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Ava Gray

Skin Game

Skin Game
Berkley Sensation
(November 3, 2009)

“…Ava Gray adds a tiny touch of the psychic to a riveting romantic suspense novel.”
–Publishers Weekly

“A sexy sizzler of a story about a con girl and an assassin, with just a soupçon of paranormal, this book will cause compulsive reading. If you loved Linda Howard’s Death Angel, then lunge for this one.”
–RT Book Reviews

ISBN-13: 978-0425231531

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Blurb

A beautiful fugitive—wanted dead or alive.
Kyra is a con woman and a particular kind of thief. She steals with a touch, but she only takes one thing: her target’s strongest skill. Which means she can be a fighter, an athlete, a musician, an artist—anything she wants… for a limited time. Heartbroken, she turns her gift toward avenging her father’s murder; with deadly patience, Kyra works her way into casino owner Gerard Serrano’s inner circle. After pulling off the ultimate con, she flees with his money and his pride.

A hit man who never misses the mark.
Reyes has nothing but his work. Pity for Kyra, he’s the best and mercy never sways him once he takes a job. He’s been hired to find out where Kyra hid the cash—and bring her back to face Serrano’s “justice.” Dead will do, if he can’t locate the loot. He’s never failed to complete a contract, but Kyra tempts him with her fierce heat and her outlaw heart. So Reyes has a hell of a choice: forsake his word or kill the woman he might love.

Excerpt from SKIN GAME

Chapter One

Kyra held the guy’s balls in the palm of her hand. Literally.

Just for a second as she brushed by him, but it was enough. His eyes widened, and she knew he took the touch as a sign he’d get lucky after he won her last hundred bucks. The crumpled bill lay underneath his, weighted by a cube of pool chalk.

Poor, stupid mark.

She slid him a slow smile as she racked for their fourth and final contest. His friends stood with beers in their hands, half-smiling in anticipation of a sure thing. In a seedy place like this, they only had an old table with worn felt near the right corner, making it necessary to compensate. That wouldn’t slow her up this game, though.

Her opponent had years of practice on this particular table. A scruffy, hard-drinking son of a bitch like him had no better skill, nothing else going for him. No, calling himself reigning champ at Suds Beer Factory defined him. She counted on that.

Spinning her cue stick between her palms, she paused before taking the first shot. “You want to make this interesting?”

Her voice had often been called throaty. Kyra sounded like she smoked unfiltered Camels and drank too many whiskey-sours. In fact, she did neither. That was just one of nature’s cons, more flash for the package to distract people from what lay underneath.

“Darlin’,” drawled one of the barflies, “it already is.”

Now somebody would comment on the sweet curve of her ass or the way she filled out her jeans. Kyra managed not to roll her eyes, but it was a near thing. If she ever sunk so low that she needed a boost by picking up a man in a place like this, she hoped somebody would shoot her and put her out of her misery.

The man she’d been reeling in for the past hour couldn’t resist asking, as she’d known he couldn’t. People were so damn predictable. “What’d you have in mind?”

“Double or nothing.”

“You don’t have the cash,” he scoffed.

Her smile didn’t falter. “No, but I have a fully restored 1971 Mercury Marquis parked outside. It’s nice, fresh powder blue paint. You’d get a good chunk for it.”

“That’s yours? Big ride for a little thing like you,” her opponent said. Chet, she thought his name was.

For that comment alone she wanted to smash his nose through his forehead, but he’d feel the hit worse in his wallet. It wasn’t like he used his brain much, after all. Kyra made herself smile as she put her keys on top of the two bills.

A stocky guy near the bar shook his head, a crop of coarse brown curls bristling from beneath his baseball cap. “Don’t take the lady’s ride. She probably has a gambling problem…don’t know when to quit even when she can’t win.”

“I never walk away from a bet.” She hadn’t affirmed what he’d said, but these yokels would never notice the difference. “What about you? Scared?” she mocked gently.

