MERRILY, MERRILY, MERRILEE

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

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


"So, what did you find?" asked Merrilee as Bran closed the door behind them. She turned to face him, still flushed from the sparring match with Eleanor, and Bran took a long look at her. He pursed his lips under the thick mustache, pulled off his glasses, and then shook his head in mock despair.

"I have never, in my entire life, heard such a lot of bull," he told her at last. "You acted like a..."He cast about for words to describe Merrileeís character.

"Like they expected me to act. If Iíd acted any other way, theyíd have figured that I wasnít me. That is, that Iím not Marilyn. Look, Bran--isnít that what you wanted me to do? Weíre in, and Drake has already invited me into his bedroom. The computer is supposed to be in there. So, tell me, what did you find?"

"Nothing," Bran said disgustedly. "Drakeís got so damned many buttons and switches that I didnít have time to try them all before I figured Iíd get in trouble."

"Youíd better hope that you didnít activate his candid camera."

Bran looked up suddenly. "Come again?"

"I donít mean a security camera, though one wouldnít surprise me. Iím talking about the one that records his more memorable bedtime activities."

"That filthy..." Bran looked at her with questions in his dark green eyes, eyes with lashes so long that Merrilee had to force herself to attend to the conversation. She nodded

"Home movies. Heís invited me to appear in one with him. I even get to write the script."

Bran stared darkly around the room, and then turned to face her. "You will not go back into his room with him unless Iím with you."

"Heíd probably like that. Bran, that man has more than a few screws loose."

"I got that idea, too. In your room, everything is elevated, crystal clear, and in his, everything is sunken and dark. Itís like he puts the woman of his choice on a pedestal, until he gets her into his room. Then, itís as though he drags her down into his lair."

"I had the same feeling. I wonder if heís into S&M or bondage." Sheíd heard of people like that.

"You wonít be finding out." Branís tone left her no doubt as to the way he felt about their strange host.

"Bran, weíre in this together. Unless you can locate the computer, or I can access it from my machine, Iíve got to go back. I can only tease the man so long."

"Damnit, Merrilee!" Bran exploded. "Youíre not going to sleep with that animal."

"I know that, but he doesnít. He thinks that Iím fairly chomping at the bit to give his waterbed a test run."

At that, Bran sank down in one of the gold satin Louis XIV chairs and loosened his tie. What was he going to do with Merrilee? He knew what heíd like to do, but things were a long way from settled with them. And, to have her getting into this role so effectively worried him. She may have been an excellent agent, but he didnít like the idea of Drake having fantasies about her. Bran wanted exclusive rights to the woman, fantasies and all. The idea was mind boggling, but since it had presented itself, it was clearly the course to take. It was right, and his job to take care of her. That alone should be a full time occupation, he thought with dismay.

With interest, Merrilee watched Bran remove his tie. Conscious of the desire to remove all his clothes, she turned her back to him and pretended to study the painting of a reclining nude on the wall. She was stunned at the explicit nature of the oil, her eyes widening, though had she been watching Bran, she would have been more interested.

"I canít let you out of my sight," Bran muttered, finally.

"Donít worry," she smiled cheerfully, turning back to him. "He thinks that youíre very jealous, and worried about your job. Heíll expect you to turn up at odd moments."

"Worried about my job? Exactly what did you tell the man?"

Merrilee grinned mischievously and admitted, "I told him that you were afraid that your, ugh, services might no longer be required."

"You didnít! You did!" He gave her a glare and shook his head hopelessly.

"This is turning into a very bad farce. We set up this situation, and you end up being chased by an extremely kinky pervert."

Merrilee eyed him curiously for a moment. "Extremely kinky? Just what did you find in his room?"

"You really donít want to know."

"But I do."

Bran looked at her, wide-eyed with frank curiosity, and wondered how this woman-child could continue to amaze him. "Let me put it this way. Donít open any drawers or closets in there. I thought I knew a good bit, but I could only guess at what youíd do with some of it." He caught her speculative glance. "Trust me about this. If you go in there, youíd be exposed in more ways than one."

