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


Bran caught the speculative gleam in her eyes, noticing the slight smile, and wondered what, or whom had brought the glow to her face. He knew an unexpected though brief pang of something he couldn’t identify, as the possibility of Merrilee with another man crossed his mind. Why the hell should he care, anyhow? He banished the idea, though he was certain that Merrilee wouldn’t remain alone much longer. Something was awakening within her, something that had apparently stayed repressed for too long, and heaven help the male population if she ever recognized her full potential without someone like him around. Someone who wouldn’t take advantage of her.

For one shining second, he saw himself in the role of the man destined to lead her into mature womanhood. Then, he scowled, his decent side surfacing to remind him that she was essentially untried as a woman, and therefore, no match for him. Only a scoundrel would seduce an innocent such as Merrilee without remorse. Of course, if one felt properly contrite...

Bran allowed himself to consider his position. He knew that she found him attractive, and that he could probably have her--probably even keep her--but would it be fair to her to limit her so soon after she’d discovered her true nature? And, Bran had no doubt as to that nature. One look into her wide, hazel eyes, and he knew a desire to make them darken with passion, and more than that, with passion for him. Alone. Fair be damned! That was exactly what he wanted, and the startling knowledge crossed his face in a slow smile.

"So tell me about yourself," Bran said to her, sipping the drink in her hand, forcing his eyes to keep from straying across her figure, which in the silky tourmaline gown seemed far more lush than he’d thought.

"I’ve already told you about me," she countered, matching his lazy smile with her own. "You know all about my family, my relatives, and what I do. I know next to nothing about you."

"What would you like to know?"

"About you. About your family. About why you’re in this line of work." There. Let’s see him evade that! She hadn’t worked with Jake for nearly two years without learning how to tell when someone was evading and lying. But, why? And, why would Jake vouch for him if he wasn’t being straight with her? And, why the hell should she care as long as Jake said she could trust him? Why should it matter? But, it did, and that bothered her.

"You know my name. Bran Elliot. Aunt Emma is the only family I have left, and she’s my grandfather’s sister. I’m in this line of work because I like computers and I like peace in this world."

"That’s short and sweet." Also, rehearsed. Merrilee took another drink of her piña colada and ordered one more. What the hell? She told herself. In another few days, this would all be over, and she’d be back in her house alone, with only her memories to keep her warm. It was probably the same logic that Cinderella had employed when given one chance by her fairy godmother. At least, Merrilee mused, she’d have this night, masquerading as somebody else, sitting in a restaurant with a very attractive man. Again, her hands stroked the silk, and in the dim light, the tourmaline darkened to the color of the midnight sea. Yes, she was like Cinderella, but there was no pumpkin coach, just the sleek car outside, and the fairy godmother sitting back at the house eating pot pie and drinking champagne.

The waiter brought the complimentary nacho dish, the spicy aroma inspiring the couple to nibble as they studied the menus. Merrilee continued sipping at her drink after they ordered, wondering why she’d never enjoyed nachos as much before. Perhaps it was the company, she thought. It was almost unreal, this feeling of being someone else. It was a stolen evening, in another identity, and she was spending it with a man who normally wouldn’t even give her a second look. She lifted the drink to her lips and sipped again, determined to think about something else.

"Enjoying the piña colada?" Bran asked, wondering where the glow on her face had gone. One instant, she was alive with a sultry sensuality, the next, she was troubled.

"Oh, yes. This is great. Think I’ll try a sangria, next."

"Just remember about the whiskey sours."

"I’ll manage," she promised.

"I’m sure you will," Bran said. Within seconds, their meals arrived, and the pair fell to eating, hungrily. The food on the plane had been nonexistent, along with the crew, she reflected, as she began on a taco. She ’d known that there had been a pilot, and undoubtedly a copilot, but aside from that, she’d seen nobody besides Bran. Of course, at that time, her attention had been focused on the romance novels. Ah, yes, the romance novels. Those delicious, sensuous stories that had invaded her thoughts, releasing long suppressed fantasies of her own, and she allowed herself to seek release from her immediate surroundings in a shockingly steamy scene that would have done justice even to Aunt Emma’s feverish imagination.

