A Chip and a Chair (Seven of Spades #5) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s time to lay all the cards on the table.

Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo are reunited and more committed to each other than ever, but they can’t truly move forward with their lives until the serial killer who’s been tormenting them is behind bars. When a secret burial site is discovered in the desert with the remains of the Seven of Spades’s earliest victims, that goal finally seems within reach.

But just as the net is tightening, the neo-Nazi militia Utopia launches their master plan with a devastating act of terror that changes the landscape of Las Vegas forever. As Levi and Dominic scramble to prevent the city’s destruction, they’re opposed by treacherous forces that propel them toward catastrophe. In the end, Levi’s fate may rest in the hands of the very killer he’s been hunting.

The race to save Sin City is on, and these players are going for broke. No matter how hopeless things seem, as long as they’re together and they’ve got a chip to play and a chair to sit in, they’re still in the game.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series earned a place on my Best of 2018 list, and the penultimate book, One-Eyed Royals, was actually my pick for best book of the year.  I’ve shouted from the rooftops about this series for the last six months and to say I’ve been eager to get my hands on this final instalment is one hell of an understatement!  A Chip and a Chair is, I’m delighted to say, a supremely fitting end to what has been an incredible series – a tightly-plotted, utterly gripping story full of high-stakes action, emotional highs and lows, and boasting a wonderfully developed, sexy romance between a couple of complex, well-defined and compelling characters.

As is always the case when reviewing suspense novels, I’m not going to say too much about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but there are spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.

For the better part of a year, Las Vegas has been the ‘home base’ for a particularly devious serial killer dubbed the Seven of Spades, because each of their victims has had a seven of spades playing card left on their body.  Right from the start, the killer cultivated a relationship – of sorts – with homicide detective Levi Abrams; he’s the one they contact, the one they’ve sometimes fed information to and the one they’ve gone to great lengths to protect.  As the books have progressed, the SoS’s partiality for Levi has led to increased suspicion among his colleagues and a growing sense of isolation from them; a man with anger management issues who struggles to keep himself under a tight rein at the best of times, Levi has been slowly unravelling and getting closer and closer to the edge of his control.

The love and support of his partner, PI Dominic Russo, has kept Levi grounded for the most part, although the couple hit a rocky patch at the end of book three, Cash Plays, after Dominic, a compulsive gambler, relapsed, his lies and manipulation driving a wedge between them.  Their break-up left both of them struggling through some of the blackest times of their lives alone, but by the end of One-Eyed Royals, they were back together, filled with a new determination to work things out between them – and at the beginning of A Chip and a Chair, they’re moving into a new apartment.  It’s been a month since the game-changing events at the end of One-Eyed Royals, and the Seven of Spades has been quiet since then – but Levi knows it’s only a matter of time before they strike again.

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

Disavowed (Hostage Rescue Team #4) by Kaylea Cross (audiobook) – Narrated by Jeffrey Kafer

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The government trained her to kill….

Briar Jones has lived most of her life in the shadows, carrying out secret ops to eliminate some of the United States’ most dangerous enemies. She’s devoted her life to serving her country so when a faceless enemy targets her and kills someone close to her, she’ll stop at nothing to bring them down. With her life in danger and critical intel leaked during an off-the-books op, she has no choice but to go on the run with a disturbingly sexy man she barely knows. While in hiding they learn that the agency responsible for turning her into a lethal weapon is now out to destroy her. What they don’t know is why, or who has set her up. As they unravel the mystery, Briar must trust this near stranger in order to stay alive and expose whoever is behind the plot. She never expected to lose her heart in the process.

Now it’s coming after her….

Matt DeLuca has survived devastating loss and risen to become commander of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. When a top-secret mission goes awry and he’s tasked with protecting Briar, the last thing he anticipates is falling in love with the beautiful and deadly assassin. But now intelligence officers are dying and Briar’s name is at the top of the hit list. With her life at stake they race to end the threat and clear her name, battling the shadowy killers sent to silence her forever.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B

I’m not familiar with Kaylea Cross’ work, but she’s written around forty romantic suspense novels (as far as I can tell from Amazon!) and as some are available in audio – and a friend on Goodreads recommended her stuff – I decided to pick one up and give it a go; and on the whole, I was pleased with the result. Disavowed is the fourth book in the Hostage Rescue Team series, but although there are recurring characters from other books (and other series) featured, they’re very much in supporting roles, so this works perfectly well as a standalone.

