Saturday, January 3, 2015

Joan Johnston -- A Stranger's Game

Joan Johnston -- A Stranger's Game

Rated: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ . ♥   {4.95}
Action: ♠♠♠♠ / Emotion: ♣♣♣♣.♣ / Romance: ♥♥♥♥.♥ / Sensuous: ♦♦ / Suspense: ♠♠♠♠
Action: 4.0 / Emotion: 4.5 / Romance: 4.5 / Sensuous: 2.0 / Suspense: 4.0  //  Laughter: 2 / Giggle: 2  //  Tears: 1 / Teary: 2

Setting:       Austin, Texas
Era:             Present Day (2007)
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Wow!   A Stranger's Game, the seventh book in The Bitter Creek Series is an awesomely thrilling, romantic, un-put-down-able read.   Joan Johnston is a favorite author and she has taken me on quite an entertaining journey as I re-read many of her books (originally read eight years ago) so I could be aware of what was happening to the characters being featured in The Bitter Creek Series before continuing to read the next books in the series that were not available all those years ago.

This is the kind of Romantic Suspense book that is such a joy to read.   The suspense was top-notch, leaving the reader tightly wound, wondering what twist and turn the story was going to take next.   Johnston kept her readers in a constant state of intrigue as she wove an intricate tale about Grace Elizabeth Caldwell, who was looking for the man who framed her for the murder of her parents.

The book opened with one of those wonderful kinds of Prologues that really draws the reader into the life of the heroine of the book and created an immediate emotional connection.   Johnston painted a picture of the horrific life that young Merle Raye Finkel had to endure because her cruel, wife- and child-beating father, Big Mike Finkel, was an Austin Police Department detective.   While Merle Raye often thought about ways of killing Big Mike and figured she could get away with murder since her father often spoke at the dinner table of how he followed the clues which helped him apprehend criminals, she would never have harmed a hair on the head of her beloved stepmother, Allie, who often took beatings to spare her from Big Mike.

Grace Elizabeth Caldwell is introduced ten years later after spending eight years in the Texas Youth Commission facility at Giddings for being wrongly convicted of killing Big Mike and Allie at the tender age of thirteen.   Thanks to Nana Glory and the particularly brutal beating Big Mike had dealt to his daughter, Grace was not given a life sentence.   But while Grace had been locked away, she was educated in criminology.
Juvie had been a school of hard knocks, and Merle Raye had graduated with honors.   She'd learned all there was to know about lying, stealing, intimidation, handmade weapons, picking locks, boosting cars, and faking identities.   Most important of all, she'd learned patience.   How to wait for what she wanted.   (Grace, page 42)
When Grace was released at twenty-one, a year after Nana Glory passed away, leaving her a boatload of money, she went off the grid and began searching for Allie's killer.   One thing that was greatly enjoyable about Grace in her search was her success at solving crimes.   Grace managed to solve four of Big Mike's five cold cases.

Another interesting addition to the story was the inclusion of a support group, Victims of Vengeance, that Grace originated in which she taught other students at the University of Texas in Austin (where she posed as a student) how to find the person(s) that law enforcement officials failed to find.   The people responsible for making each of them victims.   This really brought to light that many horrendous crimes often go unsolved.   The members of the group included: {1} twenty-year-old Troy McMahon, now a paraplegic after a hit-and-run accident, which the cops never solved; {2} Christy Wheatland, a pretty blond, whose rapist hadn't been caught; {3} Ruby Franklin lost three fingers from a gunshot at a convenience store robbery and the guy had never been caught; and {4} Susan Garrity was assaulted and robbed at an ATM, which resulted in the lose of an eye.

These victims played minimal roles in the story, but they were, nevertheless, important to the plotting sequences.   One other character that played an important role in the story, but was not a member of Victims of Vengeance, but could have been, since he had to use a wheelchair after losing his legs to an IED while serving in Iraq in the National Guard, was young Harry Gunderson.   Harry was Troy McMahon's roommate and Troy was Grace's main contact while arranging meetings with the Victims of Vengeance.

It is fascinating to watch the way that Johnston takes a variety of characters and events, like these Victims of Vengeance, and weaves them into the tapestry of the story in such a clever manner that she creates great interest and added suspense to a well-told story.   It is special little inclusions like this that reveals Johnston as a gifted storyteller.

Johnston keeps the story line moving in different directions because she doesn't limit the background happenings to just one event.   While Grace is hunting for the killer of her parents, FBI Supervisory Special Agent, Breed Grayhawk, Supervisor of the Austin Joint Terrorism Task Force, assigned to work on the UT campus, is participating in a meeting with {1} his boss, Vincent "Vince" Harkness, FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Austin satellite office, and {2} Breed's boss's boss, Craig Westwood, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Antonio office, to work on security details for the upcoming visit by President John Coleman, who is giving the keynote address at the National Governors Association Annual Meeting in the LBJ Auditorium on the UT campus.   (Keeping all those details straight was an exercise in perseverance.   Had to keep going back and re-reading, while thinking, okay who is who and who is doing what?)

Johnston draws such bold, vivid pictures with her words as she introduces Breed's bosses.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Breed Grayhawk was caught in the middle between two barnyard dogs, their neck hairs hackled and their teeth bared, warily circling, looking for an opening to rip out each other's throat.   He didn't move.   He hardly breathed.   He didn't want to get noticed and maybe have both beasts turn their slavering fangs on him.   (Breed, page 7)
Since it is Friday and Breed has had a difficult day and faces a difficult week, he heads out of town to one of his favorite cowboy bars, Digger's, for a cold beer and, hopefully, a warm woman.   Breed sits down next to Grace, who doesn't even bother to hide her interest in Breed.   This was such a wonderfully entertaining, mouth-watering scene.   The mutual attraction was there and since this is a romance book, you just know that Grace and Breed are going to end up together.

