MERRILY, MERRILY, MERRILEE©2000, 2001,2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Martha S. Robinson
"Your great-aunt?" asked, Merrilee, incredulous. "I’m supposed to be your great-aunt?"
"Yes and no," Bran chuckled. "Relax. She was very anxious to help, and when I explained that some of the people we need to investigate enjoy her writing, she fell right in with the plan. She understands the strategic importance of this mission, and was more than willing to help. Unfortunately, that’s not possible, given her age. You see, her alter-ego, Marilyn MacKenzie, is not seventy-three years old. She’s twenty-seven."
"Oh, my God," Merrilee muttered, trying to envision herself in this slightly altered role. "I can’t believe this."
"You’ll like her."
"Your great-aunt wrote those books?" Merrilee shook her head, trying to imagine Bran’s elderly relative writing those sexy novels. She just couldn’t see it. Come to think of it, she couldn’t see herself playing this part, either.
"Yes. Aunt Emma wrote them. She also roller-blades and hang-glides. She took that up after she had a near miss sky-diving. The chute opened a little later than she liked, so she opted for wings, instead. Frankly, I think she figures that those may be the only wings she gets." He grinned at Merrilee who was looking shocked by the entire situation. As they drove into the enclosed yard, the gates having automatically opened for them and closed behind them, she just sat in the car, oddly bemused. This whole scene was becoming a little too much. First she was back in the cloak and dagger business, and now she was to impersonate someone who didn’t even exist. Of course, that gave her a good bit of leeway in the scam, she reflected. Besides, it was too late to back out. She was committed and would see it through.
Bran turned the motor off, and the air conditioner shut down. When he opened the car door, the intense desert heat invaded the auto, driving them to seek the shelter of the house. Or, hacienda, as Merrilee quickly discovered. Walking around the huge yucca that occupied the center of the yard, she decided that if this place had been purchased with funds earned by writing romance novels, maybe she was in the wrong business.
Merrilee followed Bran, anxious to escape the heat, still wondering about the insanity of the situation. Not, she had to admit, that it was any worse than some she’d been in before. Just different. The door to the sprawling Spanish estate was flung open, and a vision in hot pink chiffon, trailing blazing pink marabou boas flew out and hugged Bran around the neck. "Bran, darling!! I’m so glad you could make it! This must be your young lady. Merrilee? I’m Aunt Emma." The small lady beamed, twinkling blue eyes and flaming red curls belying her age. "Please come in and tell me all about it."
They walked behind her, listening to her chatter about the case, and as they came to the den, the older woman turned again to Merrilee who’d been rendered nearly speechless. "Let me look at you," Aunt Emma began, walking around Merrilee who felt like a mannequin. "Yes, you’ll do. I’ve had the most wonderful time shopping for you. Made me think of my first book, Shopping for Love."
Merrilee turned imploring eyes to Bran who shrugged and whispered as the older woman left the room in a cloud of Shalimar® perfume. "I told her to get whatever you’d need for a week in the South. She had your sizes, and coloring, and knew your cover. In fact, she had a hand in fabricating it."
"I think I’m going to be sick," Merrilee murmured, horrified visions of herself dressed in chiffon and fluffy feathers dancing in her imagination. This wasn’t going to work, she just knew it. Nothing she’d ever gotten herself into had promised to be as ludicrous as this, but here she was.
"Just take a deep breath of this," Aunt Emma said, swishing back into the room with a lacy handkerchief. She held it beneath Merrilee’s nose, and a pleasant fragrance wafted up. The sprightly little lady smiled. "There now, you should feel better now. Too much heat can do in the most dauntless woman, and I should know. Midday heat in Rio almost got the best of me when I was younger."
"Dauntless? Rio?" echoed Merrilee, staring at the almost elfin woman.
"Of course. Marilyn is positively dauntless. And, romantic. I should know. I invented her. And, as for Rio, darling, that’s one fun city." She turned and headed back down the hallway, leaving Merrilee clutching the handkerchief. "Come along, my dear. I’ve got your things all laid out. We need to see if anything is missing."
"The only thing missing is my common sense," muttered Merrilee as she found herself being led down the hallway and into the appointed room by Bran who was struggling not to laugh. Once within, Merrilee felt as if she’d been transported into a romantic fantasy choreographed by a slightly off beat fairy godmother. There, standing in the middle of the bedroom, was Aunt Emma, holding up a lace trimmed silk teddy.
