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


It was Murphy’s Law in action, thought Merrilee as she stood considering the current state of affairs. If something could go wrong, it would, and it appeared that it had. Very wrong. But, taking the chance that she could bluff her way through what was becoming an extremely sticky situation, she asked, "What scene?"

Come with me," Drake said, leading her from the snakeroom, and back into the greenhouse. She tried to pull her hand from his, but he held it tightly. Now, she sensed, wasn’t the time to give him a martial arts demonstration. "Come on, Marilyn," he said in a strange tone that raised the small hairs on the back of her neck. "I want to show you something."

"No more snakes," she smiled, trying to keep it light. Drake was on the edge, and she was worried about Bran. "I’ve had enough snakes to last me for a while."

Drake said nothing, just led her though the greenhouse, past the pool of piranha, and to the door where they’d entered only a short time ago. She followed, for she couldn’t do anything else, short of giving her special skills away, and it was too soon for that. At this point, she had no idea where Bran was, nor was she certain that Drake was onto them. For all she knew, he might be planning something strange. The man was kinky, after all. "Let me go," she protested, finally. "Please, Drake. Have I said something to offend you? Really, I don’t mind snakes that much."

Drake said nothing, jut pulled her back to the house. "What happened to the rest of the grand tour?" she asked, still playing innocent. That was, still playing Marilyn. "I really wanted to see the rest of the house."

"Shut up." His words were curt, and it was then that she was fairly certain that things were past salvaging with lies. It wouldn’t stop her from trying, but she’d have to be more inventive, at least until she knew Bran’ s status. Drake pulled her into the house, and then pushed her down in a chair in his study. "Now, Miss MacKenzie, or should I say, Miss Jones, what are you really doing here?"

"I was invited," Merrilee said, summoning up as much indignation as she could muster on short notice. If that was all that was worrying the man, she ’d lie her way out of it. "Marilyn MacKenzie is my pen name. It sounded much more romantic than Merrilee Jones."

"I don’t believe you."

"Call my agent," she spat. "Really, Drake, if you don’t want my company, all you have to do is tell me."

"Oh, I want your company, Miss Jones," he sneered. "I also want the company of your secretary for a while."

"I told you that Bran isn’t into that sort of thing," Merrilee told him, deliberately misunderstanding his words.

"I know what he’s into, and I know where he’s been this morning."

"He’s been typing my manuscript," she told him. "I gave him careful instructions earlier."

"Miss Jones," Drake drawled, eyes no longer lazy but a very icy blue. "I’m not a fool, so don’t treat me like one."

Suddenly, the door to the study was thrown open, and Aaron and Thomas pushed Bran into the room. He stumbled from the force of the shove, but he recovered to stand before Drake. Pushing his glasses up, he tried to appear the indignant secretary.

"Mr. Elliot?" Drake asked calmly. "So nice of you to join us."

"Bran," Merrilee spoke quickly. "What’s going on?"

"Tell her, Bran," Drake said, silkily. "Tell all of us what you were doing in my room, breaking into my computer."

Bran looked quietly at Merrilee, then at Drake. "I was trying to find out what tapes you had stored in your collection."

"Come now, Bran. Surely you can do better than that." Drake lit another one of the thin, dark cigarettes and inhaled deeply. His expression was one of sheer disbelief.

"That’s the truth," Bran told him. "Marilyn, that is Miss MacKenzie, told me that you filmed your guests, and I was trying to make sure that there were no secret films from last night."

"Last night?"

"Yes," Bran invented. "I was afraid that the mirrors over the bed concealed cameras and that you’d filmed us. That sort of thing can be damaging to her career."

"Try again," Drake instructed as he looked from Merrilee to Bran. "I doubt that anything could damage that career." Merrilee stood uncertainly, trying to look as indignant as possible, all the while aware of the danger of the situation. She restrained herself from looking at her watch, knowing that if the trouble they were in wasn’t enough, there was more on the way. Nervously, she reached up and fiddled with her pendant. In a moment’s desperation, she pressed on the large stone, praying that the transmitter was operational.

