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Authors: Jenna Mills

Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General

The Perfect Stranger

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
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Jenna Mills
THE PERFECT
STRANGER
Romantic
SUSPENSE

For my husband and my daughter,
the two brightest lights in my life.

Prologue

S
he watched him.

He sat alone in the far corner of the ramshackle wood structure the locals called a bar. Once, according to legend, a voodoo priestess had called the building home.

Blues music drifted across the smoky room, but the man seemed impervious to the mournful strains. An air of isolation clung to him, a palpable warning for everyone to stay away.

But Saura Robichaud kept coming back for more.

Tall and dark, he looked as though he belonged here in the backwaters of Louisiana. His grim expression indicated he did not. He looked distant, like a man who’d drawn a line between himself and the rest of the world. His hardened stare reminded her of the battered cypress trees jutting up from the swamp south of New Orleans. Sometimes she would sit and stare at the trees, wonder how much more they could endure.

She’d been watching the stranger for almost a week. Rumors swirled around him, much like the murky waters bordering the sleepy bayou town. For the most part he stayed in an old cabin on the edge of the swamp, where he sat on the porch much of the day, fishing pole in hand.

Or so rumor had it.

He didn’t socialize, didn’t come into town, except for a few hours each evening. More broken than dangerous, claimed the waitress who’d served his drinks—only one per night, Saura knew. He would wrap his hands around the glass and stare into the amber liquid, but she’d never seen him take a sip.

He was just passing through, the owner of the tackle shop said. The stranger who’d yet to share his name didn’t want anything from anyone, save to be left alone.

For Saura, there was freedom in that knowledge, a liberation she hadn’t found in a long, long time.

He didn’t know who she was, didn’t care about her past. She could approach him, secure in the knowledge he wasn’t waiting for her to crumble. He wouldn’t try to stop her, wouldn’t give her a second thought when she walked away.

He looked up and caught her watching him, just as he had the past four nights. And like those other nights, her heart strummed low and hard. The moment stretched, long, thin, to the point of breaking, until he broke it, looked back down at the glass he rolled between his hands.

Saura stood. It would be easy to walk away—but she’d never been one to take the easy way out. Instead she crossed the room with a determination that had once been second nature, everything but the man in the olive T-shirt and camouflage pants fading—the sultry blues music and the pool tables, the raucous laughter. They all just slipped…away. There was only the man, and the moment. And the chance she had to take.

Last night he’d shocked her by extending a hand to her, and easing her into his arms. Against his body. They’d barely moved, had swayed to the wail of a sax. After one song she’d pulled away.

But tonight she was ready. She’d dressed in leather and brushed her hair to a sheen, dabbed expensive perfume onto her pulse points. Roses and spice. Once the bold scent had defined her. Now it seemed a garish accessory to a costume she no longer knew how to wear.

At his table she stopped, felt her heart kick hard when he glanced up. “Thought maybe I’d finally scared you off,” he drawled, putting down his drink. There was a trace of Cajun to his voice. But just a trace.

Slowly, imbued with a familiarity she hadn’t expected, she smiled. “It takes more than looking and dancing to run me off,
étranger.
” Stranger.

His eyes darkened. For a moment he studied her, much as a cop would scrutinize a suspect. Then he stood and reached for her wrist. His eyes remained hard, but his grip was oddly gentle. And when he spoke, his voice, low and quiet, impossibly rough, destroyed.

“How much will you give me tonight?” he asked, urging her against his body.

The scent of leather and soap and man,
of oranges,
came to her immediately, and deep inside something shifted.

“One song?” he asked. “Two?”

Somehow, she’d forgotten. Somehow she’d forgotten how solid a male body could be. How hard and warm…

The long-forgotten sensation should have made her pull back, she knew that. She should never have returned here, should never have compromised the safety of feeling nothing.

But she had to know.

One bullet.

Had it killed one, or two?

Moving against him, with him, she absorbed the feel of muscle and sinew, of strength and man. She was a tall woman, but in his arms she felt small. She had to look up to see his face, and when she did, when she saw the tarnished chain around his neck and the cleft in his chin, the urge to touch him shocked her, to lift her hand and touch.
To feel.

