Cash Plays (Seven of Spades #3) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In this game, the stakes are life or death.

The Seven of Spades is back with a vengeance — the vigilante serial killer has resumed their murderous crusade, eluding the police at every turn. But a bloodthirsty killer isn’t the only threat facing Sin City. A devious saboteur is wreaking havoc in Las Vegas’s criminal underworld, and the entire city seems to be barreling toward an all-out gang war.

As Detective Levi Abrams is pushed ever closer to his breaking point, his control over his dangerous rage slips further every day. His relationship with PI Dominic Russo should be a source of comfort, but Dominic is secretly locked in his own downward spiral, confronting a nightmare he can’t bear to reveal.

Las Vegas is floundering. Levi and Dominic’s bond is cracking along the seams. And the Seven of Spades is still playing to win. How many bad hands can Levi and Dominic survive before it’s game over?

Rating: A-

Cash Plays is the middle book of a five book series, and it’s a game-changer.  Cordelia Kingsbridge amps up the tension and the angst to the max in terms of the hunt for the dangerous, enigmatic serial killer, the Seven of Spades, and also within the relationship between our two central characters, homicide detective Levi Abrams, and PI Dominic Russo.  The killer is clever, calculating and bit-by-bit chipping away at Levi’s sanity, forcing him to confront the demons he’s tried to bury for years and those that are nearer the surface, pushing him to doubt himself at every turn and bringing him closer and closer to the edge.  Dominic, meanwhile, is facing demons of his own which are bleeding away his self-esteem and eroding his sense of self; by the end of Cash Plays, both Levi and Dominic are in very dark places and readers are left wondering how they will ever find their way out of the shadows.  And back to each other.

When the man believed to be the serial killer the Seven of Spades committed suicide at the end of Kill Game,  the case was closed, leaving Levi angry and frustrated, because he knew that they’d got the wrong man and that the real killer was still at large.  He’d begun to investigate further on his own time despite being warned to stay away, but at the end of Trick Roller, the Seven of Spades made their presence known in spectacular fashion and Levi was proven right.  The case is re-opened, but it’s still maddeningly dead-ended as there are no new leads to follow and it seems as though the SoS will never be caught.  Levi’s feelings of helplessness are sparking old, traumatic memories that only intensify his current frustration with the case; he’s never been the most popular guy on the team, but thanks to the way the SoS has singled him out, many of his colleagues are viewing him with suspicion, and Levi’s own erratic behaviour is serving to alienate them from him further.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough – the profile of the SoS put together by the FBI not only describes the killer to a T – it fits Levi perfectly as well.

Levi’s partner, Dominic Russo, is now a fully-licensed private investigator and has been taken on one of Las Vegas’ most prestigious firms.  He’s working on a missing persons’ case; Jessica Miller, a bright, smart young woman suddenly dropped out of college and was – so her parents believe – pressured into running away by her boyfriend.  Dominic’s inquiries lead him to discover that the boyfriend is every bit as unsavoury as Jessica’s parents believe, and that she is practically a prisoner, watched 24/7 by armed criminals and stuck in a large, walled compound it’s going to be difficult to break her out of.  No way is Dominic going to leave her there  – but it turns out the risks associated with the case are even higher than he’d imagined, and he’s going to be pushed to his limits… and maybe beyond.

An increasingly fraught Levi and his colleagues are also faced with an impending turf war between the three gangs who operate in the area – and it doesn’t take Levi very long to suspect that they’re being set up; that someone is pulling strings and setting gang against gang in an escalating series of incidents designed to cause maximum damage and instil fear into the local population.

As in the previous books, it gradually becomes apparent that Levi’s and Dominic’s seemingly diverse cases are related, and the author pulls her story threads together in an incredibly skilful – and ultimately devastating – manner  I don’t want to go into detail because readers need to be able to savour the tight, complex plotting for themselves, but I do want to say how impressed I’ve been with the way Ms. Kingsbridge explores the mentality of addiction in these stories.  Her background in social work perhaps makes her expertise in this area unsurprising, but even so, she is able to bring home to the reader exactly what is driving Dominic; his motivations and thought-processes, in a precise way that is easy to understand without trivialising the very serious nature of what he’s going through.

