©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Martha S. Robinson


Merrilee walked back to her room, encountering Aunt Emma on her way. The elderly lady had abandoned the ever present marabou boas and flowing gowns for a muu muu in chocolate challis, lavishly splashed with shocking pink and electric orange hibiscus flowers. Covering her wild red curls was a straw hat bedecked with silk flowers in the same eye-popping colors, and in her hand was a suitcase. Behind her, pushing a suitcase carrier, trailed Ms. Lowden, looking somewhat harried. "Aunt Emma," asked Merrilee, anxiously. "Is something wrong?"

"Of course not," she smiled broadly. "Didn’t Bran tell you that I was leaving for the Bahamas this morning?" Merrilee shook her head, and Aunt Emma continued. "The Lowdens and I are going on vacation for a few weeks. They’re going to visit their children in San Antonio, and I’m off to the islands. The last time I was there, I had an inspiration for Island Intrigue. Wonder what I’ll come up with this time?" She reached out to Merrilee, giving her a quick kiss, and finished, "Sorry I can’t spend any more time with you, but I’ll see you when I get back." With that, Aunt Emma and her entourage were off, leaving Merrilee feeling vaguely bereft.

"Alone at last," came a sarcastic voice from behind her.

Merrilee whirled around to see Bran who was standing a few feet away, still dressed in the shorts and a think white tee shirt that did nothing to detract from his muscular chest. He was smiling sardonically, nothing like the half-angry man she’d left only minutes before. He gave her a long, lazy stare, up and down her body, visually stripping off her clothes. "Now that Aunt Emma’s gone, we can do IT wherever you please. In the pool, in my room, in your room, on the kitchen table, for that matter." His eyes raked down her body again, and he advanced, taking her in his arms. He crushed her against his chest, pulling her tightly to him, leaving her no doubt that he was ready, willing and more than able to carry out his suggestion. "I’ve been thinking. You were right. We should enjoy each other. I’m a man, you’re a woman, and we have a mutual need. You like to learn, and I love to teach."

Things had gotten out of hand again, as far as Merrilee was concerned. She’d intended to get on his nerves, not in his bed, though he had given her a choice as to location. She backed away from him, throwing off his arms, wondering what had brought about this change. Turning, she hurried back to her room, his mocking laughter ringing in her ears. Closing the door, she turned the lock against him. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t defend herself, it was that she didn’t want to. And, more than that, his nasty laughter bothered her.

Bran watched her race down the hall, and smiled as she disappeared into her room. It had been a gamble, but he’d won. True, she’d shocked him a few minutes ago, but the longer he’d thought about it, the more he realized that she was trying to tell him that she’d been hurt by his callousness last night. No stranger to the female mind, he’d quietly considered his situation reviewing their conversations from every angle, coming finally to that conclusion. But, he’d had to be certain, though, hence his proposition. And, he was very relieved that he’d guessed right. She’d been every bit as moved by their lovemaking as he’d been, and no less disturbed. It was clear that both of them felt something, and that something had to be explored much farther.

After retrieving a packet that had arrived that morning from his room, he headed to her room and knocked on the door. "May I come in?"


"Why not?"

"I’m reading. I have a couple more books to go."

"I promise not to attack you."

There was a long silence as Merrilee considered whether or not to allow him in. Finally, she opened the door. "What do you want?" There was a wariness about her, and he felt a pang as he realized that it was his fault that it was there.

"I wanted to talk about tomorrow."

"So talk." She was strictly business. That was safer.

"Let’s go somewhere where we can sit down." Where her bed wasn’t in plain sight, along with memories too recent to forget.

"You can sit here," she said, motioning to the chair by the bed. "I trust you."

He entered the room, taking the seat she’d pointed to, and leaned back. "We leave for Savannah tomorrow morning, so I wanted to go over these pictures and information with you." He opened the packet he’d brought into the room, saying, "I got these this morning. They’re of some of the other guests invited to the party. I recognize a few of them but I don’t know them personally. This is Dorothea Blake, ‘Dixie’ to her friends. As far as anyone is concerned, she’s your all purpose southern belle. Comes from a wealthy Atlanta family, and spends like you wouldn’t believe. We have her to thank for your invitation. She’s a favorite of Drake’s, and Marilyn MacKenzie is a favorite of hers."