Oh, that would never stand. As a chorus of “ooohs” arose from his friends, Chet shook his head. “It’s your funeral, lady. You’re on.”

Finally. She never knew how long a boost would last, so she needed to get this game in the bag, or she really would lose her ride. Since the car was the only thing she owned, that’d be catastrophic.

Kyra broke then, a perfect scatter. The red three slipped into a pocket, deciding whether she’d shoot solids or stripes. Four more shots lined up for her, and she called them in a neutral tone.

A con could go south pretty fast if she didn’t play it right. Chet might suspect he’d been hustled when she was done, but men seldom started a fight with ‘a little thing like her.’ If they did, they found themselves unpleasantly surprised—after she tapped the toughest among them.

Bank, carom, and suddenly she’d sunk half the balls on the table. Suds got really quiet and someone muttered, “I call lemonade.”

“Yep,” another guy said. “She’s torching him.”

If she hadn’t been worried about the clock running out, she might have stalled a shot and put a ball in jail just to let Chet use his cue, but she needed to wrap things up. She rounded the table, using his own skill against him. Kyra sank the next shot easily, as she knew everything about this game and this particular table. She didn’t bother with showy play; the point was to win, not to impress.

The bar was dead quiet when she pointed to the far left pocket, called it, and banked the eight ball toward it. She narrowed her eyes as its roll slowed. She hadn’t noticed the faint wear near that pocket as well, but it didn’t matter. Chet had learned to compensate over long years of practice; thus, so had she.

The black ball sank with a quiet plunk.

“I believe that’s a dime in all,” she said with a smile. “Cash only.”

A dime was a thousand bucks. Kyra knew pool hall slang because she’d worked this particular con a lot. Now it just remained to be seen whether he’d pay up politely.

“You played me,” Chet growled.

She pretended to misunderstand, opening her eyes wide. “So I did. I won, too.”

This was the moment of truth. Most guys wouldn’t take a swing at her, no matter how mad they were. She’d run across some real sons of bitches in her travels, though. So Kyra braced herself.

“Pay the lady,” came a low, rough voice from the back of the bar. “Unless you want people to call you a welsher.”

With a muttered curse, Chet handed back all the money he’d won, plus a few hundred more. Kyra smiled, claimed her keys, and the last two bills beneath the chalk cube. She thumbed the white rabbit’s foot on her keychain, as she did after every successful con. Superstition had its place.

“Table’s all yours, boys. Thanks for the fun!”

Before the mood could turn from puzzled to hostile, she grabbed her denim bag and headed out. It was best to hop into the Marquis and hustle down the road. Nobody prevented her from pushing past the front door and into the humid kiss of Louisiana twilight. Jasmine growing wild on a broken down fence scented the air.

Kyra cast a look back at the timber road house. Places like this made up her bread and butter. So many suckers, so little time. She loved the euphoria of getting away clean.

Then she heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel behind her.

Shit, she thought. I knew it was too good to be true.

She picked up the pace to no avail. A hand on her arm spun her around, and she found herself craning her head back to see who had a hold of her. At five foot four, she was neither petite, nor average either, and he topped her by a foot. More interesting, he hadn’t been involved in the game.

“What did you do in there?” She recognized his voice—a cross between black velvet and a buzz saw—he’d demanded Chet pay up. The guy had been drinking alone near the back, but she hadn’t gotten a good look at him.

She’d remember a face like this, hard angles, softened by a spill of midnight hair and eyes so dark they seemed to drink the light, black pools with azure lightning in their depths. He had skin like old mahogany, weathered but lovely. But his fine, unusual looks didn’t give him an excuse to touch her.

With a prowess she must’ve snagged from him, Kyra neatly broke his grip on her forearm. Surprise flickered in his gaze, as if he recognized the maneuver but didn’t understand how she’d done it. Well, hell, she didn’t know how either, and sometimes it got damn confusing, but it was a living.

