MERRILY, MERRILY, MERRILEE©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Martha S. Robinson
"I must be as tempting as a bowl of overcooked carrots," mused Merrilee as she allowed Bran to lead her from the house. Granted, she wasn’t all that experienced with men, but surely if she’d looked as good as he’d said she looked, he’d have done more. In those books, the hero always kissed the heroine until her toes curled, and her knees gave out. Either the books were sheer fiction, and bore absolutely no resemblance to reality, or she was doing something wrong. Or, Bran simply wasn’t attracted to her, in spite of what he’d said earlier. The pass he’d made had been obligatory, the things he’d said were nothing more than light, meaningless flirtation, and he’d simply used his own male attractions to gain her cooperation. How disgusting!
Still, Aunt Emma had practically ordered her to take Bran to bed. While Merrilee was certainly not planning to go that far, not being given to casual affairs, a little encouragement from him would be nice. He’d offered to teach her anything she wanted to learn, but she could get that from any of Melissa’s men, and without any sort of involvement. At least they wouldn’t laugh at her if she made a fool of herself.
But involvement? Maybe that was the operative word. Jake had used it all those years ago when they’d met. Merrilee allowed herself to drift back almost ten years, back to a far more innocent time, back when she’d thought she knew everything.
It had been after the rattlesnake eating incident in Texas. Merrilee had left her father without so much as a goodbye, and hitchhiked her way to Mexico. Only a couple of hours into her flight for freedom a dusty Ford had stopped to pick up a weary hitchhiker. With her hair cropped short underneath the Stetson, she looked like nothing more than a scruffy teenaged boy. As the door had opened up, the chance to ride in an air conditioned car outweighed her fear of danger, and she’d climbed into the car next to a lean, black haired stranger. The man had given her a brief, sideways glance.
"Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to accept rides from strangers?" asked the man as she pulled away from the side of the road.
Merrilee had cast a look at him, and then countered, "Didn’t yours ever caution you against picking up hitchhikers?" She’d tried to make her voice as gruff as possible, hoping to pass as a boy.
"Touché, kid. Jake Jones." He’d extended a hand, and she had taken it, noting that while it was not rough like a farm worker’s hand, it was hard and strong, with interesting calluses on the side.
"Lee Smythe," she’d responded, choosing a nice, neuter name. "With a y and an e."
"Right," he’d mocked. "Alias Smythe and Jones." He’d glanced over at her, noting the stubborn set of her mouth, and had asked, "How old are you?"
"Eighteen," she’d answered, not flinching at the slight prevarication. Eighteen was close enough. She would be in another few months, anyway. "Don’t worry. You won’t be arrested for kidnapping."
"Good. Tell me, kid. Why are you running away?"
"I’m not running away," she’d informed him. "You have to have somewhere to run from, and I don’t."
"No? How about someone?" Jake hadn’t wanted to get into any trouble, but he had not been adverse to lending a hand to a kid in need. Hell, he’d been there himself, years ago.
"There’s nobody who cares where I am." That much was true. Her father wouldn’t care, not as wrapped up as he was with his precious snakes. She’d disappeared for a month last year in Hong Kong, and he hadn’t worried or sent anyone looking for her. Indeed, when she had gotten back, he had simply handed her a sheaf of data, and told her that she was behind in her entries. So much for a doting father. Gritting her teeth, she looked down at the Stetson in her hand and thought of the skin and rattles in her knapsack. "I’m my own person."
"Me, too." Jake again swept a lazy blue-eyed glance over at her and added, "That’s the best way for me. No involvement, and nothing to worry about."
"Yeah," she’d agreed, the spirits of camaraderie and adventure taking over. She wouldn’t look back. "Footloose."
"So where were you heading?"
"Mexico," she had answered. "Thought I’d spend a while there."
"Me, too." He drove silently for a few miles. "Any particular city?"
"No. Just wherever."
"Isn’t that a little dangerous for a kid like you?"
"No worse than some of the things I’ve done before," she answered, truthfully.
"Look, kid. I’m going to Ciudad Juarez, just across the border."
