You Only Love Twice
Marlie Montague was right smack-dab in the middle of exposing a massive government cover-up when her front doorbell chimed, playing the Mission: Impossible theme.
Although she heard the bell, Marlie was so deeply engrossed in the comic book she was illustrating that the sound didn’t really register in her brain. She sat tailor-style at her white drawing board, black charcoal pencil in hand, surrounded by a bank of computer equipment, some ivory, some ebony, all Macs. She drew Angelina Avenger with her eyes blazing and her guns drawn as she confronted a top-ranking CIA agent about his part in a global oil conspiracy.
Her pencil hollowed the lines of Angelina’s cheekbones, accentuating her haunting beauty and steely inner toughness. She employed the eraser to perfectly arch her heroine’s auburn eyebrows. Angelina might be the most kick-butt crime fighter in the comics, but she never neglected her grooming. The woman was serious trouble in high heels.
Quite unlike Marlie.
She glanced down at the rumpled black track suit that she’d never once run track in. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and she realized she’d been toiling for almost nine hours without a shower or anything more to eat than her morning bowl of Froot Loops, and only her trusty tweezers knew for sure the last time she’d plucked her eyebrows.
The doorbell played the Mission: Impossible theme again.
Irritated by the interruption, Marlie sighed, laid her pencil down, and pushed back from the storyboard.
Maybe it was UPS with a box of free author copies of her twenty-eighth comic book “CIA Zombie Recruits,” the upcoming March issue of her heroine’s exploits, in which Angelina uncovers a secret government brainwashing experiment using the news media to subliminally program the masses.
When she reached the front door, she had to go up on tiptoe to peer through the peephole. Being five-foot-two was a hindrance at times; little wonder she had created Angelina as a six-foot Amazon.
It was a man.
The hairs on her forearm lifted. Who was he?
He stood with his back to the door, gazing out at the moderately priced homes that comprised her cozy little corner of Oleander Circle just a mile from the Gulf of Mexico. He looked displaced in suburbia. Like a cactus in a petunia patch.
Pushing her glasses up on the end of her nose, she squinted to get a better view. He wore a sweat-stained navy blue T-shirt and gray cotton workout pants that in spite of their bagginess did not camouflage his strong, muscular butt. In one hand he held, of all things, a Pyrex measuring cup. Could this be her new next-door neighbor come to borrow a cup of sugar?
More likely a cup of egg whites. Clearly, this guy, with his no-flab body, never put a bite of the sweet stuff in his mouth.
If this was indeed her new neighbor, then she had watched him from her office window two weeks earlier when he’d moved in next door. Her imagination went off the chain as she remembered him lifting those boxes with bulging biceps, stripping off his shirt when he got overheated, and dazzling Marlie with a righteous view of his late-night-infomercial abs.
He wore his hair cropped close to his head. Not quite a buzz cut, but almost. More like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. She knew the look.
Was he military? She hoped he wasn’t military. She didn’t trust military men. Not even ex-military. Not even sexy ex-military.
Don’t sweat it, babe, Angelina whispered inside her head. He’s much more my type. You should have hooked up with Cosmo when you had the chance.
But she had never been physically attracted to Cosmo. They’d been best friends and close confidants; that is, before Cosmo sold out his scruples and left Corpus Christi to go to work as a civilian computer cryptologist for the Office of Navy Intelligence in Suitland, Maryland. She still missed her buddy and wished she could have been more accepting of his career path.
The riveting man on her doorstep pivoted, giving her a breathtaking view of his ruggedly handsome profile. He looked as if he should be gracing the cover of one of those outdoor adventure magazines. A provocative five o’clock shadow encircled his angular jaw, and his hooded eyes were an intriguing shade of blue-gray-green, like the Gulf of Mexico in turbulent weather. And like a storm-swept sea, he looked both demanding and resilient.
And as treacherous as a downed power line on a schoolyard playground.
She was mesmerized.
