Rend (Riven #2) by Roan Parrish

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Matt Argento knows what it feels like to be alone. After a childhood of abandonment, he never imagined someone might love him—much less someone like Rhys Nyland, who has the voice of an angel, the looks of a god, and the worship of his fans.

Matt and Rhys come from different worlds, but when they meet, their chemistry is incendiary. Their romance is unexpected, intense, and forever—at least, that’s what their vows promise. Suddenly, Matt finds himself living a life he never thought possible: safe and secure in the arms of a man who feels like home. But when Rhys leaves to go on tour for his new album, Matt finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past.

When Rhys returns, he finds Matt twisted by doubt. But Rhys loves Matt fiercely, and he’ll go to hell and back to triumph over Matt’s fears. After secrets are revealed and desires are confessed, Rhys and Matt must learn to trust each other if they’re going to make it. That means they have to fall in love all over again—and this time, it really will be forever.

Rating: B+

I haven’t (yet) read Riven, the book that preceded Rend, but I gather than Rhys Nyland was introduced there as a secondary character who was very much in love and happily married.  Rend turns the lens in the opposite direction, focusing on Rhys and his husband Matt, telling the story of how they met and giving readers a glimpse into their lives for the eighteen months since then up until the time when Rhys – a musician, singer and songwriter – goes on tour… and Matt slowly begins to fall apart.

The author pulled me in immediately with the prologue, in which Matt, who is clearly a troubled young man, has gone into a bar hoping to get picked up for the night – to avoid sleeping on the lumpy sofa in the crowded apartment he shares as much as for the sex.  When a large, blond and really handsome guy plonks down next to him, Matt is completely on board with the idea of going home with him – but that’s not what happens.  Instead, the man – who introduces himself as Rhys – takes Matt to a diner and orders a mountain of food which they tuck into while they talk.  At the end of the night, both men have established a surprisingly intense connection and they exchange a passionate kiss, but that’s it – and it’s how things go between them for the next few weeks. They date, they kiss, but nothing more – and Matt starts to worry that perhaps Rhys just isn’t into him that way.  Finally, he gathers up his courage and texts Rhys to ask him if he wants to have sex with him – needless to say, the answer sends Matt rushing back to Rhys’ arms and bed.  After a passionate night, Matt sneaks out – only to have Rhys text him afterwards with one of the most beautiful fictional love letters I’ve ever read. From then on, they’re inseparable.

Then we skip ahead eighteen months to find Matt and Rhys happily married and living in Sleepy Hollow, New York.  Matt is working for a charity that helps young people coming out of the foster system – in which he himself grew up – he’s been growing more and more confident in his role there and he’s deeply in love with his husband… even though he still can’t quite believe that his happiness can possibly last.  Life has taught him not to expect it to.  But right now, the only cloud on the horizon is the fact that Rhys is about to go on tour to promote his first solo album, and although Matt’s rational mind knows Rhys is coming back, his animal brain is telling him the opposite.  Everyone he’s ever loved has left him eventually, and he can’t shake the fear building in him that Rhys is going to do the same.

Matt tries desperately to keep those fears from Rhys, not wishing to spoil what should be a time filled with success and happiness, but the longer Rhys is away, the harder Matt finds it to cope. Plagued by nightmares and dark thoughts that persist in telling him Rhys deserves someone better, Matt can’t sleep, he can’t eat and finds himself returning over and over to the only home he’d ever known, the one he lived in when his mother left him and the last one he’d known before he was shunted into the foster system.  Terrified that Rhys will reject him if he knows the truth about his past, Matt’s reticence to talk and vagueness about how he is and what’s going on communicates itself to Rhys in their phone conversations, leading to the creation of an emotional distance between them that’s never been there before.  Matt is locked in a downward spiral of fear, guilt and desperation – when the tour finishes and Rhys comes home.  But has he come home in time to save their marriage?

Rend is a gut-wrenching read, no question, heart-breaking and deeply emotional but it’s also uplifting, and quite, quite beautiful.  As we witness Matt’s physical and emotional breakdown, we are also given some rather lovely insight into their relationship after that initial meeting in the prologue, which works well as a way to break up the scenes of Matt’s gradual descent into darkness.  Rhys and Matt are total opposites in many ways, both physically – Rhys is a blond Viking where Matt is small and dark – and personality-wise; Rhys is like a blast of sunlight, optimistic, open-hearted and completely and utterly in love with Matt, and I loved that he wouldn’t let Matt give in to his fears and was willing to make it clear over and over that Matt was his and that neither of them were going anywhere. And Matt… well, Matt is sweet, quiet and oh, so broken.  Always looking over his shoulder waiting for life to pull the rug out from under his feet, he learned early on never to ask for anything for himself, and wants only to make Rhys happy.

