With just five days until the President arrives in Austin, Texas, the last thing the FBI needs is a serial killer on the prowl . . . and a terrorist suspect who will stop at nothing to clear her name.
A Stranger’s Game
Bitter Creek – Book 7
FBI Special Agent Breed Grayhawk has the hottest sex in his life with a stranger who calls herself Grace Smith, only to discover the next morning that her real name is Merle Raye Finkel—and she’s a convicted double murderer who broke her parole a year ago and disappeared. Now she’s his prime suspect in a terrorist threat against the U.S. President.
Grace Caldwell is determined to find the killer who framed her for the murder of her father and stepmother — and make him pay. She burgles the home of her #1 suspect and nets a surprising haul: a hot-pink, silk-covered diary — the record of a sex-addicted wife’s adventures — which suggests that Grace’s #1 suspect is a serial killer. But her theft has been caught on tape, and the man she’s been chasing becomes the hunter…with Grace as his prey.
With just five days until the president arrives in Austin, Texas, the last thing the FBI needs is a serial killer on the prowl…and a terrorist suspect who will stop at nothing to clear her name. The clock is ticking down, and Agent Grayhawk is racing time to discover the truth about his dangerous lover.
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 domesticterrorism.
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.
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.
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.”
“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 out?”
Her rasping voice made the hair on his arms stand up, as though he’d been stroked. At that moment, he would have promised anything to have her.
“I won’t back out.” The rough voice he heard didn’t sound like his own. She wasn’t a very good businesswoman if she was willing to put off getting money in advance, or something in writing about that promised favor. Once he had what he wanted from her, he’d be glad to help her out. If what she wanted was reasonable. And didn’t cost him more than he thought she was worth.
“Where can we go?” he asked.
“How about your truck?”
He snorted. It was a pretty good guess that he drove a pickup. Most cowboys did, and he was certainly dressed like one. But he had no intention of trying to copulate like some teenager behind the gearshift of his truck. “There’s a motel across the street. We can get a room there.”
She shook her head. “No vacancy,” she said, pointing back out the year-round Christmas garland-festooned front window of Digger’s to the flickering block-lettered sign across the street, which read no v-canc-, two of the red lights having burned out.
Breed swore under his breath. “Where, then?” he said, irritated that she’d agreed to this, if she had no intention of following through.
“We could drive back into town.”
“Too far.” He couldn’t wait that long.
“I have a blanket in my car,” she said. “We could go down by the creek behind the bar.”
“Sex under the stars?” Breed said cynically.
Breed didn’t trust her, but he was sure he could take care of himself even without the Glock 22 he’d left in his glove compartment. He was supposed to keep the weapon with him at all times, since technically, an FBI agent was never off duty. But that would mean he shouldn’t be drinking, either. Breed figured if he was going to break the rules, it was better not to be in a position where he could drink — and shoot.
He certainly wasn’t going to let a little worry over her ulterior motives keep him from enjoying that luscious, well-endowed body. He threw enough money on the bar to cover his drinks and hers and said, “You ready?”
She eyed the money he’d left, shrugged, downed the last half of her drink, very quietly turned the glass upside down on the bar in front of her and rose to her feet.
Breed was 6’4″ tall, and when he stood, she barely came to his shoulder, even wearing cowboy boots, which gave her an extra inch or so of height. For an instant, he wondered how old she was. Another look at the cleavage so blatantly displayed silenced his qualms. He slipped a hand under her elbow and said, “Let’s go get that blanket.”
The air outside had cooled as night fell and felt refreshing. He followed her to a cheap, dark blue, foreign-made car with a dent in the right front fender. Without thinking, he noted the out-of-state Michigan license plate number as she opened the trunk to retrieve the blanket. Actually, it was a patchwork quilt, a pretty nice one, from what he could see in the yellow neon light from the digger’s sign attached to the whitewashed adobe wall.