The sensuality in the scene when Breed and Grace head out to the creek behind the bar with a blanket to have hot, sweaty sex is present, but the sizzle factor was missing.   (Probably because there was no emotional connection between Breed and Grace yet and that is an important factor when it comes to well-written, spicy, heated love scenes in a book.)   When Grace and Breed did make love again later in the book, the passion was again hot, but the sensuality factor was again, as is Johnston's usual style, understated.

Breed was fascinated by Grace, who walked away from him without giving him her last name or a phone number, telling him that she will call him when she is ready to collect on the favor he now owes her.   Since Breed is a top notch investigator, he begins looking for Grace the next morning before heading out to San Antonio to attend the birthday party of Kate Grayhawk Pendleton's eight-year-old twin sons, Lucky and Chance.

In typical, Joan Johnston fashion, a secondary story about Jack McKinley and Kate Grayhawk Pendleton was going on in the background of Breed and Grace's story.   Not that this is a bad thing, but, come on, shouldn't Johnston have written Jack and Kate's story before she wrote Breed's story.   After all Kate was nineteen nine years ago and Breed was sixteen.   (Sassy Grayhawk, Breed's mother, told North that Breed was fourteen, but he was really sixteen.   (Which raises all kinds of questions like, why didn't North (Grayhawk) and Jocelyn (Montrose) notice how old Breed really was when he went to school?   (in The Next Mrs. Blackthorne)))   Also, this makes Breed feel younger -- even though Breed was never a young man simply because of the difficult life that he was forced to endure at the hands of an alcoholic mother who dropped him off at the homes of friends and relatives while she went to rehab to look for another husband.

Boy did Kate screw up royally in her youthful zest to spite the world when Jack married his high school sweetheart.   Against her parent's advice, Kate impetuously married a UT quarterback, who turned out to be a womanizing gambler who cared nothing for the twins Kate bore to the marriage.   And not only did Kate have to endure the 'husband from hell' for nine years, but the apple didn't fall from the tree.   Kate was still stuck with J.D. Pendleton's mother after his death last year in an explosion in Iraq.

Ann Wade Pendleton is the Governor of Texas and possesses no heart.   She has not one kind thing to say about anyone, and is constantly bad-mouthing Kate and her family.   Ann Wade, who is a master manipulator, has the power and the wealth to pull strings to be vindictive to those who don't kowtow to her bidding.   It didn't seem possible that Johnston could have created a character even more cold-blooded and evil than Evelyn "Eve" DeWitt Blackthorne, but Ann Wade Pendleton is that woman.
"When King Grayhawk and Jackson Blackthorne are in the same room together, it's like standing bare-assed in a nest of rattlers.   You don't know which way to jump."   (Ann Wade Pendleton, page 106)

Kate resisted the urge to glare at her mother-in-law, who was slinging barbed comments like a wayward child standing at a safe distance and poking at a chained up dog with a sharp stick.   (Kate, page 121)

Kate could feel the animosity rolling off her mother-in-law.   Her emotions were that powerful.   She wondered what Ann Wade would do to hurt Jack.   She was bound to do something.   Because although she manipulated people herself, she hated being manipulated.   She would retaliate somehow.   (Kate, page 434)
Johnston gave both Jack and Kate voices in this book.   And she began inserting little hints to tell readers that she has some surprises in store for readers when it is time to tell their story.
there were other reasons he wasn't the right man for her.   Things about himself that he would never share with anyone.   Things about himself he buried deep, in hopes they would never be discovered.   (Jack, page 201)

They're not your sons!   (Kate, page 219)

It had taken Kate a long time to grow up.   She'd learned the hard way -- during nine years of marriage -- how to stand on her own two feet.   She was a mother, with two children who were her first priority.   She needed to protect Lucky and Chance.   Her own feelings and desires came a distant second.   (Kate, page 313)
Jack and Kate were spending time together because Ann Wade Pendleton had thrown her weight around, pulling Jack from his investigation into the gambling syndication that had ruined his pro football career to be on her personal security detail.   Ann Wade wanted Jack to watch over her grandsons because they now needed a father figure.   Before Johnston threw a wrench in the works, Kate and Jack professed their love for one another.
He wanted her.   And they were both free.   (Jack, page 206)

She was afraid to be alone with him, because she wanted so much to be held by him.   (Kate, page 310)
Ever since reading The Next Mrs. Blackthorne, the desire to read Jack and Kate's story has been ever present.   Johnston has really created a tie between readers and Jack and Kate.   The only reason it was okay that Johnston ended A Stranger's Game with an incredible cliffhanger ending regarding Jack and Kate is because their book, Shattered, is right now waiting on the shelf for this review to be written.   If I was one of those readers who reads books as soon as they were published, rather than collecting the series of books and reading them back-to-back, this would not be okay because Johnston did not publish Shattered until 2½ years after this book was published.   That is too long a time to have to wait between books in a series, especially when Johnston so successfully inspired our interest in reading Jack's and Kate's story and left us hanging on a ledge in A Stranger's Game.

Another thing that authors are really good at, is throwing together two characters that it seems improbable to have developed a close tie.   For instance, Breed and Jack are such close friends that they have purchased a run down ranch house that they are restoring.   The ranch, called Twin Magnolias, was featured quite frequently in A Stranger's Game.   But how did Breed and Jack come to be such close friends.   Jack is sixteen years older than Breed.   And while Breed is close friends with his niece, Kate, Kate would not have been in close contact with Jack because they were married to other people during the nine years between The Next Mrs. Blackthorne and this book.   Not that it really matters, but the development of this relationship was a curiosity.   Maybe Jack was mentoring Breed because he wanted to become a Texas Ranger.

Johnston also gave FBI SAC Vincent Harkness a point of view voice in the book as she introduced him as the one of the most unique villains to walk through the pages of a book.   The fact that readers were invited into the mind of this serial killer in no way detracted from the tension and intrigue that this story generated.   In fact, it increased it.   Simply because it was impossible not to wonder how Breed and Grace were going to deal with each of the road blocks that Vincent threw in their way as they were trying to prove that this respected family man was not a good guy.   Especially since Vincent was at the office issuing orders and Breed and Grace were considered fugitives.