Merrilee studied the picture of a lovely blonde woman somewhere past forty, though money had done much to disguise that fact. She looked as though life had dealt her a series of blows from which wealth couldn’t totally shield her. Merrilee could see it in her eyes, pain that would eventually do more damage to her carefully maintained looks than age itself. "Who is this bearded guy?" she asked Bran who was leaning closer. Merrilee was managing to keep her voice calm, though Bran’s proximity was nerve wracking. Knowing how his bare skin burned beneath her fingers, how his dark green eyes deepened to the color of the moonlit sea.

"That’s Thomas O’Reilly, a man of inherited means, but very little sense. He’s been tangled up with more married women than you can imagine. He and Dixie are cousins, and from time to time, lovers."

"Isn’t that incestuous?"

"Not really. They have no blood relation. O’Reilly’s father is listed as Dixie’s uncle, when in reality, her father is this man, Aaron du Bois. He’ ll be there, too."

"Nice loving little group."

"They probably go in for that, too." Bran leaned back against the chair and tossed two more pictures on the bed. "Martin Manchester, a known supporter of the IRA, and Eleanor Courtney, Drake’s current mistress." Merrilee looked at the two, noting that Eleanor was extremely beautiful, though in a very artificial way, and that Martin’s eyes were too close together. Of course, she didn’t offer those observations to Bran, thinking that it sounded very juvenile and amateurish. Jake had taught her well, though to look at people and at their eyes. "There are very few people who can lie with their eyes and with their entire bodies. Something always gives them away. Look for it, kid. Sometimes, it’s all you’ve got." Pushing away the past, she took the last picture from Bran who showed her a very handsome man with lazy blue eyes and curly brown hair.

"Drake deSilva. Charming, loaded with money and ambition. He wants to own more and more of Georgia, but that takes more and more money."

"Hence this computer scheme?"

"Yes. Our sources tell us that sometime this week, he’s supposed to transfer what he has, technical plans and hardware to someone else."

"And you think that you can discover something by being at the party?"

"We’ve looked under every other stone. We know that he keeps his household and personal expenses on a personal computer and we suspect that it’s tied in with a mainframe elsewhere. Since we have nothing that we can prove on the man, no hard evidence, what we’re supposed to do is gain access to the computer, search the files, and download all everything to my, uh, contacts."

"You realize that I may need hours to do this."

"I know that. That’s why we’re bringing out own little computer and everything we’ll need to get the job done without his knowing about it. All we have to do is find the thing and then manufacture the conditions under which I can get the chance to do the deed."

"What are you looking for?"

"Something that doesn’t look right. We don’t expect him to list the sale of computers to the enemy under accounts receivable. But, we do want to look for any unusual cash transactions, and any possible listing of warehouses or companies that aren’t tied to him. Somewhere, he’s hiding something that we need to know, and that something may be on his personal computer."

"Wouldn’t it just be easier to audit the guy? How about your friends with the IRS? Certainly they could suggest that he needed to justify his cash flow."

"He’s been audited so many times that it’s ridiculous. He’s always ready for them."

"So what makes you think that what we’re looking for will be on the computer?"

"Just a guess. It may be a cash and carry transaction, but again, the man would have to show a tremendous amount of cash."

"Swiss accounts?"

"Possibly. Probably, but we don’t have any account numbers, and you know how closed mouth the Swiss are. If we can turn up numbers-that’s a start."

"Tell me, Bran. Why do you suspect the man in the first place? Sounds like he’s clean."

Bran sank down in the chair and raised his eyebrows, drawing a breath at the same time. "This week, just two days before I came to your door, one of our men disappeared. He was investigating this technology leak." Bran didn’t add that the man had been a personal friend for several years, one of the head men in his security division. "Just before he dropped out of sight, he made a call to me. He named deSilva as the exporter. He said that he was certain, but he needed to get concrete proof. He was going after the evidence when he vanished. The call was from a pay phone in Savannah."

Merrilee shivered and asked. "Is that when you heard about this party?"

He nodded. "The invitation came through when I was with your family. Like I said, my boss knows about Aunt Emma. You have a security clearance because of some of the things you’ve worked on in the past."

"You discussed this with my family?"

