Susan Andersen’s latest offers a twist with its unconventional occupations for both the hero and heroine. No spy, cop, architect, or powerful businessman here – the hero is a professional gambler. And breaking new ground for me is this heroine’s occupation: she is a Las Vegas showgirl who, I quickly discovered, dances in a topless chorus line. Hmmm…interesting territory for a heroine.
Jax Gallagher, aka Jackson Gallagher McCall, is considered a financial success in the world of international poker. A mathematical genius, he has an aptitude for remembering cards and calculating odds few can match. More intellectual than athletic, he was a grave disappointment to his sports-minded father, Big Jim McCall. At fourteen he received a full scholarship to MIT and has seen little of his estranged father since. Jax is certain Big Jim was duped by a scheming gold digger when he proudly married a Las Vegas showgirl one year earlier. Now Big Jim is dead, leaving a widow behind in possession of the one thing he has to have – a 1927 World Series baseball.
Treena McCall is feeling every bit of her 35 years as she competes to keep her place in the chorus line of a lavish Las Vegas revue. Returning to this cutthroat industry after taking a year off to care for her ailing husband is difficult and a sense of desperation is slowly creeping over her. What will she do with her life when she ultimately fails the annual show audition? Her dream of owning a dance studio is no longer an option since all of the funds she saved for her dream, along with Big Jim’s money, went to cover his health care.
Mind control is essential to Jax’s methodical lifestyle, but now his life is a total mess and control is fleeing. Upon learning of his father’s death, Jax uncharacteristically buried himself in alcohol in the company of Sergei Kirov, a Russian thug who dresses like Elvis and maniacally collects baseball memorabilia. Before the night is over, Jax has not only staked his father’s baseball in a game with Sergei, but lost it as well. Since he knows he can’t welsh on the bet, Las Vegas becomes Jax’s next destination.
Losing is as much a part of gambling as winning, I suppose, but this incident reeked more of stupidity than bad luck. Since Jax is written as a cautious, successful gambler with a sharp mind that constantly assesses the odds, this predicament seemed wholly out of character. As a result, Jax’s carefully controlled existence begins to spin out of control, causing an otherwise reasonable man to make some grave errors in judgment – particularly when Treena enters his life.
Since Jax considers Treena a money-grabbing woman with morals to match, he won’t seriously consider just asking her for the infamous ball. They have never met, so he decides disguise, seduction, and theft are the best route to reclaim his baseball. He must create his own opportunity to meet her since it is evident a straight pickup won’t work and the grieving widow doesn’t seem to date. His carefully planned manipulation works so well that he has a date with Treena minutes after rescuing her from a tray of spilled drinks.
Deception can be an effective means of setting up a story, but when it continues too long without resolution, it becomes tiresome. Jax’s false identity and deceptive seduction create quite a dilemma when he begins to care for Treena. Since he enjoys her company and her bed, he can’t seem to gather enough courage to fess up about his charade, causing him to appear indecisive as well as cowardly.
Treena’s refreshing character is one of my favorite aspects of Skintight. Not hardened by life as I expected, she exhibits kindness, charm, and vulnerability. Although tainted by his continued dishonesty, Jax is a likable, slightly tortured hero who easily earns your sympathy. His discovery of enjoyment in some of the more mundane aspects of life – such as cleaning Treena’s apartment – displays an undeveloped tenderness within him.
A strong family element is present among Treena’s neighbors, with two middle-aged characters creating sparks for a satisfying secondary romance. Treena’s best friend, neighbor, and fellow dancer Carly is a strong secondary character I predict will be featured in the second of two books Andersen plans featuring Las Vegas showgirls.
Treena and Jax have the beginnings of a terrific couple – I even accepted his initial dishonesty with barely a thought other than it seemed a trifle immature – but waiting for that other shoe to drop quickly became tedious and spoiled a promising love story. Consequently, the leads were stifled by a lack of growth that could have developed within an environment of some honesty. This glimpse of life on the stage and in the casino is intriguing as well as enlightening, but ultimately it is short-changed by the story’s predictable culmination.