Love With the Proper Stranger
by Suzanne Brockmann
(Silhouette Intimate Moments #831, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-07831-5
Start with a fresh story line, a my-best-friend heroine, a tortured hero, romantic intrigue with a twist, a villain so evil that we shudder; combine all these elements with skillful writing, well-developed lead characters, realistic dialogue and you've got a Keeper.

I once read that Alfred Hitchcock was such a master at suspense because he allowed the audience to see the danger before the hero was aware of it. The audience felt compelled to help, but was unable to warn the hero. That combination of fear and deep frustration was present; our foreknowledge could not help the hero. That's exactly how I felt as I read Suzanne Brockmann's latest book. I was so caught up in the action that I was almost gritting my teeth, knowing what would come next. This is powerful writing and is so enticing. I don't even care for suspense that much, and this story had me caught.

John Miller is almost a legend in FBI circles. He's so involved in his job to the exclusion of all else that they call him "The Robot." His latest case, that of trying to catch a serial killer, is taking him to Georgia, where he's going to pretend to be rich and to have a terminal disease. He wants to capture Serena Westford, the "Black Widow," a seductively lovely woman who has married and then killed at least eight husbands. She is so evil that she doesn't kill for money; she kills for the pleasure of it.

John's plan is a clever one. There's just one hitch in it: Mariah Robinson. Mariah and Serena arrive at the resort around the same time and become friendly. John is at first unsure if Mariah is Serena's accomplice but quickly disabuses himself of that idea. Mariah is an incredibly lovely woman both inside and out, but John knows that he can't get involved with her. He's got to woo and wed Serena. And catch her before she kills him.

Posing as a man with Hodgkin's Disease, John does look ill. He's been suffering from prolonged insomnia, the result of the death of his partner in a case gone tragically awry. Mariah sees him as a man needing comfort and friendship, a man with cancer who does not know what his future holds. Serena sees him as her potential next mate, the wealthy man with the short life expectancy.

Mariah Robinson is a genuinely thoughtful person. When she senses that John hasn't allowed himself to vent his rage, a rage whose background and meaning she misconstrues, she buys cheap dinner plates and together, they have a plate-breaking party, a catharsis for both of them. Another time she buys him a dreamcatcher to help him with his nightmares. She's the type of friend I would like to have. Or better yet, the kind of person I'd like to be. She is truly one-of-a-kind.

John is so torn between his FBI assignment and his blossoming feelings for Mariah. He knows that he will ultimately have to betray her trust. In the scenes with Serena, we feel his repulsion. She is written as such a malignant scum that we know he must stop this woman. But how he hates to betray Mariah. His humanization is a compelling metamorphoses.

There's only one thing that didn't appeal to me in this story. I realize that John has to use an assumed name, but Mariah is using one, too. Her reasons are less convincing than his. If Mariah's name change had been eliminated, then the story would have been just about perfect. As it is, it's excellent, truly first-rate storytelling and my complaint is really a small quibble in the grand scheme of the book.

Thanks to Ms. Brockman for being so creative, using such an ingenious plot line and carrying it off with such finesse. It is with great pleasure that I assign the status of Keeper to Love With the Proper Stranger.

--Linda Mowery

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