The real surprise in the story was Vincent's wife, Stephanie Harkness.   In her efforts to find Allie's killer, Grace used her skills as a burglar to search the Harkness home and found Stephanie's diary, which revealed she was a sex addict.   It was this invasion that told Vincent he was in danger of discovery and he used this knowledge to make things even more dicey for Grace.

And Grace was one exceptionally smart cookie.   What a great heroine.   Even though she had serious trust issues and was walking a very precarious line, which could land her in prison for life if she took a wrong move, Grace revealed a caring and compassionate nature.

The romance that developed between Breed and Grace was very well done.   Even though they hooked up for a one-night stand in the beginning of the book, as they were forced together to try and keep Grace alive and clear her name, they had to learn to trust one another -- something that was difficult for both of them.   Johnston slowly revealed the soft underside of these two heart-hardened characters.
He was losing the battle to keep his distance, both physically and emotionally.   (Breed, page 279)

He didn't trust a woman not to abandon him.   (Breed, page 279)

She didn't trust a man not to hurt her.   (Breed, page 279)
Johnston kept this story moving at a quick pace because she included a lot of action to the story.   Breed was using his exceptional skills to find Grace after she disappeared, just as Grace was using her outstanding skills at evading discovery.   Then once Grace came to Breed to collect on her favor, they were forced to work together, looking for safe refuge and having to turn to Jack for help because Vincent was leading the manhunt for them.

An example of how entertaining Johnston is as a storyteller is the inclusion of Steve in Breed's JFFT group.   During one of the tense, exciting scenes as Breed and Grace fled from Vincent, Breed got a call from Steve with helpful information.   When Breed asked Steve why he was helping, he replied.
"There was nothing but peat moss in the van, for Christ's sake.   And I don't like the son of a bitch."   (Steve, page 340)
There were cameo appearances in the book of Kate's grandparents Jackson "Blackjack" Blackthorne and Lauren "Ren" Creed Blackthorne as well as Kate's parents, Clay and Libby Blackthorne.   King Grayhawk, however, played a larger role in this book because he was making an effort to reconcile with the son he threw out of his house the day he was born.   Breed, however, was not willing to give King a second chance -- that is, until he needed King's help to save Grace.   In the end, Breed realized, that like most children, he loved his father and wanted to have him around for a while.

If such a thing is possible, it seems that this book had three extremely-tense, spine-tingling, action-packed big finales.   First, there was the showdown between Vincent and Grace (and one other) at her hideaway cabin in the woods.   Next, there was the showdown of a killer at the LBJ Auditorium where Breed and Jack were working to protect the president and the state governors attending the National Governors Association Annual Meeting.   And, finally, there was the showdown between Breed, Grace, and Vincent at the Harkness house.

In closing, A Stranger's Game, Joan Johnston's seventh book in The Bitter Creek Series is a must read for those who love an exceptional Romantic Suspense book.   However, to understand all the nuances in this book, it should be read as part of the series.   The wonderful things about this book include: {1} Breed Grayhawk, a handsome, hunky, strong-willed, determined, yet compassionate hero; {2} Grace Elizabeth Caldwell, a unique heroine who is smart, cagey, unwilling to give up, and hides a caring heart under thick skin; {4} Jack McKinley, the strong, handsome, Texas Ranger who won our hearts in the previous book; {5} Kate Grayhawk Pendleton, a mature, overworked, overwhelmed widow and mother of twin boys; {6} a lot of action to keep the story exciting; {7} a strong undercurrent of romance ran throughout the entire book between the two couples; {8} a deep emotional connection to the characters which resulted in tears and laughter; {9} a spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat degree of suspense kept one from putting the book down; {10} an understated sensuality when Breed and Grace made hot, passionate love; {11} intriguing, interesting secondary characters, including: {a} Vincent "Vince" Harkness, {b} Stephanie Harkness, {c} Craig Westwood, {d} King Grayhawk, {e} Ann Wade Pendleton, {f} J.D. Pendleton, {g} Troy McMahon, {h} Harry Gunderson, {i} Frank McKinley, {j} Steve, {k} Lucky Pendleton, and {l} Chance Pendleton, and finally, {12} cameo appearances were made by: {a} Jackson "Blackjack" Blackthorne; {b} Lauren "Ren" Creed Blackthorne; {c} Clay Blackthorne; and {d} Libby Blackthorne.   This book will certainly be added to my "To Be Re-Read" list.
--Vonda M. Reid (Friday, January 2, 2015 : 5:55 p.m.)     [354]

Books In The Series: "The Bitter Creek Series"
# Date Title Hero Heroine
01.02-2000The CowboyTrace Blackthorne: eldest sonCallie Creed: eldest daughter
  secondary story:Jackson "Blackjack" Blackthorne: family patriarchLauren "Ren" Creed: family matriarch
02.03-2001The TexanOwen Blackthorne: Texas RangerBayleigh "Bay" Creed: veterinarian
  secondary story:Jackson "Blackjack" Blackthorne: family patriarchLauren "Ren" Creed: family matriarch
  secondary story:'Bad' Billy Coburn: dirt poor, town bad boySummer Blackthorne: spoiled little rich girl
03.03-2002The LonerBilly Coburn: dirt poor, town bad boySummer Blackthorne: spoiled little rich girl
  secondary story:Jackson "Blackjack" Blackthorne: family patriarchLauren "Ren" Creed: family matriarch
  secondary story:Sam Creed: eldest sonEmma Coburn: Billy's sister
04.03-2003The PriceLuke Creed: Houston D&B attorneyAmelia "Amy" Hazeltine Nash: his high school sweetheart
  secondary story:Drew Dewitt: Houston D&B attorneyGrayson Choate: Houston D&B attorney
05.09-2004The RivalsDrew DeWitt: wealthy playboySarah Barndollar: Teton County Deputy Sheriff
  secondary story:Clayton "Clay" Blackthorne: U.S. Attorney GeneralElsbeth "Libby" Grayhawk: back-country guide
06.09-2005The Next Mrs. BlackthorneNorth Grayhawk: Texas and Wyoming rancherJocelyn Montrose: socialite
  secondary story:Jack McKinley: former NFL quarterback, playboyKatherine "Kate" Grayhawk: UT freshman
  secondary story:Clayton "Clay" Blackthorne: new Federal JudgeElsbeth "Libby" Grayhawk: wilderness guide
07.07-2007A Stranger's GameBreed Grayhawk: FBI AgentGrace Caldwell: framed for murder
  secondary story:Jack McKinley: Texas RangerKatherine "Kate" Grayhawk Pendleton: mother of twins
08.01-2010ShatteredWyatt Shaw: billionaireKatherine "Kate" Grayhawk Pendleton: physical therapist
  secondary story:Jack McKinley: Texas RangerHolly Gayle Tanner McKinley: pediatric oncologist
09.04-2012Texas Bride [1]Jacob "Jake" CreedMiranda Wentworth
10.01-2013Wyoming Bride [1]Flint CreedHannah Wentworth McMurty
10e03-2014A Bitter Creek Christmas. . .. . .
11.01-2014Montana Bride [1]Karl NorwoodHetty Wentworth
12.05-2014SinfulConnor Flynn: widower, Delta ForceEve Grayhawk:
[1]   These books are listed as a Historical Romance Sub-Series entitled "The Mail Order Brides".