"Are we going to have a problem with customs?"
"And you can’t stay with me."
"No problem." She had a few hundred dollars in her pocket, money she’d saved for the last couple of years. That ought to tide her over until she could come up with a job.
"You got a place to stay?"
"I’ll find one."
"It’s not a good place for a kid."
"I’ve been in worse. Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself."
"Look. Why don’t I leave you in El Paso? I’ll put you on a bus for home."
"I don’t have a home."
"Surely you have somebody."
"I’m not taking a kid with me."
"So stop the car and let me out." All she needed was somebody to play big brother and send her back to her father.
Jake had pulled over to the side and parked the car. For a moment, Merrilee had known fear, then, realizing that he wouldn’t attempt to harm her, she opened the car and climbed out. "Thanks for the ride."
"Get back in," he’d growled, understanding for the first time the depth of her determination. "But just to Juarez."
And so had begun the odd partnership of Smythe and Jones. It had been in a barroom brawl later that day when Jake had learned that Lee could indeed take care of herself. She’d been sipping a cerveza when a brawny man had insulted her, casting aspersions on her ‘manhood.’ Realizing that she had to take a stand or be found out, she quickly put him out of commission with a few swift moves she’d learned from a martial arts expert while her father had been studying deadly marine snakes some years back off the South China Sea.
Jake had been surprised when the larger man had been rendered unconscious so efficiently, though the calluses on her hands should have warned him. He was even more surprised later that night when Lee had reluctantly agreed to share his room, and he’d discovered that ‘he’ was a ‘she.’
"Damn! You’re a girl!"
"That’s what my father said," she’d told him. "But, you’ll find that I’m very low maintenance. However, if my sex offends you, I’ll leave."
"No. I just never ran across any female who can handle herself quite as nicely as you can." With that, a symbiotic relationship had developed lasting nearly two years. Upon finding that Jake was really an intelligence agent. Her adventurous spirit had taken over, and she’d stayed with him in an unofficial capacity at first, learning from him and pulling her weight, quickly. Yet, for almost all the time they’d worked together, they’d remained sexually uninvolved. They had known a friendship that had gone beyond that, one that was more like a brother-sister in that they might fight, but never fail to cover the other. And, up until that last, almost devastating night, he’d insisted on remaining uninvolved, telling her that it wouldn’t be right between them. "I care too much for you to sleep with you," he’d tried to explain. "What I feel for you isn’t the man-woman love, not the lasting kind, not the marrying kind. And, sex with you would be a betrayal of what I feel. I can’t explain it any better than that, really, but someday, you’ll be glad."
And, she was, sort of. Especially later when he fell in love with Melissa. It had come as a complete surprise, encountering him some years later, and she’d acted like she’d been meeting him for the first time. Their past relationship was never acknowledged, and when Melissa had introduced him as her fiancee, Mike Jacobs, Merrilee had understood his words. Fighting feelings of betrayal, she’d smiled, attended the wedding, leaving town and Chandler’s after that.
Yes, involvement was the word. But, Bran had said that she was his for the taking earlier today, that he’d never seen a woman respond to him like she did. He’d also intimated that he intended to test this further. Why had he changed his mind? Had he feared involvement? She’d practically begged to be kissed, and he’d done less than any of her other dates. Maybe there really was something wrong with her. Hell and damnation!!
Merrilee slid into the car on the passenger’s side, shivering as Bran turned on the airconditioner, and the rush of chilled air wafted over her. She should have asked for a sweater, or whatever sort of wrap that one wore with this. The desert air was chilly after dark, and with the air conditioner going, she’d probably freeze to death.
Never had she been into anything requiring her to dress like this, and she was ill at ease. Bran had changed into evening wear while she’d been bathing, and was now concentrating on driving them to a restaurant. He’d kept his hands away from her, almost as if he found her distasteful. Of course, Aunt Emma had said that he preferred his women to be endowed more in the bust than in the brain department. Maybe the attention he’d shown earlier had been done in the line of duty. Yeah, that was undoubtedly it. Campaign promises. And, she’d taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Bran noticed the slightly grim set of her lips and wondered what was bothering her. He felt the urge to kiss away her problems, but knowing how she had warned him to keep his hands to himself, he figured that she’d probably run, or slap him. He knew that he could change her mind, but he wanted her to want him. He wasn’t into heavy seduction scenes, especially with a woman as inexperienced as she apparently was. It would be unfair as she’d be so very vulnerable to him.
