Love with the Proper Stranger

Captain Blake smoothed one hand along the top of his nearly bald head as he shuffled through his copy of the file. “How long do you think it’ll take til we can get a cover in place for an agent to portray potential husband material?” he asked.

“A week,” Taylor answered. “Two at the most. In order to match the profiles of the previous victims, we’d need to find an agent who could pose either as a much older man or a man in poor health. We’d need to provide fictional background, complete with financial records and heavily padded bank accounts. You can bet Serena will run a credit check on anyone she’s considering targeting. We’ll need to prep the agent, set up protection and a surveillance team–”

Miller sat forward. “I could be ready to go down to Garden Isle tomorrow.”

Taylor stared at him, unable to hide his expression of surprise. “You? You’re not old enough.”

“Husband number three was only twenty-nine years old,” Daniel pointed out mildly. “And husband six was in his mid-thirties.”

“Both were in extremely poor health, one in a wheelchair.”

Miller took two copies of his file from his briefcase and handed one to Blake and tossed the other onto the table in front of Steven Taylor. “Meet Jonathan Mills,” he said. “I’m thirty-nine years old. Recently in remission after a long struggle with Hodgkin’s Disease — that’s a kind of cancer of the lymph system.”

Taylor opened the file and quickly skimmed Miller’s investigation summary. His eyes widened. “You actually intend to marry this woman…?”

“If I don’t, she won’t try to kill me.”

“You’re going to be her husband,” Taylor said. “You’re actually planning to sleep with her…?”

Even Daniel had a hint of curiosity in his dark brown eyes as he waited for Miller’s answer.

Pat Blake shook his head. “Should I not be hearing this?”

“Don’t worry, Captain, the marriage will be legal. She’ll be my wife,” Miller said. “And I’ll make a point to practice safe sex.” He smiled. “Of course in her case, that means no knives in bed.” He stood up, scooping the photos and files off the table, and looked at Blake. “Am I good to go?”

The older man nodded. “Let’s do it.”

Daniel and Steven Taylor got to their feet, and Miller turned to leave the room.

“One moment, if you don’t mind, John,” Blake said. He waited until the younger agents left his office, then stood up and closed the door behind them. “You look like crap.”

Miller knew Blake hadn’t missed the fact that his hands were shaking. “Too much coffee,” he said. “I’m fine, but thanks for your concern.”

Blake nodded, clearly not buying it for one second. “I know we haven’t exactly been friends down through the years, John. I’ve always just figured I’ll stay out of your way, I’ll just let you do what you do best and you’ll continue to give me the highest success record in the Bureau. But if you’ve got some kind of problem, maybe there’s something I can do to help.”

Miller met his superior’s eyes steadily. “I just want to get to work.”

“Do you have anyone at all you can talk to, Miller?”

“Will that be all, sir?”

Blake sighed. “I’m not supposed to give you a warning, but after this one’s over, I’m bringing you in for a full psychological evaluation. So go on, get out of here. And try to spend a least some of your time on that resort island with your eyes closed and your head on a pillow.”

Miller had to protest. “Over the past eighteen months my efficiency has increased–”

“Yeah, because you work twenty-two hours each day.” Blake sighed again. “Go to Georgia, John. Catch this killer. Get the job done and make the world safe again for rich, dirty old men. But be ready to be stuck under a shrink’s microscope when you get back.”

Blake turned toward his desk, and Miller knew the conversation was over. He let himself out, aware that his pulse was racing, the sound of the blood rushing through his veins roaring in his ears. Psyke evaluation. Christ, he didn’t stand a chance. Somehow, over the next few weeks, he was going to have to teach himself to sleep again — or face the new nightmare of a psychological evaluation.

God, he needed another cup of coffee.

He was halfway down the hall that led to the lounge when he heard voices coming from one of the tiny windowless cubicles assigned to the less experienced agents. He heard what’s-his-name’s voice. Taylor. Steven Taylor’s voice.

“He’s a time bomb, about to explode. You know that as well as I do. You wouldn’t believe the rumors that are circulating about John Miller. Talk is that he’s on the verge of some kind of breakdown.”

“Do you always listen to rumors?” It was Daniel, and there was a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Not usually, no. But the man looks terrible–”

Daniel’s voice was gentle now. “He’s a living legend, Steve. He’s the best there is. He looks terrible because he’s got insomnia. It gets worse when he’s between investigations. But believe me, he’ll be fine. Don’t request a transfer — you’ll be able to learn a lot from this guy. Trust me on this one.”

“Hmph.” Taylor didn’t sound convinced. “Did you see the way his hands shook? No way do I want to be under the command of some flaky insomniac James Bond has-been who’s on the edge. No, I’m outta here. Haven’t you heard that his partners have a way of dying on him?”

Miller stepped into the room. “If you’ve got a problem with me, Taylor,” he said coldly. “Come and tell me to my face.”

A flush of embarrassment darkened Taylor’s cheeks as he gazed at him in surprise. His eyes lost their focus for a second or two, and Miller knew that he was replaying his words in his mind, recalling all the harsh things he’d said that Miller had no doubt overheard.

Time bomb. Flaky insomniac. James Bond has-been.

“Excuse me, sir,” Taylor said, making a quick exit out of the room.

That was one agent he was never going to see again. Miller turned to Daniel Tonaka. “Mind stepping into my office with me?”

Daniel didn’t look perturbed, but then again, Daniel never did.

Miller went out into the corridor, leading the way back to his office. He went inside, then turned and waited for Daniel to join him.

“What’s up?” Daniel asked evenly.

Miller close the door and immediately lit into him. “If I hear you discussing my personal life with another agent ever again, you will be transferred off my team so fast, you won’t know what hit you.”

He’d truly caught Daniel off-guard, and a myriad of emotions flashed across the young man’s face. But he quickly recovered. “I was unaware that you believed your inability to sleep was a secret around here.”

“I know damn well that it’s no secret,” Miller said coolly. “But it’s not your business to discuss.”

Daniel nodded and even managed to smile. “Okay. I can respect that, John. And I apologize for offending you.”

Miller opened his office door. “Just be ready to leave first thing in the morning.”

“I will.” Daniel paused and smiled again before he went out the door. “I’m glad we had this little time to talk and straighten things out.”

Miller didn’t let himself smile until he’d closed his office door behind Daniel. I’m glad we had this little time to talk… Hell, other men would’ve wet themselves. Taylor sure as hell would’ve — it was just as good he wasn’t going to be hanging around, getting in the way.

Miller tossed his briefcase onto a chair and the photos Taylor had taken onto his desk. The blurred picture of Serena Westford had been on top, but it slid off the pile, and Mariah Robinson’s laughing eyes peeked out at him.

Tomorrow he was going to be in Garden Isle, Georgia, and he was “accidentally” going to bump into Mariah Robinson. For the first time in weeks, he felt wide awake with the buzz of anticipation.

Copyright 1998 by Suzanne Brockmann