He took it from her and tucked it under his arm. He reached out a hand for hers, but she ignored it, closed the trunk, pocketed the car keys in her jeans, and headed toward the creek that ran behind the bar.
It was a good thing there was a three-quarter moon, or he might have lost her in the shadows of the cottonwoods along the creek. The shallow water rushed over the rocks and a breeze rustled the yellowing leaves overhead. A hundred feet from the bar, they lost the sound of the jukebox, and it was late enough that there was no traffic to be heard on the isolated county road.
She stopped at the edge of the creek and turned back to him, her arms crossed protectively over her breasts. He had the sinking feeling she’d changed her mind.
He was annoyed at how relieved he felt when she said, “How’s this?”
“Fine by me.” He swung the quilt out from under his arm in a furling movement that opened it so it spread out before it hit the ground.
She dropped to her knees on the quilt and straightened the two corners closest to her. He dropped to his knees on the other side but reached for her, rather than the quilt, sliding an arm around her waist and pulling her close, feeling the infinite softness of her breasts — God help him, the real thing — pillowed against his chest.
He felt her body stiffen as his arms closed around her, and he lifted her chin with one finger to search her face in the moonlight. She looked vulnerable. And anxious.
For a single instant, he considered releasing her. But she closed her eyes, shutting out the look of innocence, and he lowered his head and found her mouth with his.
He expected resistance, but she welcomed the intrusion of his tongue and sucked on it as her body surged against his. Her hands knocked off his Stetson and sieved into his hair, holding his head against her mouth as they feasted on one another.
He yanked her lacy top up over her head, swearing at even that momentary break in contact with her mouth, then latched on again as he reached behind her for the clasp on her plain white bra, pulling it down off her arms and throwing it away before his hand cupped one large, creamy orb.
She gasped at his touch in the midst of unsnapping his Western-cut shirt and shoving the soft cotton off his shoulders with hungry hands that sought out his flesh. He reached for her belt, and she wasn’t far behind him, undoing his belt buckle, then grabbing for the snap and zipper on his jeans, which sounded loud in the quiet of the night, broken only by his heavy breathing and hers.
“Dammit!” Breed wanted more movement than he could get with his jeans around his hips. He abruptly let go of her to sit back and yank off his boots. He looked up and caught her grinning at him as she yanked off her boots at the same time, then lifted her hips to scoot out of her jeans, slipping off barely-there white lace panties.
She was naked before he was and launched herself at him with a laugh, pinning him beneath her as he toed off the last of his clothes. He grinned up at her, and the instant his feet were free, rolled her beneath him, settling himself between her thighs and feeling her legs wrap possessively around him.
Which was when he remembered the condom he’d stuck in his jeans pocket. His jeans that were clear the hell on the other side of the quilt. Time enough to retrieve it later. He had more important things to do right now. Like enjoy her mouth. And her long, elegant throat. Her ears with the tiny sapphire studs. Her milk-white breasts with their rosebud tips.
She writhed under him as he took pleasure in tasting her satiny, salty flesh and moaned as she arched her body, pushing her hips against his in a demand for more.
He rolled her on top of him, edging them closer to his jeans and giving her the freedom to move as she sat up, straddling his hips. She scooted back and grabbed on to his erection, smiling slyly as she used her hands to good effect, and then her mouth, making him groan with the exquisite pleasure of what she was doing.
He caught her by the shoulders, knowing that he was losing control and wanting to put himself inside her — but not without a condom. He didn’t intend to have a child of his out there somewhere without a father. He knew too well what that was like. He rolled aside to grab for his jeans, found the condom, and tore open the package with his teeth.
And realized he’d torn the rubber, making it useless. “Shit! Have you got a — ”
“I’m protected,” she said.
Before he could stop her, she slid onto his body, sheathing him in a move so deft that they were joined before he realized what she’d done. He grasped her hips to disengage them, but she began to move in an age-old rhythm that made him groan with the sheer pleasure of feeling, for the very first time in his life, his bare flesh sheathed by female flesh.
