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


When the stranger finally released her, he was smiling, obviously pleased with the situation. Merrilee, having missed the amazed expression that only briefly crossed his face, was finding it extremely difficult to breathe normally. Never had she been so affected by a kiss, and never had she needed so desperately to appear calm. Drawing on her past experiences at subterfuge, she forced herself to ask icily, "What the hell were you doing?"

"Couldnít you tell? I was kissing you."

"I know that. I mean the other. Why?"

"I was getting your sister off your back so we can get to work." He began buttoning his shirt, covering the broad expanse of tanned chest and curling dark hair.

To her continuing shock, Merrilee was stricken with the urge to stop him, to touch him, to explore the secrets only hinted at by the partially bared, magnificently male physique. Appalled by this feeling, she pointed out, "You didnít need to do that. A simple introduction as my lover would have done just fine."

"Not likely. Talk is cheap, and your sister knows that. This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand wimpy words of explanation."

"Bull!" Merrilee spat, still incensed by his actions, but more than that, by her own reaction to them. "Clichťs donít cover a cheap pass."

"Really, Merrilee," the man said, raking his fingers though his thick, dark brown hair. Merrilee clinched fingers that itched to do the same. "Nobody introduces their lover by his, er, title to a perfect stranger. That would be entirely too obvious to your sister. If Ďsurfer boyí out front goes home and reports to the good doctor that a man was kissing you, sheíll try again. But, if he tells her that a man was making love to you, sheíll probably leave you alone." It sounded reasonable to him, though he couldnít very well add that heíd wanted to leave no doubt in the other manís mind that Merrilee was off limits and in no need of his Ďservicesí. It came as a shock to him that a great deal more than that sounded reasonable. Not only reasonable, but highly enjoyable. Never before had he experienced such an immediate and strong reaction to a woman, and his body was still clamoring for a more intimate introduction. He mentally clamped down on his raging libido.

"You donít know Melissa," Merrilee told him. "Sheíll probably call and ask for a detailed description of our encounter with a signed release form so she can submit it as a part of her next book."

"We could work on it," he suggested, hopefully.

Merrilee looked up, ready to defend herself when she caught the teasing twinkle in his eyes. Suppressing her own ready laughter, she informed him, "Mister, I donít even program for or with somebody unless I know his name. I certainly donít hop into bed with a total stranger." No matter how tempting the idea.

"No problem. Bran Elliot." He extended one large hand which Merrilee ignored, crossing her arms defensively across her breasts. Something in his touch had affected her, and she knew a need to distance herself from him physically as well as emotionally.

"I require more than that. You said that you were here on business, and that you have an attachť case full of computer equipment. And that Dr. Sanders sent you. Tell me more."

"Okay. Bill Sanders did send me. He said that you are the person to see if I need something done with PCs or laptops, something that requires innovation and ingenuity."

Merrilee shook her head. "Mr. Elliot, there are literally thousands of computer people who are well trained and quite able to do most anything you want. So, letís cut to the chase. What is it that you really want?"

Their eyes met, and both looked away, reading stunning desire that was totally inappropriate, given the circumstances. Unable to help herself, Merrilee walked to the other side of the room, then came back again. Gathering up the telephone, she set it on the desk and began rummaging around in one drawer, anxious to distract herself from her own thoughts. Finding the tools and parts she needed, she set about repairing the telephone, as if his presence was of no consequence to her. When the job was completed, and she was once more in control of herself, she demanded, "Iím waiting, Mr. Elliot. I donít have all day. What do you want of me?"

If I told you that, Iíd probably wind up sitting next to that Stetson.

"I need your programming expertise, and your ability to think on your feet."

"Be specific."

"You arenít making this easy for me," Bran said, aware of her discomfort, and that he was the cause of it. For some strange reason, that pleased him, possibly because she was responsible for a similar, corresponding discomfort on his part. He smiled slowly.

"What must I do?" Merrilee turned inquisitive hazel eyes on him and pointed out. "I donít know what you want, so how can I make anything easy?"

"You can stop pacing around the room."

"Itís my room."

"Bought and paid for with the genius of your nimble fingers and agile mind. I know that. Mike said that you were the best, but he didnít say that you were antsy about everything."

"Mike who?" Merrilee asked, stopping dead in her tracks, ignoring the Ďantsyíremark.

"Jacobs." The accusing look on her face let him know that heíd make a big mistake.

Hands on hips, she asked, "You know my brother-in-law? That means you probably know my sister, too."

"Not in the carnal sense," he countered quickly, hoping that the laughter in his eyes would take the edge off her anger. It didnít.

"Then youíd better leave before I throw you out."

"Youíd rather I knew her that way?"

The man was maddening, baiting her with her own words, and that made her angrier. That her own body was taunting her with needs sheíd thought sublimated only increased the urgency of the situation. "I donít give a frosty flying one how you know her. That you do tells me all I need to know."

They were rapidly approaching point non plus when the newly reconnected telephone rang. Merrilee snapped it from the receiver and answered, automatically. "Hello?"

"Merrilee? Melissa here! Why didnít you tell me that you were entertaining?"

"I am not entertaining," Merrilee cut in hastily. She turned her back on the man with whom sheíd been arguing, and started to say something that she might have later regretted when she felt someone very close. Her eyes widened as she felt his large, warm hands encircle her slender waist, stealing under her soft, cotton tee shirt, stroking upwards over her bare skin, to again go where they had no business being. "Stop that!"