"What were you thinking about?" came Bran’s voice, low in her ear. The husky tones sent chills running down her spine, sending shivers of anticipation over her entire body. "You were smiling," he accused.

Merrilee flushed guiltily, grateful for the low lights, for her fantasy had taken some very intimate turns, and the other member of her fantasy was sitting across from her. Good heavens! She thought. How had she let her professional demeanor slip so drastically? It was becoming increasingly clear that she’d been out of the field too long. Quickly regrouping, she answered, "Oh, nothing. I was thinking about having a sangria. I just love those sweet, fruity drinks. Maybe I could have some orange slices in one?" she asked the waiter who was hovering nearby.

The order taken and quickly brought, Merrilee was animated as she drank it. Bran watched, wondering, then deciding that his date for the evening wasn’t much of a drinker, that she was very nervous about something. This situation was enough to make anyone nervous, but it was more than that, and, he felt, it had something to do with him. Again, he smiled.

A little later, they left the restaurant, Merrilee trying to look totally sober as she carefully walked out of the eating establishment. She was slightly dizzy, but pleasantly so, enough that she was no longer berating her less than professional behavior. It had been a long time since she’d overindulged, and she wasn’t entirely certain why she’d done so tonight, only that she had. But, it was too late now, anyhow. Besides, the night air was warm, and the moon was full. Not that it was any sort of excuse, but she was in no mood to be difficult with anyone, least of all herself. She sort of flowed into the car, her movements feeling as liquid as the silk that settled over her body.

"Feeling good?" Bran asked as he headed the car back down the highway towards Aunt Emma’s house. He was very aware of the young woman next to him, though he’d admit to some apprehension about her. One on hand, she looked sexy as hell, and he wanted her badly. Yet, she seemed almost an innocent.

"I feel wonderful," she answered, truthfully. "So relaxed."

"You look lovely tonight," he ventured. Maybe in her slightly tipsy condition she wouldn’t mind a personal comment.

"Thank you. You look quite lovely, yourself."

"Men don’t look lovely. They look handsome."

"Okay. You look handsome. You look handsome in your evening clothes. Of course," she informed him magnanimously, "You’d look very handsome without them."

"Uh, thank you." He grinned in the darkness, wondering if she realized what she’d said. A sudden movement on her part let him know that she did.

"I didn’t mean that quite the way it came out."

"I didn’t mind."

"You wouldn’t, would you?" she asked softly, her thoughts becoming more and more out of focus as the filter that her brain usually imposed on her mouth relaxed. "You wouldn’t mind a bit if I saw you naked."

"Not a bit," he assured her solemnly. "Any time you’d like." Good grief! What was he saying?

"I’ve thought about it, and I’m quite certain that I’d like it."

Bran choked back his laughter, understanding that her inhibitions had been rather swamped by that last sangria, and that he was speaking with a very basic side of Merrilee tonight. It wouldn’t be right to laugh, though there was a certain comic element to this scene.

"Any time you’d like, just ask."

"It’s really an assignment," Merrilee admitted, causing him a moment of concern.

"What do you mean?"

"Your Aunt Emma told he that she’d appresh, apres, that she wanted me to seduce you."

Bran slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road. His aunt had said that? Aunt Emma? He turned and demanded, "She said what?"

"For me to seduce you. I haven’t had much practice, but I’ve picked up quite a bit from the books."

"Merrilee," Bran began, wondering whether or not to laugh out loud. What had been merely insane had gotten worse. His partner in this fiasco was well past tipsy, and from all outward appearances, was feeling amorous.

"Marilyn," she corrected. "Must keep in character." Her speech was slightly strained, and Bran felt that she was concentrating on keeping her words from being slurred. It was too late for her thoughts.

What have I done? He wondered to himself as Merrilee slid across the seat and snuggled up next to him. She leaned her head on his shoulder, breathing out a contented sigh.

"She said to try, try again. Took her three tries," Merrilee told a baffled Bran.

"For what?"

