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


They had escaped, thought Merrilee as the hydroplane headed down the Savannah River. The flight was exhilarating, and being free was a heady sensation after nearly losing everything. They should be able to get the information that they needed now that they knew it existed, and where it was. Their testimony would be enough to order a search warrant, and knowing Jake, Merrilee was willing to believe that one could be had almost instantly, if it wasn’t being exercised as they escaped. With any luck at all, the other programmers would be rescued, and Erika and Enrique would be returned to prison, this time for good. Drake would be out of business, and she, Merrilee, would be back home, all safe and sound.

So, why wasn’t she happy? She frowned, wondering what was wrong with her, finally deciding that it had to be some sort of an emotional letdown. Funny, though, she hadn’t felt this particular ache after an adventure with Jake, so why now? She glanced down at her companion who was busily piloting the hot-wired craft down the river to safety. Bran seemed oblivious to her, and she supposed that was part of what was bothering her. Make that a lot of what was bothering her. Apparently, now that their business was about to be successfully concluded, he’d go back to his womanizing, tomcatting ways, and she’d go back to her white cotton underwearing, computer programming, blue jeans and tee shirted lifestyle. She turned away from Bran, still seeing his tall form at the helm, and closed her eyes. What she wanted to do was to go to him, slip her arms around him and celebrate their escape. Unfortunately, he was concentrating on the water, acting like the professional she was not. He’d overcome his head injury, and was doing just fine.

Merrilee was determined not to care one way or another, at least not so that Bran would notice. She drew a deep breath and applied herself to facing the future. Her future. Alone. She could smell the salt air so near the ocean, and under any other circumstances would have counted that a reason to smile. But, the smile wouldn’t come.

As Bran maneuvered towards the Coast Guard boat in the distance, Merrilee forced her lips to curve up. "Bran," she asked, as he pulled along side the larger boat. "How soon do you think that we’ll be able to wrap this up?"

"Quite soon, barring complications," he answered, briefly. "If he hasn’t discovered our absence, we can surprise him and catch him red-handed." Bran closed his eyes for a moment, trying to ease the pain that was still plaguing him. As he reopened them, things grew fuzzy, but then cleared. Just a little longer, he promised himself. Jut until you’re sure that Merrilee is safe and Drake is in custody.

"Ahoy there," came a cry from the Coast Guard craft. "Would you, by any chance, be Chandler and Jones?"

Surprised by the use of their names, Merrilee looked at Bran who answered, "Yes, we are."

"Good," the lawman answered as one of the crewmen helped Merrilee into the boat. His eyes lingered long over her well displayed charms, but she refused to acknowledge his look. Yes, the shorts had long ago ridden up past the limits of decency, and the spray-soaked silk blouse revealed that she’d neglected to wear a bra, but she didn’t care. "We were afraid that we’d have to drag the river for you."

"Any messages for us?" asked Bran as he accepted a blanket from the captain which he promptly draped around Merrilee’s shoulders. Annoyed at his propriatorial move, she glared at him, but he ignored her look, apparently concentrating on the situation at hand.

"Yes," the captain smiled. "It’s to the point. Backup, and I assume you know who that is, says, ‘Transmissions received. The rat’s nest has been cleaned out.’ He adds to tell you that you ‘did good.’"

Bran broke into a wide smile, and then sank into the nearest chair, giving in for a moment to the pain that seemed to be increasing. "It’s over," he said to Merrilee. "Now, we can get back to normal."

Normal was exactly what Merrilee decided that she’d had enough of, just two hours later. Finding herself stashed safely away in a nearby hotel, she discovered that she was going slightly mad. In a matter of only a few days, she’d gone from being reasonably content, to insane, to scared, to the haven of the hotel. Now, realizing that the mission was completed, she turned her mind to Bran and his lies. She stood up and paced the room, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Was that slender woman in the outrageous outfit her? No, that was the fictional Marilyn MacKenzie. Merrilee shuddered at the sight.

In the light of the hotel room, she looked positively disgusting. Even the quick shower she’d taken had done little to improve upon her appearance. She looked like she ought to be out walking the streets, and not even on the better side of town. What was worse was that Bran had left her there, ostensibly out of the way for a little while, and that in itself had made her angry. Never mind that she’d saved his bacon, she told herself. She was only window dressing to him. She was just a way into Drake’s house. Nothing more.

Merrilee thought of the previous night, and of that morning when she’d instigated their lovemaking. Closing her eyes, she cringed at the things she’d done. My God! She’d been with B.E. Chandler, and hadn’t even known. How amused he must have been with her, she thought disgustedly. How he must have laughed when he’d seen the transformation from the denim-clad programmer to the wanton author. All the things that she’d refused to think about earlier dropped on her head like heavy rain. The lies, the half-truths, all of the things he’d said and done sat weightily on her mind.