Everything blurred, dimmed, once again leaving only the tall stranger with the hard eyes and gentle hands. The way he held her against his body, as if he could absorb her. As if he
needed
to absorb her. Body to body. Skin to skin. And for the first time in two years, she felt safe.

Alive.

“Keep holding me like this,” she murmured against his chest, “and I might just give you three.”

Chapter 1

Five weeks later

D
etective John D’Ambrosia didn’t do parties.

Standing near one of five bars set up throughout the elegant St. Charles Avenue mansion, he tapped his finger against the crystal tumbler, and savored the irony. For a man who religiously turned down invitations to happy hours and crawfish boils, he spent an obscene amount of time finessing invitations to parties at which he wasn’t wanted.

But there was a difference. It was the man who said no. The undercover detective never overlooked an opportunity.

Surveying the room, he studied everything. The number of exits. Where each was located. If they were manned. How many security guards mingled with the guests. If they were packing.

Fifteen, he counted, including one dressed like a waiter. Others wore tuxedos, just like the other guests. Even John. The once tailored jacket hung looser than the last time he’d put it on. He’d lost weight.

He couldn’t complain. His partner had lost his life.

The thought ground through him, crystallizing his attention on the elite of New Orleans. They drank and laughed and postured, while Alec lay in a crypt on the outskirts of the city. He’d been a good cop, even if in the end he’d been labeled bad. There’d been no twelve-gun salutes. No bagpipes. No convoy of police officers from parishes across southern Louisiana to pay respect.

Because dirty cops didn’t get respect. They got iced.

Keeping his expression impassive, John forced his fingers to loosen their death grip on the crystal. He’d tried to do as his C.O. had instructed. Clear his head. Gain perspective. But the silence had screamed at him, and the forced vacation had given his mind too much time to wander. And the woman—

This time the crystal did shatter. Shards sliced into his palms as they fell to the parquet floor, the tonic water splashing his pants. Scowling, he closed his fingers into a fist, and felt blood.

After all this time, after all the things his hands had done, that surprised him. He would have sworn he couldn’t bleed anymore.

He signaled a waiter and grabbed a wad of cocktail napkins, used them to staunch the bleeding. The woman was of no consequence. Alec was. He’d been a good man. He’d had a wife. He’d wanted kids.

Making sure his killer paid was all that mattered.

In a port city like New Orleans, black-market contraband was nothing new. But over the past six months there’d been a sharp escalation. At first mundane things, such as knockoff designer handbags and computer chips. Then a shipment of pharmaceuticals had been seized, a cancer drug that was anything but. Then came the seven dead college students with heroin in their systems, the narcotic altered somehow. Different. A hundred times more lethal.

And then there was the Russian girl found running down Tchoupitoulas. Naked. Emaciated. Beaten.

She refused to speak, not even to the soft-spoken Russian teacher from Tulane. But her eyes had flared when she’d been shown the picture of a man—the same man whose name appeared in Alec’s secret files.

Now John stood in that man’s home, watching him cross the extravagantly decorated den with a drink in his hand and the world at his feet. Like an actor taking the stage, the tall, deceptively elegant man moved through the adoring guests with warm smiles and polite nods. Because that’s what Nathan Lambert did. Deceive, and take.

Smiling, the silver-haired man thumped a younger man on the back, kissed an older woman’s hand. A younger woman put her arms around him, leaning in to kiss the sliver of his face not concealed by a wolfish Mardi Gras mask.

Nathan Lambert accepted it without missing a beat, wiped his clean-shaven cheek, then moved on.

Because that, too, was what Nathan Lambert did. Moved on. Celebrated importer by day and southern gentleman by night, the man appeared untouchable. Rumors linking him to black-market activities had circulated for years, but nothing was ever proven. Few even investigated. Especially after Lambert’s only son died a hero’s death in Afghanistan. In grief, he’d become as much of a martyr as his son.

John was not impressed.

With a discretion he had down to a science, he left the wadded, bloodied napkins on a serving tray and wandered to the dining room, where candles flickered from every ledge, every table. Expensive artwork hung from paneled walls, while the sound of jazz drifted in from the verandah.