Characters Found In "A Stranger's Game"
Character Description
Breed Grayhawk[Hero] FBI Supervisory Special Agent (7) Supervisor of the Austin Joint Terrorism Task Force; assigned to JTTF for 2 years (10) because of work on UT campus, allowed to wear a Stetson, an open-throated, Western-cut shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots (13) drove cobalt-blue Dodge Ram (14) appointed a sone of 6 FBI special agents to JTTF 2-y-a; posed at a graduate student in business; son to King Grayhawk; when born, father had taken one look at his crow-black hair, odd silver-gray eyes, and copper-hued skin, named him Breed and started divorce proceedings (14) all his life had known when trouble was on the way; a sixth sense, a survival mechanism; pawned off to relatives and friends when mother went into rehab (17) didn't do relationships (18) copper hue to skin; high cheekbones; blade of nose; narrow lips; chiseled chin (19) broad shoulders; lean waist; long legs (20) carried Glock 22; 6'4" (23) didn't like being manipulated (29) tightly leashed temper (32) tall; strong; ruggedly handsome (37) wanted to become a Texas Ranger (97) stoic face (108) broad chest; ripped abs (262) like King, proud, stubborn, ruthless (391)
Grace Elizabeth Caldwell[Heroine] formerly Merle Raye (1) stunning blue eyes; pretty, rather than beautiful; eyes were too far apart and her nose was a little crooked; mouth looked very kissable; full, pink lips (18) unbelievably light and creamy complexion; straight black hair that fell halfway down her back; nearly perfect white teeth; husky voice (19) 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; full lips that gave a man ideas; small white scar on upper right edge of lips; self-possessed; finely arched brow with another barely-there scar slicing through the right edge of it; milky white shoulders; amazing pair of breasts; low-cut lace-trimmed white sleeveless top; a narrow cowboy-belted waist flared into childbearing hips (20) slender jean-clad legs (21) small hand; surprisingly strong grip (22) barely reached Breed's shoulder (23) cheap, dark blue foreign-made car; Michigan license plate (24) lived in the shadows; never had an easy life; at 13, accused, tried, and convicted of the horrific double murder of her father and stepmother (39) tried and convicted as a juvenile offender; spent next 8 years in Texas Youth Commission's high restriction facility at Giddings (41) 22-y-o (265)
. . .. . .
Jack McKinley[Secondary Hero] [Hero of Book 8 / Shattered] Texas Ranger; Breed's friend (16) handsome; blond hair; blue eyes; married (110) married his high school sweetheart; 32-y-o + 9 = 41-y-o; stats from the days when he had been a pro football quarterback: 6'3"; 212 pounds; son-streaked chestnut hair (123) looked harder, more remote, even less approachable than he'd been all those years ago; wore Texas Ranger uniform: a crisp, white, longer-sleeve Western-cut shirt tucked into Wrangler jeans, a black bolo tie with a silver and turquoise clasp, and black ostrich cowboy boots; SIG-Sauer P226 rested in a tooled leather slide holster at his waist; gray felt Stetson; Sergeant; Ann Wade arranged to have him assigned as protective detail for Governor's grandsons (124) grew up in a household where they had been flush one week and out in the streets the next; left home for college on a football scholarship, thinking he was finally free of his father (142) rumors started that he'd lost the Super Bowl game on purpose; his teammates refused to play with him; no one could prove anything, but he'd been forced to quit football; he'd purchased a restaurant in Austin called the Longhorn Grille; been on the verge of losing it to the IRS when the Texas Rangers had come calling (144)
Kate Grayhawk Pendleton[Secondary Heroine] [Heroine of Book 8 / Shattered] Libby's daughter; 29-y-o; Breed's niece; a few years older than Breed (80) white blouse with a red V-neck sleeveless sweater; Levi's; white Keds without socks (106) widow; life had tumbled into a state of chaos when she precipitously married (109) big mistake in choosing a spouse; married in a typically stupid teenage fashion after her parents advised her not to marry so young or so soon after a handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed campus stud had swept her off her feet; in a fit of pique and resentment, had married the wrong man when Jack married someone else (110) had a secret that could ruin her if it was discovered (111) physical therapist at Brooke Army Medical Center (115)
. . .. . .
Buck Betters[No Appearance] had bet Chance he could eat more tamales than him (384)
Big Doc[Animal] quarter horse that Blackjack and Ren gave to Lucky for his birthday (114)
Clay Blackthorne[Rare Appearances] [Book 6 / The Next Mrs. Blackthorne] Kate's father; King Grayhawk's vow of vengeance against Blackjack prevented him from marrying Libby when she was pregnant with Kate (107) married Libby 9-y-a after spending 20 years apart (108) a federal judge in Austin (119) had been U.S. Attorney General before becoming a federal judge (222)
Dallas Blackthorne[No Appearance] Clay and Libby's 6-y-o daughter (110)
Eve DeWitt Blackthorne[No Appearance] married Jackson Blackthorne; dowry of 50,000 acres of rich DeWitt grassland (107) had committed suicide when threatened with divorce by Blackjack (108)
Houston Blackthorne[No Appearance] Clay and Libby's 8-y-o son (110)
Jackson "Blackjack" Blackthorne[Rare Appearances] [Featured in: The Cowboy, The Texan, The Loner] Kate Grayhawk Pendleton's grandfather; owned South Texas ranch the size of Vermont (106) had stolen Eve DeWitt away from King when they were young man, marrying her to get his hands on her dowry of 50,000 acres of rich DeWitt grassland, that been mortal enemies (107) tall, with impressively broad, square shoulders at an age when most men had brittle bones that left them bent over; his face was deeply tanned and filled with crevices that seemed hewn from stone; his thick head of black hair had turned completely silver with age; dressed casually in Western shirt, jeans and boots; piercing gray eyes; "GeePa" (113)
[Lauren] Ren Creed [Blackthorne][Rare Appearances] [Featured in: The Cowboy, The Texan, The Loner] the love of Blackjack's life; married after Eve committee suicide (108) auburn hair was streaked with silver and captured in a French braid that ran halfway down her back; lines of experience on her face, no one would ever accuse her of using Botox or Restylane; dressed casually in Western shirt, jeans and boots; GeeMa (113)
Libby [Grayhawk] [Blackthorne][Rare Appearances] [Book 6 / The Next Mrs. Blackthorne] Breed's elder half sister (80) Kate's mother; had suffered the most, by being separated from the man she loved, when King Grayhawk would not allow her to marry Clay Blackthorne when she was pregnant with Kate (107) married Clay 9-y-a after spending 20 years apart (108)
Troy Carver[No Appearance] s5'8"; 165 pounds; brown eyes were so light they were almost hazel; black hair streaked with a white blond; wearing a nose ring and an eyebrow stud; Chinese tattoo visible on his neck (87)
