MERRILY, MERRILY, MERRILEE©2000, 2001,2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Martha S. Robinson
Merrilee stood calmly, feeling for the first time in several minutes that she was in control of herself and of the situation. All she had to do to keep his hands off of her was to agree to work with him. No, that wasn’t entirely honest. All she really had to do was to tell him, in no uncertain terms, to leave, that she wasn’t interested in working with him, and he would exit her life as quickly as he’d entered it. The problem was that she didn’t want him to do that. Worse yet, she had to admit that she actually enjoyed his touch. Of course she didn’t know him, but then she had programmed for people she hadn’t known before, in spite of what she’d told him. The truth was, quite simply, that she was intrigued by him, and it was that more than the promise of any job or inordinately large fee that held any allure for her.
Still, if he wanted a talented computer expert, one considerable field expertise, she was more than capable of filling the position. Programming came as easy to her as any of the foreign languages she’d used while growing up, and computers were much easier to deal with then the animals she’d encountered.
Merrilee thought for a few minutes of some of the creatures that had been part of her past. It wasn’t that she disliked animals--she loved them, and they her. It was just that they represented a lifestyle that she’d rejected years ago. The truth was that she’d grown to resent being dragged around the world like extra baggage, something rather than someone with whom her father really hadn’t had time to deal with. She’d been the last child, ten years behind the others, and unplanned, at that. Being a motherless teen hadn’t helped, but she’d survived. Melissa, thankfully, had been at the university by then, and there had been no family that her father cared to leave her with. Her father’s cousin, Nigel Jones, was residing in France, but her father had pronounced the Greek scholar as unfit to rear Merrilee, insisting that anyone with his thoughts occupied with dead Greeks and mythical gods wouldn’t be allowed to clutter Merrilee’s mind with such trash. Merrilee had met Nigel’s daughter, Pandora, and had taken a liking to her, but as Pandora was the offspring of Nigel and the French actress, Caprice, Micah had discouraged that relationship, carting Merrilee back to Africa and assorted other parts of the world.
And now, here she was, after a life of strange things, and yes, many of them wonderful, waiting for a man to tell her how he wanted to make use of her hard won abilities. What was it? Something that evidently he couldn’t do alone, or he wouldn’t be bothering her with it. Something that was important enough for him to be willing to pay dearly for it. And, pay he would! Yes! Any man who had the nerve to caress her as intimately as he had, without her consent, would pay. Suddenly, she became aware that her body was recalling his touch, and her own response again, replaying the action both in her mind and across her slender form. Angrily, she folded her arms across her breasts and hoped that he hadn’t noticed. A flicker of a smile on his lips told her that he was fully aware of her thoughts, and for a moment, she debated getting out of this arrangement. Intrigued though she was, she knew instinctively that this man was dangerous, and on many levels.
"How do I know that you’re who you say you are?"
"I could show you my identification."
"That can be faked."
"True," he answered, his expression telling her that he’d already covered that contingency. "Will you take your brother-in-law’s word on the matter?"
"A lot of people know Mike’s name," she countered. "He has a lot of friends."
"Then call him." There was a challenge in Bran’s words, in his eyes, and Merrilee was not one to back down from a dare. Besides, if her brother-in-law gave the word, she’d trust this man with her life. That decided, she picked up the telephone, entered a series of numbers, and waited. She had his private line, one that bypassed the switchboard where he worked, one that she didn’t keep on speed dial. After one ring, there was an answer.
On impulse, Merrilee thrust the phone at Bran. "You know him, you talk to him."
He accepted the receiver, noting the expression on her face and nodded, "Mike? Bran Elliot here. Merrilee wants my credentials. Vouch for me?"
Bran handed the phone to her and she took it from him, aware that the handle was still warm from his touch. Putting the receiver to her ear, she spoke, "Yes?"
"Lee? Jake." Two words only, yet they conveyed a world of meaning. Pulling herself back from the past, Merrilee listened to the only member of her family to ever call her by that name. Indeed, the only member to know her past. "You can trust Bran. I know what he’s planning, but he doesn’t want anyone working with him directly linked with the agency. He suspects a security leak here, and it’s being investigated in house. He doesn’t know of our past connection, nor does anyone else."
"He doesn’t know that you’re Lee, or that you’re more than just my brilliant sister-in-law who’s super with computers. He doesn’t know that you know that I’m more than a pencil-pushing bureaucrat."
"And I’d appreciate your assistance. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t very important. Look, Lee, I know that you’ve been inactive for some time, but I need someone on this, and I don’t have time to look for anyone else. I need someone I can trust implicitly, someone to cover Bran’s back without being obvious about it."