"To get it right," Merrilee explained, tolerantly. "But I’m a fast learner." She sounded so very tired that Bran restarted the car and took the fastest route back to the house. Minutes later, they pulled into the driveway.

"Merrilee," Bran said, shaking her gently. He looked down at her sleeping figure, shadowed in the darkness of the car, and lightly dropped a kiss on lips which curved up in a sleepy smile, tasting sangria on her mouth. "Wake up."

"Awake," she muttered. "What are you doing?"

"I’m carrying you into the house. You’re in no condition to walk."

"Jus’ like in the books. Good ol’ books."

"Shut up. You’ll wake the neighbors."

"Sorry." She giggled softly, and leaned her head back, eyes wide open, staring at the moon. "Full moon," she whispered loudly. "'Sposed to be romantic."

"Quite," he agreed, throwing her over his shoulder to get to his key. "Now clam up so we don’t wake Aunt Emma."

"Right! Three in a seduction is one too many."

"You aren’t seducing anybody tonight," Bran told her firmly as they entered the dimly lit villa.

"Why not?" Merrilee demanded as indignantly as her position would allow.

"Because you just can’t." Not drunk, anyway, he added mentally.

"Bet I can."

"That’ s not what I mean. I’d be taking advantage of you if I were to make love to you tonight. You’ve been drinking."

"So have you."

"Not that much. You little idiot! Don’t you have any better sense than to get drunk with a man, especially one you’ve just met?"

"Trust you," she hiccoughed as he readjusted her position and carried her through the living room and down the hallway. As he carried her into her room, she added, "Not totally drunk, anyway. Watch me." Slipping out of his arms, she staggered across the room and fell onto the bed. "Made it." Then, she closed her eyes and was suddenly fast asleep.

Bran stared at her for a moment, and shook his head in bewilderment. What was it about this child-woman that made him want to strangle her in one instant, and kiss her the next? Why was she so well educated in some areas, and so naive in others? Hesitantly, he began the task of removing her clothes. She was as limp as a rag doll, and in a few minutes, he’d managed to remove the tourmaline gown, discovering in the process that he’d been right, that this bra came--and left, with a built-in bra, leaving her lovely breasts bare to his appreciative gaze. Feeling like a voyeur, he forced himself to look elsewhere, but the French cut bikini panties and the matching garter belt were designed to drive a sane man out of his mind. Sweat beading on his forehead, Bran did his best, then covered her swiftly with the cream colored satin sheet and beat a hasty retreat from the room.

Back in his room, Bran poured himself a hefty scotch and contemplated his situation. What the hell was he doing?? Sitting in his room alone while the sexiest woman he’d ever met was sleeping down the hall! Was he nuts, or what? No, he told himself, he was being the decent man he’d been brought up to be. Noble! Yes, he was downright noble. Well, not altogether. He preferred his women to be completely awake and actively participating. Then, there was what Merrilee had said--that Aunt Emma had wanted Merrilee to seduce him. Not a bad idea, really, though he doubted that a totally sober Merrilee would even attempt the task. Anyway, she trusted him. He gave a short laugh and wondered why she felt that way. Much more time spent in her sunny company and his noble intentions would evaporate in the heat of his desire. Yes, desire. That was what he’d felt when he’d kissed her earlier, when she’d melted into his arms, her body responding to his as if it had been designed for him alone. An interesting theory, that. Might be worth more thought. So, with that thought in mind, he undressed and climbed into bed. Alone.

Morning found Merrilee huddled under the covers, trying to keep the sunlight and her own memories at bay. Somewhere, there was the nagging feeling that not only had she made an idiot of herself, but that she’d done a smashing job of it. Trying to lift her head from the pillow, she decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, that she’d just as soon die lying down as trying to get up. Besides, every movement brought the previous night a little more into focus, Her mouth tasted like it was stuffed with cotton, and her head was throbbing painfully. She rolled over, trying to smooth the sheets which were tangled around her feet when she discovered that she’d lost her dress somewhere along the line. Eyes widened, she noted that of all she’d worn the previous night, only the silk and lace panties remained. Peeking out from underneath the blanket, she could see the tourmaline dress draped over the deep rose velvet chair. Her garter belt and nylons were beside it. Merrilee sank back into the bed and silently willed herself to die.

