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


Early the next morning, Bran received another summons on his watch. As the green light blinked off and on, he dragged himself from the bed and headed into the bathroom. No sense waking Merrilee, and there were some things that she might not need to hear. Wearily, he pushed the transmitter button and waited.

"Shadow, your past is catching up with you. New guests are arriving this afternoon. Erika duChamps and Enrique Sanchez are due to make an appearance around four this afternoon."

"Damnit!" cursed Bran. "That’s all I need. Can you delay their arrival?"

"Customs has cooperated, and we’ll hold them as long as we can without something definite."

"I don’t have anything definite," Bran told the man at the other end of the phone line. "I know where the computer is, but I can’t access it yet."

"You’re going to have to hurry, or bail out now. You’re too well known to duChamps and Sanchez."

"At least that does confirm our suspicions."

"Yeah, but that won’t do you any good if you get caught."

"Tell me about it. All right, if you can’t hold them, we’ll either wrap it up or call it off just before they get here."

"Shadow, if you can’t find the programmers or some hard evidence, it’ll be too late."

"I know. Okay, I’ll rush it."

"Be careful."

"Right. Out."

Bran leaned back against the bathroom wall and sighed. Damn everything! He hadn’t expected Erika and Enrique to come in person. Oh, he’d known that they were out of the French prison he’d put them in, but he hadn’t counted on them coming here. No, he’d figured that they’d send their henchmen to make the connection. Of course, they’d gotten out of jail on a technicality, a bit of legal razzle dazzle that had included missing evidence and resulted in clean passports. Yeah, they couldn’t be kept out because they were undesirables, at least not legally. But, why would those two want to come to the house party in Savannah? And why, of all people, did it have to be them? He grimaced as he recalled the threats that Enrique had made against him when the criminal had been arrested. "I will kill you one day, Chandler, and I will take great pleasure in doing so."

Erika had been more detailed in her threats and frankly, Bran preferred what Enrique had suggested. Yes, Brandon Elliot Chandler had not the slightest wish to meet with those two totally depraved people in hostile surroundings, especially concerned as he was with the woman he loved.

"You want to tell me who Erika duChamps and Enrique Sanchez are? And why are you looking like you lost your bet friend?" A voice came from the doorway. There, wearing only her concern, stood Merrilee. "I felt you get up, and I heard the conversation."

"I see." Bran suddenly felt old and tired.

"So tell me, Bran. Who are they?"

"Two very unsavory people I had the misfortune to offend a while back." An understatement at best, but now wasn’t the time to go into detail.

"You’re not at the head of their Christmas list?"

"Honey, I don’t even make the bottom of their lump of coal list." He looked at her and added. "We’ve got to be out of here before three-thirty this afternoon because they’re arriving at four."

"You don’t wish to hash over old times with them?"

"Not unless I want to be the hash. Literally. I helped send them to prison and they promised to put me away. Permanently and with as much pain as possible, and believe me, they know all about inflicting pain. Merrilee, we have to move fast. Our cover will be blown as of their arrival."

"Bran, they can’t just waltz in here and kill you because they don’t like you. There are too many people around here."

"Merrilee, these people play for keeps. I’ve been trying to tell you that Drake is as crooked as they come, and if he’s dealing with these two, then we’re probably right about his exporting people. Erika and Enrique went to jail for kidnapping and white slave trading. Don’t look so shocked. For a while, they traded in lovely blue-eyed blondes that they talked into taking jobs in the Middle East. Of course, the jobs weren’t the same as they advertised, and several young women were hurt or killed. These two got out of jail on a technicality and are now selling computer programmers to the highest bidders."

Merrilee turned pale at the outburst of words. "Then we’ve got to get the evidence this morning. Bran, just tell me what you want me to do."

"I want you to get the hell out of here. Call it off."

"No. If either of us has to leave, it would have to be you. Those people don’t know me from Adam." She glanced down at her naked body. "Make that Eve. Remember me? I’m Marilyn MacKenzie."

