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


You’ve really screwed it up this time, Bran told himself savagely as he slammed the door to his room. He could still see Merrilee’s face, white, with eyes widened in rage or pain. Or, both. She’d been clutching her blouse together, her lower lip trembling, tears streaming down her cheeks as she’d ordered him from her room. Whatever had been between them, a fragile, unique thing of beauty, had been destroyed by his idiotic behavior. He shook his head in total disbelief at what he’d done.

What the hell had made him behave like that? No woman had ever gotten so completely under his skin before, causing him to lose his usual objective outlook. It wasn’t that he’d never been so close to a woman before, and though he didn’t enjoy admitting it, she wasn’t the only woman ever to turn him down. There had been others, though he couldn’t remember their faces, and didn’t care, outside of the slight to his ego.

But, Merrilee was different, and that bothered him. She was by no means the prettiest woman he’d ever seen, or ever bedded. He knew that he could pick up the telephone and make a date with any one of a dozen beautiful women who’d never turn him away from their beds. Of course, he didn’t care who else they took there at other times, as long as they didn’t leave him with health problems. They understood the game, as did he, and nobody got hurt. But, Merrilee, apparently, was a novice at the game, no matter what she said. Damn her! he swore angrily. Why couldn’t she be like the others? Yet, the idea of her playing that game with other men set his teeth on edge, and he was tempted to go back down the hallway and shake her until her teeth rattled. Other men, indeed!

Bran thought of the passage from the book, and in his present state of mind could imagine Merrilee trying it out with Drake deSilva. Bran finished the scene by seeing himself slowly, painfully, killing the other man after beating him within an inch of his life. His murderous urges carried mentally to their very gratifying conclusion, he relaxed, only to find that he just torn one of his shirts to shreds. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he stopped, then started to laugh. Thank heavens he was alone! He’d have hated for anyone to catch him acting like a jealous lover.

That stopped him cold in his tracks. Jealous?? No, it wasn’t possible. He was just feeling protective of her. That was all. She was his, but not in any permanent way-just, well, what the hell was he even thinking? All he wanted was for her to be happy, to find the right man for her. She needed somebody she could trust, somebody to love her, to laugh with, a man to give her children, someone with whom to share her life. Yet, the thought of her with another man, any other man, left him with a profound sense of loss. So, what was it that he wanted?? He had the uneasy feeling that to continue along this line of thought would lead to unsettling conclusions, so with nothing resolved, he turned his mind to the task of getting packed for the flight.

Merrilee, on the other hand, had stopped cursing herself after drying her tears, and taken the Ravenscraft book calmly tearing it to shreds. That didn’t solve anything, didn’t change the fact that Bran was angry with her, had almost forced himself on her. He wouldn’t have hurt her, couldn’t have, though he didn’t know that she was capable of inflicting severe injuries upon his body. Jake had told her that, too. "Never lay all your cards on the table, kid. That gives your enemy control of your weapons." Yes, she could’ve disabled Bran physically, but had known that it wasn’t necessary. A simple slap had done it, but she hadn’t been able to stop the angry tirade of words, or the bitter tears.

Bran had left her, his dark green eyes cold and raging, and had stomped back to his room to slam the door. Part of their argument had been her fault, she admitted. She’d deliberately been difficult, deliberately provoking, and provocative, leading him on and putting him off, just like she was supposed to do with Drake, only Bran had reacted very badly. There was no reason for him to care with whom she slept, not with his attitude towards sex, and she wanted him to know that. So why was he being such a jerk about it? Could it be that he was more involved than he realized?

Merrilee contemplated that unlikely scenario, imagined for a moment that Bran had been jealous, but soon her common sense took over. He was drop dead gorgeous, and no doubt, probably used to equally beautiful women. Experienced women who didn’t need to consult romance novels to know what to do, who could melt a man at twenty paces with a single smoldering stare. No, he wouldn’t want Merrilee on any sort of permanent basis, and she didn’t want to serve as a temporary lover, just another warm body until another, better looking woman came along. Blondes, brunettes, it didn’t matter to him, but it mattered to Merrilee and it mattered enough that she didn’t want him to know how much it mattered. And, that it did spoke volumes about Merrilee’s state of mind.

What kind of a woman was she that she’d fall for some turkey who just used women, enjoyed their bodies, and then moved on to the next one? A woman with no self esteem, no sense of self worth, and no instinct for survival Well, she decided, she might be a tad lacking in the first two departments, but she sure as hell knew how to take care of herself, and this was a situation that called for a strategic retreat. But, since she’d obligated herself to the project she felt honor bound to carry it through, so she determined to act as coldly and as impersonally towards him as possible. Face it, she told herself, you’re rejecting him before he can reject you again.

That resolved, she began packing, enjoying the feel of the silky fabrics and the sexy negligees as she gently folded them into the suitcases. She left out one night gown for this evening, and one set of clothes out for tomorrow. Then, she glanced at the clock. It was close to dinner time, and her stomach told her that she’d missed lunch. Wondering what the refrigerator held, she left her room and headed towards the kitchen. As she rounded the corner, she ran into Bran who evidently had the same thing on his mind. He paused, seeing the apprehensive look on her face, and held up his hand. "Truce?"