"You mean Iíd reveal my..."

"Ignorance," he finished bluntly. "If I donít know what to do with it, you sure as hell wouldnít."

"Ah, yes," she told him, the imp of perversity perched atop her shoulder again. "But I could play the innocent maiden ravished by the Savannah Satyr. Drake would love it." She assumed what she considered an innocent pose, and fluttered her eyelashes.

"You are disgusting," Bran told her, before dissolving into laughter. "And here I was worried that you wouldnít be able to carry this off."

"Are you kidding? A few more of Ravenscraftís historical books and I could probably give lessons. I mean, Aunt Emmaís stuff is romantic, but now and then her friend, Julia, dabbles in some fairly exotic stuff." Merrilee yawned and stretched. "I wish I could access his computer tonight."

"I wish we could find the damned thing," Bran grumbled. "It seems that everything in his room is sunken or concealed in some other way. He has control panels all over the room, some inside others."

"I know. Did you find the hottub in front of the fireplace?"

"No, but I found his home movie collection."

"Really?" Merrilee was curious to know if she was right.

"Really. I told you, no more forays into his room."

Bran walked into her bedroom and started to unbutton his shirt. Merrilee followed him, and stood staring at him. He gave a slight smile, and she pointed out. "This is my room."

"And Iím your roommate."

"I thought you were on the third floor."

"I was before I found out what a pervert Drake really is." Bran turned to Merrilee and told her. "None of the information we had on him even came close to an accurate description of the swine he is. I got you into this, and I intend to see that youíre safe from that jerk."

"Youíre concerned for my virtue?" She gave a short almost bitter laugh. "That is funny." Shaking her head, she told him. "Iím not afraid of Drake. He may be a little off the wall in his sexual preferences, but I doubt if heíd force himself on me."

"If the man is into the other things I think heís into, rape wouldnít bother him at all." Bran was growing more and more certain that they were in a position that would bear close watching, and wanted Merrilee to take it as seriously as he did.

"Why do I get the feeling that you arenít telling me everything?" Merrilee sat on the edge of the bed, and questioned him. "Iíve been around for a while, and Iíve seen a lot. I know that Iím not all that experienced, personally, but Iím not dumb. And, I know that you know more than youíre telling."

"I do," he admitted. "While I was upstairs a little while ago, I got a message from back-up. It may not be only equipment that weíre looking for."

"No? Exactly what the hell are we looking for?" This was taking a decidedly ominous overtone.

"People. Minds. In the last few weeks, several top programmers and systems analysts have disappeared. People capable of extremely sophisticated system design work who have worked on fairly sensitive projects."

"You mean that man may be exporting brainpower?" Sheíd heard of that, but considered it unlikely.

"Itís possible. Back-up has also discovered a ring of headhunters--a phony employment agency securing computer people for an outfit in the South paying big bucks. This firm is paying all relocation costs and moving them on very short notice."

"When did you find out about this?"

"Part of it I already suspected. I knew a systems analyst who took a job recently and just dropped out of sight. I went to check on him and it was as though heíd disappeared off the face of the earth."

"If that was the case, then why the song and dance about the information that might be going over to the enemy?" Merrilee stood up and continued staring at him. Had he deceived her?

"Because that is the truth. The other was unsubstantiated and it all came together just a little while ago. Besides, that man I mentioned is a veritable storehouse of information. Heís a genius, has a photographic memory, and has recently expressed the opinion that the only way there will ever be peace on earth is for all countries to have access to the same weapon power and technology. He has the idealistic belief that if all countries are equal, there will be nothing to fight over."

Merrilee was disgusted by the manís naivetť. "Thatís an insane idea. Hasnít he ever heard the old saying about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence? Even if we were equal, somebody would want to be more equal than somebody else."

