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.

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

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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.

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.

Off the Grid (The Lost Platoon #2) by Monica McCarty

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A team of Navy SEALs go on a mission and disappear without a trace–they are The Lost Platoon.

Investigative reporter Brittany Blake may have stumbled upon the story of a lifetime in her search for her missing brother. When he seemingly disappears overnight, she refuses to accept the Navy’s less-than-satisfying explanation. She begins her own investigation, which leads her to top-secret SEAL teams, covert ops, and a possible cover up…

John Donovan is having trouble biding his time, waiting for his Commanding Officer to figure out who set up their platoon. John’s best friend and BUD/S partner, Brandon Blake, was one of the many lives tragically lost in the attack against his team. When Brandon’s sister, Brittany, tracks John down, looking for answers, he realizes that she may be their best bet–or bait–for finding out who is targeting SEAL Team Nine.

Rating: C

Off the Grid is book two in Monica McCarty’s series, The Lost Platoon, and although I haven’t read the previous book (Going Dark) I was able to follow the plot in this one without any trouble, so it worked perfectly well as a standalone.  What didn’t work so well, however, were the hackneyed storyline, stereotypical characters and the hero’s thirty-going-on-thirteen attitude towards the heroine.  Oh, and description of the hero’s mighty wang as a “turgid beast”.  I kid you not.

The book opens with a prologue in which John Donovan and the rest of Team Nine –  a top secret group of Navy SEALS which has been put together to undertake the blackest of black-ops – searching a supposedly abandoned Russian gulag for proof of the existence of some kind of doomsday weapon when an explosion kills half the platoon. The rest of the men make their escape and then scatter, dropping off the radar while their commander, Scott Taylor, tries to work out exactly what happened.  He believes they were betrayed by someone on their own side, and it’s safest for them all to stay dead until he can figure out what the hell happened.

Ten weeks later, John is living as Joe Phillips, a Canadian ski-bum, and is working at a resort in Finland as a ski instructor and tour guide.   He’s bored to the back teeth, until he gets a call from Scott informing him that Brittany Blake, whose brother, Brand, was killed in the explosion, is stirring up trouble. An investigative journalist, Brit has written a number of stories for the paper she works for about the so-called ‘lost platoon’ in hopes of finding out what happened to her brother, and her latest article has just hit the international news sites.  Scott tells John to find a way to silence her, and when John is reluctant, points out that she could well be putting her own life in danger as well as those of the rest of the platoon.

Brit and John have history; five years earlier, before both John and Brand joined Team Nine, John and Brit spent a halcyon summer together and had become very close. In spite of John’s reputation as a bit of a player, Brit believed they really had something going between them – until John ripped out her heart and stomped on it when she caught him fooling around with a pair of twin sisters. Needless to say, they haven’t been in contact or seen each other since.

John comes up with what he thinks is a way to stop Brit, but she’s not falling for it, and not long after this, turns up out of the blue at John’s local bar. The last thing he needs is for her to start yelling at him, especially as she has no idea he’s living under an assumed name, so he does the only thing he can think of and forestalls the tirade with a blistering kiss. Rather than smacking him, she melts into the kiss (of course she does) and even though they’re both angry, they’re not angry enough to resist the pull between them and return to John’s house to work off all that anger on the living room sofa. Fortunately, his four housemates are out, or that could have been a bit awkward.

The rest of the story basically consists of John and Brit running from the bad guys, and in between having a city break in wonderful Copenhagen where John – whose mother was Danish – entertains Brit by taking her to see all the sights, which, coincidentally (not) provides the perfect way to distract her from pursuing her story. Naturally, she’s not best pleased once she realises what John is up to – and doesn’t believe him when he protests that yes, he wanted to distract her, but that he’s also enjoyed the time they’ve spent together. Maybe she’d have been more inclined to believe him if he hadn’t spent so much time pushing her away (because of that unwritten rule of romance novels – the best friend’s sister is untouchable – except when she isn’t and they shag), and generally being a bit of a dickhead towards her.