"It’s over now," she told herself, standing in the middle of the room. "Time to get back to normal." Normal, which for her was definitely not running around with men like Bran Chandler dressed as she was. Or, dressed in any other manner. Normal was a nice, safe terminal, but that held no allure. Normal wasn’t going to do it this time. No, she told herself. You’ ve discovered that normal isn’t enough. With that in mind, she dashed off a note on the hotel stationary to Bran, took the key, and headed down to the front desk. "Give this note to Mr. Chandler," she instructed. "The room is in his name."

Disdainfully ignoring the way the desk clerk looked down his nose at her, she smiled and sauntered out of the hotel. So what if he thought she’d been there for a little afternoon delight? She headed down the street, intent on leaving the city, and after a visit to a local bank, she had enough cash to do it. One of the advantages of having a friend in the bank at home, she mused, hailing a taxi, was being able to have money wired to you in a hurry. A short visit to a shopping center outfitted her well enough to fly home in complete anonymity.

Several hours later, she opened the door to her little house in San Diego. Had it only been days since she’d left here? It seemed years. She pocketed the key instead of returning it to the place where she normally kept it hidden, and turned off the security system. Her own keys, identification and even her passport, were at Aunt Emma’s, and as she settled into her chair, she wondered how to go about getting them back. Maybe she’d just have duplicates made. Yes, that would be the thing to do. She’d been meaning to have a spare set made for some time. Besides, she never wanted to see Bran again, and unless Aunt Emma sent her things home, she’d probably have to do just that. "Tomorrow," she yawned sleepily. "I’ll sort all this out tomorrow."

Bran, on the other hand, returned to the hotel in a relatively good mood. Drake and his cohorts had been taken into custody, the programmers were freed after having their statements taken, and Erika and Enrique had been arrested. Yes, this affair had gone very well. He entered the elevator, intent on finding Merrilee and making things right with her. He’d left her in the hotel while he’d wrapped things up, figuring that she’d wish to remain out of that part. Mike had mentioned to him that she preferred to keep her family from finding out about her unusual activities. Probably had something to do with his wanting to keep the past from Melissa, too. Merrilee had said little to him on the way back, sitting quietly bundled up in the blanket while he’d nursed his aching head. Probably should have it looked at, he thought as he took the elevator up to the tenth floor. His head hurt like hell.

Bran walked over to Merrilee’s door, and knocked. No answer. Then, another knock. "Merrilee, open up. It’s me, Bran." Angry that she wouldn’t let him in, he headed down to the desk to get his key.

"Mr. Chandler?" asked the man who was looking at Bran in a suspicious manner. Bran nodded, and accepted the proffered note.

Merrilee was nothing if not to the point. "It was fun, Merrilee." He crushed the note in his hand and jammed it into his pocket. All afternoon, he’d been looking forward to going back to her and loving her until she forgave him for all the deceptions, and now this. His head had been aching before, but now, he though the top would surely come off. Closing his eyes, he stood still for a moment before crumbling to the floor.

Early the next morning, Merrilee woke to find herself still in the chair in which she’d collapsed the night before. Wearily, she stood and stretched, finding kinks in every joint. She plodded to the bathroom, a lackluster room done in blue and white. "Damn," she swore as memories of a crystal tub danced before her eyes. She stripped quickly and stepped into the shower where she turned on the water. She scrubbed her hair as if she could wash away the memories of Bran’s fingers tangling in it. That led to other thoughts, and finally, with a curse that would have shocked even Bran, she turned off the hot water and let the cold water drive all his memories from her mind. Stepping from the shower a few minutes later, she dried and headed to her dresser.

Pulling out the rather ordinary nylon bra, and white cotton panties, she slipped into them and then rummaged around for a well worn pair of jeans. Finding some, she pulled them on and added a peach colored tee-shirt. It wasn’t high fashion, but it was her. Damn!

Merrilee walked into her study where she sat down in front of her terminal. Flipping it on, she sat and stared at the keyboard of her computer for several minutes. For the next few hours, she tried and tried to apply herself to a program, and then surfed the net for a while, careful to avoid the news links, but nothing seemed to work. Then, totally disgusted with herself, she turned it off and headed out into the back yard where she sat in the shade of a jacaranda tree. She looked up, studying the blue-violet flowers that usually gave her pleasure, but today, they made her think of Aunt Emma’s jungle style bath.

