A Stranger's Game (Bitter Creek)

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9780743454384: A Stranger's Game (Bitter Creek)

Picking up a pretty woman, Grace, outside his favorite bar in Texas, FBI agent Breed Grayhawk is unaware that she has just finished a wrongful sentence for murdering her parents and is breaking into her late father's colleagues' homes in search of evidence that will clear her name. 75,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Joan Johnston is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than forty award-winning historical and contemporary romantic novels, including her Bitter Creek series featuring The Rivals, The Price, The Loner, The Texan, and The Cowboy.

Johnston received a master of arts degree in theater from the University of Illinois and graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law at Austin. She lives in south Florida and Colorado. Visit her website: www.joanjohnston.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

2

Breed hit his brakes and skidded sideways to avoid a deer scampering across U.S. Highway 290 west of Austin. He grinned as the adrenaline that kicked in sent his thumping heart up into his throat. And grimaced as he acknowledged that missing a deer caught in the headlights was about the most excitement he'd had in a month of Sundays.

Breed had been ready to bust balls when he'd been appointed as one of six FBI special agents on the JTTF two years ago. For the first year, he'd posed as a graduate student in business, son of the governor of Wyoming, King Grayhawk.

Not that King had ever been a father to him. Breed's mother Sassy had been married to King when he was born, all right. But his father had taken one look at his supposed offspring's crow-black hair, odd silver-gray eyes, and copper-hued skin, named him Breed for the half-breed he appeared to be, and started divorce proceedings.

The truth would have been easy enough to prove with DNA, if anyone had bothered. But King was too proud, Sassy was too drunk, and Breed was too angry.

Nevertheless, in the name of patriotism -- and because it was the politically correct thing to do -- King had been persuaded by the FBI to allow Breed to use his wealthy father's oil connections and influence to help him get introductions to rich Saudi and Egyptian and Iranian sons attending UT, in hopes of uncovering an al-Qaeda operative.

It had all been for naught. As the San Antonio SAC had pointed out, the worst offenses Breed had rooted out were identity theft and bank credit card fraud. And those thieves had been strictly American. So much for heroically saving the country from foreign and domestic terrorism.

Breed likened his work with the JTTF to a shepherd watching his flock. The wolf might not come around for months at a time, but the shepherd had to remain vigilant. If he let down his guard, the wolf could -- and would -- slip in amongst the flock and slaughter them.

Breed hadn't told anyone the fanciful analogy he used to describe what he did for a living. But it kept him committed and made him feel his work was necessary and important. Especially when there hadn't been even the whiff of a terrorist threat in the two years since he'd become a member of the Austin JTTF.

He groused to his friend, Texas Ranger Jack McKinley, about the inaction and redundancy, and sometimes downright boredom, of his work. But he would never, ever abandon his watch for the wolf.

Which was why the meeting today with the San Antonio SAC had left him feeling antsy. Anxious. Like a creature that smells fire in the wind, sensing danger, ready to run, but unsure in which direction safety lies.

All his life, Breed had known when trouble was on the way. It was a survival mechanism, a sixth sense that warned him that his mother was headed into alcohol rehab again, and he was about to be pawned off on another relative.

Or that some lush she'd met in rehab and married didn't want her son around, so he'd better make himself scarce.

Or that she'd found a guy to pay a plastic surgeon to give her a new face and a more bosomy figure, and she would be leaving him with yet another distant relative, or even a "friend," while she went away to recuperate.

He'd survived being abandoned again and again by his mother. He'd even thrived. Because he always prepared himself for the worst, and therefore was never disappointed, no matter what happened.

He pulled into a spot in front of a ramshackle cowboy bar called Digger's and shut off his engine. He was hoping for a cold drink. And a warm woman. With any luck, he wouldn't be disappointed.

The heat of a sunny October day in South Texas had dissipated, but when Breed stepped inside Digger's, the smell of sweat hung in the air. And despite the national obsession with not smoking, a haze of burned tobacco clouded the turquoise-painted interior.

An old Waylon Jennings tune was playing on an equally ancient jukebox, forcing the voices inside Digger's up a notch, so twenty-five people sounded like forty. Everyone wore cowboy hats and belts and boots, and Wranglers like the Texas Rangers wore, with rivets in the right places and seams that didn't chafe on horseback.

Breed was a regular, and the bartender nodded at him and set an ice-cold and dripping bottle of Dos Equis beer in front of him on the scarred wooden bar.

By the time Breed said, "Thanks, Jimmy Joe," the bartender had already shuffled away to fill another order.

Breed stared into the mirror over the bar, which was crowned with a curving set of Longhorn steer horns that had to be ten feet from point to point. He'd purposely sat down next to the female at the end of the bar who looked shapely from behind. He felt his heart jump when she lifted her stunning blue eyes and met his gaze in the mirror.