Clete[No Appearance] Grace's previous sexual partner (30) serving a life sentence, that began at Giddings, for a gang shooting (259)
President John Coleman[One Appearance] giving the keynote address at the National Governors Association Annual Meeting in the LBJ Auditorium on UT campus (8)
Charlie Dawson[No Appearance] an older, experienced agent who had seen it all; told Jack about the Peat Moss in van (292)
John Dickson[No Appearance] lived in Norman, Oklahoma; had sex with Stephanie (77) murdered outside the bar where he met Stephanie (78)
Allie Finkel[Brief Appearance] Merle Raye's stepmother (1) Merle Raye revered her (39)
Merle Raye Finkel[Heroine] skinny 11-y-o body (1) mother died when she was born; Big Mike named her after his two best friends (3) learned to keep her mouth shut; nicknamed by other kids as Mertle the Turtle; inherited father's blue eyes and straight black hair; short tempered; smart; would never raise a hand or fist against man or animal, except Big Mike (4) listened as Big Mike bragged about solving cases (5) learned all there was to know about lying, stealing, intimidation, handmade weapons, picking locks, boosting cars, and faking identities, and patience in juvie (42)
Big Mike Finkel[Brief Appearance] Merle Raye's father; fisted meaty hands; cop with Austin Police Department; wife and daughter beater (1) drunk; mean son of a bitch; broad shoulders; a head full of shiny black hair; twinkly blue eyes; short tempered (4) homicide detective (5) service revolver was a .45 caliber Glock 50 (40)
Rudy Franklin[Rare Appearances] member of Victims of Vengeance; freckled face redhead; gunshot victim; convenience store robbery; never caught the guy; missing three fingers (98)
Susan Garrity[Rare Appearances] ATM robbery and aggravated assault; a brunette with one apparently glass brown eye not quite matching brown eye (99)
Gary[No Appearance] Brian Harkness's friend; Brian spend the night with him (417)
Nana Glory[No Appearance] Merle Raye's birth mother's mother (4) died a year before Grace got out of juvie; left Grace money to search for Allie's murderer (42) left Grace $3,575,432.31 (43) maternal grandmother (70)
Gray Grayhawk[No Appearance] child of King and Jill; known for youthful escapades in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; known as one of King's Brats; in 20s; stayed close to Kingdom Come (107)
Jane Grayhawk[No Appearance] King Grayhawk's first wife; mother to Matthew, North, Libby (107)
Jill Grayhawk[No Appearance] King's fourth wife; three kids (Taylor, Gray, Victoria) in five years before should run off with one of King's cow hands (107)
King Grayhawk[Secondary Character] governor of Wyoming; Breed's father; had never been a father to Breed (15) had to leave Wyoming for Austin to attend the NGA Annual Meeting (106) had married four times looking for someone to replace Eve; none of the marriages had taken (107) Kate Grayhawk Pendleton's grandfather; lived most of his life mad and miserable; his vow of revenge against Blackjack had prevented Kate's father from marrying Kate's mother (107) had gone nearly insane with rage and grief when Eve DeWitt committed suicide (108) regretted kicking out Breed when remembered great-great-grandfather who had a Sioux bride (109) black hair; (251) deep-set blue eyes, strong, straighten nose, cleft chin, and silver-streaked black hair; over 6 feet tall; straight black hair (321) proud, stubborn, ruthless (391)
Leonora Grayhawk[No Appearance] King Grayhawk's second wife, but didn't really count because marriage was annulled (107)
North [Grayhawk][No Appearance] [Hero of Book 7 / The Next Mrs. Blackthorne] Breed's elder brother; mother dropped Breed off at his ranch when he was 16-y-o and forgot about him (81) ranch west of Austin; held Fourth of July picnics (97)
Sassy [Grayhawk][No Appearance] Breed's mother (15) frequent visitor to alcohol rehab; met and married lush's she met in rehab; found guys to pay for plastic surgery to give her a new face and a more bosomy figure (17) King Grayhawk's third wife (107) blond hair; sky blue eyes; milky white skin (250) a drunk; swore never cheated on King (251) dead; driving drunk (252)
Taylor Grayhawk[No Appearance] child of King and Jill; known for youthful escapades in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; known as one of King's Brats; in 20s; stayed close to Kingdom Come (107)
Victoria Grayhawk[No Appearance] child of King and Jill; known for youthful escapades in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; known as one of King's Brats; in 20s; stayed close to Kingdom Come (107)
Troy Grover[No Appearance] smiling; clean-shaven; too close set brown eyes; large, bulbous nose; 18; 5'6"; 220 pounds (87)
Harry Gunderson[Secondary Character] young man; sat in a wheelchair; blond hair; wore tortoiseshell glasses; wide, guileless smile (94) a National Guard vet; lost his legs to an IED (343) governor turned down his request to remain stateside and help his mother; mother died because of injuries sustained working on tractor; farm taken by bank; Harry couldn't work farm because lost legs; being retrained to find work in wheelchair (344)
George Hansen[No Appearance] one of Stephanie's lovers; details in her diary (62)
Brian Harkness[Rare Appearance] Vincent and Stephanie's teenaged son (47)
Chloe Harkness[Rare Appearance] Vincent and Stephanie's teenaged daughter (47)
Stephanie Harkness[Secondary Character] Vince Harkness's wife (11) addicted to sex; had been having sex with anonymous men she picked up in small-town bars while she was traveling on business, instructing some hospital how to implement medical software sold to it by MedWare, Inc.; good mother to her 2 children (57) large blue eyes set far apart; a petite, nicely curved figure that made Breed think of a cheerleader; wore a white, buttoned-down oxford clothe shirt tucked into belted jeans with a crisply ironed crease and shined penny loafers without socks; naturally honey-blond hair was cut even with her jaw, and she wore it in a pageboy with bangs that just touched her eyebrows (155)
Vincent "Vince" Harkness[Major Secondary Character] opinionated; bull-headed (7) FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge; dark brown eyes (8) Breed's boss (9) dark brown hair cut in a crew cut (9) 5'9" (10) Craig Westwood has been thorn in his side since he joined the FBI; stiffly starched white oxford clothe shirt; rep-striped tie; graduated in same class as Westwood, 5 points ahead of him; wore standard FBI dark suit and tie (12) transferred from Southwest region when Stephanie's mother got sick to satellite office in Georgia (13) sat at same table as Cancer Society Murder victim; lived right down the street from Harve Thompson; worked in same office as Harve (30) 43-y-o; hanging on until retirement; gritted his teeth through every day of his professional life since Craig Westwood had become the San Antonio SAC last year -- and his boss; bitter; believed he should be in charge of a regional office by now (54) overreacted when caught wife cheating and had crossed over to the dark side (55) had discovered Stephanie's diary 9 years, 3 months, 22 days ago (56) dated Stephanie all through high school and college, and had married her when they were both 21 (57) loved his wife (69) Breed's mentor and friend (97) a moral man; had always obeyed the rules; had done as he was told as a child; he'd walked the straight and narrow and attended church (414)