"Good morning!" came a sprightly voice as Aunt Emma strode purposefully into the room, this time wearing a pair of satin lounging pajamas in a shocking sky blue, trimmed with the ever present feather boa. Merrilee closed her eyes and grimaced as Aunt Emma announced, "Time to get up and start the day!"

"It can start without me." Merrilee muttered, grimly. She made no attempt to move.

"A little under the weather, are we? Well, no matter. Rise and shine, child!" She whisked the sheet and blanket from the bed and observed, "I did get you some gorgeous silk nightgowns. Didn’t you find them?"

"Uh, no," answered her charge, hideously embarrassed. "Too tired." A sickening wave swept over her in a blush as she realized that the older woman hadn’t undressed her. Had she done so, no doubt, Merrilee would’ve been wearing what Aunt Emma had described as a ‘diaphanous’ gown. Knowing that she couldn’t have done so herself, that left but one person. And, somewhere in the fogged memories of last night, was a conversation about seduction. Oh, God!

"Come on, Merrilee. Get up. What were you drinking last night?"

"Piña coladas and sangria," she muttered, staggering into the bathroom, vowing that she’d never touch them again. She hadn’t been much on drinking before, and most certainly wasn’t now.

"Try whisky sours," suggested Aunt Emma. "They taste so bad that it’s all you can do to sip one. Helps keep you completely sober."

"I’ll remember that."

"Here, drink this," offered Aunt Emma, helping Merrilee along. She handed her a glass of a nasty looking concoction which she’d produced from a cabinet in the bathroom. "Discovered this about thirty years ago. Works fast. There, stay in the bathroom for a little while. When you’re through being sick, you can get into the bath tub again and in a little while, you’ ll feel better."

A few miserable minutes later, Merrilee eased her body into the tub and tried not to think. The ache in her head was less severe, but the memories that had hidden beneath the pain were surfacing, and she relived the evening. Her face went crimson as she recalled telling Bran that she was supposed to seduce him. Sinking deeper into the tub, she remembered sitting very close to him, and then laying her head on his shoulder.

Surely that couldn’t have been her last night! Please, God, let it have been a bad dream! Never in her wildest moments with Jake in Mexico, or in Shanghai had she ever done anything like that. Even when she’d believed herself in love with him, she’d never been so blatant. She’d held herself back until that last night with Jake. With Bran, however, it was different. Whatever it was that she felt for him, it was stronger, overcoming her usual reticence, and unmasked by alcohol, she’d actually made a pass at him. She closed her eyes in humiliation. What she’d done was horrible! It was foolish, unprofessional, and totally out of character!

Unfortunately, her battered feminine ego nagged, what was worse was that she ’d been rejected. She’d teased him, giggled, acted as though they’d shared some deep seated intimacy, as though laughing together was their right, a prelude to passion. As though they were lovers.

Merrilee seriously considered drowning herself in the tub and being done with it. How could she ever face him again after last night? And then, she must have passed out and he’d undressed her. She groaned, and sank beneath the water as another wave of humiliation swept over her.

"No, don’t drown yourself," Aunt Emma instructed as she whirled back into the bathroom. Reaching into the tub, she pulled Merrilee’s hair causing her to resurface suddenly and told her, "You can always do that later."

"Do what?"

"Drown yourself. You’ve got too much work to do today."

"I was just going to wash my hair."

"All right. Here’s the shampoo. Now, pull yourself together and tell me about last night."

"I’m trying not to remember it."

"Won’t leave you alone?"

Merrilee shook her head and confessed. "I made a complete ass of myself last night."

"I see. You got drunk and silly."

"Worse. I told him that you wanted me to seduce him."

"That is bad. I take it that you didn’t succeed. After all, you were sleeping alone."

