Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  "So you stole him to save his life."

  He said it much more as a statement than as a question, but Maris nodded anyway, remembering at the last second to limit herself to only a tiny movement of her head. The calmness of his voice again piqued her interest with its familiarity. Why wasn’t he alarmed, indignant, or any number of other responses that could reasonably be expected? Maybe he’d already guessed, and she had only confirmed his suspicion.

  He was a drifter, a man who routinely walked away from responsibility, but even though he’d guessed what she was doing, he had involved himself anyway. Their situation was highly precarious, because unless she could prove the charge she’d made, they would be arrested for stealing Sole Pleasure, the most valuable horse in the country. All she remembered now was the danger to the stallion, not who was behind it, so proving it could be a bit chancy.

  Chancy…Chance. Chance and Zane. The thought of her brothers was like sunrise, bringing light to the darkness in her mind. No matter what was going on or who was behind it, all she had to do was call Zane, and he would get to the bottom of it. Maybe that had been her original plan, lost in the fog that obscured the past twelve hours. Get Sole Pleasure out of harm’s way, contact Zane, and lay low until the danger was over.

  She stared at the ceiling, trying to remember any other detail that would help clear up the situation. Nothing. "Did I call anyone last night?" she asked. "Did I say anything about calling one of my brothers?"

  'No. There was no time or opportunity to call anyone until we got here, and you were out like a light as soon as you hit the bed."

  That information didn’t clear up the question of whether she had undressed herself or he had done it. She scowled a little, annoyed at how the physical intimacy of the situation kept distracting her from the business at hand.

  He was still watching her closely; she felt as if his attention hadn’t wavered from her for so much as a split second. She could sense him analyzing every nuance of her expressions, and the knowledge was unsettling. She was accustomed to people paying attention to her; she was, after all, the boss. But this was different, on an entirely different level, as if he missed nothing going on around him.

  "Were you going to call your family for help?" he asked when she didn’t say anything else.

  She pursed her lips. "That would have been the most logical thing to do. I should probably call them now." Since Zane had left the SEALs, he was much easier to contact; Barrie and the kids kept him closer to home. And he would know how to get in touch with Chance, though the odds of Chance even being in the country weren’t good. It didn’t matter; if she needed them, if she made the call, she knew her entire family would descend on Kentucky like the Vikings swooping down on a medieval coastal village—and heaven help those who were behind all this.

  Maris tried to ease herself away from him so that she could sit up and reach the phone. To her amazement, he tightened his grip, holding her in place.

  "I’m okay," she said in reassurance. "As long as I remember to move slowly and not jar my head, I can manage. I need to call my brother as soon as possible, so he can—"

  "I can’t let you do that," he said calmly.

  She blinked, her dark eyes growing cool. "I beg your pardon?" Her tone was polite, but she let him hear the steel underlying it.

  His lips twitched, and a ruefully amused look entered his eyes. "I said I can’t let you do that." The amusement spread to his mouth, turning the twitch into a smile. "What are you going to do, fire me?"

  Maris ignored the taunt, because if she couldn’t prove Sole Pleasure was in danger, neither of them would have to worry about a job for some time. She lay still, considering this sudden change in the situation, possibilities running through her mind. He was too damn sure of himself, and she wondered why. He didn’t want her to call for help. The only reason she could come up with was that he must be involved, somehow, in the plot to kill Sole Pleasure. Maybe he was the one who’d been hired to do it. Suddenly, looking up into those blue eyes, Maris felt the danger in him again. It wasn’t just a sensual danger, but the inherent danger of a man who had known violence. Yes, this man could kill.

  Sole Pleasure might already be dead. She thought of that big, sleek, powerful body lying stiff, never to move again, and a nearly crippling grief brought the sheen of tears to her eyes. She couldn’t control that response, but she allowed herself no other. Maybe she was wrong about MacNeil, but for Sole Pleasure’s sake, she couldn’t take the chance.

