©2000, 2001 Martha S. Robinson


It could only have happened to her. Of all the people in the world, of all the women in the world, there could only be one Merrilee Jones, and out of the entire world, only one person could possibly have had the kind of family that she had. This isn’t to say that the world isn’t populated with devoted relatives harassing their kin with only the best of intentions, but it was for this reason that Merrilee saw hers as seldom as possible, residing in different cities, and had even gone so far as to deny kinship with them to the rest of the world.

The last part was the easiest, for she bore no resemblance to her siblings, and none at all to either of her parents. Indeed, had she not seen a portrait of her paternal grandmother whom she strongly resembled, she might have questioned her mother’s marital fidelity, for while the rest of her immediate family were tall, blue eyed Viking wannabees, as she labeled them, Merrilee had the curly sable tresses of her French grandmother, and that lady’s mischievous hazel eyes. Fortunately, she reflected wryly, she’d also inherited her sense of the absurd, for it stood her in good stead as she coped with her unenviable position in this family of gifted, but decidedly eccentric individuals.

Today, it was her sister, Melissa, who was busily rattling her cage, again with the best of intentions. Melissa, Merrilee thought with no small amount of exasperation, was the foremost sex-therapist in San Francisco. Why, with all that fair city to advise, couldn’t Melissa be happy with those who sought her services? Why me? Wondered Merrilee yet again.

"Merrilee!" came Melissa’s voice over the telephone. "Thank heavens I got to you in time! I’m sending the most gorgeous man down to San Diego, and he’s going to stop in to see you today. He’s one of my….."

"Damn you, Melissa!" Merrilee sputtered, already losing control of her temper. "If another one of your sex-surrogates shows up on my doorstep, I’ll have you arrested for medical malpractice. Or, pandering!"

"Never," Melissa informed her younger sister with the patient cheerfulness that Merilee found annoying. "Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with me or with someone else. You have to talk through your problems, overcome your inhibitions and …."

"They are my inhibitions," Merrilee raged into the receiver, and I am as happy as a clam with them! A whole lot happier with them than with my family!" That said, she slammed down the receiver and discovered that she was shaking with anger. "Damn her," Merrilee cursed, following that with a rain of invectives in half a dozen different languages. "Inhibitions?" Just because she didn’t reveal her sexual activities with the same freedom as the rest of her family didn’t mean that she was repressed or inhibited! Jeez!! It would serve Melissa right if Merrilee told her what she was so hell bent on finding out. Damn all of them!

The telephone was ringing again, and with her temper already shot, she simply reached over and with a surge of sheer frustration, tore the cord out of the wall. "So there!" she said, as the small plastic clip at its end shattered with a resounding snap. The young woman stood there, staring at the now mute instrument, considering the dubious intelligence of her last move when the doorbell rang. Merrilee cast a jaundiced eye at the doorway.

"If that’s not the Avon™ lady, somebody’s in deep…" Her last word was stifled as she stalked over to the front door. Standing before it, she made a mental note to install a peephole at the earliest convenience. Short of shouting ‘who’s there?’ she had no way of predetermining the visitor’s identity, and after Melissa’s call, she was understandably wary. Merrilee looked down at the telephone cord dangling from her fingers, and uttered something vile. Then, with anger filling her slender person, she opened the door to see a tall, dark-haired man on the porch. Involuntarily, she drew a deep breath as the raw masculinity of the man struck her. Whatever else her faults, Melissa knew men. Gorgeous didn’t even begin to describe him.

For a moment, Merrilee just stood staring at the man, surveying him from the top of his curly dark brown hair, to the bottom of his wingtip shod feet, every inch the self-assured male. She let her eyes wander leisurely down his body, taking in the tobacco-colored suede jacket, and the tan shirt with a muted green and brown striped silk tie. As her gaze dropped to his trim waist, she forced herself to return to his face. She inspected him with interest, noting that he appeared to be somewhere in his mid-thirties, older, obviously more mature and undoubtedly more experienced than the young men Melissa had sent before. He smiled at her, showing even white teeth beneath a thick mustache, and she found herself wondering how it would feel to be kissed by him. Where had that thought come from? As if reading her thoughts, his eyes left hers and wandered to her lips, lingering there for several long seconds before returning to her gaze. Laugh lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes, and she almost forgot her anger.