"Merrilee!" came an excited voice over the telephone. "Whatís going on?"

"Stop what?" drawled a low voice in her other ear, as his fingers teased her. "This?"

"That!" she gasped as he continued.

"What?" demanded Melissa.

"Donít you like it?" he breathed softly, his fingers teasing her body.

"Like it," she echoed, leaning weakly against him, shocked by her overwhelming physical response to the man.

"Like what?" Melissa shrilled over the phone.

Bran took the phone from Merrileeís limp hand and said softly into it. "Itís impolite to pry, ĎLissa." Then, he hung up and gathered Merrilee into his arms. "One way or the other, Iím going to get what I want." Everything that I want.

"What do you want?" Merrilee asked, coming out of the near trance in which his touch had put her. She wrenched herself out of his arms, and took several steps away from him, watching him warily.

"Your time." His eyes said much more.

"Iím high."

"I can take you higher."

She blushed at the implication, remembering her own heated response to him, and stumbled on. "I mean, Iím expensive."

"I can afford you."

He could. She could tell that just by looking at him. This man didnít ask prices, and she sensed that there was no need. "But I may not want to work for you."

"Merrilee," he began, his low voice sending shivers chasing down her back. His eyes burned across her body, coming to rest for a moment where his fingers had been only moments before. She could feel herself reacting to his visual caress.

"Youíll want to. Either youíll agree to work for me now, at an agreed upon price, or in a few minutes, Iíll have you begging to work for me. And, youíll be glad to pay me in any way I choose to collect."

That was entirely possible, Merrilee was forced to admit to herself, and that frightened her. "Get out of my house," she ordered, his arrogance and her own physical sensations both astonishing and unnerving her. "Now."


"If you so much as lay a hand on me Iíll.."

"Melt," he finished, smiling with a rueful gleam in his eyes. "Lady, Iíve never met a woman who responds to me like you do. Surely you donít think Iíd walk away without finding out just how good we can be together?"

Merrilee met his eyes with a blaze of anger. The man spelled danger in capital letters. "Get out of my house. I donít want to work for you. I donít want to have anything to do with you."

"Why? Afraid? Maybe Melissa was right. Not in her approach, but in her diagnosis. You need a man." His eyes narrowed, as he amended. "Not just any man, though. You need me." As much as I need you.

Blazing anger gave way to fury. "I have never heard anything so outrageous in my life. I donít need you or any other man. Iím doing just fine by myself. I like being alone." At least I did.

"No, you donít," he told her, an odd sort of resignation in his voice as he realized that he was speaking as much to himself as he was to her. "Youíre just scared. Not of me, but of yourself." Bran moved closer, and she moved farther from him. "Of your reaction to me."

"I was reacting?"

"Donít you know? Must I spell it out to you?"

Merrilee flushed nervously, and Bran continued. "Must I tell you what your body was telling me?" Bran was taunting her, as much as he was taunting himself, he realized.

Merrilee heard the voice of the man to whom sheíd foolishly bared her secrets. "I can tell you what you were feeling," Bran told her, "where you were aching, and where you were melting. For me."

"Not for you," she defended, stung by the truth in his words. She began manufacturing lies with astonishing speed, demonstrating her ability to think on her feet. "For any man. Itís been a while for me."

"So whatís stopping us?"

"I never mix business with pleasure." There. She had him.

"Then youíve agreed to work for me?" Who had whom?

"Why not? You said that you can afford me. I hope you can." She threw out a figure several times the usual fee she charged when she was using an hourly rate, and adding a daily expense account that should have shocked him. He didnít even flinch.

"Donít you want to hear the job first?"

"Mr. Elliot, for what Iím going to charge you, it doesnít matter what Iím going to do. I can get into any computer, break any code, write any program in any language that you can think of. I prefer to work within the law, but for a fee, well above the amount I quoted, I might be persuaded to, shall we say, expand the parameters of the legal code." She had, before, under different circumstances, though why sheíd said so escaped her. It annoyed her that in her anxiety, she was babbling.

"Itís nice to know that you can be had."

"My talents can be had," she corrected, with a saccharine sweetness in her voice.

"Exactly what I was thinking." There was that bone melting smile again, the one that raised all sorts of sensations in her.

"But," she said, springing to her own defense. "Let me make myself perfectly clear on one issue before we go any further."

"Please do."

"If I agree to work for you.."

"You already have."

"Allow me to continue." Bran was smiling a very male, very smug smile, and Merrilee was torn between wanting to wipe the smile off his handsome face and in giving him something to really smile about. "You will keep your hands to yourself."

"As long as you do the same."

"No problem," she agreed, wondering if the man was a mind reader. She clinched her hands into fists. "I will insist that we conduct our business in a professional manner."

"Whatever it takes." Wherever and whenever, Bran tacked on, mentally, realizing that this job was taking on some very interesting sidelines. Heíd never expected Merrilee to affect him this way.

"And that you allow me access to anything, hardware or software that I need."

"Sounds good to me."

His expression was decidedly ambiguous, but she plowed on. "I will expect your cooperation in everything."

"Itíll be my pleasure."

Ignoring the feeling that they were talking about two very different things, Merrilee concluded, "Very well, Mr. Elliot. Youíve hired the best. Now, what do you want me to do?"

Bran Elliot smiled slowly. "I thought youíd never ask."