  "Don’t cry," he murmured, his voice dropping into a lower note. He lifted his hand to gently stroke her hair away from her temple. "I’ll take care of things."

  This was going to hurt. Maris knew it, and accepted the pain. Her father had taught her to go into a fight expecting to get hurt; people who didn’t expect the pain were stunned by it, incapacitated and, ultimately, defeated. Wolf Mackenzie had taught his children to win fights.

  MacNeil was too close; she was also lying flat on her back, which took away a lot of her leverage. She had to do it anyway. The first blow had to count.

  She snapped her left arm up at him, striking for his nose with the heel of her palm.

  He moved like lightning, his right forearm coming up to block the blow. Her palm slammed into his arm with enough force to jar her to the teeth. Instantly she recoiled and struck again, this time aiming lower, for his solar plexus. Again that muscular forearm blocked her way, and this time he twisted, catching both of her arms and pinning them to the pillow on each side of her head. With another smooth motion he levered himself atop her, his full weight crushing her into the bed.

  The entire thing took three seconds, maybe less. There had been no explosion of movement; anyone watching might not even have realized a brief battle had taken place, so tight had been the movements of attack and response, then counterattack. Her head hadn’t even been unduly jarred. But Maris knew. Not only had she been trained by her father, she had also watched Zane and Chance spar too often to have any doubts. She had just gone up against a highly trained professional—and lost.

  His blue eyes were flinty, his expression cold and remote. His grip on her wrists didn’t hurt, but when she tried to move her arms, she found that she couldn’t.

  "Now, what in hell was that about?" His voice was still calm, but edged with an icy sharpness.

  Then it all fell together. His control, his utter self-confidence, the calmness that seemed so familiar. Of course it was familiar—she saw it constantly, in her brothers. Zane had just that way of speaking, as if he could handle anything that might happen. MacNeil hadn’t hurt her, even when she had definitely tried to hurt him. She couldn’t have expected such concern from a thug hired to kill a horse. The clues were there, even those sexy gray boxers. This was no drifter.

  "My God," she blurted. "You’re a cop."

  Chapter 3

  "Is that why you attacked?" If anything, those blue eyes were even colder.

  "No," she said absently, staring up at his face as if she’d never seen a man before. She felt stunned, as if she really hadn’t. Something had just happened, but she wasn’t sure what. It was like the way she’d felt when she first saw him, only more intense, primally exciting. She frowned a little as she tried to pin down the exact thought, or sensation, or whatever it was. His hands tightened on her wrists, drawing her back to the question he’d asked and the answer he wanted, and reluctantly she gathered her thoughts. "I just now realized that you’re a cop. The reason I tried to hit you was because you wouldn’t let me call my family, and I was afraid you might be one of the bad guys."

  "So you were going to try to take me out?" He looked furious at the idea. "You have a concussion. How in hell did you expect to fight me? And who taught you those moves, anyway?"

  "My father. He taught all of us how to fight. And I could have won, against most men," she said simply. "But you—I know professional training when I see it."

  "So the fact that I know how to fight makes you think I’m a cop?"
  She could have told him about Zane and Chance, who, even though they weren’t cops, had many of the same characteristics she’d noticed in him. She didn’t, though, because she wasn’t one hundred percent certain their organization or agency or whatever it was was exactly squared away with either the State or Justice Department. Instead, she gave MacNeil a secret little smile. "Actually, it was your shorts."

  He was startled out of his control, his blue eyes widening. "My shorts?"

  "They aren’t briefs. They’re not white. They’re too sexy."

  "And that’s a dead giveaway for being a cop?" he asked incredulously, color staining his cheekbones.

