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


A little later, the two lay in Merrilee’s kingsized bed, holding each other as is they’d been sleeping together for years. She’d donned the deep amber satin gown, unaware that it made her skin seem to glow. Bran had opted to wear his under shorts, feeling more than noble about the effort. Merrilee had gone into his arms willingly, allowing herself to be drawn close to him, and as he turned the lights out.

Merrilee laid next to him, feeling his warmth, breathing in his scent, and savoring the feeling of nearness. Yet, for all the closeness, and comfort, she was suddenly not the least bit sleepy. In fact, she was almost painfully awake, as she lay on his bare shoulder, her hand over his heart, feeling it beat. Instead of easing her aching heart, the closeness only made it worse. Filled with love for him, her fingers ached to touch him, to stroke him, to tangle themselves in his thick curly hair. She longed to kiss him, and to be kissed until she hesitated on the brink of insanity like last night. Only last night, he’d seemed interested in her. Tonight, he lay still, almost rigid as if he were concentrating on sleep. And, the stiller he lay, the more awake she felt.

It had to be hell, she reflected, being like this. She was on fire for him, yet she had to be satisfied with simply holding and being held. It was becoming increasingly obvious that her idea of being with him like this was one of the worst she’d ever had. The more she held him, the more she wanted to love him, and quite frankly, she couldn’t bear to be rejected again. She closed her eyes and thought about touching him, about kissing him, and felt her body quicken in anticipation. No, that wouldn’t do. She wasn’t into masochism, and this had to be the worst kind of torture she could imagine. Why had she made this inane suggestion in the first place? At least she’d have the lovely memories from last night, but from tonight, all she’d have would be the lasting impressions of deep frustration. She had to do something, anything, just to break the agony of laying with him like this.



"Are you tired?"

"Not really. What’s wrong?"

Funny, his voice sounded strained. Maybe he didn’t really want to be with her. Maybe he found her distasteful after what had happened. She hoped not.

"I can’t sleep. Maybe I’m too keyed up about tomorrow." She couldn’t very well tell him that she couldn’t sleep because he was laying beside her.

"Like Christmas Eve when you were a kid?"

"Sort of." She snuggled closer, drinking in the feeling of his body next to hers. If she was going to be sleepless, she might has well make the most of it. Besides, she couldn’t seem to help herself. She added, "You feel so warm."

"Merrilee," Bran whispered hoarsely. "Be still."

"I’m sorry." She sounded so apologetic, and he felt awkward having to explain. What was he to say? That her soft, sweet body was driving him slowly, well, maybe not so slowly, but quite certainly over the edge? That if she made one more move, he was going to scream?

"I’m not angry. I’m just not used to holding a woman like this and sleeping."

"Oh." She understood. What was that old saying about all cats being gray in the dark? It was dark, and she guessed that all women must be very much alike in the dark. Funny, though. She felt that she’d know Bran from any number of men in the dark. She knew his scent. Faintly woodsy and clean. Decidedly male. Decidedly desirable. Get a grip on yourself, Merrilee. It was too much, she realized. She clinched her fists and rolled over to sleep on her side, her back to him.

"You don’t have to do that," he told her. "I promise not to attack you."

"It’s okay," she answered, curbing her disappointment. "I just wasn’t getting any sleeping done that way so I thought I’d try another position."

Did she have to put it that way? Bran wondered savagely. That woman had the rare talent of making only one thing come to his mind, and if she didn’t quit it, he was going to have to sleep in the shower with the cold water running. "Merrilee," he asked, finally, a disturbing thought occurring to him. "Do you find me repulsive after this afternoon?"

"Of course not. I think you’re very handsome."

"I don’t mean that. What I mean is, did I frighten you?"

"No. Yes. A little. Why?"

"Because if I did, then I’m going to have to sleep somewhere else to keep from frightening you again."

Merrilee lay still, wondering what to do. Bran still wanted her, and she wanted very much to make love with him again, to give herself again and feel the magic he alone could invoke with his fingers and mouth. She longed to give all she had, but would that make it worse? No, she told herself. What would be worse would be looking back and wishing she’d done it if she hadn’t. "Bran," she began again she felt him start to leave the bed.


"Don’t go. I wasn’t really frightened of you."


"No. This afternoon was wrong for both of us. I wasn’t really frightened of you then."

"You’re certain?"

"Must I beg?" Merrilee sat up and whispered. "I want you, Bran."

Elation rushed over him as he pushed her back to the pillow, gently kissing her lips, her eyes, her hair. "I’ll be gentle," he promised. "I’ll never hurt you."

"I won’t break," she told him, pulling him closer. "I’m tougher than you think." She drew her palm between them, placing it on his chest, feeling his heart beat and smiled. Her fingers tangled in the thick mat of hair, then crept up to his face where she traced the mustache above the lips she loved to kiss. Her fingers were free to roam his body, and they did, relearning all the lessons from the night before, while Bran held himself in check. She kissed his chest, teasing his flat male nipples, taking delight when she felt them grow rigid under her careful attention. Her own body was heating under his hands, aching with desires that demanded release. Again, he undressed her, this time lifting the silken gown over her head and tossing it on the floor where it was quickly joined by his shorts.