"Mike is an associate of ours. Not in the same business, but in this instance, our end goal is the same. Melissa knows about it."

Merrilee digested this little bit of information. Yes, Mike, that is Jake, was an associate. Hell, he was up to his neck in the agency business, but how much Melissa knew bothered her. So far as Merrilee knew, Melissa had never discovered the past that linked Jake and Lee, and that was how both wanted it. Lee had been involved in things that she shouldn’t have, and Jake was no more inclined to explain certain incidents than she was. So, as far as Melissa was to know, they’d never met before. Lee Smythe and Jake Jones were unknown to her.

Unfortunately, Melissa had known instinctively that things weren’t as they seemed. So, she meddled and probed, driving Merrilee to move to San Diego. Even that hadn’t stopped the good doctor. Was it possible that Melissa considered Merrilee a threat? What a ridiculous thought! Jake loved his wife, and Merrilee knew it, and she knew that if she stayed around them, the tension would only make things worse.

Jerking herself back to the present, Merrilee stared at the man who had so changed her life. He was watching her, noting the thoughts that had crossed her face. Merrilee covered herself. "Mike works with the agency? I thought he was a pencil pushing consultant, or something."

"Basically he is-but it’s a very secure pencil."

"And Melissa?"

"Melissa has some very interesting clients and usually, that’s the extent of it."

"You mean that she has done some work for your firm?"

"Not exactly. There is, of course, the patient/doctor confidentiality. What she has is the uncanny ability to spot weaknesses, sexual weaknesses that are exploitable."

"You mean who to pick on?"

"More like who might be picked on. The other, only once in a while."

"That’s dirty pool." It was disgusting, but Merrilee knew that it was done.

"Yes, unless you prefer your country’s secrets to be made available to anybody or any nation that wants them. She serves as a consultant from time to time."

"And, in spite of all this she was willing to recommend me for the job?"

Bran drew another deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Melissa didn’t know that you were to be involved. I didn’t tell her what I was about to do, and Mike suggested that we keep her in the dark. I really don’t think he knew about her sending you men." He frowned and added, "I doubt that she’ll ever do it again."

There was a moment of silence as each observed the other’s reaction to the situation that was developing. Merrilee was glad that Jake had kept her secrets, and Bran was wondering for the first time if there wasn’t something that he didn’t know about. Mike had a lot of confidence in his sister-in-law, and Melissa didn’t. Curious.

Finally, Merrilee asked, "If you’d known about her doing it, would you have called me?"

Bran paused, and answered truthfully. "I don’t know. Probably. After all, you didn’t ask for them, and didn’t accept them when they arrived. It sounds like Melissa is the one with the problem to me."

Merrilee leaned back against the pillows. Next to her on the bed was one of Julia Ravenscraft’s books, Intimate Stranger. Bran reached over and picked it up, only to have it removed from his hand by Merrilee. "That good, huh?" he teased, and she colored slightly. He took it back and read the excerpt in the front. "’Anything you want, anytime you want it, he rasped against her breast. ‘Whatever your dreams, I’ll fulfill them. And, you.’ Good Grief, Merrilee. What are you reading?"

"Just another one of those romances," she said, crimson spreading over her cheeks. "This is take compared to what he actually does." It was a historical romance, and not particularly to her liking, as she preferred contemporary stories.

"You’re kidding."

"No, I’m not. And, if you think that’s interesting, you should read a few of Aunt Emma’s books. She makes this author sound uninhibited."

"Let me read that." He sat down next to her on the bed, letting his eyes scan the words that Merrilee had been reading minutes before. The hero was busily doing things that your average man about town probably hadn’t heard about, let alone tried. The heroine was, of course, enjoying it, giving as good as she got, doing things that most men only dream of. Bran’s eyes got wider, and he tossed the book aside. "You mean that you’ve spent the last few days reading that?"

She nodded and defended. "You told me to. For the good of the country and all." She was still leaning back on the pillow, and suddenly gave a chuckle. "Like I told you, Bran. You’ve opened up a whole new world to me."

"I think I’ll close a few books," he said, annoyed that she was learning things that he hadn’t taught her himself. "If you continue reading that sort of stuff, you’ll begin to believe it."