Her treatment of Levi’s issues and deep-seated insecurities is similarly well done and in both cases the men’s problems feel real and properly related to their personalities; Levi suffered a severe trauma in his twenties which ultimately prompted him become a cop and it’s clearly something that haunts him and continues to inform many of his decisions and actions.

Cash Plays is a difficult book to read at times, simply because of what Levi and Dominic go through, but I want to emphasise that this is no “let’s torture the heroes because I can”, hurt/comfort trope-y sort of book.  The emotional instability and pain both men experience in this story doesn’t just appear from nowhere; it’s firmly rooted in who they are, and the fact that the rest of the plot doesn’t just stop while they indulge in a bit of navel-gazing makes the story and the characters feel that much more real.  The stakes are high in terms of the story, too, with rival gangs starting to tear Las Vegas apart and Dominic’s need to rescue the young woman from an abusive situation; there’s no time to take a breath, and both men are being pushed to breaking point.

I have to make quick mention of Stanton Barclay, Levi’s ex, who plays a small but significant role here.  He and Levi split in Kill Game when it became clear to Levi that they wanted very different things from life; it’s equally clear that Stanton still loves Levi but has accepted his decision to leave.  In the hands of a lesser author, Stanton could have become a whiny or evil ex type, which I always think is a bad move, as it causes the reader to wonder why the hero was with him in the first place.  Instead, Ms. Kingsbridge makes Stanton a sympathetic character, and there’s a wonderful scene near the end where Levi goes to see him to apologise (for the breakup and other things that happen during the course of the book) that is so emotionally open and beautifully written that it brought a lump to my throat.

Cash Plays is another thrilling, engrossing instalment in the Seven of Spades series; the ante is upped to the nth degree, emotions and tensions run incredibly high and you’ll very likely feel emotionally drained after you finish it.  The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, but fortunately you can jump straight into book four, One-Eyed Royals, which promises to be every bit as much of an emotional rollercoaster ride as this one.

 

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Trick Roller (Seven of Spades #2) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s the height of summer in Las Vegas. Everyone believes the serial killer Seven of Spades is dead—except Levi Abrams and Dominic Russo—and it’s back to business as usual. For Levi, that means investigating a suspicious overdose at the Mirage that looks like the work of a high-class call girl, while Dominic pursues a tough internship with a local private investigator. The one bright spot for both of them is their blossoming relationship.

But things aren’t so simple. Soon Levi is sucked into a dangerous web of secrets and lies, even as his obsession with the Seven of Spades intensifies. Dominic knows that Levi isn’t crazy. He knows the Seven of Spades is still out there, and he’ll do anything to prove it. But Dominic has his own demons to battle, and he may be fighting a losing war.

One thing is certain: the Seven of Spades holds all the cards. It won’t be long before they show their hand.

Rating: B+

I pretty much inhaled the first four books in Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series over a  couple of days; the series has been recommended to me several times and I managed to grab an ARC of the fourth book which finally galvanized me into getting my arse into gear to read the others!  (My review of book one, Kill Game, is HERE). It’s a series with an overarching story so the books must be read in order, and while that plotline – concerning the chillingly effective serial killer nicknamed the Seven of Spades because they always leave a seven of spades playing card on their victims – takes a bit of a back seat in this second book, it’s nonetheless bubbling away quite steadily in the background.

Trick Roller focuses strongly on developing the relationship between our two leads – homicide detective Levi Abrams and Dominic Russo, a former army Ranger, who works as a bounty hunter (sorry – bail enforcement agent!) by day and a barman by night – but it also contains a well-executed mystery plot which once again leads to Levi and Dominic working together as their two seemingly different cases converge.  This time, Levi and his partner, Martine, are called to investigate the murder of a doctor who is in Vegas with colleagues for a major medical conference.  Given that the man was well known for making use of hired company, their initial thoughts are that he was the target of a trick roller, a prostitute who drugged him and then stole from him.  But after they track down the woman in question, that scenario seems highly unlikely – she came from a very high-end escort agency and certainly wouldn’t have needed to commit robbery.  Once Levi and Martine have interviewed her, they’re both pretty sure she’s innocent – until a search team finds a stash of Rohypnol in her house that she insists doesn’t belong to her.