Still, he reflected, she’d seemed more than willing a few minutes ago, almost wanting him to kiss her. She’d admitted knowing little about flirting, little about what to do. What had she wanted him to do? He’d have been willing to forgo dinner to stay with her, teaching her about love, but what would she have done if he’d done what was uppermost in his mind? And, he added uncomfortably, what if all she wanted was some experience? Oh, he could teach her all she might want to know, had even offered to do so, like a complete fool, but for some strange reason, he was finding himself reluctant. Teaching implied that once she’d gathered the requisite knowledge, she’d move on to make use of said information. Where?? And, with whom? A mental image of the blond haired man from that afternoon flashed into his mind, of that man teaching Merrilee--or, worse yet, of him reaping the rewards of her education, and Bran ground his teeth.
"What’s bothering you?" asked Merrilee as she noted the tightening of his jaw muscles. He looked both angry and frustrated.
"Nothing," he answered, curtly. He was rewarded with an offended ‘oh’ from her, and she resumed staring out the window. "What’s bothering you?" he asked, seconds later. This wasn’t going at all well. "Tired?"
"No." She couldn’t very well admit the truth, could she? Turning to him, she shrugged, opting for a partial truth. "I’ve never had to do anything like this before."
"Dating in the line of duty."
"I don’t suppose that computer programmers have to worry about that, do they? Don’t worry, kid. It’ll get easier."
"I’m not a kid, Bran. I’m twenty-seven."
"Sorry. Look, what I mean is that this will become routine in a couple of days. Try thinking of me as a business associate. A fellow programmer." Anything to set her at ease. Or, him, for that matter. That was the ticket. He’s just have to force himself to think of her as a co-worker. "Yes," he reiterated. "Like we’re working on the same project--which, we are."
"Good. That’ll make things more relaxed." Wonderful. He probably did things like this all the time. She was probably one of thousands of women he’d dated in the line of duty. He’d probably had so much practice that his reactions were automatic. Key in this information, press that button, and the machine would respond as programmed. She felt sick. Here she was, feeling an honest attraction, and he probably wouldn’t know one if it bit him! Damn!!
"Mexican food okay?"
"Try to look interested in me when we’re inside," he coached. "I’ll do the same for you. We have to look as if we’re intimately involved."
There was that word again. "Why? I’m beginning to get the feeling that there is more to this affair than you’ve told me. So far, all I know is that I’m supposed to dress up as Marilyn MacKenzie and steal computer information."
"Actually, that’s really a bit basic. There’s more to it than that," Bran told her as they pulled into the parking lot. He drove over to park in front of a huge yucca. "I was going to tell you about it over dinner."
"I think you’d better get started now," Merrilee said, hearing an uneasy undercurrent in his voice. "You mentioned that we’d be working as a team. On the same project. That we need to look as if we’re involved. That implies a certain level of togetherness. Where do you fit in?"
Did she have to put it that way? "That’s what I was going to explain," he told her as they headed towards the restaurant. In the distance, strains of mariachi music filtered through the doors. "I’ll be going with you."
"So I figured. In what capacity?"
"I’m supposed to be your, uh, secretary."
"My, uh, secretary? This is beginning to sound like a very bad French farce. Explain."
"It isn’t all that bad," he defended. "Actually, you may not have to steal anything."
"Besides, even if you had to, you’d only be stealing back what was stolen in the first place."
"Sort of like two wrongs making a right?" she asked dryly.
"Sort of like a double negative making a positive. I’ll most likely be performing the thefts, if there are any to perform, but there is the chance that you’ll have to assist."
"So why do we have to act intimate?"
"We’re traveling together, and we want it to seem that way so we can cuddle and exchange information as necessary. We’re also protection for each other."