"Exactly. And this man is gone, but as far as we can tell, he hasnít left the country, at least not through any legitimate exits." Bran sat down on the bed, sensing that he was going to have to tell her more.

"You mentioned that there are others missing?"

"Ten that we know of." He loosened his belt, unzipped his pants and stepped out of them. Merrilee watched, fascinated. "There may be more."

"Names?" Merrilee looked at Bran who was down to his under shorts, a skimpy pair of red silk, chosen, doubtless for the role. She caught her breath in appreciation. He paused, watching her watch him, and finding it incredibly erotic. He paused, and smiled. "Names?" she repeated, trying to force her mind to the job rather than her growing awareness of the way his body reacted to her gaze.

"Clinical, or colloquial?" Bran gave her a lecherous leer, and she snorted in disgust, her face reddening as she realized that sheíd been staring while he removed his shorts. He wrapped a towel around his hips, giving her a suggestive smirk.

"Names of programmers. And, watch who youíre calling a pervert. From what I can see, Drake has nothing on you."

"Glad to hear that," Bran smiled, twisting her words. "Though Iím wondering just how you know that."

"You know very well what Iím talking about," she protested, indignantly. "Tell me the names of the people who are missing."

"All in good time," Bran promised. "Join me in the bath?"

"You wouldnít." She thought of the crystal tub.

"I would, and I will. If you want to know anything else, come on in."

"Not until youíve checked for cameras." She thought of Drakeís room and his hobbies.

"You have a point there," Bran conceded. "I donít mind sharing my beautiful body with you, but the rest of the world will just have to get along without me."

"A conceited pervert, at that," Merrilee muttered as she walked into the huge bathroom. Bran was walking around the room, a small piece of equipment in his hand, and a towel wrapped around his person. "Nothing."

"Iím glad to hear that. Just how would you have explained it if youíd found something? Donít you think that Drake might find it peculiar that my secretary snoops around strange bathrooms with electronic sensing devices?"

"Not to worry," Bran told her, returning the device to his suitcase. "Iíd have said that due to your reclusive tendencies, you insist on it. Iíd tell him that any number of menís magazines have offered huge sums for, shall we say, revealing pictures of Miss MacKenzie."

"Youíre kidding," Merrilee said, intrigued at the idea. "Iíd have never thought of that."

"Itís true, anyhow," he grinned. "You know, Iíve often wondered whether or not Aunt Emma wouldíve taken them up on it if she was fifty years younger." He recalled a photo of her when she was much younger, and sheíd been a strikingly lovely young woman.

"That lady might have done it," Merrilee smiled, imagining Aunt Emma in her twenties. "But, not this one." She followed Bran back into the bathroom where, totally unselfconsciously, he dropped the towel and turned on the bath water. Splendidly naked, Branís body held her eyes as she studied him with frank interest. He was magnificent, she thought, noticing the well muscled shoulders, and the firm, powerful thighs.....Her thoughts were taking some decidedly MacKenzian turns when Bran spoke up.

"How about roses?" he asked, turning to look at a vaguely bemused Merrilee. He smiled, feeling pleased that she liked his body, that she wasnít turned off by the way she was turning him on.

"Roses?"

"In the bath water. Itís either that or musk, and while I donít mind sleeping in what looks like a gilded cathouse, I donít want to smell that way." With that pronouncement, he added a measure of the rose oil, and stepped into the tub. "Join me?"

Merrilee stood motionless for a moment, watching as Bran eased his long body into the deep crystal tub. It isnít as though youíve never seen him bare. And itís really a little late to feel modest with him. Besides that, he knows what you look like, and if he wasnít here, youíd probably be fighting off Drake. Of course, her inner self pointed out as Merrilee began fumbling with the zipper, youíve been fantasizing about this all evening. With that, she stepped out of her shoes and began to remove her nylons.