Her fingers tingled to draw his face, to capture his effigy in charcoal. Her eyes studied him as if she were actually seeing him on canvas and tracing his exquisite form with her art pencil, forever trapping him on the page. Her brain cast him in geometry; a circle for his head, an inverted triangle for his torso, a right-side-up triangle for his lower body, and rectangles for his legs, which she mentally lengthened and shaded until they were long, strong pillars.
Leaning in, he rapped hard against the door.
Caught off guard by the unexpectedness of the sharp sound, Marlie gasped. She jumped back and almost fell over her black-lacquered coffee table. He was persistent. She’d give him points for that.
But what if she was wrong? What if this guy wasn’t her next-door neighbor?
Her underground comic books were considered controversial by mainstream publishers. Just last week she’d gotten a death threat mixed in with her fan mail. It wasn’t the first. She’d received them a few times before and she’d even notified the police with the initial one. But they’d blown her off, pooh-poohing her fears as unlikely. She hadn’t bothered phoning again. In the best of times, Marlie wasn’t a fan of authority figures.
Seven years spent researching, writing, and illustrating her conspiracy theory comic book series had given her a suspicious mind. That and the fact that her father had been a government whistle-blower killed under mysterious circumstances by the naval officer who was supposed to have been his trusted friend. To top it off, the Navy had framed her father and proclaimed him a traitor, asserting that he’d been selling Mohawk missiles to terrorists.
You’re being paranoid again, Angelina chided. This guy has nothing to do with those death threats or what the Navy did to your dad. Open the door.
“Easy for you to say; you’re a fearless crime fighter.”
Don’t give me that b.s. You’re not afraid that Mr. Hunka Man came over here to do you harm. You’re just too chicken to talk to him.
There was that.
Marlie’s natural impulse urged her to slink back to her office and pretend she’d never heard the Mission: Impossible theme summoning her to the front door. She had a deadline looming and three pages left to illustrate before tackling the computer phase.
That’s right. Go ahead. Blame it on your work. Never mind that you’re hiding behind your shyness as an excuse to avoid getting a real life. And maybe, just maybe, a real man.
“I’m not sticking my head in the sand.” She knew she had a bad habit of talking to her own fabrication. It was one major drawback to living alone and working out of her home.
“I am not the slightest bit interested. He’s military.”
You don’t know that.
“Girlfriend, check him out. His posture is so perfect it looks as if someone nailed a two-by-four into his spine.”
What’s wrong with military?
“Come on, you of all people? Asking me a question like that.”
You think the dude’s got a submachine gun stashed down the front of his sweatpants? Then Angelina started humming the old Beatles song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”
“I can’t open the door looking like this.” Marlie’s hair was unkempt, she wore no makeup, and there was a coffee stain on her white T-shirt at a strategically embarrassing spot.
“Hello? Anybody home?” The hypnotic sound of his voice, all sinful and chocolaty, lured her.
Double dare you to introduce yourself, Angelina challenged.
“Okay, fine, all right. Just give me a second to freshen up.”
Hurry before he leaves.
What suddenly compelled her (besides Angelina’s big mouth), Marlie couldn’t really say. It was an odd sensation, pushing up from somewhere deep inside her, daring her to open the door.
Maybe it was nothing more than the urge to get a better look at the supreme hottie. Maybe it was because she’d been feeling a little too isolated since Cosmo left. Or maybe it was because if this man was going to be living next door, she had to know exactly who he was and what he was about. When push came to shove, Marlie valued information over safety because the right kind of information could ensure her safety.
Stripping off her coffee-stained shirt as she went, Marlie dashed into her bedroom. She pushed back the black-beaded curtain that served as a closet door and somehow, in the process, managed to dislodge her bowling ball from its place. The ball escaped, bumping away across the hardwood floor. She ignored the fugitive, snatched a clean T-shirt from a hanger, and hurried into the bathroom.
He rang the doorbell again.
This is your mission if you choose to accept it. Angelina snickered. Open the door to your mystery date.
“Hush,” she told Angelina and then sang out, “Coming, coming.”