Meanwhile, Dominic has begun working towards acquiring his Private Investigator’s license and is starting out small with the sort of ‘bread-and-butter’ case often taken on by the prestigious firm he’s interning with.  The client is sure her husband is having an affair and wants proof, which shouldn’t be too hard to obtain – until the husband leads Dominic and his partner to a casino. Dominic, a compulsive gambler, has been on the wagon for two years, but the craving to give in and start gambling is so incredibly strong… he manages to fight it off and then calls the first person who comes to mind – Levi.  Their conversation is honest and one they need to have; it highlights the growing bond between them, and it speaks volumes that Dominic is prepared to put his need for help above his pride and that he wants Levi to be the one to offer that help.

But Levi is struggling with demons of his own. At the end of Kill Game, the Seven of Spades case was closed after the main suspect (at the time) was caught and subsequently committed suicide.  Levi and Dominic know he wasn’t the guy, but Levi’s boss has warned him to steer clear and move on – yet he can’t.  He knows it’s only a matter of time before the killer strikes again, and he is using every minute of his spare time to pursue his own investigation on the quiet, without even telling Dominic, with whom he’s been in a relationship for three months. Levi is a storm of intriguing contradictions, cool on the outside and boiling hot within, aggressive as fuck in certain situations and painfully shy in others, the sort of guy who projects cold aloofness, but has a volcanic temper he can barely keep a lid on. His control has been slipping ever since he was forced to kill a suspect holding a child as hostage several months earlier, and his frustration over the Seven of Spades case has made things worse.  He’s become obsessive, even going so far as to create a kind of shrine dedicated to everything he knows and can find out about the elusive killer.

Not only are the individual investigations in these stories captivating and exciting in their own right, Levi and Dominic are two of the most charismatic, compelling characters I’ve read about in quite some time.  As a couple they’re fabulous together; their chemistry is off the charts, and it’s clear they both care a great deal for one another.  But both are terribly, terribly flawed; Levi has serious anger-management issues he finds difficult to deal with at the best of times, and his feelings of frustration and impotence when it comes to the Seven of Spades case are making him evenly more tightly wound than usual – and Dominic is a compulsive gambler who, it becomes clear, hasn’t quite got as much of a handle on things as he thinks he has.

Trick Roller is a taughtly-written, sexy, gritty romantic thriller, and Ms. Kingsbridge draws her seemingly disparate plotlines together with incredible skill while also spending a good deal of time developing the central characters and their relationship.  I never felt as though one element of the story had been sacrificed for the sake of the other, and that can be a difficult balance to achieve.  The novel is perhaps not quite as full of heart-pounding action as Kill Game, but that feels right, a little like some calm before the storm that’s unleashed at the end of the book to be carried into the next.  The final chapters are simply brilliant – a nail-biting courtroom battle in which a prosecutor attempts to tear Levi apart on the witness stand, followed by the Seven of Spades making their presence felt in no uncertain terms, vindicating Levi, but also making it clear that anyone who messes with him won’t live long to regret it.

All bets are off.  Indeed.

The Protector (Games People Play #4) by HelenKay Dimon (audiobook) – Narrated by Jeremy York

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Salvation, Pennsylvania. The commune located in the small town was advertised as a modern Utopia: a place to live, share, and learn with other like-minded young people. Cate Pendleton’s sister was one of them. Now she’s dead – and Cate won’t rest until she finds out who killed her. Stonewalled at every turn, she approaches a DC Fixer for help and ends up with Damon Knox, a mysterious man with a secretive past. But Cate soon discovers that she not only needs Damon, she wants him, which isn’t good – for the attraction brewing between them will only lead to complications that can turn into danger….