Harley[Animal] what the twins named the black lab that Breed had given them for their birthday (307)
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Harmon[No Appearance] girl Merle Raye Finkel met in juvie; saved Merle Raye's life at the cost of her own (41) Grace's confidant in juvie; told her to have sex with Clete (259)
Merle Hogart[No Appearance] Mike Finkel's partner; first house Grace broke into; drank every bit as much as Mike (44)
Janice[No Appearance] Chloe Harkness's friend; Chloe spending the night with her (417)
Jimmy Joe[Brief Appearance] bartender at Digger's (18)
David Allen Jones[No Appearance] Army Private; 19-y-o; former Uvalde High School Coyotes lineman, voted half of the Best-Looking couple his senior year, whose parents owned a mohair goat ranch, had been scheduled for a physical therapy session with Kate at 11 a.m, didn't show up, so Kate went to him (379) lost his left eye, where his face had been slashed to the bone by shrapnel from an IED, along with his left leg below the knee (380) hazel eye (381)
Little Doc[Animal] quarter horse that Blackjack and Ren gave to Chance for his birthday (114)
Frank McKinley[Brief Appearances] Jack's father; gambler; drinker; gambling, and losing, and taking out his frustration -- and shame and embarrassment -- on his family (142) addiction had robbed him of his dignity and cost Jack, at one time or another, all the things in his life that he had held most dear (143) pitiful, pitiable man (145)
Gayle McKinley[No Appearance] Jack's ex-wife (148)
Jessica [McKinley][No Appearance] Jack McKinley's younger sister; had married unreliable man to escape home (142)
Joleen [McKinley][No Appearance] Jack McKinley's younger sister; had married unreliable man to escape home (142)
Rose McKinley[Brief Appearances] Jack's mother; tall; once elegant; plain cotton dress; dark brown eyes (141) made excuses for husband's behavior (142)
Ryan McKinley[No Appearance] Jack's 6-y-o son (149)
Troy McMahon[Secondary Character] in a wheelchair; Grace brought him to Digger's about 3-m-a (84) fuzz for a beard; black hair, dark brown eyes; about 160 pounds; average height; t-shirt; jeans; tennis shoes; very polite; a paraplegic; new wheelchair (85) solemn boy with peach fuzz on his cheeks and chin and under his nose; had short, curly black hair and eyes so brown he seemed to have no irises; had a faintly Middle Eastern appearance, with a hawk nose, skin a dark shade of brown, and heavy black brows; 5'10"; 160 pounds; brown eyes; black hair; lived in Jester East; 20-y-o (87) victim of hit-and-run; cops never found guy who ran him down; member of Victims of Vengeance (99)
Ann Wade Pendleton[Major Secondary Character] Texas governor; Kate's mother-in-law; the bane of Kate's existence for the past 9 years; black St. John knit suit; nylon stockings; Chanel pumps; always dressed formally (105) short, naturally curly blond hair was perfectly coiffed; her makeup on a surgically enhanced face, was subtle and impeccable; made Kate feel like a frump; East Texas accent she'd acquired growing up in the piney woods near Houston (106) smoker; blamed Kate for J.D.'s death (112) had a set of male balls, which pretty much every opponent she'd ever faced in the political arena would concede (118) icy blue eyes (319) as babies, twins called her Manway; she didn't like the name (384)
Chance Pendleton[Secondary Character] Kate's 8-y-o twin son (80) tall for his age; black hair; Kate's bright blue eyes; mischievous; fun-loving; bright (113) played soccer, football, and baseball (115)
J.D. Pendleton[One Appearance] Kate's husband (109) University of Texas quarterback; had lived a spoiled, privileged life; felt entitled to have things handed to him, rather than having to work for them; he cheated on Kate, discreetly, of course, with women too numerous to count; when Kate turned 25, and he could get his hands on her trust fund, he'd gambled -- and lost -- it on risky ventures; was not a good father; considered his sons, who loved him dearly, a bother and a nuisance; threatened to take the twins if Kate divorced him; needed Kate's grandfathers' support when he ran for president of the United States someday; killed in an explosion so devastating that his remains had needed to be identified using his DNA, while reforming the military service he believed would help his candidacy (110) a son of a bitch who had learned it at the knee of a master (131) dead for a year (207) tall; his eyes were dark, sunken hollows in a pale, gaunt face; his hair was light-colored, long and link (214) rode black Harley-Davidson (307)
Lucky Pendleton[Secondary Character] Kate's 8-y-o twin son (80) tall for his age; black hair; Kate's bright blue eyes; mischievous; fun-loving; bright (113) elder by 5 minutes (114) played soccer, football, and baseball (115)
Dave Randall[No Appearance] Texas Ranger that was assigned the syndicate case Jack had been working on (149)
Scratch[Animal] calico kitten that Libby gave the twins for their birthday; scratched the boys every time the tried to pick her up (310)
Sandy Simmons[One Appearance] teaching Lucky and Chance to ride (380)
Ray Simms[No Appearance] Mike Finkel's other best friend; planned to write a book about his life; had copied all the murder books for every case that had been opened in the department; Grace stole them (44)
Steve[Secondary Character] UT cop assigned full-time to JTTF force; manning the office over the weekend (88)
Harve Thompson[No Appearance] FBI Special Agent; murdered by Vince Harkness when he found him in closet of Four Seasons hotel after having sex with Stephanie (58)
Peggy Thompson[No Appearance] Harve Thompson's wife (74)
Todd[No Appearance] works at the bagel shop where Troy has breakfast every morning (274)
Cecil Tubbs[No Appearance] suspect in the Harve Thompson murder; a drug addict and FBI informant; big Mike nor the FBI found enough evidence to bring him to trial; Grace believed he had been framed for the murder; a victim of a hit and run accident (46)
Ray Turner[No Appearance] lived in Amarillo, Texas; had sex with Stephanie; murdered a year ago outside the bar where he met Stephanie (78)
Craig Westwood[Secondary Character] FBI Special Agent in Charge; opinionated; bull-headed (7) San Antonio SAC; Breed's boss's boss (8) piercing blue-eyed gaze; 6'5"; broad shoulders (10) kissed a lot of ass on his way to the top (12) worked in Southwest region, then moved to Washington, D.C. and made a name for himself, before returning to South Texas as regional SAC (13)
Emily Westwood[No Appearance] Craig Westwood's wife (11)
Christy Wheatland[Rare Appearances] member of Victims of Vengeance; pretty blond; victim of rape; rapist hasn't been caught (98)