The scent of roses and spice stopped him. For all of one sharp heartbeat. He turned abruptly, saw the woman. She stood on the other side of the highly-polished table, in a cluster of three other women. But removed somehow. As if she wasn’t really there. A long, tight-fitting gown the color of bronze hugged her body, while Egyptian-styled feathers concealed her face.

The urge to rip off the mask moved through him with a violence that stunned.

From behind his own mask—Midnight Magic, the clerk had called it—he watched the way she dragged her finger along the rim of her wineglass, then forced himself to turn away. Her hair was auburn, not midnight. Her lips the color of blood, not that of a lover’s flush. But the perfume…

Didn’t matter. He couldn’t spin around in circles every time he smelled the soft scent of roses and spice.

Of her.

Frowning, he plucked a stem from the tray of a passing waiter and returned to the main room, where Lambert still held court. When a woman in a red-feathered mask asked him to dance, John obliged. When another asked him to fetch a drink, he obliged that, as well. Anything to make sure he didn’t stand out.

From the far side of the room, a woman came into view, and everything shifted. It was the woman from the dining room, with the mask of green, purple and black feathers, the gold sequined eye slits. This time John started toward her. Until Lambert intercepted. The older man curved a hand around her hip, shattering any possibility of this considerably younger woman being Lambert’s daughter.

At least John sure as hell hoped she wasn’t his daughter.

In her strappy stilettos she stood an inch or two taller than her companion. Her auburn hair was twisted behind her head to leave her shoulders bare. Actually, the dress did that. Its length sheathed her too-thin body as if someone had used a fine brush to paint the bronze over every curve—

The image slipped in before he could stop it: long, dark hair and liquid brown eyes, pale flesh and curves. It had been his hand that slid along every inch—

He crushed the memory, allowed himself only to focus on Lambert’s companion. The way she smiled. The fluidity with which she moved. The way Lambert constantly kept a hand on her.

Everyone had a weakness, just as everyone had a price. And he’d bet his last dollar he’d just found Lambert’s.

Now he had only to find the woman’s.

The plan was so simple it almost made John laugh. Lambert had taken something from John that he could never get back.

Now, John intended to return the favor.

 

Everywhere she looked, she saw him. Everywhere she turned, he was there. Even when she closed her eyes—
especially
when she closed her eyes. That was when her imagination would take over, and she would find him as he’d been the last time she’d seen him, sprawled on a cot with a white sheet tangled around his hips, his olive-skinned chest and shoulders bare, his breathing rhythmic.

The urge to return to him, to slide next to him and press her body against his one more time had almost ruined everything. She’d done what she had to do. And despite the fact her plan had blown up in her face, she would not allow herself to look back. There was only forward. And Nathan.

Enjoying a moment out of the spotlight, she skimmed the rim of her wineglass along her lower lip and watched the man who could turn the future she craved into reality. He stood across the room, a tall, distinguished-looking man with thick dark hair and classic bone structure. But behind the genteel mask he showed the world, she’d caught something else in his eyes, a sadness she should have expected, but hadn’t. She’d heard too many stories over the years, vicious rumors and scandalous allegations. In her mind she’d turned him into an unfeeling ogre.

But now she realized her mistake.

Nathan Lambert was a man of deep, driving passion, just like—

The thought stopped her cold. She tightened her fingers against the crystal and took a deep swallow, savored the kick of the alcohol. She refused to feel anything else, refused to let her mind drift to another man. Another night.
Another lifetime.

It galled her that she wasn’t sure which man it was who made her body burn—the man she’d loved, or the man she’d used.

Deep inside something shifted, and along with it came an awareness she’d once relied on. From behind her feathered mask she scanned the room, and saw him. The man from the dining room. He lounged just inside an arched doorway, his big body deceptively relaxed, his mask—black feathers with a red accent plume—hiding much of his face. But not the fact that he watched her. His smile was languorous as he lifted his glass toward her and held it that way—in greeting or toast or dare, she didn’t know—for a long, tight moment. Then he brought the stem to his mouth and finished off his drink.