Damon has tried to erase the hellish memories and the evil that happened in Salvation ever since he left a long time ago. Still, he can’t turn his back on Cate. As Damon works with Cate to uncover her sister’s killer, he finds himself drawn to her more and more. But how will she feel about him when she learns about his connection to the place?

Joining forces to uncover the truth, they must stay one step ahead of a cunning killer who’s bent on not being exposed.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B-

The Protector is the fourth full-length novel in HelenKay Dimon’s series of romantic suspense tales, Games People Play. The other three aren’t available in audio (yet?) but fortunately, while there are some characters who recur in each book, each story is self-contained, so there’s no need to be familiar with the earlier instalments in order to be able to follow this one. It might help to have a rough idea of the premise – the hero of each story is a member of a mysterious group that operates under the radar (and sometimes outside the law) in order to fix the seemingly unfixable – but the author includes enough basic information about the enigmatic Wren and his organisation for the newbie to be able to work it out easily enough. Jeremy York is another of those narrators I’ve been aware of for some time but haven’t yet listened to, so as I’ve read some of the earlier books, this seemed like a good opportunity to give him a try.

Cate Pendleton has been trying for years to find the truth about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death at a place known as Salvation, a commune in South Pennsylvania that advertises itself as the ideal place to live, work, share and learn among other like-minded people. But Cate suspects it to be something more sinister, and past events involving the place would seem to bear that out. Around fourteen years earlier, an FBI investigation into Salvation ended in violence, and Cate is convinced the place is more akin to a cult than a harmless Utopian community. Having come to dead end after dead end, Cate has only one place left to turn for help in her search for the truth about her sister, and reaches out to Wren in the hope that he’ll be able to help her to get the answers she’s looking for.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Kill Game (Seven of Spades #1) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Homicide detective Levi Abrams is barely holding his life together. He’s reeling from the fallout of a fatal shooting, and his relationship with his boyfriend is crumbling. The last thing he’s prepared for is a serial killer stalking the streets of Las Vegas. Or how he keeps getting thrown into the path of annoyingly charming bounty hunter Dominic Russo.

Dominic likes his life free of complications. That means no tangling with cops — especially prickly, uptight detectives. But when he stumbles across one of the Seven of Spades’s horrifying crime scenes, he can’t let go, despite Levi’s warnings to stay away.

The Seven of Spades is ruthless and always two moves ahead. Worst of all, they’ve taken a dangerously personal interest in Levi and Dominic. Forced to trust each other, the two men race to discover the killer’s identity, revealing hidden truths along the way and sparking a bond neither man expected. But that may not be enough to protect them.

This killer likes to play games, and the deck is not stacked in Levi and Dominic’s favor.

Rating: A-

Well. It’s not often I finish a book and find I’ve been holding my breath as I neared the end, but Kill Game was one of those books.

First in Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series, Kill Game jumps right into the action as we meet Detective Levi Abrams of the Las Vegas PD and his partner, Martine Valcourt, at a murder scene.  Philip Dreyer, a wealthy investment/wealth management advisor has been killed at his desk; there’s no sign of a struggle, his throat has been slit and a playing card – the seven of spades – is tucked into his jacket pocket.  This is the second victim to have been killed in this manner, with a  seven of spades card found on the body; Levi and Martine are pretty sure they have a serial killer on their hands.

Bounty Hunter – Bail Enforcement Agent – Dominic Russo becomes inadvertently involved in the case when one of the people he’s been hired to bring in turns out to be the killer’s next victim.  Levi and Dominic have run into each other a few times; Levi is usually pretty off-hand with Dominic, seeing him as a nuisance and someone who just gets in the way of the police doing their job.  He brushes Dominic off, but Dominic can’t let it go, especially after he finds a seven of spades card stuck under one of the wipers on the windscreen of his car.