Locations, Organizations Found In "A Stranger's Game"
Location / Organization Description
Amarillo, Texaswhere Ray Turner lived (78)
Angel of Death name Austin PD dubbed Grace for solving 4 cold case files; were trying to find out who she was (45)
Austin Police Departmentemployed Big Mike (1)
Austin "satellite" officewhere Breed worked (9)
Austin, TexasBook Setting / the state capital and home of the University of Texas; supported a vibrant country music and movie industry; the high-tech community was constantly growing (55)
Black Leopardbar in Spring, Texas that Vincent was staking out, waiting for man who'd had sex with Stephanie (61)
Brooke Army Medical Centerwhere Kate worked as a physical therapist helping young soldiers, all veterans of the war in Iraq, learn to function without the limbs they'd lost fighting for their country (115) BAMC (378)
Burger Heaventruck stop where Breed and Grace were meeting Jack (226) busy truck stop west of Austin; bad food (225)
Cancer Societyheld benefit at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Austin; where Harve Thompson was killed (58)
Cancer Society Murderpapers dubbed the murder of Harve Thompson; became a joint Austin PD-FBI murder investigation (45)
Digger'sramshackle cowboy bar where Breed went for a cold drink and a warm woman (17) description (18)
Department of Homeland Security oversaw the Secret Service (9)
El Pasocity where police intercepted Merle Raye Finkel the day she ran away from home (40)
Four Seasonshotel in downtown Austin; where Harve Thompson was killed at benefit for Cancer Society (58)
Four Westthe amputee ward at Brooke Army Medical Center (379)
Giddings, Texaswhere Texas Youth Commission was located; an hour east of Austin (41)
Guadalupe Streeton University of Texas in Austin campus; known as the Drag (96)
Jester Eastdorm where one of Grace's friends lived; where Breed followed her to (37) where Troy McMahon lived (87)
Joint Terrorism Task ForceJTTF; task force which Breed was Supervisor (10) six FBI members; one campus cop (96)
Kingdom ComeKing Grayhawk's ranch in Wyoming (107)
Lake LBJwhere the Harkness family had a cabin; an hour or so west of Austin (48)
LBJ Auditoriumbuilding on the University of Texas at Austin campus; where the National Governors Association Annual Meeting was being held (8)
Longhorn Grillerestaurant Jack McKinley purchased; in Austin (144)
MedWare, Inc.the national conglomerate that employed Stephanie Harkness (57)
Memorandum of UnderstandingMOU; agreement FBI had with university to access campus databases (82)
Mexican Mafiaa California prison gage; very long, dangerous, tentacles; J.D. was involved with them (218)
Mulbery Streetwhere Kate's modest 3-bedroom home was located (128)
National Crime Information Centerdatabase Breed used to search for Grace Smith (81)
National Criminal Investigation Centers: NCIC: where data on crimes is collected (272)
National Governors Association Annual MeetingPresident John Coleman was giving keynote address; being held on University of Texas at Austin campus (8)
Norman, Oklahomawhere John Dickson lived (77)
Octobertime of year when story takes place (17)
QuanticoFBI Academy (12)
San Antoniowhere Kate lived (128)
Secret Serviceinvolved in providing security measures for U.S. President's visit to University of Texas at Austin (7) now under the Department of Homeland Security; in town to do the protective groundwork and provide security during the event (9)
Sid Richardson Hallbuilding on University of Texas at Austin; LBJ Auditorium on lowest level (392)
Speaker's Residencecontroversial million-dollar renovation; 2,000 square foot apartment on the second floor of the Texas State Capitol (307) when the state legislature was in session, the Speaker of the House needed to be available at all hours. Hence an apartment inside the capitol, where he could catch a few winks of sleep. This apartment had the distinction of being the only residence in the country located inside a capitol (308)
Spring, Texasa suburb north of Houston, Texas (56)
SWAT Teaminvolved in providing security measures for U.S. President's visit to University of Texas at Austin (7) brought in from field office in San Antonio (8)
Texas Criminal Investigation CentersTCIC: where data on crimes is collected (272)
Texas Department of Criminal Justiceoffice Grace was to report to when she left juvie (43)
Texas Department of Motor Vehiclesdatabase Breed did search for the name Troy (86)
Texas Department of Public Safetyinvolved in providing security measures for U.S. President's visit to University of Texas at Austin (7)
Texas Union buildingon University of Texas at Austin campus; site of the infamous Texas Tower, where a lone sniper had terrorized the campus in the 60s (95)
Texas Youth Commissionhigh restriction facility at Giddings; where Merle Raye Finkel lived 8 years after being convicted of killing father and stepmother; had locks on the door and strict rules and more violence inside than Merle Raye had ever experienced in all her years as an abused child (41)
Twin Magnoliasa quarter horse ranch a half hour west of Austin; Jack had used his share of the proceeds from the sale of his restaurant to buy half ownership with Breed Grayhawk; description of the house, which needed a lot a work (148)
Union Undergroundwhere Grace's group was meeting for lunch (95)
University of Texas at Austincampus where U.S. President was planning a visit; Breed and his team responsible for security (7)
U.S. Highway 290west of Austin; highway Breed was traveling when had to swerve to miss hitting a deer (15)
Violent Criminal Apprehension ProgramViCAP: very participating law enforcement agency submits data on violent crimes, which allows the system to come up with behavior-based crime analysis (272)
Victims of Vengeancegroup Grace and Troy were members of; meeting at Texas Union (98) Grace found all the victims in the group and brought them together to bring perpetrators to justice (99)

