Story Rating: 3.5 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Greg Boudreaux
Length: 19 hours, 3 minutes
Following the events and relationships of the Four Kings Security series, the Wild Cards series is a spin-off that focuses on Jack, Joker, and Joshua as they too find their true loves and their happily ever afters. The stories were originally released as individual books (and can still be purchased that way), but now have also been released in both ebook and audio box sets. I did not read the original series, so I was coming into this spin-off cold.
Spencer and Quinn are about to get married, but Spencer has vanished. Cue a collection of ex-military in a panic, trying to find the missing person — along with friends, brothers, significant others, and mothers — before it’s too late.
Stacking the Deck is the story of Jack, the Four Kings cybersecurity expert, as he reunites with Fitz, the man he’s been mildly obsessing over for quite some time. Fitz ghosted him, never giving him a call or a text, but when Fitz is invited to the gathering, he and Jack are brought face to face once more, only to find that the sparks between them are still there.
This story is the most frustrating of the three, for me, as Fitz and Jack have a lengthy back and forth. Does Jack love Fitz? Yes, but he can’t tell him! Does Fitz love Jack, yes, but he can’t tell him! Toss in a stalker, a fight, and things getting messy between them. It’s a very by-the-numbers story with some tepid banter, a lot of dithering, and some very middle-school feeling squeeing every time one of them says something even remotely charming. I wasn’t a fan of this one, especially when most of this story involves a dozen other characters wandering in, wandering out, and having their own scenes and adventures off to the side that Jack and Fitz are barely connected to.
This feels more like a bridge between two books rather than a standalone, and I think suffered for being such a late entry in the series, as I was expected to be somewhat familiar with everyone, and there were just too many people tossed in for what felt like no reason other than to make a cameo. Maybe if I’d read the previous books I’d have some connection, but just this story on it’s own is a solid pass.
Raising the Ante is a novella involving Frank, a middle-aged and retired firefighter who has opened a members only gay club only to find the local city government less than welcoming. When threats turn into actual attacks, Joshua Sterling is brought in to help. Joshua knows what he wants, and isn’t shy about going after it. Frank is very aware of their age difference, but he’s not going to turn away a chance at happiness when it’s presented to him.
This story was shallow, but cute, and stands well on its own feet. Frank has a clear personality and so does Joshua. Both men are ready to settle down, confident in themselves as people, and eager to find a partner, not a lover. They have a warm chemistry between them and work well together.
The final book is Sleight of Hand, and the best book in the collection. Joker is, in theory, the main character of the book, finding love with the billionaire Giovanni … but the real star of the story is Chip, the bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois. The author manages to make the dog both a present character, and yet to not allow him to pull focus from the growing romance. While, again, characters from the previous books in the series make giant, attention grabbing cameos, they’re more graceful in this book, feeling more organic and don’t break the flow.
Joker is short, insecure, self-deprecating, and belligerent. He’s heard every joke, every insult, and will shove them all back down the throat of whoever tries to hit him with them. He’s also loyal to a fault, self-sacrificing, patient, and forgiving. Joker needs to be in control and, more times than he might admit, uses Chip as an excuse, taking the dog with him everywhere. Chip helps him get out of situations where he’s not comfortable, out of events he doesn’t want to go to — whoops, no dogs allowed, shucks, can’t go to the fancy shindig — and when he’s with Gio … Joker wants to be the one taking care of the other man.
Gio is a philanthropist. He’s rich, famous, and tries to hard to do the right thing. Yes, he gets taken advantage of, but he’s got enough money that it doesn’t matter. But lately, the nightmares are getting worse, the stress and the fear at eating at him, and he’s aware of how alone he is. Joker, despite all the protests, is the opposite of stress, for Gio. Joker doesn’t need rescuing, or money, or a photo-op. What he needs is someone who accepts him for what he is, and gives him grace when his temper gets the best of him. And Gio needs someone to trust, someone to lean on. Someone to take care of him.
Sleight of Hand works well on its own. The pace is good, the characters are very well done, and the plot (which, like the other three, involves a stalker and a violent confrontation at the end) works well enough. These stories are very formulaic, relying on stock phrases and inserts of old characters to take up space that might have otherwise been more focused on the main pairing. The pacing suffers because of this, as every time Joker and Gio, or Jack and Fritz even start to get to a conversation or an emotional moment, they are interrupted by someone else, though Joker and Gio suffer the least from that.
If you’ve read the previous books in the main series and enjoyed them, then these three stories should be right up your alley. I listened to this collection on audiobook, narrated by Greg Boudreaux, who does a good job with the emotional nuances.His pacing and line delivery were spot on, and I enjoyed the energy he brought to the books. I very much recommend listening to the audio version if you decide to get these books.