Angrily, she closed her eyes, but Bran’s face appeared in her memory. Forcing herself to concentrate, she deliberately kept her mind a blank, for every time she allowed her thoughts to wander, they kept returning to Bran. "You are a fool," she finally told herself. "You’ve been used, lied to, and worse than that, you’ve fallen in love with a man who likes women. W-o-m-E-n! Merrilee, you are a complete idiot!"

A few days later, she was again sitting out in the back yard, watching the hummingbirds which were feeding on the honeysuckle that grew in profusion in the trellis next to her bedroom window. She watched as they flitted in and out of the flowers, fanning the air with t heir tiny wings, looking for all the world like winged jewels with their vivid colors. Colors that made her think of silks and satins. Finally, she jerked her body from the lounge and headed back into the house. Grabbing her purse with the new wallet and replacement license, she picked up her spare set of keys and left the house. She drove down the interstate to Mission Valley, intent on a little browsing in one of the shopping centers, the guaranteed panacea for her ills.

Hours later, laden with bags, and, she grimaced, an extensive selection of torrid romance novels, she returned to her house. Merrilee dropped her keys as she juggled her packages, trying to open the front door. Incredibly, it opened for her.

For a moment, she just stood there, astonished. It wasn’t fair, she wanted to cry out. How could one man look so good, so right, so very much hers, and not be? Tearing her eyes from his face, she demanded, "What are you doing here, Chandler?" She pushed her way past him, acting more concerned with her packages. "This is my house."

"I know that," he said calmly taking in her eyes. Were there ever any eyes as expressive as the hazel ones that were threatening his life just now? He smiled and told her, "You left your keys and things in Phoenix. I’m returning them. Oh, and by the way, you forgot to activate your security system."

"You could have sent them UPS," Merrilee pointed out, ignoring his statement. She wanted to forget how preoccupied she’d been lately. "Or, you could have had them delivered along with my check." That ought to tell him about how personal she felt. Strictly a job.

"I also brought your clothes."

"I didn’t have any."

"All the things you wore in Savannah were yours to keep. They’d been chosen expressly for you."

"No, thanks," she told him, knowing that she’d never be able to wear them without thinking of him. "They aren’t really me." She put her packages down and moved away from the door as Bran closed it. "Thanks, anyhow. I won’t keep you."

"Are you trying to get rid of me?" he asked, and she looked away. He felt his heart swell with love as she refused to look him in the eye. "Merrilee, why did you leave me in Savannah?"

"It was over," she explained, not daring to face him. "I had things to do."

"I went back to find you. All I got was a note."

"What did you expect?" she flamed. "You dumped me in the hotel once my usefulness was over."

"It’s not over," Bran said quietly. "Besides, I thought that was what you wanted. I thought you didn’t want your family to know about your adventures."

Merrilee looked suspiciously at him when she heard that, but said nothing. Taking her silence as permission to go on, Bran continued. "I know all about your past, Merrilee. I know about Lee Smythe, and Jake Jones." She maintained her stony silence, not knowing how to respond. Then, Bran, sensing her uncertainty, said softly. "I wanted you to be there when I got back."

"Sorry," she told him, finally finding her voice. "I had other plans."

Bran started to reach out to touch her, but held himself back for a moment. He could see her rigid posture, knew that she wouldn’t face him, and in that moment, knew that he had a chance. The Merrilee he knew wouldn’t have hesitated tearing a strip off him on the spot before. Now, things had changed, and she wouldn’t meet his eyes. What was it she feared? "Tell me about your plans."

"They’re personal."

"You can tell me."

"I don’t want to tell you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got things to do."

"I do mind," he said, finally giving into his needs and reaching out for her. He pulled her to him, burying his face in her fragrant hair, and breathing deeply. He caught the scent that was exclusively hers, and brought his lips to her neck. Unable to help herself, she leaned against his strength, allowing his mouth to find the throbbing pulse in her throat. "Ahhhh, Merrilee..."

His voice brought her back to her senses, and she jerked from his arms. "Mr. Chandler," she said as calmly as she could with her pulses racing, her heart pounding. "I’ve asked you to leave."

"Sorry," he grinned, dropping to the couch. "No can do."

"You walked in," she informed him angrily. "You can walk back out."

"Maybe later." Bran leaned back on the couch. "We have to talk."

"It’s been a week," Merrilee pointed out to him. "If there was anything important to say, it should have been said days ago."

"So that’s why you’re so angry." Bran reached out and tumbled her into his arms. He held her against his chest, and gave a low chuckle. Today was for soothing fears, for doing all the making up he needed to do. Someday, he’d ask more about the adventures of Lee and Jake, but today was for Merrilee and Bran. "You’re angry with me for taking so long to come to you, and for not telling you my full name. I had a good reason for that."