"I don’t know why you wore it," he said, his fingers teasing hr already taut nipples into tight buds of desire. "Wasted money."

"I didn’t buy it."

"Don’t ever buy one," he moaned, moving lower, kissing the delicate undersides of her breasts. The rest of the night was lost to pure sensation, feelings no fantasy could fabricate, and when they finally fell into exhausted sleep, dawn was only a couple of hours away.

Unfortunately, as it inevitably does, dawn came, and with it returned all the mixed emotions of the day before. Waking in Bran’s arms, Merrilee lay quietly wondering who had taken over her body the night before, for surely she, Merrilee Jones, wouldn’t have invited Bran into her bed again. Especially with his decided preference for women in the very plural sense. But, clearly, she had, and she vividly remembered all that had led up to it, and the rest of the night. Somewhere in the darkness, the formerly inhibited Merrilee had vanished, being replaced by the one whose thought patterns had been reprogrammed by a series of sensual stories.

It had to be those damned books, Merrilee told herself as she eased out of the bed. It just had to be! She loved Bran dearly, but only an insane person would open herself to the kind of rejection that she was courting. Nothing, nobody was worth that sort of pain. She glanced at the sleeping man. Nobody except Bran.

Bran was still sleeping as Merrilee headed toward the bathroom. She filled the exotic sunken tub with water and without a second thought, dumped in a healthy shot of perfumed oil. The scent mingled with the steam rising from the water and Merrilee stepped into the pool, sinking deeper as the water filled the tub. She looked around herself, noting the abundance of plants, and the skylight which allowed sufficient filtered sunlight to provide all they needed for growth. Again, she listened as the waterfall, activated by an automatic pump, returned the water, sending the heady fragrance into the air.

It was the last time she’d be here, she thought with some regret. When this was all over, and she was back at her house, she might just have the bathroom remodeled, but then she’d only think of Bran each time she bathed. Thinking about him would be bad enough, but to think of him daily, especially when she was naked in the bath would be too much. No, she’d do better to keep the plain white porcelain.

The only thing that kept her from returning to bed to awaken Bran with a kiss was the thought that in a little while, this masquerade would begin, and that she couldn’t afford to let herself get distracted. After all, one man was already missing, and she didn’t want Bran or herself to join the ranks of the dearly departed. No, she had a role to play, and play it she would, all the way down to the silk panties and front clasp bra.

Reaching over to the shampoo, she slid under the waterfall and let it soak her hair. Should have been a sybarite, she mused as the scented water cascaded over her head and shoulders. She moved aside long enough to lather up her hair, and then moved under the waterfall. It had a cleverly concealed switch which allowed the bather to shut off the recirculating pump in favor of fresh water with which to rinse off. When she was finished, she climbed out of the tub, wrapped herself in a thick, white towel and reentered the bedroom. Bran was gone, apparently back to his room.

Bran was indeed in his room, though the choice of joining Merrilee in the bath had been almost too tempting to pass up. Instead, he opted for a cold shower, and began making preparations for the trip. Last night had been unforgettable, but what lay ahead had, after yesterday’s news, taken on a more serious appearance. A masquerade was one thing, but add the complications of a missing agent, and it became something else. Add Merrilee, and what had been serious became downright grim. Last night had been a turning point for him, and whether or not she knew it, Merrilee had given herself to him irrevocably. He’d debated telling her so, but the newness of the idea still needed to be savored for a while. Besides, he wasn’t sure how she’d react to hearing that he’d already decided on her future. As long as she felt free, she would be more at ease, Knowing that he cared, that he loved her, she might give him more of her attention than was good for her own safety.

Cursing the job that might jeopardize Merrilee, Bran began turning over the possibilities that could lead to a quick solution to the case. Somewhere in deSilva’s house might be the clue that they needed, or even the information itself, While it was possible that some of the computer hardware was there, it was more probable that they’d find only software. Maybe they’d find the actual technical manuals and plans, though it was more likely that the closest they’d get was to find something stored in computer memory. Industrial espionage was a serious charge, but it looked like murder and treason might well come up before this was over. Yes, Bran had taken on a dangerous job, and Merrilee might be in over her head. Bran was willing to risk his own safety on this last foray into the underworld of criminal activity, but he wasn’t going to risk Merrilee. How could Mike ever have suggested that she could help?? His own sister-in-law? Mike must be as sick as Melissa was. Within seconds, Bran had Mike on the phone and was telling him off.

Minutes later, Bran hung up the telephone, disbelief registering on his face. Lee Smythe? She couldn’t be! Bran had heard stories about Lee and Jake from Mike a couple of years ago, but he’d never known what she’d looked like. Mike, he’d just learned, had been known as ‘Jake’ in the field, and Merrilee, Bran’s Merrilee, had been ‘Lee’. His Merrilee had been with Jake? Bran gritted his teeth knowing the reputation that Mike had enjoyed with women before he’d met Melissa. Lee and Jake had been partners for two years? Bran closed his eyes and groaned.