Bran, meanwhile, was set on his current lie, bound and determined to make it believable. He looked at Merrilee, saw the furtive movement with her pendant, and mentally crossed his fingers. "I told you what I was doing. Marilyn has a reputation to maintain, and being filmed with her secretary might not be a good idea."

"I might believe that from anyone else, but you see, I know that Marilyn MacKenzie is really Merrilee Jones, a computer expert. Do you really expect me to buy the story that one of the best computer people in America is writing romances?"

"I don’t give a damn what you believe," Merrilee blazed. "I’m doing just that, and I enjoy it. The money is good, and I’ve met a lot more interesting people, present company excepted, since I began doing it than I ever met when I was programming."

"That’s interesting," said Drake, amused by her outburst. "According to my sources, you worked at Chandler Electronics until about thirteen months ago, and have been consulting ever since. All this and romance novels, too?"

"I like to stay busy," she countered.

"Miss Jones, if you were with any other individual than this gentleman, I might be willing to believe you. However, considering your companion, your story is a total waste of your fictional talent."

Damn, thought Bran, with the sinking feeling that Erika and Enrique weren’t the worst of his problems. Merrilee was looking at him with confusion in her lovely hazel eyes, and he knew the desire to protect her from this mess. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even protect himself.

"My story stands," Merrilee stated, boldly declaring her innocence. It certainly wasn’t the time to confess all, and throw herself on what she suspected was Drake’s nonexistent mercy. "I came here at your invitation, and since you’ve obviously withdrawn your offer of hospitality, we shall leave."

Drake crushed out the cigarette and shook his head. His blue eyes were blazing with a curious light, and he smiled broadly. "I think not, Miss Jones. You see, if I let you go, you’d feel the need to share the events of the house party with the authorities, especially when your boss disappears."

"My boss? Please explain."

"Quit bluffing," Drake told her. "I’m aware of who you are, and just for the record, I know that you’re still working for Chandler Electronics."

"I am not. I quit there as you well know."

"You are beginning to tire me," Drake said, and Bran spent the next few seconds wondering if he could overpower the two men flanking him and take out Drake in time to allow Merrilee the chance to escape. He knew that the thought was futile, and so stood still a bit longer. "You see, Miss Jones, it’s useless to tell me that you don’t work with Chandler when the man is standing in the same room with you, when I knew that you’d spent the night with him."

"With Chandler?" Merrilee was incredulous as she looked from Drake to Bran. "Chandler?" Her mind was processing the information at lightening speed as she suddenly realized that Bran Elliot was in reality B.E. Chandler. How could she have been so blind? So gullible? But, still she had to try. Seized by an inspiration, she turned and accused him, "Damn you, Bran. You lied to me."

Bran looked guilty as hell, and Merrilee continued her tirade with heartfelt anger. "I refused all your requests for an interview. I told your secretary that I was no longer in the job market. Couldn’t you leave well enough alone?" Taken by her line of fiction, she manufactured lie after lie, with enough truth to her tale to lend her conviction. "No, you have to try to seduce me away from my writing to return to your damned company."

"So what if I did?" Bran shot back following her lead. "I needed personnel, and I knew that you’d worked there before, that your record was the best. I figured that I’d get to you any way I could, and when I found that you were Marilyn MacKenzie, I decided to go for your weak spot. Romance."

"You’re fired," she shouted. "Fired! Pack your things and get the hell out of my sight. I wouldn’t work for you if I was starving, which, I assure you, I’m not. And, thank you, Drake, for telling me." She pulled herself up to her full five foot six inch height, and looked positively imperious, in spite of her ludicrous outfit. "Now, I have had enough of this affair, and I am quite out of the party mood. If you’ll call me a cab, I’ll be going."

She started for the door, but Martin stepped into her path, effectively blocking the exit. Turning to Drake, she ordered, "Call off your gorilla."

"Not possible," Drake told her. "We are still in the same quandary."

"How’s that?"

"You know entirely too much."

"About what?"