The author doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing how profoundly Matt’s past has affected him, and he goes to some dark places as his fears begin to overwhelm him; his struggles are portrayed so vividly that it’s easy to understand why he feels and acts as he does.  The characterisation of both leads is excellent – they’re brilliantly drawn and the intensity of their love and longing for one another really does leap off the page. The one niggle I had was that sometimes the relationship seemed a little… unhealthy, with Matt being so dependent on Rhys for his happiness and, well, pretty much everything.

Rend is that rare romance – one that shows what happens after the HEA and that even the most meant-to-be-together of couples has to work at making a go of it. It’s a superbly crafted portrait of a marriage in trouble that encompasses incredible highs and incredible lows, but there’s no question that Matt and Rhys thoroughly deserve their hard-won happy ending.

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A Scandalous Winter Wedding (Matches Made in Scandal #4) by Marguerite Kaye

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Kirstin Blair has spent seven years trying to forget brooding Cameron Dunbar. Now self-made man Cameron needs her help to recover his missing niece, and Kirstin must face the truth: seeing him again sparks the same irresistible attraction that first brought them together! She must decide… Resist, or give in to temptation and risk Cameron discovering everything she’s fought so hard to protect…

Rating: B

The novels in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series have all been linked by the presence of the mysterious Procurer, a woman whose business is matching people with seemingly insoluble problems with someone who stands a very good chance of helping them to resolve them – and that person is usually a woman to whom life has not been kind and who deserves a second chance.

In A Scandalous Winter Wedding, readers are finally given more than a glimpse of the Procurer and we learn more of her backstory as she decides to undertake the search for two missing girls herself rather than finding someone else to take it on.  The two girls – a young lady visiting London with her mother,  and her maid – went missing from their hotel one night and have not been seen since, and the Procurer – otherwise, Miss Kirstin Blair – knows that she has the requisite skills and contacts most likely to ensure a happy outcome.  But that’s not the only reason she finds herself compelled to take on this particular case.  She’s been contacted by the girl’s uncle, Mr. Cameron Dunbar, a wealthy merchant from Glasgow – and the man with whom Kirstin spent one gloriously passionate night six years earlier when she was making her way to London after the death of her father, intending to make a new life for herself.  She has never forgotten either the man or their night together, and, in spite of herself, can’t help wanting to know what has become of him since.  After reading his letter, she decides to meet him in person as the Procurer, engineering their meeting in such a way as he won’t be able to see her face properly; and after hearing him out, agrees to help him track down the missing girls, fully intending to follow her usual procedure and find someone else to assist him.  Which, in a way, she does – sending Kirstin Blair to him while leaving her long-time assistant to oversee the Procurer’s business.

Ms. Kaye does a splendid job here of showing just how well suited to each other Kristin and Cameron are; he very clearly admires her intelligence, her perspicacity and her pragmatism and respects her for who she is, while Kristin appreciates similar qualities in Cameron and admires his determination to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.  They work together seamlessly, each playing to their strengths and recognising each other’s, and there’s no attempt on either part to exclude the other for their own protection.  This is very much a relationship based on mutual understanding and intellectual equality, which is one of the things that makes this second-chance romance work so very well.  Another thing, of course, is the chemistry between the couple that bubbles and sizzles nicely as the author allows the attraction that has never really diminished to build gradually until it becomes impossible for either character to deny it any longer.

The one thing that didn’t really work for me is something that happens towards the end – I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but put simply, Kirstin reacts to something in a way that seemed totally out of character for a woman who has, up until this point, been level-headed and clear-sighted about everything.  She suddenly turns into this over-emotional woman I didn’t recognise – and I understand that it’s partly a knee-jerk reaction to something she had hoped Cameron wouldn’t find out (and her big secret is fairly easy to guess even before its revealed), but it was such a huge character reversal that I felt almost as though I had whiplash!  And the way she attributed motivations to Cameron while knowing perfectly well what sort of man he was felt really off.