"I understand. Thanks," she muttered, hanging up. That put a whole new complexion on the situation, but one that Bran obviously didn’t know about. Still, if Jake said that it was important, she’d accept his word for it. What’d they want her to do? Provide backup for Bran without his knowing about it? And, if that was the case, just what had she gotten herself into? Oh, well, things had been getting a tad stale around her, she mused. Turning to her guest, she forced a smile and told him, "Okay, what’s going on?"
"All in good time. First, I want to show you some of the equipment that you’ll be using." He lifted the attaché case to the heavy oak coffee table and entered the combination. "380621." Then, he opened it. Merrilee drew a quick breath. Before her, in the case, was a laptop computer that was light years ahead of anything currently available to the public.
"Be my guest. It’s for you."
With the awed enthusiasm of a jeweler presented with a collection of rare gems, she ran her fingers lovingly over the keyboard. "Tell me about it."
Bran smiled at her pleasure. "I should have shown you this in the first place. You wouldn’t have tried to throw me out. Okay, the computer has what you can see, and much more. Beneath this cover you’ll find one of the most powerful, and fastest computers available today. Small, yes, and compact, but as you know, that has a lot of benefits. The CRT is extremely high resolution, and ultra thin while the keyboard expands to regular size. Storage well, check this out." He quickly entered a few commands and Merrilee’s eyes widened at the available memory and drive space as well as the rest of the system design. It was well ahead of anything she'd had the pleasure of using. "The computer itself is far slimmer and faster than anything out today."
"Good. I was hoping that you’d be."
"Now, what do you want me to do with this little toy?"
"For the time being, I want you to familiarize yourself with it. We have all of three days to prepare for our business."
Bran Elliot looked at the young woman sitting next to him and wondered again what ridiculous twist of fate had brought them together for this mission. Mission? Hell. That made him sound like a secret agent, or something which was the last thing he wanted to be. Oh, he’d done a few things for a few people whose names and faces weren’t supposed to be associated with missions. But for a living? Never!
"Mr. Elliot, I asked you a question. What do you want with me?"
Aside from that, he told himself again. "Ms. Jones, you’ve been chosen by an agency better left unnamed to aid in the recovery of some important computer equipment and information before it has the chance to leave the country."
"Why me?" she challenged again. "Surely there are filthy hoards of government agents who do this sort of thing regularly."
"There are, but none of them have your peculiar background."
"Thanks a lot," she muttered, wondering just how much of her background he actually knew about.
"No, really. You speak several languages, some of them African or Indian dialects, and some of them Middle Eastern. You also live and breath computers."
"Go on," she suggested, realizing that this knowledge could have been discovered simply by examining her years with her father. They’d lived all over the world.
"You also don’t look it. Most people expect computer wizards to look eccentric and yes, I know that’s just a stereotype and to run around speaking computerese."
"I can do that."
"I know you can, but I don’t want you to do that."
It was beginning to come clear. "You want me to look like anything but what I am, so that nobody will suspect me when I steal in and rip them off." She’d done that before, too, and wondered if he knew. Damn Jake for giving Bran her name.
"Something like that," Bran agreed dryly. Aside from being a fetching little armful, as his great uncle would have described her, Merrilee was smart. Yes, working with her would prove interesting.
"Then I assume that I have a cover?" Catching the suddenly wary look on his face, she explained, "I’ve seen a lot of spy movies and that is the operative term, I believe."
"You catch on fast," he told her, relaxing. Mike had said that she was bright.
"And you’re willing to take Mike’s word that I can be trusted? I thought that people called in to do stuff like this were given a thorough going over to make certain that they weren’t subversive, or something."
"You’ve already been given an okay. Nothing on paper, nothing beyond word of mouth from a few people in high or secure places."
Translated, Jake. Oh, well, she’d play along with Bran. "But I don’t know anybody like that." What were a few more lies at this point?
"Trust me, Merrilee. And now, since you’ve agreed to work for us, for me, we’ve got to get to work on your cover."
"Shall I assume that we’ll be going elsewhere to do this?"
"Right. Savannah, Georgia, to be exact."
"Let me get packed."
"No need for that. You have a complete wardrobe waiting at our first stop." Merrilee stopped and stared at him, realizing that this had been well planned. Jake knew which buttons to push, and though it should have made her angry, it didn’t. Maybe he was right after all. Maybe time had given her a new perspective like he’d said it would.
"A wardrobe?" she parroted. "What sort of a wardrobe?"
"Everything you’ll need for a visit to the South."
"Call me Bran."
"Bran, tell me what I’ll be doing there."
He smiled, surveying her slender figure with pleasure. He knew what he wished she’d be doing there, but forced himself back to the business at hand. "You’ve been invited to spend a week in Savannah soaking up atmosphere for your next novel."
