Riveting. I picked this one up thinking it was either a second in her newest series or a regular old legal drama with lots of smoldering glances across the courtroom – not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of books (I particularly enjoy them), especially as Taite is adept when it comes to compelling and entertaining legal and courtroom romance plots. Leading the Witness is neither of those – there’s the legal angle, but rather than legal battles and briefs leading to a couple of super hot lawyers between the sheets, this is a pretty intense story revolving around the investigation of a missing child.
Starr Rio is an ambitious Assistant District Attorney with her eye of running for DA when her boss retires. A skilled prosecutor, she’s driven by the need to succeed but also by her conviction to see justice served, even if a few corners are cut. On the opposite side of the courtroom is Catherine Landauer, a smart and relentless defense attorney whose focus is to hold law enforcement and the prosecution accountable to the law. The two women cross paths during a trial where Catherine picks apart a detective’s sloppy work and the politics within the DA’s office have Starr’s rival for the future DA position trying to undermine her. That in itself would have been a great story – but that’s just the first chapter.
When the Mayor’s young daughter goes missing, Starr is pulled from her current case load to focus on the high profile investigation based on her past experience in prosecuting child endangerment cases and her relationships with the detective assigned to the case. When Catherine hears of the potential abduction, her own past rears it’s horribly ugly head and she becomes consumed with finding out more about the investigation.
The character of Catherine Landauer is absolutely fascinating and Taite does a phenomenal job of drawing her out. At first she’s aloof and cold, consciously keeping herself apart from everyone and singularly focused on exposing the incompetence and shoddy work done by the police and prosecution. Whether her clients are guilty is not the key driver – instead she zeroes in on whether the law was followed. When she hears about the mayor’s missing daughter, we begin to see cracks in her icy resolve and an underlying vulnerability that she has spent years shielding begins to emerge. As a young girl, Catherine was abducted and held for a month while the police and prosecutors focused on the wrong leads, missing things right in front of them and allowing the abductor to evade capture. There’s just so much opportunity for overblown angst but Taite handles the backstory a remarkable level of restraint and Catherine’s character resonates as with inner strength and resolve and doesn’t allow her past to overshadow her life. As the story progresses and the parallels with the current case emerge, we see her unraveling but she is self-aware enough to recognize it and makes conscious choices and reaching out to her therapist and Starr- she is not a victim, and she’s more than a survivor – she saves herself. She’s reinvented herself, changing her name and pursuing a law career where she can challenge and push law enforcement not to make the same mistakes as in her case. After the loss and betrayal of her childhood and she refuses to allow her past to overwhelm her present.
With all that going on with Catherine, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a romance to build between her and Starr. Taite manages to set the initial spark during and after the initial trial and there is a believable build between the women, enhanced by the emotionally charged investigation. Perhaps not the smartest thing in the world to be attracted to a potential witness but there’s an undeniable connection and underlying chemistry between the two women. Starr’s empathy and respect for Catherine and Catherine’s own vulnerability and struggle to reach out works and doesn’t feel contrived.
The investigation itself is not the focus of the story and at times I thought it was taking them a long time to chase down leads or get warrants – especially with this being the Mayor’s daughter. At the same time, I was so focused on the unfolding of Catherine’s story and character that it didn’t irk me too much.