Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  "Where’s Pleasure now?" she asked in alarm, putting her hands on his shoulders and pushing. She squirmed under him, trying to slip free of his weight so that she could get up, get dressed and get to the horse. It wasn’t like her to be so lax about a horse’s comfort and security, and though she had watched MacNeil enough to know that he was conscientious with the animals, the final responsibility was hers.

  "Calm down. He’s all right." MacNeil caught her hands, once more holding them down on the pillow. "I’ve got him stashed in the woods. No one’s going to find him. I couldn’t make it easy for them. Leaving him in the parking lot, where anyone could get at him, would have made even a fool suspicious. They’re going to have to come to us in order to find him."

  She relaxed against the pillows, reassured about Pleasure’s safety. "All right. What are we going to do now?"

  He hesitated. "My original plan was to find out what you knew, then put you somewhere safe until we had everything settled."

  "Where were you going to put me, in the trailer with Pleasure?" she asked, a slight caustic edge to her voice. "Well, too bad. I can’t tell you what I know, and you need to keep me handy in case I do remember something. You’re stuck with me, MacNeil, and you aren’t putting me anywhere."

  "There’s only one place I’d like to put you," he said slowly. "And I already have you there."

  Chapter 4

  It wasn’t a surprise, given all the evidence at hand.

  Pure male possessiveness was in Alex MacNeil’s attitude, in every line of his body, staring plainly down at her from those sharp blue eyes.

  Maris knew she wasn’t mistaken about that look. She had grown up seeing it in her father’s eyes every time he looked at her mother, seen the way he stood so close to her, touched her, a subtle alertness in every muscle of his body. She had also seen it innumerable times in her five brothers, first with their girlfriends and later, for four of them, with their wives. It was a look of desire, heated and potent.

  It was both scary and exhilarating, startling her, and yet at the same time it was as if she had known, from the moment she first saw him, that there was something between them and eventually she would have to deal with it.

  That was why she’d been at such pains to avoid him, not wanting the complication of an involvement with him, or having to endure the resultant gossip among the other employees. She had dated, some, but she had instinctively shied away whenever a boy or man showed signs of becoming too involved, possessive. She’d never had much time or patience for anything that interfered with her concentration on her horses and her career, nor had she ever wanted to let anyone that close to her.

  She had a strong private core that she’d never let anyone touch, except for her family. It seemed to be a Mackenzie trait, the ability to be alone and be perfectly content, and even though all her brothers except Chance had eventually married and were frighteningly in love with their wives, they had married because they were in love. Maris had always been content to wait until that once-in-a-lifetime love happened to her, too, rather than waste time by flinging herself without thought into a brief affair with any man who just happened to have the right physical chemistry with her.

  The chemistry was there with MacNeil, all right. The proof of it, on his part, was pressing urgently against the soft notch of her legs, tempting her to open her thighs wider and allow herself to feel that rigid length full against her loins. The fact that she wanted to do so was proof of the right chemistry on her part. She should move away, she knew she should, but she didn’t. There wasn’t a cell in her body that wanted to move, unless it was closer into his embrace.

  She stared up into his beard-stubbled face, into blue eyes that were hard and darkened by sharp desire, a desire he was ruthlessly containing. Her own eyes were dark, bottomless pools as she met that sharp gaze. "The question is," she said slowly, "what are you going to do about it?"

  "Not very damn much," he muttered, shifting restlessly against her. His jaw tightened at the sensations resulting from that movement, and his breath sighed out between his teeth. "You have a concussion. You have a killer headache. We have an unknown number of unknown people looking for us, so I have to keep my mind on the situation, instead of thinking about getting into your little panties. And even if you said yes, damn it, I’d have to say no, because the concussion could be causing mental impairment!" The last sentence was raw with frustration, ground out as if every word hurt him.

  She lay very still beneath him, though her instinct was to part her thighs and cradle him against her, pulling him into her soft heat. Her eyes went as dark as night, softening, something mysterious and eternal moving there. "My headache is better." Her voice was low, her gaze drawing him in. "And I’m not mentally impaired."

  "Oh, God," he groaned, resting his forehead against hers and closing his eyes. "Two out of four."

  Maris moved her hands, and he immediately freed them. She laid her palms against his shoulders, and he tensed, waiting for her to push him away, knowing it was for the best but dreading the loss of contact. She didn’t push. Instead, she curved her hands over the powerful muscles that cushioned the balls of his shoulder joints, trailed her fingers over the curve of his collarbone and finally flattened her hands against the hard planes of his chest. His crisp black chest hair tickled her palms. His tiny flat nipples hardened to pinpoints, intriguing her. His heartbeat was hard and strong, throbbing beneath her touch.