  "Drifters don’t wear sexy gray boxers," she pointed out. She didn’t mention the interest she could feel stirring in those sexy gray boxers. Perhaps, under the circumstances, she shouldn’t have mentioned his underwear. Not that his reaction was unexpected, she thought. She was barely clothed, and he wore even less. She could feel the hard, hairy bareness of his legs against hers, the pressure of his hips. Just minutes before, she had thought his touch carefully controlled, so that there was no intimacy, despite his closeness. She didn’t feel that way now. It wasn’t just his arousal; there was something very intimate in the way he held her beneath him, as if their brief battle had startled him out of his careful control and provoked him into a heated, purely male response. She took a deep breath as an unfamiliar excitement made her heart beat faster, made every cell in her body tingle with life. The secret part of her, the wildness that she had always known was there but which no man had ever before managed to touch, shivered in fierce satisfaction at the way he held her.

  "Cops don’t necessarily wear them, either."

  Her comment about his shorts had definitely disturbed him. She smiled again, her dark eyes half closing in sensual delight as she absorbed the novel sensation of having a hard male body on top of her—an extremely aroused male body. "If you say so. I’ve never seen one undressed before. What kind of cop are you, specifically?"

  He was silent for a moment, studying her face. She didn’t know what he saw there, but the set of his mouth eased, and if anything, he settled even more heavily against her. "Specifically, FBI. Special agent."

  A federal agent? Startled out of her sensual preoccupation, she gave him a puzzled look. "I didn’t think stealing a horse was a federal crime."

  He almost smiled. "It isn’t. Look, if I let go of your hands, are you going to try to kill me again?"

  "No. I promise," she said. "Besides, I wasn’t trying to kill you, and even if I had been, I’m not as good as you are, so you don’t have to worry."

  "I can’t tell you how reassuring that is," he said dryly, but he released her hands and shifted his position a little, propping himself over her on his forearms. The change forced his hips more firmly against hers, forced her thighs slightly apart to accommodate the pressure. She caught her breath. His interest had grown, to the point that there was no politely ignoring it. But he was ignoring it, not in the least embarrassed by his body’s response to her.

  Maris took another deep breath, delighting in the way the simple action rubbed her breasts against the hard, muscled planes of his chest, making her nipples tingle. Oh, God, that felt so good. She would gladly lie in his arms and do nothing more than breathe, if they didn’t have a stolen champion horse stashed somewhere and someone presumably on their trail, trying to kill both them and the stallion.

  But they did have a stolen horse hidden away, and a big problem on their hands. She focused her thoughts, and despite the fact that she was lying helplessly pinned beneath him, she fixed him with a dark, penetrating gaze. "So why was a federal special agent mucking out my stables?"

  "Trying to find out who’s been killing horses and collecting the insurance money on them—boss." He added the last word in a dry tone, responding to her arrogant claiming of the Solomon Green stables as her own.

  She ignored the not-so-subtle teasing, because she’d heard it so often from her family. What she loved, she claimed; it was as simple as that. She drew her head back deeper into the pillow and gave him a frankly skeptical look. "Insurance fraud rates a special agent?"

  "It does when it involves kidnapping, crossing state lines and murder."

  Murder. So she’d been right: Someone was trying to kill them. Had this someone hit her on the head, or had she gained the goose egg by a more mundane method, such as falling?

  "What brought you to Solomon Green?"

  "A tip." One corner of his mouth curved slightly. His face was so close to hers that she could see the tiny lines created by the movement, as if he smiled easily. "Law enforcement agencies couldn’t operate without snitches."

  "So you knew Sole Pleasure was in danger?" She didn’t like that. Anger began to smolder in her dark eyes. "Why didn’t you tell me? I could have been on guard without causing any suspicion. You didn’t have a right to gamble with his life."

  "All of the horses are insured. Any of them could have been targeted. Sole Pleasure should have been their least likely target, because he’s so well-known. His death would raise a lot of questions, attract a lot of attention." He paused, watching her carefully. "And, until last night, you were on my list of suspects."

  She absorbed that, her only reaction a slight tightening of her mouth. "How did last night change your mind? What happened?" It was both frustrating and frightening, not being able to remember.