"Ms. Jones?" He asked, in a rich baritone.

Then, she remembered why he was there. "Go away and be sure to tell Melissa that when I want a man, I’ll find my own. I don’t need her to send someone. Tell her that I have no problem with sexual dysfunction, just disinterest!" With that, she slammed the door, taking a perverse pleasure in the way a small picture fell from the nearby wall. Then, she returned to contemplate the cord she’d torn from its outlet and tossed it aside in disgust.

The doorbell rang again. And again. When it rang yet another time, she snatched up the cord and marched over to the entry, dragging the telephone base behind her like a toy. Merrilee yanked the door open and glared. The man was there, this time holding a large attaché case in one hand.

"Ms. Jones," he began, "I’d really like to talk with you." He smiled slowly as if relying on some irresistible inner charm to gain entrance to her house. Heavens! The man’s confidence was outrageous!

"You mean you can talk, too? My, my! Melissa’s men have more than one talent. And, I see you brought your little bag of goodies." She gave a derisive glance at the attaché case and then, looking back into his dark green eyes, finished, "Sorry, Mister. Now, unless you want me to call the police, you’d better leave."

"And you’d better reconnect the telephone."

Merrilee looked down at the telltale cord in her hand, and got even angrier. "I can handle that."

"I don’t doubt it," he grinned. A little strange, he thought, but then, so was the rest of her family. "Probably a good bit more, from what you’ve told me. Now, if you’ll just let me in, I think we can conduct our business in a few minutes."

That really did it! "A quickie?" hissed Merrilee, indignantly. "You came all the way from San Francisco for a quickie?"

By that time, the tall man was staring at Merrilee as if she’d lost her mind, but she was well past caring. She stormed on. "You can go right back to my sister, and tell her that I don’t care if she is the hottest sex-therapist in Marin County, or the whole blessed world, for that matter! I will pick the time, the place, and my own man. I don’t want or need her to send somebody down to free me from my inhibitions!"

Merrilee had no idea how appealing she looked, framed in her doorway, dressed casually in her usual outfit of faded blue jeans and a vivid red tee shirt. Anger had given a stunning life to her hazel eyes, and her sable hair was curling wildly around her face and shoulders. She was magnificent, her visitor thought irrelevantly, and if he hadn’t already intended to do business with her, he’d have invented some on the spot. She was withdrawing, preparing to slam the door in his face again, but he was faster, placing one foot bravely in the portal.

"Hold on there, lady."

"No," she countered, vainly trying to close the door on his foot. "You hold on. I told you that I don’t go in for door-to-door sex."

"Neither do I."

Merrilee stopped then and there, eyes widened in surprise. "You don’t?"

"No, and my bag of goodies is not filled with sexual paraphernalia unless you’ve figured out how to do it with a disk drive." He was struggling to keep from laughing, and Merrilee turned crimson with embarrassment

"Oh, my God." Merrilee fell back from the door and meekly let him in. "I’m so sorry! You have no idea…"

"I take it that you were expecting company?" He studied her closely as she led him into the living room, noticing, when she turned, her slender waist and the rounded hips that swayed with an unconsciously seductive wiggle. He considered asking what sort of a warped sense of family duty was driving Melissa to make Merrilee miserable, but then decided that it might be advisable to act unacquainted with the doctor. Safer, too. "Not invited company," explained Merrilee as she took a seat on the overstuffed tan couch. She looked up to meet the curious eyes of her visitor and wanted to crawl into the nearest hole and pull it in after her. Taking a deep breath, she began. "Ever since she married, a little more than a year ago, my sister, Melissa Jones Jacobs.."

"The Dr. Melissa Jones Jacobs?" her guest injected with what he hoped sounded like surprise. "With the talk show?"

"That’s her."

"You’re her sister?"

"It wasn’t my idea."

"She was sending you some er, male company to, uh, release you from your inhibitions?"

"Yes." Merrilee looked up at the stranger sitting next to her on the couch and nodded. "That’s why I tore the phone out of the wall. She’d just called and told me that she was sending a gorgeous man today." Realizing what she’d just admitted, Merrilee blushed, unaware that embarrassment only heightened her already lovely coloring.