Fortunately, Ms. Kaye doesn’t draw out this point for too long, and effects a reconciliation swiftly and with Kirsten’s full acknowledgement of her error, showing her to be exactly the sort of woman I’d believed her out to be – someone with great personal integrity and the ability to weigh up a situation and come to a considered conclusion, as well as someone strong enough to be able to admit when she was wrong.  Cameron is a similarly appealing character – a successful businessman who has become so by dint of his own hard work and who, in spite of his illegitimacy, knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.  He sees Kirstin for exactly who she is and loves her for it, never for one moment wanting to change her or for her to be someone she is not.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding provides a fitting conclusion to what has been a very strong series from one of my favourite authors of historical romance.  Ms. Kaye always writes with intelligence and insight, her research is detailed and she rounds-out her characters so that they feel like real people with real dilemmas and real emotions rather than cardboard cut-outs.  If you’ve been following the Matches Made in Scandal series, you’ll need no urging from me to pick up this final volume, and if you haven’t, each book works as a standalone, so this is as good a place to start as any.  And if you’re just a wee bit tired of all those titled folks waltzing their way around ballrooms, this book will make a refreshing change.

TBR Challenge: Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

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Harriet, Lady Wingham, widowed after a four-year marriage to an older man, takes her young daughter to London to stay with friends. There she becomes reacquainted with the Duke of Tenby, the man who broke her heart six years earlier when he offered her carte blanche instead of marriage. This time he has honorable intentions toward her, but Harriet misunderstands and impulsively agrees to become his mistress for a short while until she returns home. And so begins an affair disastrous to them both, for their feelings for each other cannot be satisfied by such a casual and clandestine arrangement.

Rating: C+

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalistic covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.

The Purloined Heart (Tyburn Trilogy #2) by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Poor Maddie Tate. Widowed with two children. An ordinary sort of female, no more memorable than a potted palm. Seven and twenty years of age.

Lucky Angel Jarrow. Temptation incarnate, lazy and spoiled – and why should he not be, when the whole world adores him, save for the notable exception of his wife?

Maddie Tate and Angel Jarrow. In the ordinary course of events, their paths might never cross. But then comes the Burlington House bal masque, when Maddie witnesses something she should not, and flees straight into Angel’s arms.

And he discovers that he does not want to let her go.

Mysterious masqueraders. Misbehaving monarchs. Political perfidy.

While in the background the ton twitters, and a fascinated London follows the Regent’s preparations for his Grand Jubilee.

Rating: B

A few months back I picked up Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz for a prompt in the TBR Challenge, and enjoyed it enough to want to read the other books in the Tyburn Trilogy.  At that point, only the second book – The Purloined Heart – was available, but I was pleased to learn the third was on the way, especially as it would feature two secondary characters from the first book who were clearly destined for one another. Although there are a couple of characters who appear in both books – most notably Kane, Baron Saxe – The Purloined Heart can be read independently of its predecessor, and proved to be an enjoyable mix of mystery and romance.

Maddie Tate is, at twenty-seven, the widowed mother of two young sons, and has gone back to live under her stentorian father’s roof.  Sir Owen Osborne Is dismissive and dictatorial, and Maddie fears he may try to separate her from the boys if she doesn’t dance to his tune.  But that particular dance is palling quickly and she’s chafing under her father’s constant criticisms of her manner, her clothes and, well, everything about her; hence her decision to sneak out to a scandalous masquerade being held at Burlington House one night, where she’s borrowed the costume that was supposed to have been worn by a friend who is unable to attend.  She’s nicely tipsy when a young gentleman dressed as Henry VIII approaches her and starts spouting Shakespeare and fiddling with the arrows in her quiver. (Get your mind out of the gutter!  She’s dressed as Diana the huntress!) Puzzled as to why Henry should have been lurking outside the ladies’ withdrawing room, Maddie follows him as he wends his way along the more private corridors of the house, watching as he enters an out-of-the way room. Hearing raised voices, Maddie peers through the keyhole, and witnesses a man dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh clubbing Henry over the head; he falls to the floor just as the door inconveniently swings open, revealing Maddie behind it.  She runs, only to collide with a gentleman dressed as a Cavalier, and demands he kiss her – to hide from her pursuer of course. One kiss turns into two… three, and into something more than a simple matter of expediency.

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

TBR Challenge: Against the Dark (The Associates #1) by Carolyn Crane

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She’s an ex-safecracker forced into one last heist.

Angel Ramirez left the safecracking game five years ago, and she’s worked hard to make amends and build an honest life. But when a beloved aunt is kidnapped, she must reunite with her girl gang to acquire the unique ransom: Walter Borgola’s prized diamonds. It’s a simple job that turns into a nightmare, thanks to a surprisingly clever—and searingly sexy—security guard named Cole Hawkins.

He’s an undercover agent with big plans for his gorgeous thief.

Cole is one of the Association’s most brilliant agents, under deep cover investigating a ruthless killer. He’s also running out of time: hundreds will die if he doesn’t stop the plan Borgola’s set into motion. Catching Angel is the break he needed–he promises not to turn her in if she poses as his lover and uses her unique talents to unlock the sociopath’s dungeon vaults.

