Risky Games by Olga Bicos
(Zebra, 5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-5679-6
Risky Games is an intelligent book about intelligent people who behave intelligently. What will they think of next? This is one of those well-crafted suspense books that doesn't shove the romance aside, but gives it a more-than-equal footing with the suspense and intrigue. Thank goodness!

We first meet McCall Sayer as she puts on yet another disguise for her next trip to the River Palace, a New Orleans gambling boat. Right now she's a professional blackjack player, an unusual vocation for someone who holds a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard. She's an acknowledged genius so cardcounting at blackjack has been really easy for her.

Four years earlier, McCall's brilliant scientific career had been ruined. While doing genetic research, she'd been accused of changing scientific data and using government grant money for her personal ends. All the charges had been false, but she'd been discredited and had to find a new career. Her family had even severed ties with her because of the scandal.

All of the accusations and FBI harassment started two weeks after she turned down an offer to work for Curtis Clarke and his son Roger at Clarke Labs. She had laughed at the idea of abandoning her genetic research in order to do cosmetic research, but didn't believe that it was coincidental that her life fell apart soon after. The evidence was too strong against the Clarkes to believe that they were not involved in her downfall. McCall also didn't think that it was a coincidence that her research partner had died in a highly suspicious manner, but believes that the Clarkes were also responsible.

She's back and is playing a deadly game of chess. She's finally going to accept the Clarke Laboratory offer but she had a hidden agenda. She's certain that there are evil doings at Clarke Labs. Does McCall want revenge, restitution, what? What she definitely doesn't want or need right now is emotional involvement, but her plans take a 180 degree turn in the person of Jake Donovan.

Jake Donovan manages the River Palace Casino, a change from his prior career as a prosecuting attorney. Unique career changes for our main characters, I'd say. He's been watching McCall in all of her various disguises for several weeks. He's finally on his way to oust her from the casino but changes his mind. This woman intrigues him. He's always been a sucker for a damsel in distress, so much so that he's jokingly called his need to help "Donovan's Curse."

Jake is a knight who's wearing slightly tarnished armor. McCall, who he nicknames Mac, arouses his curiosity. His character is so fleshed out, so likable. He's that unique blend of the alpha/beta hero, strong and commanding yet gentle, compassionate and understanding.

He's read the FBI file on Mac but can't bring himself to believe the charges. The breakthrough occurs when she finally trusts him with her reasons for working for Clarke Labs. This story is so well plotted and executed that I don't want to give away any of the twists and turns. There are plenty. And some are whoppers. Who's trying to kill her? Why? Are the multiple suspects in collusion? Are they all out to get her? Can she keep Jake and her friends from being hurt?

Gentle humor abounds in this story. Here's what Jake does when he realizes that he's pushed Mac too far. "A warrior preparing for battle, he'd donned his best armor: his favorite bowling shirt and chinos." I laughed aloud when I pictured Jake in a tacky bowling shirt, his name embroidered on the back, with a cocky grin spread from ear to ear. Another time he looks at Mac and murmurs, "My missing half." This man could garner lots of votes for Hero of the Year.

The only parts of the story that was less than polished for me were the characters of Curtis Clarke and his son Roger. Both are evil and both are pompous, but a heavy hand was used in writing Roger. He's so immoral that's he's smarmy, almost implausible. He could have been Hannibal Lecter but instead came off as Snidely Whiplash.

Risky Games is not a perfect book, but its flaws are few and far between. The chemistry is on two levels, that between Mac and Jake and the chemistry in the lab. Both are combustible. Both are fascinating. Don't miss this one!

--Linda Mowery

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