He sat back on the bed and shook his head. Exactly what didn’t he know about her? Hell, what did he really know about her? Did Melissa know about them? Was that why she kept trying to marry Merrilee off? Bran exhaled and swore briefly. This couldn’t be! He couldn’t see his Merrilee doing some of the things he knew Lee had done. But, Mike had said that it was true, and that it was secret. He’d said that if she knew that Bran knew, she might be angry. Mike had betrayed her trust by telling Bran, but the mission was worth it.

Couldn’t anything ever be easy? Wondered Bran as he threw his things into the suitcase. Nobody was who they said they were anymore, or they weren’t who they once were. Or something. Even his thoughts were scrambled at this point. All that was clear was that things had gotten more dangerous, and that Mike had said not to worry about Merrilee. Indeed, it was quite possible that she was more capable of pulling this off than Bran was.

But, worry Bran did, because he still couldn’t equate the Merrilee he knew, the young woman he’d held trembling in his arms, the one he’d nearly frightened out of her wits, (or had he?) with Lee Smythe who could put a man out of working order with stunning speed. Still, it had been years since she’d done anything like this, and she might be rusty. Besides, he wanted to know that she’d be all right, that she wouldn’t be injured. It was all a bit much to absorb, but they’d sort it all out when this was over.

Misgivings aside, both were on the plane that morning, streaking across the sky with the end destination an old plantation on the Savannah River. Neither spoke about the night before, carefully avoiding any mention of it, acting as if they’d spent it in separate beds. Neither was ready to tell the other about their feelings, and both were filled with apprehension about the roles. Bran had added a pair of tinted lens glasses to his disguise, telling Merrilee that he’d say that his eyes were overly sensitive to light. His wardrobe was slightly different, too. The silky shirt he’d donned molded itself to his chest very nicely, the sea green color making her think of the color of his eyes. For one brief instant, Merrilee wondered if he’d added silk under shorts to complete the image.

Her mind was taking some shocking turns, and in an effort to think of something else, she’d taken out another one of Aunt Emma’s books. It was the last one she had to read, and as she got into the plot of Lacey’s Love, her mind wandered off to Turkey where the heroine, Lacey, was trying to forget her troubles by researching the history of tulips. Lacey was a botanist, who had been divorced for two years, returning to college to complete her master’s degree. She’d decided to do her thesis on the background of the tulip industry. According to her research, the cup shaped flowers had been introduced to Europe from Turkey in 1554, and oddly enough had been the subject of wild financial speculation in seventeenth century Holland. While doing her research, Lacey encountered a grower from Holland, Hans vanHelms, and had fallen in love with him.

Merrilee was finding the story interesting from a variety of points. She’d discovered that Aunt Emma managed to tell her tales using historical facts, such as the Tulip Mania of 1636, and that the woman was widely traveled. Her books didn’t read as though she’d lifted descriptions of unusual locations from travel guides, either. More importantly, the conflicts between the hero and heroine weren’t contrived, but genuine conflicts that could arise between men and women anywhere. In this case, the lovers traveled to Holland from the Middle East where Hans took her on a tour of his growing fields, and showed her the ongoing search to improve the colors and the health of the ever popular flowers. For Lacey, she had all the information she needed for her research at her fingertips, and more than likely, her work would earn her a position in the botany department back home in Michigan.

For Hans, it was the opportunity to help the woman he loved, but in helping her, would he be helping her leave him to accept the fruits of her labor? Of course, the position was offered to Lacey, but the position Hans had offered held more for her, and she returned to his arms. In time, there was a new strain of tulip, the Lacey, and the symbol of their love would endure forever.

Merrilee closed the book, thinking about the man who had been her lover. She forced herself to think of that part of their relationship as in the past tense, wondering why it had to be that way. Their conflict was easy to define. It was one-sided. She loved one man, and he only liked her. Soon, this short-lived affair would be over, and there wasn’t enough shared between them to keep them together. It was depressing, but she could see no way to make things better. If she hadn’t fallen in love with him, there would be no problem, but she had. That left only one thing to be grateful for, and that was that she hadn’t told him of her feelings. At least she could leave quietly and he’d never know.

But, if she continued to brood, he’d know that something was amiss, so Merrilee smiled brightly, and set about reading the synopsis’ of several books that she’d be expected to know about. Marilyn had written many more than ten books, but the ones that Merrilee had read were her most popular, and the ones that had won awards. Fortunately, Merrilee’s memory was excellent, and knowing that she’d have to discard the listing at their next stop, she set about memorizing the essentials. She also made a mental note to find the rest of them when she got home, planning to read them. Oddly enough, she’d discovered a genuine affection for the stories. It wasn’t nearly as strong as the feeling she had for the great-nephew of the author, but it would have to do. The books she could keep. The man, she couldn’t.