The attraction was immediate. And powerful. He recognized it without giving in to it.

Breed didn't do relationships. Didn't believe in romantic love. Didn't believe in anything that ended happily ever after. It wasn't part of his experience. When he wanted a woman, like now, he found one willing to satisfy his needs. In exchange he offered mutual satisfaction -- or money. Nothing more.

He perused the woman beside him at his leisure, recognizing that she was pretty, rather than beautiful. Her eyes were too far apart and her nose was a little crooked, but her mouth looked very kissable, the lips full and pink without lipstick. Her complexion was unbelievably light and creamy, and he wondered if the rest of her was as smooth and touchable. She had straight black hair that fell halfway down her back. He was amused to find her staring boldly back at him in the mirror.

She was drinking tequila shots. One upside-down shot glass sat in front of her, and she was nursing a second glass that was half full. He felt a strong tug in his groin when she smiled at him in the mirror, revealing nearly perfect white teeth. She lifted her shot glass in a toast and tossed the rest of it down without making the sort of face females usually made when they drank straight liquor.

She turned the glass upside down and set it carefully on the bar without a sound. In a husky voice that felt like a warm hand caressing his flesh, she said, "Another one, Jimmy Joe."

Breed's body hardened like a rock. So much for subtle interest in the female sitting to his right. He was already imagining himself deep inside her when he felt her hand on his thigh. He jerked at the touch, but managed to hang on to his beer without spilling it as he turned to her, easing his leg free.

"I'm Grace," she said. "What's your name?"

Breed usually liked to do the chasing, but somehow he didn't mind getting caught by this particular she-wolf. "Breed Grayhawk," he replied.

Her eyes narrowed, and he watched as she noted the copper hue of his skin, the high cheekbones and blade of nose, the narrow lips and chiseled chin. He felt himself flush when she nodded, acknowledging without a spoken word what his name likely meant.

Half-breed.

He was disconcerted when her inspection didn't stop with his face but drifted to the breadth of his shoulders, his lean waist, and -- he couldn't believe she was actually doing it -- the hard ridge in his jeans, before skimming down the length of his legs.

He didn't much like being sized up like a prize bull. So he gave her back what he'd just gotten, starting with her striking, wide-spaced blue eyes, a nose that should have been aquiline, but now had a bump that proved it had been broken once upon a time, and a mouth with lips so full they made a man wonder how they would feel in a lot of different places. The mouth was scarred, too, with a small white mark on the upper right edge.

Abusive husband? he wondered. Abusive father, maybe? Car accident, more likely. She had a self-possession that he couldn't make fit with a cringing victim.

She smiled, a bare curve of her lips he would have missed, except it was reflected as a twinkle in her blue eyes. Then she lifted a finely arched brow -- another barely-there scar slicing through the right edge of it -- to ask if he was done yet.

He wasn't.

Breed let his eyes follow the length of her neck to milky white shoulders and a pair of breasts that were amazing, if they weren't fake, outlined in a low-cut, lace-trimmed white sleeveless top. A narrow, cowboy-belted waist flared into the kind of hips that made a woman good at childbearing, and slender, jean-clad legs. He imagined them naked, wrapped around him, and felt his mouth go dry.

He couldn't believe the invitation he saw in her eyes when their gazes met again. He wondered for a moment if she was a hooker -- beat up by her john one too many times? -- and realized he didn't give a damn. He wanted her any way he could get her.

He hadn't noticed Jimmy Joe bringing her another drink, but she turned from him, licked some salt from her hand, drank half the shot glass of tequila, then bit into a slice of lime.

He felt that lick in the place he wanted it most. His whole body tensed, and he must have looked -- and smelled -- to her like some sort of beast in rut, because she glanced sideways at him before shoving her silky black hair back across her shoulder in a gesture that reminded him of a doe flicking her tail at a stag.

He glanced at the two shot glasses upside down in front of her and the third half-empty one and realized he didn't want her senses dulled any more than they already must be.

"What would it take to get you into bed?" he said in a low, guttural voice.

For the first time she looked less than supremely self-confident. "What?"

"How much to have you?"

Her eyes flickered with some emotion he couldn't name before she said in a cool voice, "More than you can afford, Cowboy."

"Name your price," he said, determined to have her, whatever it cost him.

"I don't want your money." She did a perusal of his body that made his blood feel like lava in his veins, then said, "I need a favor."

"Name it."

"After," she said. "Agreed?" She held out her small hand for him to shake.

Her grasp was surprisingly strong as he caught her hand in his own. "Sure."

"You won't back ...

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