"It’s called ‘nearly nude’," she informed them brightly. "Isn’t this just the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen?"
Merrilee was aghast. Never in all her life had she had such clothing. Being raised by traveling zoologists who lived out of suitcases was never like this! Her father’s idea of dressing her up was a clean pair of khaki shorts and a fresh blouse. She thought of her own, rather plain cotton and nylon under things, and stared in fascination. She stared stunned as Aunt Emma pulled out all manner of lingerie, from sheer nylon negligees to lacy, sheer underwear. "Look at these," Aunt Emma beamed, holding up a little wisp of thong panties and the matching red silk bra. Merrilee’s eyes grew wider as Bran coughed to cover a chuckle. Aunt Emma hastened on. "Front clasps! A romance writer would definitely have some of these. More convenient for trysting."
"Considerate of you," Bran said, catching the agonized look on Merrilee’s face. What sort of life had she led to be so sophisticated in some areas, yet so naïve in others? Intrigued, he watched her face as his aunt continued.
"Thank goodness the girl’s got a bust," Aunt Emma commented with an appraising look at the young woman’s anatomy. "Nice shape, but Marilyn MacKenzie wouldn’t be caught dead in that shirt. Take it off."
"I will not!" Merrilee was shocked, stunned and then angered. "You will not regard me as some empty headed doll to dress for a part which I didn’t ask to play."
"Of course not," soothed Aunt Emma, patting her gently as she would a child. "Bran, get out of here." With that, she shooed him from the room, and then sat down on the bed next to Merrilee, kicking off the silver high-heeled slippers that were trimmed in fluffy pink feathers. "Now, Merrilee-I like that name. May use it in my next book. Anyhow, I’ve had the best time shopping for you, and I won’t let that rude nephew of mine cause you any trouble. I’m delighted that you’re going to play me, that is, Marilyn MacKenzie, for a few days. Imagine it! We both get to play a part in helping our government."
Merrilee was recovering, unable to stay angry at the small whirlwind of a woman next to her. "It’s all happened so suddenly. I only met your nephew a few hours ago."
"And you agreed to fly off with him to parts unknown in a masquerade to retrieve stolen documents?"
"Computer technology," corrected Merrilee.
"It’s all the same. This gets better all the time." She chuckled with delight. "Ah, Merrilee, I couldn’t have chosen a better woman for him, myself."
"Wait a minute," defended the young woman. "I’m here to do a job. That’s all."
"That’s good for a start," conceded the older woman. "Bran’s very intelligent in all areas except women. The ones of his that I’ve met have more out front than between their ears." She stood up and opened the closet. "Here are your dresses and sportswear. It’s maddening, I know, to have someone else pick out your clothes, but I did my best. Marilyn doesn’t wear ruffles and fussy things like that. She prefers slinky silks and sensuous satins. Anything that doesn’t caress the skin and titillate the senses wouldn’t make it into her wardrobe."
Merrilee sat mute for a moment, trying to take it all in. Before her was an incredible assortment of clothing, all in fabulous colors, a veritable peacock display, and she, who’d never before paid a lot of attention to her clothing, was overwhelmed. Finally, she spoke. "I’m supposed to wear those clothes?"
"Of course. They’ll fit. Now, let me see you." Aunt Emma stood back and looked at the young woman critically. "The hair will do. Long and tousled, but curly. Looks like you just crawled out of a particularly well used bed. You’ll need some makeup, but not too much. I’d have killed for eyelashes like yours when I was younger, and your complexion is flawless. I’m going to try you with the Oscar de la Renta ® perfume. I think you’ll like it. Now, up, young woman. Into the tub."
Feeling like she’d just been caught up in a hurricane, Merrilee gave into the dedicated ministrations of Bran’s aunt. Minutes later, she found herself stripped, and soaking in a scented, sunken tub. While she sat there, Aunt Emma chattered on and on. Merrilee was handed a copy of another deliciously sensual novel, and amid the bubbles, she slipped into a most delightful love story.
"Have you read Island Intrigue?" asked Aunt Emma as she shook out a little dress in a deep tourmaline green silk.