  She was amazed, a little taken aback, by the intensity of the desire that shook her. No, not just desire—need. Need, hot and strong. She had seen sexual attraction all her life, at the most basic level in her horses and the other animals on the ranch, and in her own family as something powerful and tender and somehow both straightforward and complicated at the same time. She didn’t underestimate the compelling power of sex. She had seen it, but she’d never before felt it, not this heat and ache, this emptiness that could be filled only by him, this melting sensation deep inside. She had always thought that if she ever felt this way it would be associated with love, and love was impossible here, because she didn’t know him, not really. She knew his name and his occupation, but nothing about the type of person he was, and it was impossible to love a stranger. Be attracted, yes, but not love.

  But her sister-in-law Barrie had once said that within five minutes of meeting Zane she had known the kind of person he was, and loved him. They had been strangers, but extraordinary circumstances had forced them into an intimate situation and shown them facets of each other’s characters that otherwise would have taken months for them to discover.

  Maris considered her own situation and the stranger who was so intimately sharing it with her. What had she learned about him since awakening—or regaining consciousness—in his arms?

  He wasn’t pushing her. He wanted her, but he wasn’t pushing. The circumstances weren’t right, so he was waiting. He was a patient man, or at least a man who knew how to be patient when he had to be, something that was entirely different. He was intelligent; she would have seen that days—weeks—ago, if she had let herself study him. She wasn’t certain, but she thought that an FBI special agent had to have a law degree. He had some working medical knowledge, at least about concussions. He was evidently strong-willed enough to have gotten her to do something she didn’t want to do, though, of course, with a concussion she wouldn’t have been at her best. He had taken care of her. And most of all, despite the fact that she had slept almost naked in his arms, he hadn’t taken sexual advantage of her.

  That was quite a list. He was patient, intelligent, educated, strong-willed, caring and honorable. And there was something else, the subtle quality of danger and controlled power. She remembered the quiet, authoritative tone of his voice, the utter confidence that he could take care of any problem that might arise. In that he was like her brothers, particularly Zane and Chance, and they were two of the most dangerous men she could imagine.

  She had always known that one of the reasons she’d never fa
llen in love was that so few men could compare favorably with the men in her family. She had been content to dedicate herself to her career, unwilling to settle for less than what she knew a man could be. But Alex MacNeil was of that stamp, and her heart lurched. Suddenly, for the first time in her life, she was in danger of falling in love.

  And then, looking into those eyes so blue it was like drowning in the ocean, she knew. She remembered the change inside herself, the quiet recognition of her mate.

  "Oh, dear," she said softly. "I have a very important question to ask you."

  "Shoot," he said, then gave a wry shrug of apology at his word choice.

  "Are you married, or otherwise involved with anyone?"

  He knew why she was asking the question. He would have had to be dead not to feel the electricity between them, and his state of arousal proved that he was far from it. "No. No involvements, period." He didn’t ask the same question of her; the background check he’d run on all the employees at Solomon Green had given him the basic information that she was single and had no record of prior arrests. In the time he’d worked at the farm, from the questions he’d asked, he had also found out that she didn’t date any one man on a steady basis. The other guys had kidded him about having the hots for the boss, and he’d gone along with the idea. Hell, it was true, so why not use it as part of his cover?

  Maris took a deep breath. This was it, then. With the directness with which she faced life, and the fey quality with which she saw things so clearly, she gave him a tiny smile. "If you aren’t already thinking of marrying me," she said, "you’d better get used to the idea."

  Mac kept his expression still, not allowing it to betray the shock that was reverberating through him. Marriage? He hadn’t even kissed her yet, and she was talking marriage!

  A sane man would get up and get his mind back on the business at hand, which included keeping them alive through the next few hours. A sane man wouldn’t continue to lie here with this woman in his arms, not if he wanted to preserve his enjoyable single state.

  He wanted her, no doubt about that. He was familiar with desire, having indulged that particular urge since the age of fourteen, and knew how to ignore it when indulgence would interfere with work. The work was absorbing, and he’d thrown himself into it with the cool, incisive intelligence that he also used to govern his personal life. He’d always been the one in control in his relationships, the one who called an end to things whenever he thought a woman was beginning to cling, to expect more from him than he was willing to give. It wasn’t fair to string a woman along and let her hope when there was no hope, so he always simply ended the affair before it got to the tears-and-recriminations stage.

  But then, he’d never met Maris Mackenzie before.