Marlie rinsed her mouth with Scope, while simultaneously releasing the elastic band that kept her unruly brown hair pulled back. She ran a brush through the tangles and then dabbed on a subtle shade of pink lipstick. Semipresentable.
She turned and rushed down the hall. She was so focused on her goal that she did not see the bowling ball. Her ankle clipped it and the ball rolled between her legs.
Marlie ended up sprawled facedown on the floor, staring underneath the sofa. Ouch. That was gonna leave a mark.
Wow, Angelina said, check out those dust bunnies.
The doorbell rang again.
Hustle, hustle. This mission will self-destruct in seven seconds.
Dragging herself to her feet, she hobbled to the door and flung it open, only to discover that her sexy neighbor had vanished. In his place stood the UPS man.
“Where’d he go?” She cocked her head, craning for a look around the man’s body, but all she could see was the boxy brown delivery truck parked at the curb.
“Where’d who go?” asked the UPS man.
“The guy who was just here.”
“What guy?” Marlie sighed. At some point between the Scope gargle and the bowling ball mishap her neighbor must have given up and gone home, and the UPS man had come up the sidewalk in the meantime.
Oh, well. Perhaps it was for the best. At least Angelina couldn’t accuse her of not trying. She blew out her breath, surprised to find she felt disappointed. Shaking her head to dispel the sensation, she reached out to take the box from the UPS man.
Only to discover that he was also clutching a wicked-looking semiautomatic weapon.
With a silencer attached to the end of it.
Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Joel Hunter took the measuring cup and strode back into his house. So much for his brilliant may-I-borrow-a-cup-of-shampoo ploy.
Apparently, Marlie Montague wasn’t about to open her door to a stranger. Not that he could blame her. She was a young woman living alone and engaged in antigovernment activities. He’d be leery too if he were in her shoes. But he knew she was home. Her white Toyota Prius with the black interior was parked in the driveway in front of her white craftsman-style home with the black trim. Plus, when he’d returned from his run he’d checked the surveillance equipment that covert ops had installed in her home two weeks earlier, and Marlie had still been holed up in her office, working on her comic book.
Joel had retrieved the measuring cup from the kitchen cabinet of the house he’d rented fully furnished and trotted over to carry out his new orders. Initially, his assignment had been simple. Keep her under surveillance. Then while on his jog he’d gotten a cell phone call from Camp Pendleton with additional instructions. Befriend the suspect and gain her trust. But under no circumstances was he to allow her to uncover his true identity.
But of course. That was a given. You couldn’t exactly expect to get chummy with the daughter of the man your father had killed.
Time for a new angle of attack. He wanted off this detail. The sooner the better. He opened his flip phone and gave the voice-activated command to call Camp Pendleton.
“Special Agent Dobbs.”
“Have you made contact?”
“Sir.” Joel stalked into the kitchen and set the measuring cup down on the counter. “If I may speak freely, I don’t believe I’m the right agent for this particular assignment.”
“You haven’t made contact yet? What’s the matter, Hunter?” Dobbs scoffed. “You’re male, she’s female. Your charm slipping?”
“My charm isn’t the issue, sir.” Joel headed for the bathroom.
“No? Then why aren’t you out there getting her to fall head over heels for you and spill all her secrets?”
“Speak your mind.”
Joel swapped the phone from one hand to the other as he wrestled out of his sweaty T-shirt. “This assignment is a waste of time.”
“The woman is no more subversive than Little Orphan Annie. She stays to herself, gets very few visitors, and rarely goes anywhere except to the grocery store and her bowling league on Wednesday nights. She’s downright mousy, and I’ve seen no signs of seditious activities. In fact, I think she may be agoraphobic.”
“I get it,” Dobbs said. “You’re bored because she’s not a hottie with an interesting sex life.”
“I’m wasting my time and my talent. I don’t even know why I’m here. If you could give me a little more to go on, that would help.” Joel tossed his shirt in the laundry hamper and toed off his sneakers. “What is it that Marlie Montague is supposed to be up to? Why is she under such close scrutiny? What exactly am I supposed to be finding out?”