"About the disappearance of Chandler." Drake looked at Bran and then nodded to his men. One of them produced a cord from his pocket and was preparing to tie the unwilling guest when Bran turned quickly and lashed out with fists and feet. Thomas fell without a word, and Aaron followed in short order. Merrilee, unfortunately, was too far from Drake to do any good. Drake, however, had been prepared, and simply removed a very businesslike gun from his desk drawer, leveling it on Merrilee. "Neatly done, but too little, too late. Unless she means less to you than I think she does, you’ll remain still."

Bran remained still, as he saw the gun trained on Merrilee. He knew that it was pointless to argue with Drake, and he cursed himself for ever bringing her in on this fiasco. From the beginning, apparently, their mission had been doomed to failure, and now he stared at the woman he loved and realized that it was his fault that she was in mortal danger, or worse, considering Drake and his activities. Even knowing her background with Mike, or Jake, didn’t lessen his concern for her, outnumbered and outgunned as they were. No, he’d botched it badly, and seeing the look of betrayal in her eyes only made it worse.

Meanwhile, Thomas crawled to his feet and with one swift move, brought his own gun down across the back of Bran’s head. Bran pitched to the floor without a sound. Thomas rubbed his jaw tenderly and scowled at Drake. "Easier to tie him up this way."

Merrilee was aghast. A sharp horrible pain had gripped her when she’d seen Bran crumple to the floor, but she knew that their best chance lay in being calm. So, she began her hardest role to date. Inconspicuously pressing the large stone on her pendant, she turned wide, hazel eyes on Drake and demanded, "What have you done to Bran? Is he dead?"

"No," Drake assured her. "Not yet, anyway. I’m not going to do anything but keep him safe for a little while. I have some guests arriving later today who are interested in renewing their acquaintance with him." Drake motioned to her to sit down as Thomas finished with Bran. Aaron was beginning to regain consciousness, and began to get mean. "Get Aaron out of here," Drake ordered Thomas who was rubbing his jaw again. Martin, you help him. Now, Miss Jones, we are going to have a little talk."

"I’ve had all the conversation I can stand with you," she informed him. "We have nothing more to say."

"Oh, but we do. You see, you have a choice in what happens to you."

"Then you can let me go."

"That isn’t an option," he said, regretfully. "I’d been looking forward to this party, and to meeting Marilyn MacKenzie, but when Chandler showed up, I knew that things weren’t as they appeared. It is a pity, though."

"What are you going to do with us?"

"Bran I’ll leave as a gift for my guests, and you, well, like I said, there are choices." Drake sat stroking his gun, giving her lazy looks that were decidedly kinky as far as she was concerned, and she longed for the privacy of her old jeans and tee shirt instead of the ridiculous outfit she was wearing. "I know what Chandler was looking for, or, should I say, whom? And, had he been successful in breaking into my computer, he’d have found the information he sought. The missing programmers are here, on this estate, waiting transportation to their new employers." He paused here, and informed her, "That may be one of your options. Would you like to go with them?"

"No." She realized that working for Drake’s people would only be postponing her death. She’d rather face it head on.

"You’d prefer to stay with Chandler? Really, Miss Jones. His options are a great deal more limited than yours." At Merrilee’s questioning look, he nodded, "Yes, he had the misfortune to run afoul of my business associates a while back, and they wish to repay him for his troubles."

"They’re going to kill him?" Merrilee recalled the troubled look from Bran’s face, and she inwardly cringed.

"Eventually. Personally, I’d prefer to die a little quicker, but one seldom has the choice."

Merrilee sat for a moment, realizing that unless her transmitter was working, there was little hope that she and Bran would escape with their lives. Still, there was a chance, and so she decided to learn all she could about Drake’s plan, just in case. "And if I decide to take employment with you?"

"Miss Jones, I’m not certain that you’ll do that. You see, knowing what you know, the names, the places and so on, you present some greater difficulties than the others. And, knowing your association with Chandler, I believe that you are too dangerous to release."

"Then what the hell are my options?"

"You can trust me to be mercifully quick, or you can go with Chandler."

"I appreciate your concern," she snapped sarcastically. "What will you do? Allow me a session with your precious snakes, or a swim with the piranha?"

"Would you prefer a bullet to the head?"

"I’d prefer to get out of here."

"Oh, you will, Miss Jones. You will."