Special Agent Matteo DeLuca is the commander of the elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team, and it’s evident right away that he’s liked and greatly respected by his colleagues. He and his seven-man assault team are in the middle of an operation to take down Hassan Ramadi, a terrorist responsible for training militants in the use of chemical weapons and planning attacks on American soil, when Matt receives the news that the operation has been compromised. When the team is given the go-ahead to access the remote mountain cabin where their target is holed-up, it’s to discover Ramadi dead from a single gunshot to the head.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Silent Evidence (Evidence #8) by Rachel Grant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The man of her fantasies is finally hers. Sort of…

Two things haunt forensic anthropologist Hazel MacLeod: the bones of victims of genocide she examines for her work, and former SEAL Sean Logan’s rejection. But within days of moving to her cousin’s estate to take a much needed break, she finds herself faced with both.

First, she’s called in to examine a mass grave in Virginia, then, her politician cousin receives a threatening letter and insists Hazel needs around the clock protection–from none other than Sean Logan. To make matters worse, because the threat to her is classified, Hazel and Sean must pretend to be lovers to hide that he’s her bodyguard.

Sean has spent years trying to avoid his boss’s sexy cousin, but now he’s guarding her twenty-four seven and even bringing her as his date to a romantic destination wedding. As the heat between them intensifies, Sean can’t lose sight of the danger that brought them together. But when bullets start flying, new questions arise. Are the senator’s political rivals really behind the threat, or is someone trying to silence Hazel from speaking for the dead?

Rating: B-

Rachel Grant is my favourite author of romantic suspense and her recent Flashpoint series has been amazing; action-packed, steamy, topical stories featuring complex, engaging characters and edge-of-your-seat plots that have never failed to pull me in and keep me glued to the pages from start to finish.  Now that series is finished (or maybe just on hiatus?), the author has returned to the world of her Evidence series to bring us book eight, Silent Evidence, which once again features a heroine whose area of expertise is related to archaeology (in this case, she’s a forensic anthropologist) and a hero who is a member of Raptor, the high-end private security firm owned by former Army Ranger – now US Senator – Alec Ravissant.  While the plotlines in most of the other books in the series more or less stand alone, Silent Evidence is very strongly linked to earlier stories – particularly Incriminating Evidence (book four) and Poison Evidence (book seven), and I suspect that much of the impact of this story may be lost on anyone who hasn’t at the very least read those books before tackling this one.

Dr. Hazel MacLeod – sister of Ivy from Poison Evidence – has just returned from Croatia where she spent several months working for the International Commission on Missing Persons, examining the remains of the victims of war and genocide.  Not surprisingly, that work has badly affected her mental health, and she had begun to experience nightmares and panic attacks before coming back to the US.   While she recuperates and works out what she wants to do next, she’s staying at the home of her cousin Alec Ravissant and his wife Isabel, an archaeologist.  Isabel is currently working on a time-sensitive assignment, inspecting and recording finds at the site of a drained reservoir before repairs are made, and the discovery of a pile of bones in the water means she needs expert help.  She asks Hazel to come out to the site to confirm these are human remains – and once there, Hazel is appalled to realise that the small pile she’d been called to look at is just the tip of the iceberg, and that there are thousands of bones there, thousands of bones that belong to at least two dozen individuals… a mass grave.

Sean Logan is Raptor’s top operative and one of Alec’s most trusted friends. So when Alec calls him and asks him – without explanation – to get out to the site and bring Isabel home, he’s curious, but doesn’t stop to question and makes his way out there immediately.  On arrival, he’s stunned to recognise the auburn-haired woman standing with Isabel; he hadn’t even known Hazel MacLeod, subject of many an inappropriate fantasy, was back in the states.

Later, Alec reveals why he’d sent Sean to escort Isabel home.  A man in his position gets hate mail and death threats on a regular basis and most of the time they’re insignificant, but he’s recently received one that indicates knowledge of certain events in Alec, Isabel’s and Hazel’s pasts which lead him to take this particular threat seriously.  He’s unable to share details with them because there’s an implication for national security, but they all know Alec, and know that he wouldn’t be telling them anything unless he was genuinely worried.

The immediate problem – and why he’s brought Sean into the mix – is that he and Isabel, along with a large group of friends – are headed to a wedding at the weekend, and Alec doesn’t want to leave Hazel alone.  He insists she accompany them, but Hazel demurs, protesting that she doesn’t know the bride or groom (Cressida and Ian from book five, Covert Evidence) and doesn’t want to crash their wedding, but Alec has that covered and won’t listen to her protests.  Sean is the best man, and Hazel can go with him as his date.

Hazel isn’t keen on the idea, but not because she doesn’t like Sean; in fact, she likes him way too much for her peace of mind, and is worried that having to pose as his girlfriend will tip everyone off to that fact.  Added to this is her lingering embarrassment over an incident some months earlier when she propositioned him and he turned her down; she’s not comfortable around him and can’t see how such a charade can possibly work.