“Sorry. Top secret info. You don’t have the clearance.”
“So reassign me and get someone with the right clearance.”
“No.” Dobbs’s tone was anything but friendly.
“Look, I know her. Or at least I knew her when I was a kid. Don’t you think that’s some kind of conflict of interest?”
“Would she recognize you if she saw you?”
He sighed. “I doubt it.”
“Then you’re not getting out of it.”
“Come on, Dobbs, cut me some slack. I do a good job for you.”
“No can do.”
“You were personally requested for this mission by someone very high up.”
“Let me guess. Admiral Delaney stuck me with this crappy babysitting gig.”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“It’s not yours to reason why, but to follow orders. Now, quit your bellyaching and get back to work.”
“Do I have to?” He gritted his teeth.
“Either that or you can hand in your resignation. Take your pick.”
Without another word, Dobbs hung up.
Well, fuck me running.
Joel had the urge to punch something hard, but managed to satisfy himself with savagely kicking his sneakers across the bathroom floor and into the bedroom, wishing it were his ex-father-in-law’s head instead. He was certain Chet Delaney was behind this.
Joel’s ex-wife Treeni was due to return to Washington any day and she’d been calling him, hinting at getting back together. He would rather set his hair on fire than reunite with Treeni, but he didn’t appreciate Chet’s running interference for his precious daughter, shipping him out of D.C. on some bullshit job.
He was stuck with being the stringed marionette to Chet’s puppeteer. And there was nothing Joel hated more than being beholden to someone with power over him.
After Joel had been expunged from the Navy SEALs following a sordid incident in Iraq involving Treeni, one of Saddam Hussein’s top-ranking officials, and the search for weapons of mass destruction, his ex-father-in-law had pulled strings and gotten Joel the job at NCIS. It had been a bribe of course, to keep him from telling the truth about what had gone down over there.
Chet had just stepped down as director of ONI so he could declare his candidacy for President of the United States. He was considered by many as his party’s front-runner to secure the nomination in the upcoming primary, although his warmongering and hard-line stance had earned him almost as many detractors as supporters. At this point, Chet’s main concern was keeping all his skeletons locked up tight.
Joel was one of those skeletons.
But his ex-father-in-law needn’t have worried. Joel’s lips were forever sealed. It hurt too much to think about what had happened, much less speak of it. He’d taken the blame for what Treeni had done and he’d accepted the consequences, but losing his place in the brotherhood was like losing a chunk of his soul. Being a SEAL was the first time he’d ever felt like he’d truly belonged anywhere. He’d been with like-minded men who pushed themselves to extremes.
Joel twisted the shower faucet to a tepid temperature, climbed inside the tub, and yanked the shower curtain closed. He didn’t know the real reason why the Navy wanted Marlie under surveillance, but he felt sure they were barking up the wrong tree. The hush-hush, top secret instructions just didn’t jibe with what he’d learned about her.
For God’s sake, Montague looked like somebody’s wide-eyed kid sister. The kind of wholesome girl-next-door so valued in 1950s and ’60s sitcoms. Gidget and Donna Reed and Father Knows Best. She even wore her hair in a ubiquitous ponytail.
A dissident innocent?
Was there such a thing? The only time he’d seen her act the least bit feisty was when he had spied on her at the Starlight Lanes. She mowed down bowling pins as if they were dandelions and she were a John Deere lawn tractor, racking up strike after strike with deadly precision. So what if she’d written a couple of conspiracy theory comic books with antigovernment themes. Big deal. It was fiction.
Joel lathered his hair. See, that’s where he kept getting hung up. If her comic books were strictly fictional, why did the Navy consider her a threat to national security?
It made no sense.
He blew out his breath. Like it or not, he was stuck with his circumstances. He’d already gotten kicked out of the SEALs over one woman. He wouldn’t lose this job over another. For whatever reason, his orders were to get friendly with Montague, and that’s what he would do.
But Joel sure as hell didn’t have to be happy about it.