At ease with the woman’s plain talk, Merrilee moaned. "He wouldn’t let me." She could hardly believe what she was saying. None of this could possibly be real. "He said that it wasn’t right to make love to a woman when she’d been drinking."

"I doubt if that ever stopped him before." The older woman sat on the vanity and smiled. "Tell me more. Might come in handy on my next book."

"It was the damned books that got me in trouble in the first place," accused Merrilee, wishing that she could place the blame somewhere other than on herself. "I told him that I wasn’t very experienced, but that I had picked up enough from the books to manage." She sank deeper into the tub, her confession doing nothing to lessen the humiliation that she felt.

"I love it!" crowed Aunt Emma with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. "Of course, if you really want to do it, you should consult Romance in Rio. The heroine does most of the seducing in that one. Thinks she’s got a shy guy on the line. Of course, he’s not, but she doesn’t know it until it’s too late."

"Aunt Emma," Merrilee explained. "Bran doesn’t want me to seduce him."

"Of course not. He wants to do the seducing himself."

"That’s not what I mean. I’m part of a job to him. I’m not the sort of woman he’d ask out, otherwise. He prefers."

"Tall, busty blondes with bra sizes that exceed their IQ s. I know that. So, why hasn’t he settled down with one? Because they bore him."

"Then why does he continue to ask them out?"

"Involvement," Emma explained. "He can do it because he knows deep inside himself that he’ll never get involved with one. Not on any deep or lasting level. That’s it. His problem is that he doesn’t know what to do with you. You’re different, and therefore, potentially hazardous."

"Give me a break!" Merrilee snorted in disgust. "We’re talking as if I actually wanted to mean something to the man. He’s just a job to me. A free vacation in the south playing dress-up."

Aunt Emma looked at Merrilee and asked in a tone that seemed suddenly shrewd, totally different from the flutter brained woman she sometimes appeared. "What actually do you want to mean to him? Something tells me that your actions last night are disturbing you for reasons that you’re loathe to admit."


"Think about it, child."

"I’d rather think about something else. Look-this whole silly mess has gone on long enough. Why don’t you just go as yourself and have a good time? Bran can cover the technical snooping, and you can have a good laugh and a great time. It’ll be no big deal."

"Can’t. Already told them that I was twenty-seven and I don’t want to mess up my public image. Besides, Bran shouldn’t try seducing his great-aunt. Incestuous." With that, she flounced out of the bathroom, leaving Merrilee to wonder if she’d wandered into a lunatic asylum. She was already certain of her own insanity. The only saving grace was that Bran couldn’t possibly realize just how badly her professional behavior had slipped. To him, she’d appeared a silly, tipsy programmer who couldn’t hold her liquor. He couldn ’t know that she was an ex-agent who had acted the fool and overindulged. It bothered her more and more. Why had she done that? She knew better! Troubled by that thought, she finished her bath.

A few minutes later, after drying her hair, she admitted that she felt better, at least physically. She eased into a turquoise silk blouse and matching skirt, adding a beaten silver link belt. She left her room, debating what to say to Bran when she saw him, wondering whether Aunt Emma had told him about their conversation. Suddenly, the sprightly old lady appeared beside her, materializing almost out of a doorway.

"Merrilee," she whispered a bit theatrically. "Bran’s outside on the patio waiting for you. He seems upset."

"It’s his own fault," Merrilee pointed out. "I didn’t want to do this in the first place. If he’s dissatisfied, he can always call someone else."

"Look," Emma soothed. "Let him stew and swear if he wants to. Just act like you have no idea what he’s upset about. Works every time."

The old woman led her out onto the patio where breakfast was being served by a middle aged woman dressed in Arizona casual. Emma clearly didn’t stand on ceremony with her employees. "Merrilee, this is Alice Lowden. She’s the best cook and housekeeper in Phoenix."

"Good morning, Ms. Lowden," greeted Merrilee. "Good morning, Bran." She smiled sweetly, determined to do as Aunt Emma had suggested. She’d just brazen it out. If he thought she didn’t remember last night, maybe he wouldn’t plague her with it. Maybe he’d think it was just the alcohol talking and leave it with a stern warning about the evils of drinking. Of course, he could always tell her that the mission was off, and she wouldn’t blame him if he did. But, she realized with a pang, she didn’t want it to be. She wanted to be with him for as long as possible.