But as pretend passions turn real, Cole regrets drawing Angel into his deadly game…and danger is closer than either of them could ever imagine.

Rating: B

I haven’t read anything by Carolyn Crane before, but her romantic suspense novels come highly recommended, so I picked up this first book in her four-book series The Associates for this months’ prompt.  It’s fast-moving and well-written with some nicely steamy scenes – plus the hero is a hot, dangerously sexy maths-nerd who wears glasses.  Um.  Yeah, that right there was enough to get me interested! (Think Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters – I did! ;))  On the downside, the romance is a bit hurried; the events of the story take place over three or four days so there’s not a lot of time to develop a relationship beyond physical attraction and the fact that the hero and heroine have to trust each other if they’re to make it to the end of the book alive.  That said though, Against the Dark was enjoyable and I pretty much blew through it in one sitting; sometimes one craves well-done hokum with fights, chases, things blowing up and crackling sexual tension, and that’s exactly what I got so I was pretty happy by the end.

Former jewel thief and expert safe-cracker Angel Ramirez has been on the straight and narrow for the last five years and now makes her living as an interior designer.  But she’s agreed to come out of retirement to pull a job with her friends and fellow thieves, Macy and White Jenny, that’s very personal to them.  A violent gang has kidnapped Macy’s Aunt Aggie, who practically raised all three of them, and is demanding the set of priceless diamonds belonging to crimelord Walter Borgola – “the biggest pimp-scumbag and God knows what else in L.A.” – as ransom.  Angel’s job is going to be to crack the Fenton Furst safe in Borgola’s bedroom; she’s one of the few people in the world who has the skills and knowledge to do it, so the ladies have got themselves into one of Borgola’s sleazy parties/orgies where they’re posing as working girls while waiting to make their move.

Cole Hawkins is one of The Associates, a shadowy organisation that is frequently used to do the jobs that can‘t be done legally or with official government sanction;  “Officially, no governments knew about them; unofficially, they were central to the international fight against crime.”  Cole has infiltrated Borgola’s operation as one of his security team, and for the past nine months has been gathering evidence and information on the sex trafficking ring Borgola is running out of Myanmar.  Cole has recently uncovered an even more sinister side to the operation;  Borgola is bringing in kids and using them in snuff movies, and there’s a new ‘shipment’ on the way, so Cole is up against it if he’s to track down the ships the kids are on, get them out of harm’s way and nail Borgola.

He knows the evidence he needs is contained within a second Fenton Furst safe which is in a hidden location in Borgola’s mansion.  Whoever cracked the safe containing the diamonds will be able to crack the second one; Cole tracks Angel down and lies in wait for her at her apartment – and pretty much blackmails her into helping him.

From then on in, things move at a cracking pace as Cole and Angel – neither of whom trusts easily – have to work together to find the safe and obtain the information Cole needs.  The romance is, as I said at the outset, perhaps a little rushed, building as it does over just a few days, but the pressure-cooker environment and close proximity in which Cole and Angel are operating, together with the smoking hot chemistry between them helps to make it if not completely believable, then at least perfectly plausible.  The plot is twisty and well-constructed, with plenty of action and edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in the last quarter, when things really do get hairy.

Angel and Cole are complex, damaged and somewhat morally ambiguous.  Angel clearly regrets her criminal past and what she sees as her inner ugliness, but her intelligence, resourcefulness and loyalty make her an engaging heroine.  I also loved the ‘girl-power’ vibe that came off her relationship with Macy and White Jenny; these women obviously know each other intimately, and care about each other deeply, and even though they’ve not pulled a job together in five years, neither of those things has gone away. Cole is an intriguing mix of alpha and beta hero, a man who’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of and is prepared to keep doing bad things if it means he gets to help people who need it.  He’s a maths genius and logistics expert, reducing problems to patterns and equations, the sort of guy who follows the paper-trail and comes up trumps – but he’s no slouch in the badassery or take-charge departments either.

I can’t deny though, that there were a few WTF? moments along the way, such as Cole telling Angel that her abilities as an interior designer somehow meant she could “see things we can’t” (huh?  She can tell a bad guy by the quality of his laminate flooring?) or when Cole’s not-so-inner maths-nerd surfaces during sex scenes; “Women had been equations before this,” or “This woman … made his sigmas and coefficients swirl in a tornado.”  – ouch?

Still, hot nerds are my catnip and I enjoyed Against the Dark for the sexy, escapist fun it was. I’m definitely planning to read the other books in the series.

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

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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.

 

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.