Like a lot of readers, I spent 2020 looking for breezier reads but this gritty Las Vegas underground series unexpectedly took me in!
Ante Up (High Stakes #1)
Asha Davis’ sizzling one-night stand turns out to be none other than Kingston Whitfield, son of Black Las Vegas royalty. Asha has secrets which means she has to keep her distance. Kingston has his own dark secrets and together they fight for their HEA and discover their pasts are connected in more ways than one
This is a dark romance and CCJ lets you know exactly what you are in for from page one, when the heroine kills her abusive father. The book deconstructs the concept of the strong struggling black woman archetype. Asha has internalized the idea that she needs to endure and “stay strong” when life gets hard–but with Kingston, she learns she learns to be vulnerable and ask for help.
The book chronicles Asha’s journey from amateur to a professional poker player. I am in awe that CCJ either knows how to play poker at this level or learned it to write this book.
This was my first time listening to Wesleigh Siobhan and Jakobi Diem, they both gave great performances but Siobhan stood out. She has this great flirtatious but serious quality for Asha.
King Of Hearts (High Stakes #1.5)
This is a Valentine’s Day short story collection set in the High Stakes universe. King of Diamonds is basically a baby-ever-after epilogue for Asha and King, King of Clubs is a sweet, flirty story between Asha’s roommate and her boss and King of Hearts is an age gap, erotic short with femdom elements starring King’s sister. None of the events in these stories, aside from King and Asha’s pregnancy, show up in the next book. The well-crafted shorts are entertaining but not essential. I really love the idea of short stories for side characters, not everybody needs a whole book.
Deuces Wild (High Stakes #2)
Alicia “Ace” Miller, King Whitfield’s loyal bodyguard has a dark past. As a teenager, she was kidnapped and brainwashed into an emotionless assassin for a powerful arms dealer. Think Winter Soldier. She’s created a new life for herself among the loving Whitfields but now she’s starting to remember things her brainwashing took from her and she needs answers. Her best source is an unlikely ally–Las Vegas Police Detective Cree Bradley.
I usually have a tough time with romantic suspense but Jones works it brilliantly. Alicia is the real star of this book, she’s prickly, unapologetic and basically, anti-hero-ing it up through the book as she ruthlessly searches for answers about her past. Cree is pretty much along for the ride as sort of her Girl Friday as he gingerly melts some of the ice around her heart. Jones does so much thoughful work in how she portrays Cree and his relationship to policing.
The High Stakes audiobooks came out at the same time but for some reason, the performances in this book were on another level. Wesleigh had more work cut out voicing the cold but loving Alicia and Diem felt more present in the narrative.
Jones has built out an entire world in this book, I’d recommend it by itself over Ante Up. I see Jones has some more non-romance books about the other teenagers raised to be assassins and I can’t wait to dig in.
I think CCJ gets recc’d a lot for her romantic comedies but she is really doing something here with the romantic suspense. I hope we get more!
I always make name nitpicks but there is a drug dealer in Ante Up named Dorian Heywood and all I could picture was Bumper Robinson in A Different World.