"Listen love," Bran said, standing straight up to look down into her eyes. "These people are good. You’re playing at Marilyn, but if anybody recognizes you, you’ve had it. Do you realize what certain countries would pay for a competent western programmer? You’re so much more than that. There are hostile nations who have managed to get computers through shady dealers like deSilva, and they have some of their own people to program them. But, in parts of the Middle East, many view westerners as infidels, and have killed or driven out their own countrymen who are western educated. Yet, they need technology to carry on their wars, and to run their oil production plants."

Merrilee reached up and put her hand on his cheek, looking at him with love in her eyes. She’d walk through hell for him, or with him. It was as simple as that. "All the more reason to put them out of business. Bran, darling, we ’re going to do what we can to stop them."

"But only till lunch time. Then, unless we get a green light, we’re out of here. We can’t afford to wait until the last minute."

"Okay." Bran drew her to him, tasting her lips in a long, hard kiss. She melted against him, drawing strength from his body, yet giving him hope which he needed more. "When this is over," he promised, deep green eyes meeting warm hazel, "we’ll talk."

"Yes," she agreed, leading him back to the bed. The words were unspoken, but each of them knew that there was the chance that this might be their last opportunity to be together, and it added a depth to their lovemaking that they hadn’t discovered previously. Each wanted to give the other nonverbal reassurances of their feelings and greater pleasure. Each caress, each kiss was meant to convey what they couldn’t yet trust to words, and their bodies were eloquent. At last, unable to do more, they plunged together into their own private world.

Some moments later, they fell apart, still panting. Bran spoke first. He didn’t speak of what they’d just shared, nor did she. Comment was unnecessary. He only spoke of what they had to do. "After breakfast, you get Drake to take you on a tour of the grounds. We’ll stage a quarrel over that, and I’ll return to this room ostensibly to sulk. Then, I’ll search his room for the computer and any diskettes. I’ll either copy them, or use our equipment to download it to back-up."

"Works for me. What is your plan if you get caught?"

"If anything happens, lie like anything to get out of here. Say that you didn’t know anything about my larcenous tendencies and get the hell out of here."

Merrilee looked at Bran long and hard, wondering how he thought she could ever leave him. No, she’d just have to work extra hard to make sure that Drake and the house party guests were vastly entertained by her antics as Marilyn MacKenzie and then fall ill to a mysterious malady as soon as Bran was finished. And, if he was caught--well, that didn’t bear thinking about. Yes, she’d play her role to the hilt. That resolved, Merrilee Jones, alias Lee Smythe, alias Marilyn MacKenzie went into action, determined to convince even the most die-hard skeptic of her identity.

All during breakfast, Merrilee openly flirted with Drake, making comments that bordered on lewd, yet stayed just this side of decent. Double entendres were the order of the day, and she’d discovered in herself a veritable storehouse of sexy comments. Immediately after breakfast, it appeared that her work was to be rewarded, and she fastened herself to Drake’s arm. "Darling," she gushed, putting on her most winning smile. "You promised me the grand tour today."

"So I did," he smiled, deliberately passing over Bran who pretended to take offense.

Bran stood quietly sulking, and then spoke. "I thought you said we were to go swimming." He sounded petulant.

"I changed my mind," Merrilee told him, still clinging to Drake’s arm like a limpet. "We can swim later. Right now, I want to see this beautiful estate. Bran, I want you to type those chapters I dictated into my recorder last night."

"All of them?" He sounded miffed.

"Yes. You know how I like it. Double spaced."

"But I was supposed to be on vacation with you."

"Bran, don’t make a scene." Merrilee tucked her arm more tightly into Drake’s and smiled sweetly at Bran. "I need it by lunch time. I’m going to let Dixie read it. She inspired me."

Bran turned away and stalked off in pretended anger as Drake watched. "Dixie inspired you?"

"Only for the heroine. I was hoping that you might inspire me for the hero. I wanted somebody definitely southern, slightly roguish, and very, very male." She gave him an inviting smile, imagining Bran’s face instead of his.

"I try to please," Drake smiled, showing straight, white teeth. Somehow, he looked wolfish to her and she suppressed a shudder. "But why a tour of the estate?"