Ms. Kingsbridge has created a deliciously taught thriller and two very appealing, charismatic protagonists in Kill Game, and I’m going to be jumping straight into the next book, Trick Roller as soon as I’ve finished typing! Levi is elegant and smoothly controlled on the surface, but a seething mass of anger on the inside; he has recently been involved in an OIS (Officer Involved Shooting) wherein he killed a man who was using a child as a hostage and keeps putting off his counselling sessions, and he’s also having issues with his long-term boyfriend, who wants to get married and settle down, and who is keen to persuade Levi into a change of career.  Dominic is an imposing, six-four, muscle-bound ex-army ranger with a serious gambling addiction (so yes, perhaps Las Vegas isn’t the best place for him, but he’s got good reasons for remaining there) who fights that addiction every day.  He works at a local LGBT club as a barman in the evenings as well as having a day job, and his ‘romantic’ life consists mostly of one-night hook-ups, and he’s content with that.  Until he realises that, at thirty-one, hooking up with guys in their early twenties is …well, a bit sad, and that maybe it’s time to start thinking about his future.

This is a series in which there’s an overarching plot running through all five books, so they have to be read in order – which will be no hardship if they’re all as good as this one.  The mysterious killer is cool, disciplined and clever, with reasoning that is almost sympathetic – in a twisted kind of way – and really knows what buttons to push.  And to make the stakes even higher and more personal, for some reason, they’ve latched on to Levi – he’s the one they call, he’s the one they seem to be prepared to go to any lengths to protect and even help; this is no opportunist and it’s clear that whoever it is is going to lead our heroes a very merry dance before all’s said and done.

Kill Game is an extremely well-done and compelling procedural with just a whiff of romance and a truckload of sexual chemistry between two attractive but deeply flawed principals.  Neither Levi nor Dominic is in the right place to embark on a new relationship, and I appreciated that they both recognised that and were in agreement about the need to take things slowly. (Well, mostly 😉 )

If you enjoy tightly-plotted procedurals/romantic suspense novels then I’d definitely recommend Kill Game with one proviso – be prepared to need to gobble up all the books in quick succession.  At time of writing, book four is imminent, with book five due in December.

Cut and Run (Cut and Run #1) by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux (audiobook) – Narrated by Sawyer Allerde

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A series of murders in New York City has stymied the police and FBI alike, and they suspect the culprit is a single killer sending an indecipherable message. But when the two federal agents assigned to the investigation are taken out, the FBI takes a more personal interest in the case.

Special Agent Ty Grady is pulled out of undercover work after his case blows up in his face. He’s cocky, abrasive, and indisputably the best at what he does. But when he’s paired with Special Agent Zane Garrett, it’s hate at first sight. Garrett is the perfect image of an agent: serious, sober, and focused, which makes their partnership a classic cliché: total opposites, good cop – bad cop, the odd couple. They both know immediately that their partnership will pose more of an obstacle than the lack of evidence left by the murderer.

Practically before their special assignment starts, the murderer strikes again – this time at them. Now on the run, trying to track down a man who has focused on killing his pursuers, Grady and Garrett will have to figure out how to work together before they become two more notches in the murderer’s knife.

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – B-

I’m on a bit of an m/m romantic suspense kick at the moment, so this first book in the Cut and Run series seemed like a good fit. There are nine books in all – the first four co-written by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux, and the last five by Abigail Roux solo when Ms. Urban decided to stop writing. Cut and Run was originally published in 2008 (with the audio following in 2010) and I suspect it was a bit of a trailblazer in the genre – it certainly seems that way from reading reviews and seeing how many people loved the series and the central characters.

The whole series is available in audio with several different narrators; here it’s Sawyer Allerde (the others are Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding) who I’ve listened to once before, and he does a decent job overall, in spite of some pacing issues and pretty poor female voices (luckily, there aren’t too many women in the book so it’s not too great a problem.)