"Uh, no," answered Merrilee from the tub. She was leaning back, never having felt quite so hedonistic before. Her tub at home was plain white porcelain, and she usually took showers, anyhow. This tub looked like a small jungle pool, surrounded as it was by plants and shrubs, with a waterfall which recycled the bath, only this was better. She’d been in the real thing, and it was nowhere as pleasurable. Sharing the stream with elephants, water buffaloes, the occasional hippo and heaven only knew what was under the water couldn’t compare with this. A scented candle floated by on a realistic looking water lily, giving off a heady gardenia fragrance which only added to the sensuality. This was heaven!
"You should read it," continued Aunt Emma. "It was my favorite. Took place in the Caribbean. I had the best time researching that one."
"Oh?" asked Merrilee, lost in the romantic adventures of Luke and Laura. The edges of the paperback were damp, but she didn’t care.
"Yes. And, Merrilee."
"I’d appreciate it if you’d seduce Bran."
That did it! Jerked back from the fantasy that had been unfolding in her mind, Merrilee sat upright. "What did you say?"
"I said that I’d appreciate it if you’d seduce Bran." The older woman looked at her as if she’d asked nothing unusual. "He needs it. The man has no sense about women at all. At his age, he should have already married and have a few kids. When I was his age, I’d been married twice."
"Twice?" Merrilee was beginning to feel like a parrot, but she was continually being surprised by the woman.
"Yes. I kept on going until I got it right. Stayed married to my third and last husband for twenty-five years."
Merrilee submerged in the tub, trying to escape from the images that had implanted themselves in her imagination. Seduce Bran? What bothered her was not the idea, but that it appealed! Images of Bran’s bare chest flashed into her mind again, and the thought of touching him heated her as the water couldn’t. She reached blindly for the shampoo and proceeded to wash her hair as though she could wash the thoughts from her mind.
Meanwhile, Bran sat in the living room and thought about this situation. What should have been routine had escalated into an absurd affair with a masquerade that bordered on the insane. He should have listened to Mike. Hell, that affair in Paris had gone off without a hitch, and this shouldn’t be much more difficult. Of course, the woman then had been a trained agent, and Merrilee wasn’t, but that was what he’d wanted. He had other reasons for wanting to work with Merrilee, reasons that had nothing to do with this mess, and when Mike had suggested her, Bran had jumped at the chance. He’d needed someone who was an ace on the computer, and she clearly was that. Mike’s only other woman agent who was currently available wasn’t nearly as proficient on computers as Merrilee.
He took a drink from the glass in his hand and wished it was something stronger than iced tea. Barring complications, this arrangement, too, should be successful, and then he could relax and get back to his real business. He thought about the next few days, and hoped that Merrilee could play the part. With any luck, she’d be adequate, and that was all he could ask of her. Her special talents, he knew, lay with the computer, and that was where he might need her for backup. In a tight situation where time might be of the essence, he needed the best. Mike had said that she was exactly that, and that she might be interested so long as she didn’t connect him with Chandler Electronics. She’d worked there for a while, and quit about a year ago. It didn’t matter, though. He needed Merrilee to become Marilyn, and as long as she was successful, he had every reason to believe that his mission would be, too.
Still, a more experienced woman would’ve been better. Not one who looked shocked when she’d seen the clothes in the other room. His mind wandered to the look on Merrilee’s face when his aunt had presented her with the lacy bra and the skin toned teddy. Merrilee had been totally stunned. He smiled and shook his head, allowing himself to imagine how they’d look on her. She was soft, and he recalled ho she’d trembled in his arms when he’d kissed her, how her body had reacted to his touch, how she’d been astonished by her response. Then, he let his mind wander to the skimpy bra with its front clasp, fantasizing about how easy it would be to open, and what pleasures it would reveal to him.
Losing himself in this pleasant dream, he closed his eyes and leaned back in the lounge chair. Probably should rest for a few minutes. Lord knew that the next several days would be anything but restful. He found himself thinking of Merrilee, and her softness. Yes. So soft, and feminine, and so determined to stand on her own two feet. He wondered how it would feel to sweep her off those feet and...