"Thank you," laughed the man, his deep tones sending shivers of pleasure over Merrilee. "And I don’t blame you for slamming the door in my face. I prefer to do my own hunting, too."

"I am sorry," she apologized again, feeling both foolish and angry with herself for reacting to him again. "It’s just that with my family, nothing surprises me. It wouldn’t be the first time that Melissa has tried this. The last one was tall and blond with blue eyes. I figured that she was trying another type."

"You want to tell me why she does this?" The man surveyed the young woman next to him, mentally comparing her tee shirt and denim clad form with her sister’s serene silk sophistication and found no comparison. If Melissa owned a pair of jeans, he’d never seen them, and he sincerely doubted that she ever wore a tee shirt. No, Merrilee and Melissa were night and day, and well, he’d always enjoyed the night. "Why does Melissa send men to you?"

"Because I’m the black sheep of the family."


"Everyone else in my family is involved with the birds and the bees."

"They’re all sex-therapists?" He sounded aghast.

"No. I mean that they’re all involved with natural studies of some kind." Merrilee realized that she was babbling, but for some reason, she couldn’t stop. She needed to make him understand that she wasn’t the lunatic she appeared. Drawing a deep breath, she began. "My father is a zoologist and a herpetologist. You may have heard of him—Dr. Micah Jones. Anyway, he’s currently in India trying to conduct a tête-à-tête with a king cobra. My mother was a zoologist who was into conservation trying to save Bengal tigers. She died when I was a few months old. My brother, Dr. Mark Jones, a renowned ornithologist, was last seen heading into the Louisiana bayous a couple of months ago searching out, among other things, the last Ivory Billed Woodpecker."

"I thought they were extinct."

"I did, too, but somebody called his agency and said that a pair had been spotted. So, Mark dashed off to study the mating habits of the bird, and his wife, are you ready for this? Melody Birdsong Jones, a wildlife photographer, went along with him, planning to film the birds in the act."

"Sounds pornographic." Her guest stifled a chuckle. He wondered if Mark had any idea what his sister thought of his covert activities. Being a husband/wife team of ornithologist/wildlife photographer had gotten Mark and Meli into a variety of strange places ostensibly to photograph the fauna. Hell, he thought, they’d used that cover before to get into Cuba a couple of years ago. If they happened to get a few shots of things that might interest Uncle Sam along the way, so much the better. He wondered idly what was going on in Louisiana. "Fits in with the rest of the bunch," Merrilee was saying "You’ve already heard of Melissa, and that leaves me."

"You don’t like sex?"

"I didn’t say that."

"You like it?" He was teasing now, his green eyes sparkling, trying to make her relax, and both knew it.

"I didn’t say that, either. I said that I like to pick and choose my own men. Man," she corrected."

"So what makes you the black sheep?"

"My field of study. Computers."

"I see. No warm bodies around?"

"Yours is cold?" She’d relaxed enough to tease back, and he discovered that once past the volatile exterior, a man could find a warm and inviting woman. He smiled deep within himself, making a note to test that warmth. Soon.

"Not by a long shot." He allowed himself a leisurely look at her very feminine form, and was delighted when she again blushed. "What made you select this field?"

"I spent the first seventeen years of my life being dragged around the world while my family studied wildlife in their natural habitats. It was sheer good fortune that I was born in a hospital in the States. My folks were only planning on being here a few weeks, and I was born early.

"Go on." He was intrigued by Merrilee, and baffled by Melissa’s treatment of her.

"I have been, quite literally, up to my ass in alligators while helping my father relocate some of the scaly creatures that were wandering the streets of Florida. When I was eighteen months old, I had to share my playpen with a chimpanzee, and in my teens, spent a few weeks in the hospital in Africa after being concussed when a baby giraffe kicked me."

"You’re kidding." For a moment, he gazed into her large, hazel eyes, seeing a frustration there, and something more. Then, she looked away.

"Luckily, I wasn’t killed. When my father realized that his presence in the hospital wasn’t doing either of us any good, you see, I was comatose at the time, he returned to his bloody giraffes."

"That could turn you off giraffes for life."

"And fathers. I finally came into my own, though, a few years later in Texas."

"What happened then?" He was fascinated, hearing about the redoubtable Jones family from its youngest member. Talk about a different perspective!