Saura felt the zing clear down to her toes.

Once she would have returned the gesture without thinking twice. Just five weeks ago she’d initiated a similar challenge. But she’d been playing by different rules then.

Now she played by Nathan’s.

Or at least pretended to.

And Saura Robichaud could pretend very, very well. Especially when she wanted something. Which she did. Very, very badly.

Pretending not to notice the way the stranger still watched her, she angled her chin and looked toward the far side of the room. If Nathan still—

He was gone.

The invisible shackles that had kept her in place most of the evening vanished, and she moved quickly, working her way through the revelers, toward the hallway that ran down the center of the old house. She was a tall woman with a long stride, but the slim gown kept her steps like those of a geisha. She hurried anyway, despite the way her ankles wobbled against the obscenely high heels she’d chosen.

It had been two years since she’d worn anything other than sneakers or flip-flops.

She didn’t have much time. Nathan would be back soon. He rarely left her alone for long. She had to—

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

She would have kept walking, but along with the words came the soft, cool feel of a woman’s hand against her forearm. She stopped and turned, saw an older woman with a gold sequined cat-eye mask peering up at her. “I’m sorry, I was just on my way—”

“Of course you are,” the woman said. “But he asked me to find you, let you know he’s waiting.”

Saura stiffened. “He?”

“Your date,” the woman said. “He’s on the patio.”

The surge of excitement crystallized into something sharp and brittle. With forced politeness, she thanked the woman and made her way toward the doors thrown open to the festive patio. Music drifted in from the night, not lively and fast like the band had been playing most of the evening, but slower, more rhythmic.

The memory swept in so fast she had no time to brace herself, no time to ward off the nonexistent scent of soap and leather and man. Of sweat.

And oranges.

Then she saw him. Not Nathan. But the stranger from across the room, outside now, lounging against one of the columns supporting the verandah. As soon as she stepped outside he pushed away and started toward her.

Instinctively she turned. Nathan was waiting—

She realized her mistake too late. The older woman had not said Nathan or Mr. Lambert, as one of his guests surely would have. She’d simply said
your date.

“Nice night,” came the man’s voice from behind her, and before she could lose herself in the crowd, he had a hand on her body, and she realized she had two choices: run and make a scene, or oblige him and get this over with.

Slowly, she turned, found herself looking straight into his black bow tie. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“That’s because you’re with him.” His voice was low, quiet. “You’re far too beautiful to be with a man who already has one foot in the grave.”

Inside everything stilled. She stared up at his cleanly shaven chin…but saw only the shadow of whiskers.

“Dance with me,” he murmured, drawing her into his arms. “Let me show you what he can’t.”

The words were bold and arrogant, and even as she told herself to retreat, the scent of soap and leather drew her closer. Not imagined as before, but real this time.
Him.
He reached for her, slid his arms around her waist and brought her up against his tuxedo jacket, anchored her to him with a possessiveness that stunned.

“I’ve been watching you,” he said, and the warmth of his breath feathered down her neck. Merlot, she noted as she moved woodenly against him. “All evening.” Leaning back, he brought a hand to her chin, and tilted her face toward his. “You’ve been watching me, too.”

She wanted to deny it. But couldn’t. At least not to herself. “Awfully sure of yourself, aren’t you—?”
Étranger.
The word jammed in her throat.

So did the sight of the cleft in his chin.

Étranger.

Denial came hot and hard and fast, but even as she grabbed at every possible reason it couldn’t be true, her body sang with recognition. The familiar scent washed through her. The intimate touch. The voice. It was a little different now, more cultured than it had been in the honky-tonk, but there on its wine-tinged edges she heard the lover who’d whispered to her as he’d moved inside her, as he’d brought a hand to her face and swiped away her tears.

“Do you realize you have not smiled, not once all night?”

Her heart kicked. Denial pounded through her blood. She had to be wrong. She’d been too careful, had targeted him with the same discipline that had once made her one of the most sought-after private investigators in New Orleans. But as she stared up at his masked face, the light of the tiki torches revealed the hard line of his jaw. The one she’d feathered her fingers against, and kissed.

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