"Look, I’m sorry. I, uh,.. "

"It doesn’t matter. We have a job to do, and we can’t afford to fight while we’re doing it. After it’s over, it won’t matter, anyway. So, truce in effect."

She turned away from him coldly, and for a moment, he knew the urge to take her into his arms and kiss her until she admitted that she wanted him as much as he wanted her. But, he didn’t, exercising what he deemed incredible restraint, and merely followed her into the kitchen. Merrilee opened the refrigerator, looking at a virtually empty machine. "Aunt Emma must have figured that we’d eat out again and didn’t want to leave anything to spoil."

"Would you like to go out?" Bran asked the question, meeting her eyes with what he hoped was total indifference, or at least anything but the raging desire that he felt. She met his gaze without flinching, searching for something, probably to see if he planned on pouncing as soon as her back was turned, he thought wryly.

Finally, she answered, "Yes. But, please, let’s go somewhere casual. I don’t want to get dressed up like a tramp tonight."

Bran winced at the word. "Is that how you see yourself?"

"Isn’t that the image I’m supposed to project? As Marilyn MacKenzie, the only relationships I have are illicit, thanks to Aunt Emma’s tall tales, and those dresses are the wardrobe for the role. I look like an easy lay, don’t I?"

"You looked very lovely in the ones I’ve seen."

"And those were selected for the part. Thanks, Bran, but I’d prefer to be plain old Merrilee tonight in my jeans and tee shirt."

"Okay. Go get dressed and we’ll go out for a pizza."

Minutes later, she emerged from the room in the well worn jeans and red-orange tee shirt. She wore the same clothes she’d been wearing that morning when she’d met him-after all, she hadn’t brought any others, but for some reason, she hadn’t analyzed, she had kept on the silky lingerie. What did it matter? He’d never see it.

Bran pretended not to notice her as she walked beside him, but never before had she seemed so vulnerable. She looked like a warrior without armor, facing the enemy, and it bothered him to realize that he was that enemy. Without the high heels, she was several inches shorter than he was, and without the exotic perfume, and the silk dresses, she was simply Merrilee Jones. No less exciting, no less desirable, and no less maddening, and he had never met a woman that appealed to him like she did.

Still, he told himself, she wasn’t the same person he’d brought here a couple of days ago, and that was his fault, too. He could have said no, could have refused to take advantage of her. The situation could have been avoided and should have been. He could have done without making love with her, could have exercised restraint. But, no, he’d gone and tasted her sweetness and wanted more. And, had gotten more. Now she would have none of him, and he wanted her more than ever. Yes, he’d screwed things up royally.

Merrilee walked beside him, unhappily feeling that she’d been right to dispense with her borrowed finery tonight, for that had put everything in its proper perspective. Without the MacKenzie attire, Bran didn’t even look at her, and she might as well have been walking along with her brother. But, even Mark would’ve made conversation with her, and tried to make it an enjoyable evening. Of course, Mark wouldn’t have just made a pass at her, either.

The pizza was tasteless, the music too loud, and the beer was flat. Neither Merrilee nor Bran said much, concentrating on choking down their meal and ignoring each other. Never before had she felt any less attractive, and any less sure of herself, and any less like having a good time. So, she didn’t, and when she could eat no more, told him that she was ready to go.

"All right," he said, paying for the meal. "Let’s go. We can talk when we get back." "Why do we have to talk? I thought we’d done enough of that this afternoon."

"I’m sorry about this afternoon," he told her as they pulled away from the restaurant. "I was wrong-extremely wrong and totally and out of line, and I’m sorry."

"I’m sorry about this afternoon, too. I was baiting you for last night, and that was inappropriate. It was my fault as much as it was yours. I’m sorry, too."

"Looks like we’re a sorry pair," he offered, trying to keep it light. "Now that we’ve apologized, maybe we can be friends?"

"I’d like that. Maybe we should have tried being friends in the first place."

"You’re probably right. No matter what anybody says, it’s hard for a man and a woman to keep things friendly when they’re attracted to each other."

This was getting into dangerous territory again, so he quickly added, "That’s probably why some agents have such varied love lives."

"No doubt," Merrilee agreed, trying to hide the unhappiness his words brought. It was simple-attraction but no feelings involved. "I supposed that’s why people drift into affairs so easily, sometimes. Familiarity and so on."

"Affairs, but not long term relationships. There would have to be more," he told himself, though he addressed the statement to her. She took it like she ’d taken the other things he’d said, understanding that he was trying to tell her that last night was nothing more than an occupational hazard. So why did he feel that he was trying to convince himself?

"Yes," Merrilee picked up on that thread. "Melissa tried to explain that to me, saying that I needn’t be involved with one of her therapists, just to enjoy the experience. I should have listened." It would’ve hurt less, she thought, to have known up front that it would’ve been meaningless. She wouldn’t have deceived herself as she’d done last night. Her heart wouldn’t have been involved, just her body. Trouble was, she couldn’t separate the two.