“I won a pool game. And now I’m leaving.” Her tone dared him to try something, especially when she sensed the deadly readiness in her muscles. She knew without a doubt she could snap somebody’s neck. Comforting. It’d be better if she wasn’t nearby when the skill she’d stolen reverted to him.

“You think so?” He fell into step, alarmingly casual as they came up to her car.

“Who’s going to stop me?”

“This is a nice ride,” he observed. Suddenly he had a knife in his hand, but instead of threatening her with it, which she could’ve handled, he traced it down the front whitewall. “And I guess I could stop you.” Understatement.

“Yeah.” She wouldn’t even breathe without his permission. Those Diamond Back tires had set her back a pretty penny in South Carolina, but nothing was too good for the Marquis. It was all she had left of her daddy, after all. “Just what do you want from me?”

Ten minutes with you up against a wall.

For a second, Reyes thought he’d spoken out loud, but she wouldn’t be regarding him with the same mix of wariness and puzzlement in her jade eyes, if he had. Up close, he saw freckles smattered her nose and cheeks, making her look young and vulnerable. He’d bet she played that for all she was worth.

Not tall, but she gave the impression of being leggy, lean along with it. She wore strawberry blond hair in a wavy nimbus to her shoulders. Her jeans were old, torn at the knees, but her boots looked expensive.

And he absolutely couldn’t explain his vicious urge to grab her with both hands, mark her with his teeth, and ride her until she begged for mercy. Maybe it was because he couldn’t picture her crying uncle; spirit in a woman made his heart kick like a half-broke horse, and she’d shown such a roguish blend of guile and confidence inside the bar.

The first three games, she hadn’t been able to play worth shit. He’d watched his share of hustlers over the years, and he always knew when a player stalled. They had a tell in the way the handled the cues, something, but this woman, he’d have sworn she barely knew how to hold the stick. Until that last game. Until she turned into a tournament player before his eyes, like magic.

Reyes didn’t believe in magic.

She’d done something when he touched her. He felt different. Energy coursed through him with no outlet, as if a customary corollary had suddenly been blocked. He felt slower too, as if his muscles had forgotten how to move.

Just as well he hadn’t intended to do anything here at Suds. He never acted without all the facts, and he needed to know more about this woman. It worked on him like a compulsion. He wanted to know her better than his own name.

Like most impulses, he’d resist it, taking satisfaction instead in leashing his appetites. Reyes almost enjoyed letting the longing build to fever pitch, only to turn his back on it. He never let hunger overwhelm him, not anymore. The consequences were just too dire.

But for the first time in years, temptation tugged. She smelled like coconut oil and sunny days. He wondered what she’d do if he leaned down to breathe the scent of her. Would she fight? Scream?

“We’ll take a ride,” he said easily. “You probably should get away from here. Once those rednecks figure things out, they’ll come running.”

“You’re not getting in my car.”

Smart woman. But that wouldn’t do her any good, not when he already knew her weakness. Attachments, whether to people, places or things, only led to trouble.

He applied a little pressure on the tire. “Both of us go or…neither. Take your pick. But I’d hurry. Sounds like they’re getting riled inside.”

No lie. Reyes heard shouting. Soon the men she’d swindled would come pouring out, looking to take the money back and maybe a pound of flesh. Chet had probably worked himself up to thinking she owed him sex to make up for the heaping helping of emasculation she’d served with a smile.

She swore. What a mouth she had, but everything sounded better when spoken in a husky undertone. “Come on. I’m only taking you as far as Lake Charles, and if you spill a drop of anything on Myrna’s upholstery, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”

“Myrna?”

The woman shot him a look that said it wasn’t the time to talk about the name of her car. By the time she got the keys in the ignition, he’d settled into the passenger seat. She handled the big car with careless expertise, backing out in a spit of gravel.

Just in time, too.