  "You came to me for help. You were so angry you could barely speak, and you were scared. You said we had to get Sole Pleasure out of there, and if I didn’t want to help, you’d manage on your own."

  "Did I say who was after him?"

  He gave a slight shake of his head. "No. Like I said, you were barely speaking. You wouldn’t answer any questions. I thought at the time you were too scared, and once we had the horse safe, I was going to give you a little time to settle down before I started questioning you. Then I noticed how pale and shaky you were, maybe a little shocky from the adrenaline crash. You wanted to go on, but I made you stop here. You conked out as soon as we got in the room."

  That reminded her again of both the interesting question of whether she had undressed herself or he had done it for her and his rather irritating assumption that he could make her do anything. She frowned when she realized that he could back up that assumption with action; her current position proved it. He hadn’t hurt her, but physically she was still very much under his control.

  Her frown deepened as she grew more annoyed with herself than before. She was doing it again, letting her attention drift. She could keep letting herself get sidetracked by her undeniable attraction to him, or she could keep her mind on the problem at hand. Sole Pleasure’s life, and perhaps her own, depended on doing whatever she could to help this man.

  There was no question which was most important.

  "The Stonichers," she said slowly. "They’re the only ones who would benefit financially from Sole Pleasure’s death, but they’d make more by syndicating him for stud, so killing him doesn’t make sense."

  "That’s another reason I didn’t think he was in danger. I was watching all the other horses. The insurance on them wouldn’t be as much, but neither would their deaths cause much of a stir."

  "How did I find you?" she asked. "Did I come to your room? Call you? Did anyone see us, or did you see anyone?" His room was one of ten, tiny but private, in a long, narrow block building the Stonichers had built specifically to house the employees who were transient and had no other quarters, as well as those who needed to be on-site. As the trainer, Maris was important enough to have her own small three-room cottage on the premises. The foaling man, Mr. Wyse, also had his own quarters, an upstairs apartment in the foaling barn, where he watched the mothers-to-be on video monitors. There were always people around; someone had to have seen them.

  "I wasn’t in my room. I’d been in the number two barn, checking around, and had just gone out the back door when you rode by on Sole Pleasure. It was dark, so I did
n’t think you’d seen me, but you stopped and told me I had to help you. The truck and trailer that brought in that little sorrel mare this afternoon were still sitting there, hooked up, so we loaded Sole Pleasure in and took off. If anyone saw us, I doubt they could even have seen there was a horse in the trailer, much less recognized it as Sole Pleasure."

  It was possible, she thought. The number two barn was where the mares who had been sent to the farm for breeding were stabled. Night came early in December, and the horses were already settled down, the workers relaxing or at supper. The truck and trailer didn’t belong to Solomon Green, and everyone knew they had brought in a mare that afternoon, so no one would think anything of the rig leaving, except the driver, who had decided to spend the night and start back at dawn the next day. And Sole Pleasure was exceptionally easy to load; he never made a fuss and, in fact, seemed to enjoy traveling. Loading him wouldn’t have taken more than a minute, and then they would have been on their way.

  "I didn’t have a chance to call my family," she said, "but did you call anyone while I was asleep?"

  "I went out to a pay phone and let my office know what was going on. They’ll try to run interference for us, but they can’t be too obvious without blowing the operation. We still don’t know who’s involved in the ring—unless you’ve remembered something else in the past few minutes?"

  "No," she said regretfully. "My last clear memory is of walking down to the stables yesterday afternoon. I know it was after lunch, but I don’t know the exact time. What little else I remember is just flashes of being angry, and scared, and running to Pleasure’s stall."

  "If you remember anything else, even the smallest detail, tell me immediately. By taking the horse, we’ve given them the perfect opportunity to kill him and blame it on us, or at least they’ll see it that way, since they don’t know I’m FBI. They’ll be after us hot and heavy, and I need to know who to expect."

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