I generally like fake-relationship stories and I was all set to enjoy this one from a favourite author, but something about it didn’t work for me.  For one thing, the mental lusting on both sides – because of course Sean didn’t rebuff Hazel because he wasn’t interested – is pretty excessive, and for another, Sean is so blow-hot-blow-cold towards her that his lightning quick switches between ‘full steam ahead’ and ‘this can’t happen’ made me dizzy.  And he’s not the only one; literally minutes after Hazel tells him he’s not getting any (after he tells her he’s not interested in anything other than sex), they’re shagging  against a tree in the woods.  I know Ms. Grant is capable of creating fabulous sexual tension between her protagonists, but it just didn’t happen here; I liked the idea of Sean and Hazel when Hazel was introduced at the end of Poison Evidence, but their romance is underdeveloped and seems to be based almost wholly on physical attraction and mutual lust.

The suspense plot –when it gets going – is as well thought out and intriguing as ever, and the author highlights a number of very relevant issues with insight and sensitivity.  I was pleasantly surprised when the plot turned out to have links back to the experimental technology that featured in Incriminating Evidence, and I was also glad to see Matthew – aka Dmitri Veselov, from the previous book – playing a major role, as I have a bit of a soft spot for him 😉  But on the downside, all this doesn’t really get going until around two-thirds of the way through; in previous books, the suspense plot and the romance have been really well woven together and have progressed alongside one another but here, after the initial set up, the romance takes centre stage while the plot treads water for a bit, which isn’t normally the case with this author.  There’s a fair bit of padding in the first parts of the novel, and I came away from it thinking that it might have worked better as a novella.

To sum up, Silent Evidence is a bit of a mixed bag, and my final grade is a compromise. Had the whole novel been in the same vein as the final third, I’d have been awarding at least a B grade, but unfortunately, that’s dragged down because the romance didn’t convince me and while the suspense plot was enjoyable, it wasn’t enough to carry a full length-novel. I’m  a big fan of Rachel Grant’s and will be snapping up whatever she comes up with next, but sadly, Silent Evidence isn’t going down as one of my favourites.

Kill Game (Seven of Spades #1) by Cordelia Kingsbridge (audiobook) – Narrated by Wyatt Baker

This title may be downloaded from Audible via 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: Narration – B- : Content – A-

It’s not often that I get gushy about my reading and/or listening material but… OMG, Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series is one of the best things I’ve read all year!! This is romantic suspense at its very best; superbly-conceived, twisty-turny, high-stakes plots featuring two utterly compelling, flawed, complex central characters with off-the-charts chemistry and a superbly developed romance that isn’t all hearts and flowers, but which more than adequately proves the old adage about what doesn’t kill you making you stronger.

So far only book one, Kill Game, is available in audio – the series is five books in all; 1-4 are out, with the fifth due to follow next Spring – but I’m hoping the other books will become available in due course. The stories really are terrific and Wyatt Baker – a new to me narrator – acquits himself fairly well, although I there are some aspects of his performance I felt could have been stronger.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

One-Eyed Royals (Seven of Spades #4) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Shattered by their devastating breakup, Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo find themselves at war right when they need each other most. While Dominic is trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, Levi despairs of ever catching the Seven of Spades. The ruthless vigilante’s body count continues to climb, and it’s all Levi can do to keep up with the carnage.

When Levi’s and Dominic’s paths keep crossing in the investigation of a kidnapping ring with a taste for mutilation, it feels like history repeating itself. Thrown together by fate once again, they reluctantly join forces in their hunt for the mastermind behind the abductions.

But the Seven of Spades hates sharing the spotlight, and they have an ace in the hole: a new batch of victims with a special connection to Levi. Their murders send shockwaves through Las Vegas and change the rules of the game forever.

The Seven of Spades has upped the ante. If Levi and Dominic don’t play their cards right, they’ll end up losing everything.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series comprises some of the best books I’ve read this year, and if you’re a fan of m/m romantic suspense/thrillers and haven’t read them yet, then you’ve got a real treat in store.  The titular Seven of Spades is a serial killer plaguing Las Vegas, and because the series has plotlines and character relationships that stretch across all five books in the series, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review.  And this is absolutely not the place to jump in if you haven’t read the previous books.  Go back to book one, Kill Game, and then work your way here – I promise you won’t be disappointed because this series is one of the most gripping I’ve ever read.