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Imperial Stout (Trouble Brewing #1) by Layla Reyne (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

You can download this title from Audible via Amazon

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him, and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew, and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go – and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive – to get everyone out alive.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – C

I’ve been looking forward to this latest book from Layla Reyne for months. I loved her Agents Irish and Whiskey series of fast-paced, steamy romantic suspense novels, and was over the moon when she announced that she’d be writing a spin-off series featuring two of the major secondary characters from those books – Special Agent Cameron Byrne, one of the FBI’s top K&R (kidnap and rescue) specialists and Assistant US Attorney Nic Price. Imperial Stout is book one in the Trouble Brewing series (as well as his day job as a legal eagle, Nic co-owns a craft brewery) and I was looking forward to more of the same; a fast-paced, tightly plotted and complex story and two fully rounded, engaging characters I could root for. Sadly, however, Imperial Stout doesn’t deliver on any of those things. There’s an attempt to follow a similar pattern as the I&W books, in that there’s one thread that looks set to run through the whole series, accompanied by a self-contained plot that is wrapped up by the end of each book; but while the long-running thread is certainly intriguing, the self-contained plot is pretty lacklustre, the villain is a caricature and the large suspensions of disbelief required on the part of the listener in order to make it work are just too much.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Few Good Fish (Fish Out of Water #3) by Amy Lane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A tomcat, a psychopath, and a psychic walk into the desert to rescue the men they love…. Can everybody make it out with their skin intact?

PI Jackson Rivers and Defense Attorney Ellery Cramer have barely recovered from last November, when stopping a serial killer nearly destroyed Jackson in both body and spirit.

But their previous investigation poked a new danger with a stick, forcing Jackson and Ellery to leave town so they can meet the snake in its den.

Jackson Rivers grew up with the mean streets as a classroom and he learned a long time ago not to give a damn about his own life. But he gets a whole new education when the enemy takes Ellery. The man who pulled his shattered pieces from darkness and stitched them back together again is in trouble, and Jackson’s only chance to save him rests in the hands of fragile allies he barely knows.

It’s going to take a little bit of luck to get these Few Good Fish out alive!

Rating: B+

Amy Lane’s Fish Out of Water has quickly become one of my favourite romantic suspense series, mostly because I adore the two central characters, but also because the books are gritty, tightly plotted, sexy thrillers with intriguing storylines, plenty of snark and a large helping of angst.  It’s like they were written just for me 😛  A Few Good Fish is the third instalment and if you pick it up without having read Fish Out of Water and Red Fish, Dead Fish, you’re likely to be a bit confused.  The books need to be read in order as there are overarching plotlines that reach a climax here, and while there’s some backstory given, readers will get far more out of A Few Good Fish if they’re familiar with the Story So Far.  Plus, the romance between hard-boiled PI Jackson Rivers and buttoned-up defence attorney Ellery Cramer begins in book one, and it’s important to understand where they’ve come from in order to fully appreciate where their relationship is now.

Spoilers ahead for the first two books.

When, in Fish Out of Water, Jackson Rivers’ brother, Kaden, is framed for the murder of a police officer, Jackson reaches out to defence attorney Ellery Cramer, insisting he’s Kaden’s best chance of beating a murder charge.  Jackson works as the PI for the defence firm where Ellery is the hot-shot up-and-comer, and while he makes no bones about the fact he thinks Ellery has a stick up his ass, he also knows the guy is cool under pressure, can take apart a witness like nobody else and that he’ll get the job done.  As the pair investigates and digs deep, they uncover links to police corruption going back years – back, in fact, to the time when Jackson, then a rookie cop, was shot and almost killed because he was a part of an investigation into that corruption.  Working together so closely also allows them to explore the attraction building between them; their sexual chemistry is off-the-charts, and Ms. Lane also adds a strong emotional dimension to their relationship, making it clear from the start that what’s between these two is much more than no-strings stress relief.

Although there’s a satisfactory conclusion to the main plotline, there are loose ends left over for Red Fish, Dead Fish, when a crazed killer – Tim Owens – who was part of the police corruption ring, brings things up close and personal for Jackson in a truly horrifying way.  It emerges that Owens is ex-military, and was part of some sort of secret program designed to train already violent, unstable men to become sadistic, psychopathic killers – and that Owens was just one of many put through it.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.