"Why, to work off my breakfast and to whet my appetite for a little Southern hospitality." She looked up into his lazy blue eyes and promised the world with a smoldering stare, amazed that she could lie so convincingly. To safeguard Bran, she had discovered, she could do a lot. "So now, darling, show me your place."

Drake gave her a look that, had she been susceptible to his charm, would have curled her toes. Knowing the equipment he had in his room, and knowing his proclivities for unusual sexual activities, she determined to keep him away from any place too secluded. For this morning’s jaunt, though, she had worn a clinging crop top of golden silk that tied under her breasts, baring a wide expanse of her midriff. Her black satin shorts, which she considered indecently short, clung to her hips, well below her navel. There was no way that Merrilee Jones would have worn such an outfit, but as Marilyn MacKenzie, she’d do it, and with panache. Bran’s life might well depend on her acting this outrageous masquerade, and that was one life that had become more precious to her than her own. Drake had smiled appreciatively at her choice of clothing, or lack thereof, and had appeared more than willing to show her around. His eyes lingered over her well displayed curves, and she forced a coy look. "Why Mistah Drake," she teased in a phony southern accent. "I do believe you are blushin.’"

"I never blush," he told her, and she believed him. "Come on, Marilyn. We’re going to meet Aaron and Martin shortly. Thomas is still in his room. He’s a little under the weather."

"Yes," she smiled, knowingly. "Irish mist, if I’m not mistaken."

"Thomas does like his liquor," Drake commented. "Dixie will be joining us in a little while. She’s been trying to come up with a plot for you."

"That leaves Eleanor," Merrilee said aloud. She looked up at Drake who was strolling beside her.

"Don’t worry about Eleanor," he assured her. "She decided to return to her home in Atlanta very early this morning. Said she felt stifled in this heat."

"I see." Merrilee relaxed slightly. One less person to worry about meant that there was one less chance of being discovered. The others were more than willing to buy her role, and now that the one person who hated her was gone, things might be a little easier. If Bran could just get what he wanted without anybody noticing, they could conclude this adventure successfully. Merrilee forced herself to be cheerful.

"Drake, tell me about your home. Is it old? What all do you have on the grounds?"

"Yes, it’s old. It was restored after the War Between The States, and when I inherited it, I had it modernized." He paused, lighting a cigarette, and inhaling deeply. "I like certain luxuries."

"So do I," she told him. "I’ve never felt quite so decadent as I did last night." She looked meaningfully up at him. "Being totally surrounded by only the most sensual of fabrics, mirrors and scents is a very erotic experience. And that bath tub, Drake! You’ll have to tell me where to get one."

"I hoped you’d find it entertaining. Tell me, did your secretary like it?" Tendrils of smoke curled around his head, giving him a fiendish look, and Merrilee felt his eyes on her, measuring her response.

"I think he was, well, intimidated by it," she lied without a minute’s hesitation. "Bran is, how shall I put this, talented in more than one area. But, last night, knowing that you were in the next room, I couldn’t help but fantasize about you. I think that Bran knew it and he tried so hard to make me aware of him alone." Jeez! Merrilee, you are disgusting!!

"Then I shall assume that Bran wouldn’t be amenable to a group session?"

Half expecting this, Merrilee wasn’t really surprised. Revolted, but not caught off guard. Ready with a comeback, she raised mischievous hazel eyes and chuckled. "Give me a little time with h him. He tends to be a bit stuffy, but that may be because he’s worried about the competition."

"We have all week," Drake told her, an indulgent smile turning the corners of his mouth into a near leer. He tossed the cigarette aside into the garden and slipped his hand around her bare wrist. Steeling herself to keep from shrinking from his touch, she walked along beside him. His hand kept slipping farther and farther down her back, and she wondered why, knowing his desire for her, that he persisted with the charade of a slow seduction. Still, if it kept him from Bran’s work, then she would put up with it. To a limit, of course. Then, she’d accidentally break his arm. She smiled at him, and he smiled back. "Aaron and Martin are outside in the garden. Perhaps you’d like to see it? I keep a small menagerie out there. Interested as I am in the wildlife of Georgia, I have had my grounds declared a wildlife sanctuary."