Merrilee looked up to catch Branís eyes as she unfastened her bra. He was looking at her with undisguised interest, and the crystal tub only served to reveal the extent of his arousal. Merrilee tossed the lacy garment aside, then slowly slid down the tiny beige panties that were the last impediment to the bath. Walking forward, she stepped up the two transparent stairs to the tub, and went into it, gliding into the scented water. "Ahhhh," she sighed, drawing a breath. The water slapped gently at her breasts, and she slid down deeper into the tub until the fragrant liquid touched her chin. From across the tub, Bran watched, achingly aware of her. With a great deal of effort, she assumed a serious pose. "Now, the names of the programmers?"

"Programmers?" Bran managed, hoarsely. Merrileeís body gleamed in the water, and his thoughts were filled with anything but programmers.

"As in computers and missing." Merrilee was taking a distinct pleasure in the knowledge that Bran wanted her, and the side of her that had recently awakened to sensuality was enjoying it immensely. She slid up in the tub, allowing him a glimpse of her rosy nipples, and then realized that she was taking as much pleasure in stimulating him as she was giving. "Hoist on my own petard," she muttered as Bran caught her legs and pulled her over to him. Seconds later, she found herself straddling his hips, her breasts close to his mouth. She could feel a greater warmth than the water, and the ache Bran had felt transferred itself to her. His hands were running up and down her body, tracing its contours. She was trembling in his arms, needing his touch, waiting for him to assuage the throbbing emptiness between her thighs.

"Please," she whispered, finally closing her eyes. If she never loved again, if she could never again be held in his arms, surely she had to have him now. Her love for him was such that she thought nothing could possibly alter the way she felt.

"Please what?" he asked, softly, reaching up to bring her lips to his. He forced her to meet his eyes and looked long and questioningly. "Tell me what you want." His voice was low and ragged, as if it took an effort to speak.

Trapped in his arms, his eyes peering into the depths of her being, she felt the words pulled from her. "You," she breathed. "I want only you." Instantly, he caught her lips with his, taking them as a starving man, kissing deeply and urgently. She was his, wanting only him as he wanted only her. With his hands, he pulled her hips down to meet his thrust, taking her quickly.

"Ahhhh, Merrilee," he murmured into her mouth. Guiding her to match his movements, he brought her to a level of arousal she hadnít before known, then sent her into an area of pure sensation before following her himself.

"I could get used to this," she said finally, her body nearly floating in the warm water. If this was decadence, she was all for it, she mused idly. She had definitely discovered previously unplumbed depths of herself. That sounded a bit awkward, but she knew what she meant. With Bran, she could learn everything there was to learn about making love, learn to please him. She could be the woman she was born to be. "I could definitely get used to this."

"One of the perks of the job," Bran smiled lazily. He couldnít ever remember feeling so good with a woman, so pleased that she was pleased. Oddly, he thought that much of his pleasure was in seeing her so gratified. He liked pleasing her, watching her as she reached her own satisfaction before taking his.

Perks? Her loving mood dampened, she returned, "The job. Yes, the job."

"What were we talking about?" he asked as she turned on the hot water. The steam from the faucet rose, and she leaned back against the slanted edge of the tub, determined to act totally casual about the last several minutes. If he could be so callous about it, so could she. What was it Jake had said about this business? Donít let them know how you feel. Okay, Jake, she promised her former mentor. Iíll be cool.

"Programmers," she told him. "Names of the missing programmers."

"Oh yeah. Tom Landaus, Jennifer Logan, Adam OíNeil, Pete Sawyer, Larry Samuel, and Norman Yates. Waldemar Jaegar is the systems analyst I referred to earlier. He was also responsible for some hardware designs, as well."

"I know six of them," she told him. "I worked with them at Chandler Electronics, and Iíve hard of Jaeger. Youíre right about him. He has a reputation of being an idealistic genius. The others Iíve never met. You say that theyíre all missing? Youíre positive of this?"