At the end of book three, Cash Plays, Detective Levi Abrams and his lover, PI Dominic Russo, crashed and burned in a pretty spectacular way.  Dominic, a compulsive gambler, doesn’t see his addiction as an illness, believing instead that it’s a personal weakness he just has to be strong enough to conquer.  Because of this, he hasn’t really sought out the right sort of help (or much of it), and when a case he was working put him in the way of starting to gamble again in order to maintain his cover, he fell very quickly back into old habits.  One of the things Cordelia Kingsbridge does spectacularly well in these books is explore the motivations and thought processes of an addict, and she shows very clearly the processes of self-deception and denial Dominic goes through in order to convince himself there’s nothing wrong and he can stop gambling after the case is over.  And while Dominic is becoming increasingly self-absorbed and desperate to hide his relapse from Levi, Levi is going through hell courtesy of his increasing frustration over the lack of progression in the Seven of Spades case and the growing suspicion of his colleagues. In yet another Machiavellian turn, the killer is targeting the men who beat Levi so viciously over a decade earlier and were never punished, and the SoS’s fascination – obsession – with Levi and the similarities in their psyches pointed out by the  FBI profiler in the previous book are driving a wedge between him and those around him. He’s hanging on to his volcanic temper and his sanity by the merest thread, his professional reputation is being gradually eroded and he’s more afraid than ever of what he might do if he’s pushed too far.  And he’s going through it alone and without the support of the man he loves.

Levi and Dominic split up after an epic row at the end of Cash Plays, and at the beginning of One-Eyed Royals a few months later, are still apart… although they can’t keep their hands off each other and continue to have sex on a fairly regular basis.  These hook-ups inevitably end badly, but they just can’t quit each other.  Levi vowed to make Dominic’s life a living hell until he stopped gambling, and he’s making good on that promise, having him blacklisted from practically every casino in the city and making sure Dominic is hounded by cops every time he turns around.   Levi has always had a capacity for ruthlessness; he’s sarcastic, abrasive and there’s no doubt some of his actions and words are downright cruel – yet I couldn’t exactly blame him for them most of the time.  (And Dominic isn’t completely blameless in the cruelty department, either.) Levi is furious with Dominic; not because he’s relapsed but because of the lengths he’s gone to hide it from him – and because Dominic can’t (or won’t) admit his gambling has become a problem again.

In each of the books in the series so far, the author has cleverly developed two seemingly disparate plotlines only to gradually merge them during the course of the story, and that’s no different here.  The Seven of Spades is continuing their vigilante crusade, the city’s rival gangs are still jostling for position and Dominic’s latest case is proving extremely frustrating.  Hired to look into the possibility of fraud or sabotage at Kensington Insurance Group, a company that specialises in providing insurance against kidnap and ransom for high-ranking executives, his client is unhelpfully cagy, unwilling to brief Dominic on all that he needs to know.

On top of all the stress of the stalled SoS investigation and of Dominic’s descent back into addiction, Levi picks up another murder case, this time seemingly unconnected to the Seven of Spades, in which the victim has had one eye surgically removed.  When a young woman, a high-powered executive, arrives at the station and tells him how she was kidnapped and had the same procedure – her eye sent to her family and colleagues as an unmistakable message – it’s clear there’s more to the murder than at first appeared.  It transpires that both she and the dead man were insured by Kensington, which throws Levi and Dominic into each other’s orbits once again, and they reluctantly have to work together in spite of the seemingly irreconcilable differences that lie between them.

Cordelia Kingsbridge once again weaves a compelling suspense plot and ratchets up the tension as the SoS’ latest killing spree strikes really close to home for Levi.  But the relationship between the leads is the big draw in this series, and in this book, the angst-o-meter is cranked up to eleven.  Both men are hurting; Levi knows Dominic is his bashert, his soulmate, and he feels totally bereft without him, while Dominic is so far down the rabbit hole of denial, his feelings of worthlessness stoking his need for the rush gambling gives him, that he can’t and won’t seek the help he needs.  It seems there’s no hope for them until another shocking development pushes Levi one more step closer to the edge and finally brings the truth home to Dominic; and in a brilliant yet disturbing set-piece near the end in which they’re pitted directly against the Seven of Spades, they prove once and for all that they’re stronger together than apart.

At the end (where I may have squealed with delight) Ms. Kingsbridge sets the scene for the final book in the series with considerable aplomb, promising an exciting showdown between our heroes and the enigmatic killer who has so far eluded them.  I know there are lots of theories out there as to the identity of the Seven of Spades, but I confess to having no idea whatsoever and I’m quite happy to wait for the reveal in A Chip and a Chair when it comes out later this year.

The Seven of Spades series has quickly become a firm favourite, and while part of me wishes I’d read it earlier, another part is glad I picked it up near the end so that I haven’t had to wait between instalments.  I love the characters, the plotlines, the humour, the angst and the tenderness; Cordelia Kingsbridge has consistently maintained an incredibly high standard throughout the series, and I’m eagerly anticipating more of the same come December.

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.

 

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.