The bar door flew open, and six men poured out. One chucked a beer bottle at them, and it smashed against the fender. To his amusement, the hellcat spat another curse and reversed hard into the lot, like she’d happily run all the rednecks down. They apparently thought so too because they scattered, fell on their asses. She shifted gears and then stuck her hand out the window, flashing the finger as they fishtailed out onto Rural Route 9.

“Myrna Loy,” she said, as if they’d never been interrupted. “I’m nuts about her.”

It took him a minute to place the name, and then connect it to her car. He tended to connect the dots, not make tangential leaps. Logic, not Rorschach blots.

“You like her movies then?” This wasn’t going at all as he’d planned. She still hadn’t even answered his original question. He prided himself on being adaptable, however; it made him the best at what he did. So he’d circle back to it soon enough.

Before answering, she adjusted the radio and tuned it to KBON, filling the car with zydeco music and rushing wind. “Love them. Have you ever seen The Thin Man?”

“I’m afraid not. Good?”

Her smile flashed, a dimple in her right cheek. “Fantastic. She and William Powell were the couple back then. So suave and charming. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Nora Charles.”
Nick and Nora Charles—the two names popped into his head as a matched set. Where had he heard them before? It would come; he had a nearly eidetic memory.

“Dashiell Hammett.” He finally remembered. “I read the book a long time ago. I prefer Mickey Spillane.”

She glared at him out of the corner of her eye, green eyes practically throwing sparks. “Heresy. I should put you out of the car.”

Reyes tried to picture that. Nobody ever made him do anything he didn’t want to. Odd, she didn’t seem in the least intimidated. Nothing in her manner indicated she was worried about acquiring a passenger his size, armed with a knife. She ought to be tense, sweating, and when things didn’t add up, it troubled him. It was like she knew something he didn’t. And he hated that feeling.

He slid the blade back in his boot. Threatening her ran counter-productive to his aims at this point, so he improvised. “So what did you do back at the bar? Or maybe I should ask how did you do it?”
That would give her a reason to be wary of him, thinking he’d noticed something askew. Which he had, of course, but it wasn’t the big picture. Honesty often provided the best smokescreen for his other endeavors.

She lifted a shoulder. “Maybe you should.”

“So how did you do it?”

“Do what?”

He had the feeling she could continue this line of circular conversation all night. Well, it didn’t matter. In time, he’d wear her down. She didn’t realize it, but she’d gained his company for a while.

That was something of a specialty of his—breaking down barriers, building trust. Reyes bet she’d yield what he needed to know before too much longer. A softness about her mouth said she liked what she saw when she looked at him. He was used to that, but this woman made him want to use sex, a tactic he seldom employed these days. Too many complications, too many variables.

“What’s your name anyway?” He played the rootless hitchhiker with a familiarity born of experience. That impression would be reinforced by his appearance and his lack of personal belongings. “And thanks for the lift.”

“You didn’t exactly give me a choice.” Her husky voice sent a pleasurable spike along his nervous system straight down to his groin. Reyes shifted, unwilling to let the erection gain full flag status.

“No, I didn’t. You love your whitewalls too much to gamble with them.”

“I love this car,” she corrected, stroking a hand along the blue dashboard.

Reyes watched her fingers with a clawing hunger that astounded him. He wanted them on his chest, his abdomen…lower. He wanted two weeks with her in a hotel room, nothing but bare skin and cool, white sheets. Despite iron discipline, his penis swelled all the way up, straining his zipper.

“I can see that.” His voice rumbled low, even for him.

“Isn’t she a beaut?”

“Sure is.”

So are you.
But he didn’t say that out loud. It was too soon. Like a wild thing, she would be skittish, slow to gentle. She still hadn’t told him her name. Such a way she had about her—appearing to give away everything, when in fact, granted nothing—could’ve come only through years of practice.

All in all, Kyra Marie Beckwith was a lot more intriguing than her dossier let on. Too bad he had to kill her.