"Bran," came his aunt’s voice, intruding on his thoughts. "I’d like you to meet Marilyn MacKenzie." He opened his eyes and sat up, shocked. The young woman he’d brought to his aunt in a bright red tee-shirt and well worn denims was standing before him in a flowing dress of a deep green silk, draping low across her breasts, and clinging seductively to her hips. The skirt swirled around slender but shapely legs which looked as silky as the rest of her. The dress was backless, with the straps fastening behind her neck. She stepped into the room, evidently as amazed as he was by the transformation. Her glossy dark brown hair was left to curl deliciously around her face where it framed those huge hazel eyes. For some reason, those eyes looked larger, more inviting, and the full lips he remembered seemed to beg for his kiss. Bran drew a sharp breath as he realized where his thoughts were taking him.
"Do I look like a romance writer?" asked Merrilee.
"The only one I know is Aunt Emma, but the way you look right now, I’d believe anything you’d care to write."
"You should see the rest of her things." Aunt Emma stood beside her protégé with a wistful smile and continued, "I only wish they’d had them when I was younger."
"It’s probably better that they didn’t," Bran consoled, his eyes never leaving Merrilee’s. "You broke enough hearts without them, from what I heard." He let his eyes wander down Merrilee’s shape again, and it occurred to him that his fantasy was rapidly coming true. Unfortunately, for the safety of all involved, he’d have to watch his step. Damn, but she looked good!!
"I think you should take her out to dinner," Aunt Emma told him. "I gave the Lowdens the night off, and I don’t intend to cook. I’m having chicken pot pie and champagne, but you might prefer something else." She smiled and added, "You have a key. Don’t bother to wake me when you come in." With that, the older woman vanished back down the hallway in a puff of pink chiffon and feathers and into the other wing of the house.
"Dinner?" asked Bran he looked Merrilee over very carefully. Why had he ever promised to keep his hands to himself? Why hadn’t he had the presence of mind to cross his fingers? He wondered, thinking of that childish way of getting out of a lie.
"I’d love dinner," answered Merrilee as she secretly reveled in his appraising glance. It was amazing how a silky dress could make a woman feel. "I guess you should tell me what we’re going to do when we get to Savannah."
"All in good time. Right now, I want you to get used to your new identity. You need to get the feel of wearing silks, satins and daydreaming about sexy stories."
"It is a change from bits and bytes," she conceded. "I’ve never had a dress like this." She moved her hand across the soft, clinging fabric almost reverently, and again, Bran was struck by the bemused expression on her face. She’d never had anything like it? If she was his, he’d...Pushing that thought from his mind, he stood up and moved closer to her.
"You should wear dresses like that all the time. It looks right on you." He wanted to add that her skin looked even softer, silkier, but he had the feeling that he’d be treading a little too close to their agreement. Besides, as he well knew, words like that, compliments like he wanted to make, were a prelude to a more intimate relationship, and he couldn’t complicate this affair with that.
"You really think that this dress looks right on me?" She looked up at him and sighed deeply. "I don’t know. I’m not used to wearing much more than jeans and shirts."
"Then you’d better get used to it. You have to look as if this is the norm for you. That’s Marilyn’s style. Sexy, sensual, and flirtatious."
"I don’t know about that." She turned to him and asked sheepishly, "You don’t, by any chance, happen to have a technical manual of flirting, do you?"
"Merrilee," Bran said, softly, catching her to his body in spite of his best intentions. "That is supposed to come naturally to women."
She froze up instantly. "Naturally? That explains it. Melissa always said that I was the most unnatural female she knew." Merrilee pulled out of his arms and walked away from him, leaving a hint of a haunting perfume in the air. Turning back to him, she paused as the full skirt twirled around her legs, wrapping them in the feeling of silky elegance. Then, she looked up, her uncertainty evident in her hazel eyes. "Bran, you’ll have to help me. I don’t know what to do."
He covered the distance between them in two quick strides. "You can depend on me," he said, taking her in his arms. To hell with good intentions! "Anything you want to know, anything you want to try. Just ask me." He tilted her face up to him and seeing an honest innocence there, wondered how someone as lovely as she was could be so unsure of herself.
"Are you as good as Melissa’s men?" she asked in a small voice as her hands rested on his chest.
"Better," he whispered, huskily, because he cared about her, much to his surprise. He longed to take her in his arms and demonstrate what he’d do, were he her lover. But, the anxiety in her eyes warned him against going too fast, so he just bent and brushed her lips lightly with his. "Now, let’s go to dinner before I decide to make a meal of you."