"There is an annual Rattlesnake Roundup there, and a bunch of people, maniacs, in my opinion, go out and capture as many of the snakes as they can. Then, they exhibit them, kill them, skin them, cook them, and eat them. They also turn the snake skins and rattlers into trophies and souvenirs."

"What did you do?"

"You must understand that my father was there, protesting the event. ‘Rights for Rattlers’ and so on. Anyway, there I was, along for the ride again, when an irate rattler got loose and damn near bit me. I grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a pistol from the man next to me—Texans frequently carry them on the hunts—and killed the snake."

"Sounds reasonable."

"My father didn’t think so. He yelled at me because I shot the snake for doing what came naturally. My father told me off in front of the crowd for making him look ridiculous and something inside me snapped. I gathered up the snake, handed it to the man in charge of the event, and asked him to cook it for me. Then, I ate it in front of the tv cameras, national coverage, no less, and gratefully accepted the skin as a belt and a hat band for the Stetson that I was awarded. You are looking at an honorary Texan."

"I guess that about did it," the man chuckled. He was laughing now, and his eyes settled on the hat atop the book shelf across the room. A sand-colored Stetson with a rattlesnake skin band complete with rattles rested there, in full view of anyone who entered the room. "Any stuffed alligators in the house?"

"No, that’s illegal, I think. Endangered species act or something." They were both laughing and she continued. "So you see, my family is very into natural things, and as sex is natural, they think nothing of discussing it in great detail."

"And you?"

"I discuss it with my gynecologist on a ‘need-to-know’ basis."

"And this worries your sister?"

"She thinks that I don’t have anything to discuss, and that at my advanced age of twenty-seven, she’s worried. So, she sends men to my door. Oh, they are qualified sex-surrogates who just happen to be in San Diego for a visit, and always have some excuse that they need some advise on a computer or something." She eyed him warily, continuing, "I know very well what Melissa is trying to do. She mentioned several times that if I needed somebody to talk with, or whatever, she could arrange it. She’s got this idea that I need help."

"So she sends care packages?"

"You could put it that way. I just don’t care for her packages." Merrilee leaned back against the plush tan widewaled corduroy couch where they were both sitting and sighed wearily. "I don’t hate my sister, or my family. They just don’t understand that I’m not like they are. I got tired of snakes, and alligators, and roughing it. I like my creature comforts without the creatures."

"And computers?"

"Seemed like a logical extension of the idea. Nice and clean, hooked up to an electrical outlet most of the time, or at the very least, needing the occasional contact with civilization. Computers don’t kick you, or bite you, aren’t poisonous, aren’t usually found in swamps and the only mating habits they have involve compatibility with software or hardware. Besides," she finished, with a certain pride, "I’m good at it."

"Which is why I’m here," the man said at last. "Dr. Sanders at the University gave me your name." That sounded safer than mentioning his relationship with her family. Later, he would tell her. Indeed, it would be inevitable, but he wanted to win her trust first, and the last thing she wanted to hear was that he was well acquainted with the rest of her relatives. He needed her assistance, and quickly. The young woman regarded him less cautiously. He was a very handsome man, with, perhaps, a similar interest, certainly not one of Melissa’s men, and he seemed to understand why she’d made an idiot of herself. Merrilee was ready to ask him more about Dr. Sanders when the doorbell rang.

"If that is one of Melissa’s men...…" she began ominously, rising to answer the summons. She opened the door to meet a very good looking young man with the predictable blue eyes and blond hair.

"Merrilee Jones? I’m Cliff Stafford. Melissa suggested that I look you up." His smile was very understanding, sympathetic, and at the same time, knowing. Merrilee met his smile with one of her own.

"You can tell Melissa that..."

"That Merrilee’s otherwise occupied," came a voice from close behind her. Suddenly, she felt her visitor nuzzling her neck, and running his hands around her waist, pulling her back against him in a very propriatorial manner. Turning her around to face him, he caught her chin in one hand and cupped it thoughtfully. Fortunately, the man at the door could not see her stunned expression. Her visitor had shed his coat and tie, mussed his hair and opened several buttons of his shirt before coming to the door. He brought his mouth down to hers, claiming it as though he had the right, and kissed her thoroughly in front of Melissa’s man. As a last affront, while still kissing her, the tall stranger kicked the door shut in the other man’s face.