"I love birds, and all sorts of wild life," she said, thinking of the trips she’d taken with her brother, Mark.

Drake led her from the house and into a large greenhouse type structure where she could hear the sounds of birds and water. Once inside, she gasped with delight. It was like a tropical garden, or a rainforest. The walls were nearly obscured by huge ferns, and a winding pebbled path took them past a waterfall which was fed by a small stream. Drake smiled at the totally enchanted look on her face. "I see that you like it."

"I love it! It’s beautiful! How do you do it?"

"You want to know all my secrets?"

"I intend to discover everything about you," she said, her tone laden with innuendo. "But, first, tell me how you manage the waterfall."

"It’s constructed of slate from the mountains of this fair state, and the water is recirculated by an underground pump. I keep a few fish in the pool over there."

"What kind of fish are those?" she asked with the uncomfortable feeling that she already knew. There were several of a strange orange color that she recognized from a trip to the Amazon Basin.

"Piranha," he said. "I wanted something suitable for the atmosphere. Don’t tell me you think I should have used goldfish."

"Oh, no," she shook her head. "Maybe if you’d designed an Oriental garden, but not here. Piranha are perfect. Just remind me not to swim here."

"No problem," he said. "But, I’d better show you a few other things not to play with." He led her further into the tropical garden, and from there into a stone facaded structure that was in the center of the greenhouse. Drake opened a door and they entered a room constructed of brick where one was kept from the inhabitants by glass walls. A loud buzz greeted her, and a frisson of fear raced down her spine.

It was a sound that she recognized all too well, and for a moment, she felt her knees grow weak. Grabbing Drake’s arm, she did her best imitation of a woman petrified of rattlesnakes. "Don’t worry," he assured her. "They can’t get out of their cages unless I let them out."

"Dear God, Drake," she said, trembling. She wasn’t afraid of the reptiles, but more and more of the two legged snake who led the tour. "What have you got in here?"

"More specimens of Georgia wildlife. I have copperheads, coral snakes, cottonmouths, and of course, rattlesnakes." He took her hand and led her past the glass fronted cages. In each of many enclosures, was a snake. In the first one was a rather lazy looking cottonmouth water moccasin, laying half in and half out of the small pool of water that made up a large part of the floor. The snake ignored its viewers, and Merrilee suppressed a shudder. Oddly enough, it was Drake who was giving her the creeps. The insistent buzz from the next tank warned her of what lay ahead. "This is my smallest rattlesnake, but don’t let its size fool you. It’s poisonous. This next one is the one that’s making most of the noise. He’s my favorite."

Merrilee found herself face to fang with a rather large Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake. The serpent was coiled up in the corner of its cage, its rattle buzzing while it looked at its next meal. Cowering in the cage was a small cottontail rabbit which Drake had just dropped in through a small trapdoor. Suddenly, the snake struck, and as always, Merrilee was amazed at the speed. Disgusted, however, by the display, she stepped back, and unfortunately, into Drake’s arms.

"I think I’ve seen enough," she said. Regardless of the fact that she’d seen literally thousands of snakes throughout her life, seeing that little rabbit being fed to the large snake had sickened her. "Can we leave here?"

"In a few minutes," Drake assured her. "I have a few more to show you. I want you to see the coral snake and the copperhead, They’re both very beautiful snakes, and both can be deadly if the victim isn’t treated soon enough." He nearly dragged her down the room pointing out the snakes to her, seeming to take a perverse pleasure in her response. "Come on, Miss MacKenzie. Surely you can use some of this in one of your books. Imagine having the heroine facing a large rattlesnake, or having her lover bitten repeatedly while she’s forced to look on, helplessly."

"No, Drake," Merrilee told him with growing nervousness. "In romances, there is none of that. There may be suspense, and a little danger, but there is never anything like that. Romances specialize in happy endings, not gory deaths."

Drake looked down at her for a moment, drawing back his lips in a smile as cold as the blood of one of his snakes. "Then isn’t it a pity that you aren’t going to write the next scene."