"Those kinds of relationships work for you, don’t they? Meaningless sexual relationships?"

"They have," he admitted, with the uncomfortable feeling that they wouldn’t any more. There was something about Merrilee that made all the women in his past seem very distant and all his affairs as boring and uneventful. Whatever she had, he either needed to keep or get out of his system. Damn! He couldn’t even stand to look at chocolate cake ever since that marathon eating session in his teens. Or, like other women for whom he’d sated his appetite. Yes, it was unthinkable that he could’ve found a woman for whom he wouldn’t lose his desire. Still, short of taking her to bed until he was exhausted, he couldn’t think of a way to get his fill of her. Problem was that would involve her cooperation, and after this afternoon, she’d probably sooner bed down with Atilla the Hun. Yeah, he’d really done it this time.

After the short drive back to the house, the two left the car and walked to the front door, entering the air conditioned rooms. Once within the living room, Merrilee turned to him. "You wanted to talk. Let’s talk. Once we get to Savannah, I don’t want to mess up. I want to get what we’re after and get the hell out."

"Agreed. Look, about this afternoon.."

"I said, forget it."

"How can I forget it when every time I come within two feet of you, you look like you’re going to yell ‘rape!’"

Merrilee flushed self-consciously, yet at the same time, she was almost angry. How dare he act as if he was the rejected party? She hadn’t left him, he’d left her. She knew that he was referring to the incident that afternoon, but he evidently didn’t realize that the two situations were related in her mind. "I’m working on it."

"You’d better work fast, because tomorrow, you’re going to have to act as if you enjoy my touch. If you cringe, they’ll know that something is wrong."

"What do you suggest?" She stood defensively, her arms crossed over her breasts.

"We have to act friendly, and we’ve agreed to try to be friends. Right?"

"Right." Her tone was begrudging, but it was a start.

"Friends have been known to touch, even kiss."

"So?" She wet her lips nervously, running her tongue over them in an unconsciously tempting manner. Wanting to be in his arms again, to touch him was powerful temptation, but the idea of being set aside again like something no longer required would be devastating.

Bran drew a deep breath and stood, hands on hips. "So, I’d like to kiss you again, to hold you, so you can get used to me again without being frightened. It’s important that you know that you can trust me."

"That’s all?"

"That’s all."

"Okay." Her voice was so soft that it was almost inaudible, but he heard her, and very gently gathered her into his arms. He held her closely, but left enough room that she could push away if she felt the need. Gradually, he felt her relax, and become pliable in his arms, though he could also feel her heart beating quickly. He tilted her face to his, seeing her great hazel eyes darkening with what he hoped was a small spark of feeling for him. Ever so easily, he lowered his mouth to hers, barely touching her, holding back the internal demands that he force a response from her. Gently, he coaxed, teasing. At first, her lips were tense, then yielding to his, softening, and then opening to his tongue.

Tasting her sweetness, something he’d thought lost to him forever, he began to try to heal the wounds he’d inflicted earlier, gently stroking her back with his hands. She was heaven in his arms, soft, feminine, warm, and he felt like a condemned man who’d been given a reprieve. Determined not to mess up this time, he slowly lowered her to the couch, lying down with her atop him.

"Shhhh," he calmed. "I’m not going to do anything. Just hold you and make you easier with me. See? You can get up whenever you want. You need to learn to trust me to hold back. I’ll never force you to do anything. Never. Whatever happened this afternoon was an aberration, a moment’s madness and I’ll never forgive myself for that."

"It’s okay," she whispered into the darkness, reveling in the hard, male body that was beneath her. She could feel the tension of his muscles, and more, the aroused temptation that he couldn’t deny. Merrilee was relaxing, in spite of herself, a liquid warmth spreading throughout her body, as if she was melting all over him. Closing her eyes, she breathed in his scent, savoring the closeness she so desperately needed. It tore at her heart to think that she’d never be able to touch him again after all of this was over, that they’d never see each other again, but it would have to be that way. She couldn’t bear to be close without loving him, and he wasn’t in love with her.

Still, she told herself, she had this short time with him, and if it was all she ever had, she’d cherish it. So, with a determination born of need, desperation and love, she said, "Bran?"


"I trust you. And-I like it when you hold me. Bran, would you...hold me tonight?"

"Tonight?" He couldn’t believe his ears, or his luck. She wanted him to touch her! Miracles did happen!

"All night. You don’t have to make love to me. I guess I’m just a little nervous about tomorrow."

Bran was silent for a moment, barely understanding what she’d said. He didn’t have to make love to her? Didn’t she know that was what he wanted to do?? Desperately?? Or, was he misunderstanding what she’d meant? Oh, well, it didn’t matter what she meant. He’d hold her from now on, given the chance. Somewhat shaken by this new thought, he quickly said, "I’d love to hold you. I’m a little nervous, myself."

"You are? I thought that you had lots of this sort of experience."

"Not really-like I told you, I’m rarely in the field."

"Oh. Then, if you don’t mind, let’s go to bed."

"Not at all," he assured her, trying to suppress the joy in his voice. "What are friends for?"