That’s not to say Brit is perfect. She’s one of those stereotypical ‘spunky reporter’ types, the sort who will stop at nothing to get to the story and is so blinkered that she can’t see she’s putting lives at risk (including her own) or doesn’t care. I can understand her need to find out what happened to her brother, especially given the complicated history surrounding their estrangement, but she wasn’t willing or able to see a bigger picture, and that sort of character drives me nuts.

In addition – and to its detriment – the novel contains a secondary (second-chance) romance that is obviously set to run throughout the series, between Team Nine’s former chief, Colt Wesson and his ex-wife, Kate, who is a CIA analyst and the only person outside the team that knows they aren’t all dead. I gather the couple made an appearance in Going Dark, but not having read that, I wasn’t prepared for the shift of focus and found it irritating. Kate and Colt (who is also a dickhead) get almost equal page-time to John and Brit, but while their story is intriguingly angsty and is, I assume, setting up their eventual book, the lack of resolution here is somewhat frustrating, and the time spent on developing their story means that not enough time is spent on the romance between John and Brit, which is consequently lacking in depth and emotional connection.

The Lost Platoon series has an intriguing premise and I enjoy these sorts of conspiracy-based thrillers, but in the case of Off the Grid, the author is trying to do too much in juggling two romances and a complex plotline. It all combines to produce an unsatisfying read in which the main storyline advances very little, one romance is superficial and the other left hanging.

There are better romantic suspense novels out there, and I’d urge fans of the genre to look elsewhere for their fix.

Cold Blooded (Cold Justice #9) by Toni Anderson

This title may be downloaded from Amazon

A journalist searching for the truth about her best friend’s death—and the FBI agent who needs her to stop. 

Disgraced investigative journalist Pip West is devastated when she discovers her best friend’s body face-down in a tranquil lake. When cops and federal agents determine that her friend overdosed then drowned, Pip knows they’re mistaken and intends to prove it.

Special Agent Hunt Kincaid doesn’t trust journalists and has no patience for Pip’s delusions, especially since her meddling could reveal why the FBI is interested in her friend’s last days. The dead scientist worked at the cutting edge of vaccine research and might have a connection to a new, weaponized, vaccine-resistant anthrax strain that just hit the black market.

Pip is thrown off her game by grief and her unexpected attraction to the handsome federal agent. Hunt battles the same unwelcome pull, determined to resist the heat that threatens to consume them both. But the more Pip digs, the closer she gets to both the sexy FBI agent, and to a bioweapons terrorist who’s more than capable of cold-bloodedly sacrificing anyone who gets in his way.

Rating: B

I’ve been reading more and more romantic suspense novels of late, and although Toni Anderson is an author who’s been on my radar for a while, for some reason, I’ve not yet got around to reading anything of hers.  After reading her guest post at AAR a few weeks ago, I decided to rectify that, and picked up the latest in her Cold Justice series – Cold Blooded – for review.  It’s the ninth full-length novel in the series (which also includes a novella), but I had no problems whatsoever following the story, so I can say with confidence that it works perfectly well as a standalone.  I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of the genre; the plot is topical and well-executed, the characters are likeable and while the romantic angle is perhaps more low key than I normally like, it makes sense within the context of the story that this pair would take a bit of time to warm up to each other.

Pip West’s career as an investigative journalist might well be over following the recent publication of her story about police corruption that led to a dirty cop murdering his wife and kids before turning his gun on himself.  Devastated and burdened with guilt, Pip has fled her home in Florida and driven to rural Georgia, intending to stay with her best friend, Cindy – a research scientist at nearby Blake University – while she gets herself together and works out what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  Arriving at her friend’s remote cabin on Lake Allatoona, Pip is worried when she sees her Cindy’s car outside, but can find no trace of her.  Upstairs on the balcony, she sees something floating in the lake and is horrified to realise it’s Cindy.  Panicked and horrified, Pip manages to drag the body out of the water and to call 911 – but it’s too late.