"A Stranger's Game" Quotations
18The attraction was immediate.   And powerful.   (Breed)
131Kate's sons had managed to do what he had thought impossible.   Made him feel again.   Made him care.   Those two grieving boys had slowly but surely battered away at the wall he'd built around his heart to protect himself, leaving chinks and it.   (Breed)
132Which was how that damn Grace Smith had managed to get under his skin. He didn't want to feel anything for her.   Not sympathy.   Not pity.   Not even frustration or anger.   (Breed)
132Or maybe he didn't want to.   Being alone was safe.   But being alone was damned lonely.   (Breed)
205"We don't always get what we want," he said flatly.   "Or what we deserve," he added.   (Jack)
207"I've always thought Ann Wade was diabolical," Kate said.   "She would be very happy to know how uncomfortable we both are right now."   (Kate)
258But the truth was, she hadn't been immune to the romance novels she'd gotten out of the library at Giddings.
 Women in those books always found true love and lived happily ever after.   The men they met were strong but gentle.   They were noble and kind and thoughtful and caring.
 They never shit or spat or cursed.
 Which definitely made them a fantasy.   (Grace)
279"I feel safe with you."   (Grace)
306"You don't get second chances with me."   (Breed)
320We all do what we have to do."   (Kate)

"Joan Johnston -- A Stranger's Game" Review and Information Links
Rated Posted Site Notes, Comments, Etc.
----Joan Johnston's WebsiteAuthor
----Joan Johnston's FacebookAuthor
. . . . . . . . .. . .
4.00 average{38 reviews}Amazonas of: January 3, 2015 // see Hillary Wagy's great review
4.00 average{29 ratings}Barnes & Nobleas of: January 3, 2015 // liked Granny1's review
----Fantastic FictionList of Joan Johnston's Books
----Fict FactList of Books In The "Bitter Creek" Series
----Fiction DBList of Joan Johnston's Books
Article06-24-2014Fresh FictionJoan Johnston -- The Challenges of Writing a Series
3.96 average{508 ratings}Good Readsas of: January 3, 2015 // see jenjn79's review
3.47 average{17 ratings}Library Thingas of: January 3, 2015
4.00 average{87 ratings}Paperback Swapas of: January 3, 2015
----Order of BooksList of Joan Johnston's Books
3.63 average{7 ratings}Shelfarias of: January 3, 2015
4.9501-03-2015Wolf Bear Does Booksshorter post on Amazon, Fiction DB, Good Reads, Library Thing, Shelfari

♥   Disclaimer:   I Purchased This Book
♥   Very Subjective Rating

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