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A twenty-something named Annie Jump Navarro, known to fellow online poker players as “Nova,” is about to experience a life-changing event as All In begins. It seems as if everything is going Nova’s way. She’s just won big in on-line gaming and is about to use her winnings to buy a house, enabling Nova and her roommates to live at peace and away from a crazy, homophobic neighbor. However, the stars are not exactly aligned for Nova and her friends, and things start to fall apart quickly.
When Royal Flush’s Evan Hunt, informs Nova that she must use her math-wiz brain to win a tournament bracelet in order to maintain the company’s sponsorship, Nova is put into a very uncomfortable position: she’ll have to play in a live poker competition in Las Vegas. There is one thing she may have going for her, though. Evan has promised to help her by having a Host at the Valhalla Casino get her settled once she arrives—and everything gets a little more interesting when Nova meets Vesper Blake for the first time.
Vesper is good at her job, keeping wealthy clients happy while they spend thousands at Valhalla. She’s professional. She’s efficient—and she’s having none of Nova’s attempts to get her into her bed. Of course, Vesper can’t deny an attraction, but that doesn’t matter, because she will not compromise her career for the likes of this rogue of a poker whiz she pegs in the first few minutes after they meet. Vesper’s past has taught her many things. The first is: focus is key in trying to make it on her own in the world. Another is that sexual dalliances have to be carefully orchestrated and controlled, not jumped into with uncharacteristic spontaneity. So, while Nova tries to find her “sea legs” in a vast ocean of interactions foreign to her because of her insulation during on-line play, she finds her interactions with Vesper both fascinating and frustrating as well. In a string of events that finds Nova thrown out of her “comp’d” cushy Valhalla suite, she ends up somewhere she never thought she would land—not in her wildest dreams.
The main characters in this story are well drawn. Each woman hides insecurities because she thinks weakness will be her downfall. Each must learn hard lessons in order to find her way in life, but if these two don’t become quick studies, disaster may strike and they may lose the ultimate game of life and love.
Minor characters within the tale cover a range of personalities from loveable to infuriating and downright dangerous. Political kingpin, “Biz” Deloreo, widow and heiress, Priscilla Beauregard, limo driver Jeremy and young TJ Hamilton all have a part to play in moving this story along. Poker aficionados will delight in the nuances of the game as Nova is pitted against amateur and professional alike clawing her way through the tournament, scrabbling to gain a foothold toward the ultimate prize. Those unfamiliar with the world of poker and tournament play will find a wealth of information. In the midst of it all, it’s clear the two women, Nova and Vesper, are meant to be together, but the tension surrounding them, holding them apart like two magnets with like poles facing each other, makes it seem that coming together romantically is an impossible outcome.
There are a couple of editing hitches within the story that are minor, and don’t do too much to interfere with the story, and these may be easily forgiven by the reader in this tantalizing account of people searching for wholeness and love. Stark has us wondering if it’s possible for these two to realize that what they have shouldn’t be thrown away. In the end, it all has nothing to do with poker, except that, as in most things in life, love is a risk greater than the biggest poker bet ever. Stark is a master at constructing multilayered romances full of tension, drama and attraction.
By Nell Stark
Bold Strokes Books
Hardcover, 9781626390669, 253 pp.