"You’re a conceited jerk if that’s what you think." She glared at him and continued. "I don’t blame you for not telling me your name. You must have known that I’d have thrown you out of the house, that I’d have never gone with you if you’d told me. What I want to know is why it took you so long to return my things?" She wouldn’t ask why it took so long to call.

Bran smiled at her and answered. "Merrilee, when we finished up that afternoon, I went back to the hotel to find you. Instead, I found a very short note."


"And the next thing I knew, it was a few days later. Apparently that crack on the head had done more damage than we thought. I had a concussion."

"Why didn’t you tell me?" Was that concern in her eyes?

"Would you have flown to my bedside?" His tone was wry, and she sat quietly. "I didn’t think so. That’s why I waited until I could win a foot race with you."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I was afraid that I’d have to chase you all around the world."

"I didn’t go anywhere. All you had to do was to send my things."

Bran turned her to face him, and stared deeply into her eyes. He studied them, momentarily, seeing the pain and need she could no longer hide. He saw the fear, the knowledge that she was vulnerable to him, and knew what terrified her. "Merrilee, you’ve been believing all the wrong people about me."

"Have I?" she whispered, meeting his eyes. Her lower lip trembled, and she looked away quickly so he wouldn’t see the tears forming. "Bran, I’m not having an affair with you."

"Then you’ll make an honest man of me?" he asked with a low, teasing voice. "You’ll marry me?"

"Marry you?" She turned to face him, and he saw the tears tracing paths down her cheeks. "You want me to marry you?"

"Please?" He sounded like a young boy begging for a treat, and she saw the teasing lights in his eyes that she’d seen the day she accused him of selling door-to-door sex. Could he really want her? She wasn’t his type, at least not what he had the reputation for appreciating.

"But the busty blondes?" she asked, her heart pounds lighter. A glow replaced the ache in the center of her being, and she demanded an answer.

"Merrilee, they were mostly for bait for catching Erika and Enrique. I was in the middle of a job when my father died, and I couldn’t leave. Dad knew what I was doing, and he worried about me, though he knew the job needed to be done. Mike also knew, but he had to allow people to think whatever would support the image I had to project." His eyes twinkled for a moment, and he added, "Besides, until I met you, I didn’t know any better."

"And now?"

Instead of telling her, he crushed her to his lips and kissed her until she could barely breathe. He turned her until she was sitting in his lap, feeling the rather obvious evidence of his affection. His hands found their way under her tee shirt, and before she could protest, he’d pulled the garment over her head and tossed it on the floor. A smile curved his lips as he saw the lacy bra she’d purchased that afternoon and worn home. "Front clasp?" he asked, his fingers releasing it. She blushed, and then pulled his lips to hers.

"More convenient for trysting," she answered. "Oh, Bran, I love you."

"That’s all I wanted to hear ever since that night in Phoenix when you got high on pińa coladas. Merrilee, I love you more than I thought I could love anyone." He stood up, lifting her and carried her down the hallway and into the bedroom, dropping the rest of her clothing along the way. "Now," he asked, laying her down on the bed. "Will you marry me?"

Merrilee say before him, love on her face, and then, that old sparkle of mischief danced in her eyes. Bran caught that look, and, undressing himself quickly, lay down beside her, pulling her over onto his chest. She kissed him gently at first, then with more passion. She hadn’t answered his question, and for a moment, he wondered. Was she playing games? He knew that her family tended to go their own ways, and that Merrilee was no different in that respect. He had to know, once and for all. "I asked you a question," he said, finally, as she blazed a trail of kisses down his neck and over his chest. He drew a sharp breath as she kissed the hard plane of his stomach, and then teased him with her lips and fingers. "Merrilee," he groaned. "Answer me."

"Shut up and listen," she told him, giving him her answer. She sat next to him for a moment, looking at the man in her bed. He was tall, handsome, and irrevocably hers. "I’ll marry you, Bran, but I’d like one thing."

"Anything," he promised, eagerly claiming her lips with his. "Name it."

"A crystal tub."

Bran stopped, holding her back for a moment, then burst out laughing. She sat up, indignantly looking at him. "What’s wrong with that?"

"Merrilee, Merrilee, Merrilee," he said, when he’d finished laughing. "You and your crystal tub. What will Melissa say?"

"Who cares?"

"I’ll tell you," Bran smiled as he pulled her back down. "She’ll say that it goes perfectly with the mirror over our king-sized waterbed."