Following the discovery of a terrorist cell in possession of weaponised anthrax, Special Agent Hunt Kincaid, WMD co-ordinator at the Atlanta field office of the FBI, has been tasked with reaching out to anyone in the area whose work involves the use of bacillus anthracis.  Intelligence suggests that this new strain has come from a US source, so Hunt and his counterparts throughout the US are being alerted and given similar tasks, but given the number of government facilities, universities and biotech companies in the area – including the Centre for Disease Control – the Atlanta office is the first on the case.

Hunt’s first stop is Blake University, where he intends to speak to the staff and students who work with the anthrax virus there.  His tour of the department is interrupted by news of the death of a PhD student who had been working on a new vaccine against the virus – and the timing is too much of a coincidence for him to ignore.  He heads out to Lake Allatoona where the local police tell him they suspect the death of the young woman – Cindy Resnick – to be drug related.  When her friend – the dark-haired young woman Hunt noticed immediately upon arriving at the scene –  insists Cindy never took drugs, Hunt takes the assertion with a pinch of salt; after all, this woman found the body and because of that, is currently at the top of the list of potential suspects should this prove to be a homicide.

Pip knows the handsome FBI agent is suspicious of her, but she’s too mired in grief and anger to care.  She knows Cindy wouldn’t – couldn’t – have committed suicide and she’s determined to find out the truth, but it won’t be easy.  After her last investigation, she’s wary of law-enforcement – and once the local cops find out about her exposé of police corruption, they’re not exactly queuing up to help her either.

Pip and Hunt pursue their own lines of enquiry for the first part of the book, their paths crossing mostly accidentally, each suspicious of the other and very cautious about sharing what they find out.  After a journalist stitched him up in a move that almost cost him his career, Hunt has no love for reporters, so he’s not well-disposed towards Pip – no matter that he can’t help the strong pull of attraction he feels towards her. But the more he sees of her, the more convinced he becomes that Pip had nothing to do with Cindy’s death – and Pip finds herself wanting to trust Hunt, even though she knows he subscribes to the police’s theory that Cindy’s death was, if not suicide, then helped along by her use of drugs.  But a second death – another scientist and friend of Cindy’s – also thought to be drug related, brings Hunt to the realisation that Pip has probably been right all along and that there’s more to her friend’s death than getting high and taking an ill-advised swim.

The suspense storyline is tightly-plotted and well-researched, the tension building gradually through its various twists and turns until reaching the final chapters, which really amp things up and propel us towards an exciting, high-stakes finale.  The romance is more of a slow burn, with Pip and Hunt gradually moving in ever decreasing circles around each other as they slowly learn to shed their suspicions and to work together, but this felt completely right given the circumstances and their past experiences.  I appreciated the absence of the over-the-top mental lusting that is so often present in today’s romance novels; Hunt and Pip are attracted to and aware of each other, yes, but there’s never any sense that the plot is being suspended while they mentally drool over one another’s perfect bodies.  I liked both characters, although I can’t deny that there’s something a bit stock-in-trade about both of them; Hunt is your classic ‘I don’t do relationships because I don’t like losing people’ type, and Pip is the ‘I had a shitty childhood and now I don’t trust easily’ one.  That said though, they’re relatable and engaging, and I particularly liked the flirtatious, playful side Hunt allowed out occasionally.  Pip’s grief is very well-handled, too – her sadness and feelings of guilt and uncertainty permeate the first part of the book in a subtle way, and I was pleased to see that she didn’t suddenly recover and start to act as though nothing had happened as the story progressed.

In the negative column though, there are places where the pacing flags and others that feel repetitive, particularly when we’re in Hunt’s PoV and he keeps reminding himself that Pip is a suspect, that he doesn’t trust reporters, and he shouldn’t get involved with her.  I still wanted to know how things would turn out, but there were times I found myself skimming to get to the next bit of plot.

Overall, however, Cold Blooded is an enjoyable, suspenseful read, and I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Ms. Anderson’s work.