"Do I get sued for sexual harassment when this is over?"
"No. Be serious. We need to look as though we’re intimately involved, but not in any official sense, and certainly not in any binding sense. I’ll look like little more than a paid companion."
"Like my boy toy? Like I pay for your services? I don’t know about that. If I’m supposed to be all that hot, then why am I paying for it? Seems that it ought to be free."
"You don’t understand the whole point. The money is merely an excuse to have me around. Besides, it allows you to appear emotionally uninvolved."
"Is this tacky, or what?"
"Okay, it’s tasteless as well, but the whole point is that you need to appear to be, how shall we phrase this, accessible."
Merrilee’s eyebrows rose at this idea. "I’m supposed to appear accessible?? I thought that was your job. What sort of scam are you running, anyhow?"
"Relax, Merrilee. It’s just our cover. We have to be able to look through every room in the house, bedrooms included, and believe me, deSilva, our quarry, will want you to look through his bedroom. There is a very definite possibility that he’ll have hidden some of the information there, though I’m hoping it will be in his office or study."
"Bran," Merrilee said, stopping a few feet from the entrance of the eatery. "I’m not going to seduce anybody just to get information." Probably couldn’t if she tried, she thought with a growing sense of frustration.
"You won’t have to seduce him. Drake’ll do the seducing. All you’ll have to do is keep leading him on and putting him off. He thinks he’s irresistible and knows that you write some wildly sexy stories. You’re the perfect bait, which was why we settled on this scheme. You keep him distracted while I snoop around."
"Couldn’t just any woman have done this?"
"No," Bran answered, taking her by the hand and leading her into the restaurant. "You also understand a variety of languages and we won’t be the only people at the house for the week. You can listen in on conversations without anybody knowing, and if you get a chance at a terminal, and I don’t, you’ll know what to do." It all seemed so simple when he outlined it like that. So, why did it have to get complicated when he thought about it?
"This is getting stranger and stranger," commented Merrilee as she slipped her hand from his. It wasn’t that she disliked his touch, rather that she found logical thinking difficult when he was only close. Touching made it downright impossible! "Uh, what sort of man is deSilva?"
"Drake deSilva is one very powerful man in shipping. He owns several companies and businesses, located throughout the southeast, but his headquarters is in Savannah. It’s a seaport, though not the largest, and we suspect that it is through this port that some of the computer equipment is going. We’ve watched Charleston for a while, but we’re pretty sure that what is going out is going through Savannah."
"Okay. Tell me, how did I, that is Marilyn MacKenzie, get invited?"
"That was a lucky break. Drake enjoys parties, enjoys thinking that he can bring together a lot of interesting people under his roof and show them a good time. His parties have a reputation of being lavish, with fine foods, dancing, games--you know the sort of thing I’m talking about. The parties last several days, and apparently they’re some sort of an ego-trip for him. Marilyn MacKenzie has quite a reputation as an author, but she’s never shown up at any function--not even a book signing promotional. She’s reclusive, and Aunt Emma has never published a picture. She was always afraid that if the world knew that Marilyn MacKenzie was somebody’s great-aunt, that nobody would buy her books, that the youth centered culture would reject her outright. So, she knocked forty-something years off her age, and gave an extremely vague description of herself.
"Anyhow, Drake’s lady friends love her books, so he invited her. She mentioned it to me, saying that she’d refused, and I jumped on it as I’d been looking for an in to the man’s house. Hence this scheme. Aunt Emma told Drake that she’d accepted, and it became the perfect opportunity for us to do a bit of investigating."
"So how’d you get my name?"
"When Aunt Emma called to confirm the invitation, I was visiting with Mike and Melissa. And, now, Melissa doesn’t know about this. We’ve been friends for several years, though. My boss knows that Aunt Emma is the sexy writer, so all we needed was to find a candidate for the role, and on very short notice. Mike said that you were good, and Dr. Sanders backed him up." Bran glossed over that part, hoping that she wouldn’t ask him any specific questions. Half truths and lies might be stock in trade for an agent, but Bran wanted to be as truthful as possible with her. After all, she was Mike’s sister-in-law.
