional spats with other groups, they’re kind and extremely well spoken, happily inviting Jackie into their midst. They only real hint at Dean’s reputation is a quick scene where he’s burying bodies, which is interrupted with a caring call to his mum.
A lot of this probably stems from Kendrick trying to write about a world she’s not familiar with, and getting inside the male mind isn’t as easy as it looks. After Dean first sleeps with Jackie, he’s given the opportunity to sleep with another woman but finds the idea oddly unpleasant.
“Her small hands had traveled down his body, but they felt nothing like Jackie’s had the previous night. It just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t what his dick was currently craving.”
Over time the pair come closer and closer, which leads Dean to uncharted territory. As his mind becomes preoccupied with his new partner, it strays from his work which makes Jackie unpopular with the head honcho, and sets up obstacles for the remainder of the book.
“Complimenting the girl on her painting was his way of being nice, when in truth he didn’t know shit about art. She could have been painting like a third grader for all he knew.”
This is one of the most well-rounded romance novels to have been sent to Striking 13, with some story developments outside the main plot line that push it forward. However, it feels like a Disneyfied look at a biker group which overall makes the story less believable. A stronger, more foul-mouthed, abusive and violent crew would have helped to give more realism to the tale, making it more immersive and enjoyable, but other parts of the story, like Jackie’s sideline in the diner, help give great depth.