"Why shouldn’t I?" She asked him. "In those books, men and women find themselves in unusual circumstances, and then fall in love, and into bed. Eventually, they get married, but not until their problems have been resolved. Yes, there are seduction scenes, and lovemaking, but that’s what it is. Lovemaking. They make love, not just have sex. They’re wildly attracted to each other, but terrified of commitment for some reason. So, they call what they feel lust at first.

"Of course. I don’t know why it bothers you, anyhow. We are working together in this, and then we’re going our separate ways. You can go back to your desk, and manipulate people from afar, and I can return to my PC and program away. Or," she added, chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip, "I might try writing one of those books, myself."

"You wouldn’t."

"Why not? Aunt Emma does it, and she seems to have a good time." Merrilee decided to twist the knife a little. "Besides, think of what I might learn in researching my stories. Some of this sounds pretty interesting."

"Merrilee, you wouldn’t like it."

"Why not?"

"You expect me to believe that you’d enjoy climbing into the sack with a man you barely know and having sex with him?" Bran was incensed at the very idea.

"What do you think I did last night?" She looked at him, defying him to answer.

"That was different. You know me."

"Bran, I’d known you for less than forty-eight hours. You expect me to think that it would be any different?"

"You knew I wouldn’t hurt you. That I wouldn’t abuse you. Hell, Merrilee! You didn’t pick me up in a bar. Where do you expect to find these men?" He was growing angrier by the second, having to defend himself against her statements, but more by the idea that she might even consider doing any of it. One minute she was sweet and innocent, and the next she was Mata Hari!

"Where do you find the women you sleep with?" She sat up beside him, and demanded, "And what difference does it make to you what I do? You’re not my keeper!"

"Lord knows you need one," he told her. "One night in my bed and you’re ready to take on the world."

"It was my bed, and you flatter yourself." She gave him a look that was regally disdainful and jibed, "You think that you’ve awakened something inside me, and that makes you special. If you were so damned special, I wouldn’t want anyone else."

"And you do?" He was angry now, listening to her scornful words, his green eyes almost black with emotion.

"I just might." Good sense had long ago given up on Merrilee, and frustration had taken its place. "But I won’t know until I try, now will I?"

"And you’ll try?"

"Maybe. Savannah will provide just the sort of testing ground that I need, and I can do it all for the good of the country. Undercover agent, you might say." She was joking, but Bran was past the teasing stage now. Something primitive had been awakened within him, and the idea of his woman looking for pleasure elsewhere filled him with rage.

"No, Merrilee," Bran grated, taking her by the shoulders. "You won’t go looking for a good time there. Just because you can tread water doesn’t mean that you’re ready for the Olympics."

"I sure as hell won’t ever get ready if I don’t practice, will I?"

That did it. "You want to practice?" Bran pushed her back to the bed, taking her lips with an emotion dangerously close to total anger. "We’ll practice. And that book?", he muttered, his eyes glittering as his hands moved over her hips, pulling her beneath him. "Shall we recreate that scene here and now?" He was tasting her lips, lowering himself to her neck, his fingers nearly tearing the buttons from her blouse in his haste to prove his point, though just what it was, was ill-defined in his mind. She twisted away from him, pushing, almost crying.

"No, Bran."

He was past listening, past rational thought, intent upon making Merrilee realize that she was his alone, though he hadn’t quite formed that thought in so many words. The idea that she might actually consider seeking satisfaction in the arms of another man, that she might trust another man with her body, and her love filled him with a deep hurt, one that he didn’t fully understand.

Merrilee was rapidly realizing that she’d pushed him farther than she’d intended, and that unless she brought him around in a hurry, he’d indeed give her a lesson she’d never forget. With this in mind, she wrenched one hand free and grabbed a handful of his thick hair. She tugged viciously on it, causing him to turn her loose for a second, and then dealt him a stinging slap. "Stop it!" she cried, tears falling. Her blouse was open and her bra had come apart. Her breasts were bared, and she struggled off the bed to stand away from him.

Merrilee stared at Bran, the pain in her eyes causing him deep pain, though the knowledge that he’d put it there hurt him far more. "Get out of my room, Bran Elliot! Get out now, before I call of this entire fiasco. No, don't worry. I’ll help you find your precious information for you, if it’s there, but then you can go to hell any way you please! Just leave me alone!"