She leaned down and joined their mouths, and he was caught in a cocoon of sensation, with the flowery smell of her hair draped over his shoulders and chest, the lime and tequila taste of her mouth, and the exquisite feel of her warm, wet body surrounding him, squeezing him, torturing him with delight.
She brought him to the brink again, but he wasn’t ready to end it so quickly, so he pulled her under him. He looked down on her closed eyes, her languid, shivering body. She moaned and lifted her hips, tightening her legs around him, and he felt himself harden and pulse within her.
He gritted his teeth to delay his climax. He wanted more. He was determined to have more.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him.
He drowned in those dark, limpid pools as he sank into her, thrusting once and feeling her response, thrusting again and feeling her exquisite resistance. Her eyes were focused on his, daring and demanding.
He met her dare. And acquiesced to her demand.
He pressed his mouth fiercely against her throat, finding soft flesh and sucking hard. He growled when he felt her teeth sink into his shoulder. Then he felt her body spasm and uttered a harsh, guttural cry, arching his back with an ecstasy that verged on pain, as he spilled his seed.
As he slid off of her onto his back, staring up at the leaves above them and the moon beyond that, he heard only his own bellowing lungs and her gasping breaths beside him.
At last she sighed and turned on her side to face him, raising herself on her elbow and perching her head on one hand, so she could look down at him.
He slid one hand under his head and turned his face to observe her. He hadn’t forgotten about the reckoning. She wanted something from him. A favor. He was about to find out the price she’d set on the use of her body.
Whatever it was, it had been worth it.
She cleared her throat and said, “How’s it goin’, cowboy?” Her voice was raspy when she spoke, giving him that same impression of having his body stroked. He felt himself quiver, like a stallion presented with a mare in heat.
He wouldn’t have believed he could be aroused again so soon, but his body was knotted with unbearable tension and he felt a blind craving, an unquenchable need to plunge himself into her again. It hadn’t taken much on her part to incite him. A few husky words. A look of invitation. He could see from the satisfied look on her face that she knew the effect she was having on him.
Breed didn’t like feeling manipulated, especially when he wasn’t sure what else she was going to ask for, now that she’d given him what he’d wanted — and gotten him to forgo the condom he never forgot to use. He sat up and brusquely demanded, “What is it you want? What favor is it I owe you now?”
He held his breath as he waited for her answer, certain he wasn’t going to like it one damn bit.
Instead of answering, she sat up, her back to him as she reached for the clothes she’d strewn across the quilt.
“Well?” He grabbed his own clothes and began dragging them on, staring at the smooth, graceful line of her back. Waiting. Wondering. “What is it you want?”
She looked at him over her shoulder and said, “When the time comes that I need your help, cowboy, I’ll be in touch.”
Ten years after Merle Raye Finkel, a terrified runaway girl, is wrongfully convicted of killing her abusive father in bestseller Johnston’s exciting seventh Bittercreek romantic thriller (after The Next Mrs. Blackthorne), Merle’s paroled from a youth facility near Austin, Tex., and assumes a new identity as Grace Caldwell. Grace’s hunt for the true killer, which involves examining all cases her Austin police detective dad, Big Mike Finkel, left unsolved, leads to a surprising suspect, FBI Assistant Special Agent Vincent Harkness, who’s overseeing security for an upcoming visit of the U.S. president to the University of Texas at Austin campus. Grace hooks up with FBI Supervisory Special Agent Breed Grayhawk in hopes of learning more about his boss, Harkness. When Grace’s snooping uncovers a diary by Harkness’s wife detailing her sex addict antics and worse, Grace winds up accused of plotting to assassinate the president. A less successful subplot about Texas Ranger Jack McKinley, Breed’s best friend, provides a cliffhanger that sets up the author’s next nail-biter.
Mass Market Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2009 (Reprint October 2014)