"Yeah. An employment agency sent a recruiter there and from what we heard, offered them tremendous jobs."

"Didnít Chandler counter offer?"

"Not at double their salary. Theyíd been paid very competitive salaries by all nationwide standards, and very well in Silicon Valley. But, Chandler was curious to know who wanted them when the company walked off with some of his best people."

"I should say so. What made him contact your agency?"

"B.E. Chandler is Mike Jacobís step-brother. He told Mike what had happened, and asked him if heíd ever heard of this company. Mike was intrigued, to say the least. Interestingly enough, one of their agents was investigating a similar disappearance--Jaegar--when he heard about these people. Had the agency been happy with only one programmer from Chandlerís, it might have gone unnoticed, or if Chandler himself wasnít connected with Mike." That was true, anyway, more or less.

"Greed was the tip-off?" Merrilee heard about unscrupulous recruiters, and had even been approached by some, though she preferred to freelance. Sheíd been offered some impressive money, but after having spent years in the wild, and then time with Jake, she needed her freedom. Her time at the university and then at Chandlerís had only served to underline that need.

"In a sense, yes. It also would make the situation look urgent, as if something was coming down, soon." He slid down a little deeper in the water, his arms draped loosely over the edge of the tub, savoring the warmth, and the frankly erotic thought that Merrilee was still naked in the tub with him.

"What tied Drake to this?"

"Itís taken several days to unravel the chain of command, but after careful investigation, the trail led to a company owned by a company which is owned by deSilva."

Merrilee sat still, wondering whether or not to be angry with Bran. The water grew warmer, the steam rose higher, and the more she thought about it, the more uncertain she became. "Then there never was any stolen information?"

"We believe that there has been, and we still believe that there is equipment being shipped to potentially hostile countries. Besides, Jaegar has a photographic memory. The man is incredibly valuable."

"Why the hell didnít you tell me about your suspicions in the first place?" she demanded. She wanted to know everything and now. If he was hiding something, she wanted to know. Damn, she needed to know.

"Merrilee, this whole situation is tricky. The less you know, the better off you are. If something goes wrong, you have very little to tie you to me."

"Oh no? Sleeping in the same bed, bathing together--Iíd say that ties up pretty well together."

"Thatís our cover. Itís also our protection. Weíre expected to be together. Besides, if anybody figures out that you arenít Marilyn, you can always say that you were hired by her to protect her identity. That is the truth, and it gives you an out."

"Lucky for you that Iím so accommodating," she commented, not the least bit mollified.

"Merrilee, donít get angry. I still need access to the computer. The man is making some use of the programmers, or he may be exporting them. Either way, there will be a suspicious cash flow to note."

"And if this enterprise is legitimate? Do you have any idea how much trouble we may be in? There are laws against breaking into computers."

"What about Ďexpanding the legal parameters?í" He reminded her of what sheíd said when theyíd first met. It seemed like ages ago.

"Thatís different. What if those people are happy doing whatever they were hired to do? What if this is a wild goose chase?"

"If they were happy, why havenít they contacted their families? None of the relatives of the programmers from Chandlerís have heard from them, and Maria Jaeger Trane, Waldemarís sister, personally asked Chandler to find him."

"So Chandler pulled himself away from his other activities long enough to contact Mike?"

"Why do I get the feeling that you donít like Chandler."

"Probably because I donít."

"Have you ever met him?"

"No, but he was too busy to go to Melissa and Mikeís wedding and only came back to Chandlerís several months after Bart, his father, died. From what I heard, he was busy chasing women in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East."

"Thatís dangerous work," Bran chuckled, noting her disapproval. "Especially in the Middle East."

"What do you mean?" asked Merrilee, standing up to climb out of the tub. She drew an indignant breath, causing Bran to catch his. Dripping water from her naked body, breasts heaving with anger, she presented him a magnificent picture. "How can chasing women be dangerous?"

"What if one of them had caught him?"