"My next novel?" She sounded mystified, one silky eyebrow raised in askance. She’d written a couple of computer technical manuals, and done all the writing for the computer games she’d written, but they could hardly be called novels.
Bran smiled. "Merrilee, you have three days to prepare yourself for your acting debut. You’ll be known as the romance writer, Marilyn MacKenzie."
The other eyebrow raised. "You’re kidding."
"No, I’m not. Ms. MacKenzie has been gracious enough to lend you her pen name for a few days to help out her government."
"Why doesn’t she just do it herself?"
Bran shook his head and closed the attaché case. "All in good time." He stood up. "Coming?"
Mystified and intrigued, she nodded. "I think you’re out of your mind, but I’ll help. I don’t want to see any of our advanced technology fall into the wrong hands." After a quick call to a neighbor to pick up her mail and newspaper, she paused at a small cabinet on one wall. Opening it, she threw a few switches and reclosed it. At Bran’s questioning glance, she explained, "Automatic off and on switches for the lights in the house. It chooses random times after dark is detected by a light sensor. It also turns the television and radio off and on by the same mechanism. I activated the telephone answering machine which either gives a busy signal or a message that I’m unavailable just now. Plus, I set the water timer for my house."
"You did all the programming for this?"
"Most of it years ago. I have a friend in the home security field who wanted a twist on the standard timing devices. The random timer, within given ranges, of course, provides what they need. As for the water timer, I’ve installed moisture sensing devices in the potting soil connected to the central computer. Each is programmed for whatever each moisture each plant requires."
"For a gardening friend?"
"Actually, for myself. I forget to water half the time. But, I’ve applied for the patent on both items and I have a couple of firms that use them." She didn’t add that there was a considerable sum of money included in their use.
"I had no idea that you were so talented."
"There’s a lot you don’t know about me," she told him with a smile.
"I’ll remember that," Bran said, picking up the attaché case. "Shall we go?"
Merrilee followed Bran from her house which she locked behind them, taking care to activate her special, custom security system. Moments later, they slid into the leather lined comfort of his black Jaguar, where Merrilee made herself comfortable. This was strange, at best, she reflected, but then, she’d been in odder circumstances on less notice. Only then, she’d been paired with a man she knew and trusted, a man on whom she could depend. Regardless of what Jake had said, Bran was still an unknown, and more to the point, a man whose very presence seemed designed to elicit a reaction from and within Merrilee.
Deciding to break the silence, she asked, "Now that we’re on the way, to, um, exactly where are we going, anyway, and what will I be doing?"
Bran’s answer was masked somewhat by the mirrored aviator sunglasses he’d donned, but Merrilee was trained to listen for things that other people might miss. "Our first stop, as I already told you, is in Phoenix, where you’ll spend a couple of days getting into your role as Marilyn MacKenzie."
"This ought to be interesting. I’ve never even read any of her books."
"Look in that bag behind the seat. It’s full of them. In the last seven years, you’ve written many books, several of which have been best sellers in the romance field. You’ve written category romances, and in the last two years, you’ve broken into mainstream romances which offer a much broader view of society. In the bag, you’ll find your most popular as well as the most recent books. There’s also a printout listing each of your books along with a synopsis of each one. There are also listings of a few others that you should know about."
Merrilee drew the bag into her lap where she pulled out a paperback and stopped to study the cover. Emblazoned across the front was a couple clasped in a passionate embrace, oblivious to everything around them. The woman was predictably slender, with an enviable bust line and a tiny waist. Cascades of curly dark hair fell past her shoulders, partially covering her mostly revealed breasts, and lending an air of sensuality to the already sexy scene. The man was also, predictably, lean though with a hardness about him that was at once sensual and dangerous. A thick mustache gave him a vaguely piratical look, though it was to his chest that her eyes were drawn. It was, of course, bare and thickly matted with curling dark hair. Interesting!
"I wrote this, huh?"
"It’s a cover. Now, read a few of them. You have to know your own work."
"You expect me to read them?" Merrilee looked appalled at the idea, as though reading romances was beneath her.
"Yes. I expect you to know them thoroughly." Bran glanced over at the cover and grinned. "Think of them as technical manuals."
So, for the next several minutes, while en route to the airport, Merrilee read the first few chapters of the book. Never before had she read anything quite like this. Her tastes usually ran to trade books, computer manuals and occasionally the best sellers on the fiction list. She’d never stopped at the romance racks before. Now, here she was, reading them, and getting ready to pose as a writer of the stuff. Good grief!!
"This will never work," she muttered as they climbed out of the car and headed for a private jet which was obviously waiting for them, engine ready for takeoff. They exited the car quickly and hurried aboard.
"Why not?" Bran asked, curiously.
"Have you ever read any of this junk?"
"Junk! It’s all romance."
"You find it offensive?"