"So here I am."
"Not without some convincing. Melissa never told me that you were so touchy."
Merrilee followed him as their waiter led them to a table in the restaurant, the table lit by candlelight only. "She probably didn’t tell you that she sends me men now and then."
"I wonder if Mike knows."
"Beats me. I never asked him."
"You wouldn’t, would you? You’d just walk away and leave them alone."
Just like she had after Jake had married her sister. Jake, a.k.a Mike. It was better that way, she told herself, and he’d been right, though it had taken her some time to admit it. She knew it now. Especially now. Jake’s touch had never caused any of the sensations that coursed through her body whenever Bran so much as looked at her, and she and Jake had been lovers, however briefly, once upon a time.
"What would you expect me to say? That his wife, my own sister, sends men to my door to take me to bed? For all I know, he tells her which ones to send."
"I doubt that. Mike is pretty decent. I always thought Melissa was, too."
"I’m her special cause. I think that she regards me as a blot on her professional escutcheon. A skeleton in the closet. All her siblings are supposed to be properly settled and sexually satisfied. She sees me as frustrated and in need of her help."
"I distinctly recall you telling me that you didn’t need her help, that you were capable of finding your own man."
Merrilee groaned. "Can we just forget that? She’d just called me to expect yet another one."
"I know. Maybe after this is all cleared up, we can find a way to get Melissa off your case permanently. You help me with Drake, and I’ll help you with Melissa."
"That sounds fair." An agreement struck, the two smiled at each other, in harmony for the first time since they’d started out the evening.
"What would you care to drink?" asked Bran as Merrilee’s eyes roamed around the restaurant. She admired the Mexican pottery, colorful tiles, and the Navajo blankets that were displayed as part of the southwestern decor.
"I’ll have a piña colada."
"Of course, you know that Marilyn’s heroines always drink whiskey sours."
"I don’t think that I can manage that," Merrilee said, as the waiter took Bran’s order for a whiskey. "I’ve never acquired a taste for whiskey." Or anything else, for that matter. She had no head for drinking.
"Just remember that. You also hate caviar."
"No problem. Any other preferences?"
"If anybody asks you anything else, invent something. As far as family, you don’t have any, so don’t worry. Aunt Emma was deliberately vague, so you’ve got a pretty free hand."
"This might be fun."
"So long as you remember that Drake is a dangerous man. We know that he’s involved, but we can’t yet prove it. You’re the only chance we’ve had so far to put someone on the inside."
Merrilee studied the man beside her for a long minute. "Do you do this sort of thing often?" She was determined to fight this growing attraction she was feeling, and her past experience with Jake was just the sort of thing to do it. If Bran was a regular agent, she could tell herself that there was no way that she could go through it again. What was worse was to have to admit to herself that the chemistry was already much stronger than what she’d felt for Jake when she’d fancied herself in love with him. Yes, she had to know and fast.
"No," he admitted. "In fact, I’m rarely in the field, anymore. It’s just that Aunt Emma’s nom de plume came up, and to protect her interests and those of the country, I agreed to do this." There was a good bit of truth in that, he thought, proudly.
"What do you usually do?"
"This and that. There’s a whole new field of computer law, internet security, and like that, what with espionage and theft going on. That’s where I spend most of my time." Nice and vague, he congratulated himself.
Evasive, Merrilee thought. The man wasn’t being totally honest with her. "I see." The drinks had arrived, and she sipped the sweet, frozen slush, savoring the pineapple/coconut taste. Funny how things had changed since this morning. She’d gone from slamming the door in this man’s face in San Diego, to having an intimate dinner with him in Phoenix under an assumed name. Her mind wandered to the lingerie that she was wearing as a part of her disguise, and made a mental note to visit the Victoria’s Secret® store as soon as she got back home. The feel of the silky fabric next to her bare skin was excitingly sensual. Maybe Melissa was right about a few things, after all. A lazy smile tugging at the corners of her lips, she turned her eyes to Bran, and speculated about some of the things Melissa had been anxious that she try. Yes, Melissa might just have had something there.......