"Good morning, Merrilee." Bran looked over at her, noting that while she was dressed quite beautifully in the turquoise and silver, her eyes seemed apprehensive and showed signs of a rough night. Heaven knew that he hadn’t slept well, troubled by erotic dreams of the young woman, wearing French cut thong panties and that damned garter belt. "Sleep well?"

"Like a log. I don’t know when I slept so soundly. Must be the desert air."

"No doubt." He offered her a bowl of seedless red grapes, and she accepted a small cluster. "About last night."

"What about it?" she asked, innocently. "I think that I shouldn’t have had that last sangria. I’m embarrassed to say that the last thing that I remember is leaving the restaurant." That was the last decent thing, anyway.

"You don’t remember the ride home?"


"Or the discussion that we had?"


"About seduction?"

"I told you that I don’t intend to seduce anyone to get information for the government," Merrilee huffed indignantly. Brilliant recovery, Merrilee! Now, if he just believed her.

"You don’t remember the full moon?"

"Should I?"

"I guess not. You were a little sloshed."

"I’m sorry," she apologized, genuinely contrite. "I seldom drink. I have no capacity for it. I guess I’d better follow Aunt Emma’s advice and stick to something I can’t stand so I don’t do it again."

"Good idea." Bran took a drink of his coffee and studied the young woman discreetly. He thought her excuses were a trifle too glib, too easy. Yet, the Merrilee he’d brought her would have blushed and nervously defended herself had she recalled the incident. Maybe she really didn’t remember last night. He absently bit into a blueberry muffin and munched it. "We’ve got a lot to do today," he told her a few minutes later. "We’ve got to go over your role and over the portable terminal in the attaché case."

"And I’ve got to read more of those books."

"How are you coming with them?"

"Three down and seven to go."

"Enjoying them?"

"They’re different. I’m not used to reading that sort of stuff, but now that I know Aunt Emma, I can see where she gets her ideas. She must have led her husbands on quite a merry chase."

"I’m sure she did." Merrilee took a second muffin and buttered it. Bran poured one more cup of coffee and drank it. Both avoided any more mention of the previous evening. "Do you think that you can act the part of the romance writer?"

"I don’t know. After all, Aunt Emma doesn’t act like any of her characters, and she’s the only romance writer that I know. All I can do at this point is recite a few passages and act like I believe in it. Do you think that will do?"

"Probably. After all, an author doesn’t have to be like any certain character. Besides, some romance writers are actually men."

"So why don’t you be the writer and I’ll be the secretary? That’ll be more believable, anyway."

"It’s already set up the other way," Bran told her yet again. "Besides, I’m supposed to be free to skulk around while you keep them entertained with your charm and wit."

"Oh, Lord," Merrilee sighed. "Okay, I’ll do it. If they expect me to plot an entire story in front of them, however, this may get a tad iffy."

"I think that there is a formula, a basic pattern. You know, man meets woman, they clash, and work in a few seduction scenes. The road to romance is never without a few bumps, and that has to be part of the plot."

"You’re probably right. I’ll ask Aunt Emma."

"You and I will also have to remember to act as if we know each other very well, too."

"I suppose." She sipped her coffee, surprised to discover her spirits lifted as she realized that she’d still be working closely with him. Her usual mischievous nature was returning, as well. She asked calmly, "Do you have any birthmarks or outstanding features that I might not have seen unless I was intimate with you?"

Bran choked on his coffee. This coming from Merrilee was simply too much. "Not that I know of. You?"

"I have a small scar right here," she admitted ruefully pointing to her left buttock. "Souvenir of the chimpanzee. She bit me. And, another right here." She moved her hair back and showed him a small white line just behind her right ear. "From the giraffe."

"Is that all?"

"They’re the only ones that show." The other injuries were in her heart and soul, she thought. Like the one she’d gotten last night, and she wished it would heal without a scar. Or, a memory.