"I find it absurd. The heroine doesn’t even know the hero, and here they are, on page twenty-five, kissing passionately."
"You’re right. It is absurd. It didn’t take us nearly that long."
"Be serious," Merrilee snapped. "This is pure fluff."
"Tell that to the millions of readers worldwide who enjoy it."
"Romance." Bran was struggling not to laugh as he saw the disgusted look on her face as she took her seat. The doors were secured behind them, and as they strapped themselves in, he told her, "Nobody said that you have to believe it. Just pretend to write it, and enjoy the money you made from writing it."
"I made money?"
"Lots of it. And, you just got a hefty advance on your next novel contract. A romantic adventure this time. And, you just sold a screenplay in which a major Hollywood actress is starring. It’s also being directed by last year’s Oscar winning director. Ms. MacKenzie, you’ve hit the big time."
"Wonderful," she said, without enthusiasm.
"You think so. Read your biography."
Merrilee turned to the back cover where there was a paragraph about the author. "It says here that I’m wildly romantic, given to daydreaming, and that I ‘believe that the world runs on love.’ I think that I’m going to be sick!" She leaned back in the chair and asked, "Is it too late to change my mind?"
"We’re already airborne. Relax, Merrilee. All you have to do is read the books, and know the material. Sigh now and then, and say romantic things."
"I don’t know how!" The admission escaped before she could stop it, but if Bran thought it strange, he didn’t comment.
"Read the books. Pretend you’re one of the heroines."
"I’ve got more intelligence in my little finger than they have in their heads."
"Come on, Merrilee. Be fair. I know that the heroines are thoroughly modern, educated woman. They’re not bubble-brained imbeciles, you know."
"Shut up and read."
And, so she did, reading at breakneck speed. She dedicated herself to absorbing the character of the heroine, figuring that if she could do that, she could understand and therefore act like the writer. She read on, coming finally to the scene where the couple got down to the serious business of making love. She slowed down there. Stealing a sideways glance at Bran, she discovered that he’d drifted off to sleep while she was reading. Good! she thought. She’d hate to have to read this with him peering over her shoulders.
Merrilee began on the love scene for the third time. She’d read it once, quickly, almost embarrassed at the revealed intimacy between the lovers. The hero had covered the heroine’s face with kisses, sending her into a world of sheer delight, while scarcely containing his male ardor. Then, he’d slowly undressed her, kissing her bared shoulders...below! Merrilee shivered in anticipation, then in shock. She stole another peek at Bran who was snoring softly, then returned to the book.
The hero was calling out the heroine’s name in triumph as he posessed her, and she was answering with his name, holding onto him as both fell into the surging pool of pure passion, riders on the storm of emotion. When their appetites had been sated, Merrilee realized that she’d been caught up in the grip of their love, astonished at the intensity of the writing. It was, she understood, quite good.
She continued reading, following as the hero and heroine were locked in the battles of the heart, neither willing to admit their love, and yet, neither willing to forgo the affair. To touch the other was tantamount to searing themselves in the flame. Yet, as moths are wont to do, both continued to do so. A few pages later, they were back in bed together, taking each other to the heights, and beyond. She read on. Finally, in the last chapter, both admitted their love and were overjoyed to discover that the other returned it. That led to another very satisfying love scene, ending with both living and loving in connubial bliss. Together. Commitment. That thing which she disbelieved, disdained and distrusted.
Horrified to discover a satisfied smile on her face, Merrilee frowned and put the book down. Then, telling herself that it was homework, she reached into the bag and pulled out another.
Bran studied the young woman at his side through barely opened eyes. Obviously, she thought him asleep, for she kept stealing looks in his direction. Must be coming to the good parts. Deciding to assure her of his restive state, he snored softly, and began wondering what sort of life she’d led and why Melissa had tried to have her own sister seduced by a professional lover. A surge of anger washed over him as he envisioned Merrilee being held by the blond man from Melissa. No, she deserved someone who cared about her, not a sex-technician. Bran had felt the fire in her, a fire which she seemed to know very little about, but one which he intended to experience again. Soon, he promised himself.
Merrilee looked over at her seat mate and saw him smile in his sleep. Naturally, she was smiling, having read another very pleasing love scene. Reading these books would be easy, given the speed with which she read, and the content of the stories. They were romances, pure and simple, sensual and sexy. No wonder they sold. Of course, she wouldn’t go out and buy them herself. Well, maybe one or two. After all, one should keep abreast of what was going on in the publishing world.
The plane landed and the two were whisked off the plane to a place on the outskirts of Phoenix, where Merrilee saw a large structure surrounded by a sun-baked adobe wall.
"Who lives here?" She asked Bran who was still yawning from his nap.
"My great-aunt, Emma Leigh Stoker. She’s also known as Marilyn MacKenzie."