  He didn’t get up. More disturbing, he didn’t laugh and say the concussion must have impaired her mentally after all. She was small, delicately built, even fragile, so it was ridiculous for him to dread making her angry or, even worse, hurting her feelings. He wanted to continue holding her, wanted to cradle her close to him and protectively cover her, keep her safe from the danger that would erupt around them within the next couple of hours, shield her from everything—except himself. He wanted her open to him, vulnerable, naked, completely at his disposal. He wanted to sink into those beguiling, mysterious black eyes and forget everything but the feverish delight of thrusting into her.

  The sharp turn of events had thrown him off balance, that was all. Until last night, she and everyone else at Solomon Green had been on his list of possible suspects, and he had refused to let himself dwell on the heat that ran through him every time her slight, disconcertingly female body came within sight. Hell, she hadn’t even had to be in sight; the thought of her had slipped into his consciousness at odd times during the day and disturbed his sleep at night.

  He had resented his inability to ignore her as easily as she ignored him. She had a very still, intense quality about her, a focus that bespoke a will of iron. She was as absorbed in her job as he was in his, to the point that he’d thought she didn’t even know he existed as a person, much less as a man. The idea had been strangely disturbing. He’d needed to blend in, but instead he’d found himself wanting to stand out, so that she would look at him with recognition in her eyes instead of a blank stare. Night after night he’d lain alone and thought about her, resenting both the fact that he couldn’t seem to stop and the fact that she was oblivious to him. He wanted her to be as aware of him as he was of her, wanted to know that she, too, twisted on lonely sheets and thought of him in bed with her.

  He wanted her with an intensity that infuriated him. Everything about her appealed to him, and that was surprising in itself, because there was nothing overtly sexual about her manner. She was pure business; she never flirted, never played favorites with the men under her authority, never made a suggestive remark, didn’t go out of her way to make herself more attractive. Not that she had to; he couldn’t have been more aware of her than if she made a practice of parading naked in front of him.

  He knew exactly how her jeans clung to her curvy little ass, had imagined more than once gripping those round cheeks in his hands and lifting her into his thrust. He’d studied the shape of her high, round breasts underneath the flannel shirts she wore and, considering the slightness of her build, driven himself crazy thinking about how tight she would be when he slid into her. He’d had all the normal, heated sexual thoughts. But he’d also found himself absorbed in the satiny texture of her skin, as flawless as if she didn’t spend countless hours outdoors. No woman should have skin like that, as pure as a child’s, and so translucent he could see the fragile blue veins in her temples. He would look at her pale brown hair, bleached by the sun into streaks of ashy blond, and think of how it would trail across his arm like a fall of silk. Her eyes were as black as night, fey and unfathomable, tempting a man to try to plumb those mysterious depths.

  Desire, like heat, was measured in degrees, and ran the gamut from lukewarm to vaporization. She had long since turned him to steam, he thought; it was nothing short of a miracle that he’d held her in his arms all night and done nothing more than that, even though all she was wearing was a pair of skimpy, blood-pressure-raising panties and his own T-shirt, which was so large on her that it kept slipping down to reveal one silky shoulder.

  This was desire, all right—and more. It was want carried to a higher degree than he’d ever before experienced, a fever that refused to cool, a need he hadn’t let himself satisfy. Until last night, he hadn’t even let himself talk to her, even though he’d known he should, to see what, if anything, he could find out from her. Oddly enough, she had seemed to avoid him, too, though he’d noticed immediately that Ms. Mackenzie was a hands-on trainer who knew everyone working under her and was on easy terms with them. She was pure magic with the horses and a tyrant when it came to their care, but a benevolent tyrant, and everyone from the stable hands to the riders seemed to treat her with varying degrees of respect and adoration. It was out of character for her to avoid him, but that was exactly what she’d done.

  It had made him suspicious. It was his job to be suspicious, to notice anything out of the ordinary, and her behavior toward him had made him wonder if something about him had made her suspicious, put her on guard. With his background, he was familiar with horses, which had made him the logical choice for the job, and he’d tried to blend in. Still, he was always aware that his training had permanently changed him, and a sharp eye might be able to spot the little things that forever set him apart from others: the extraordinary alertness, so that he was aware of every little detail of the activity going on around him; his sharp, fast reflexes; his unconscious habit of placing himself in positions that could be defended.

  And she had spotted those details, known what they meant. He didn’t at all like the swiftness with which she had sized him up and said, "You’re a cop," even if her actions of the night before had already convinced him that she wasn’t involved in the ring that killed
racehorses and collected the insurance money. She saw too much, with those black eyes of hers, and now she was looking at him as if she could see into his soul.

  Honesty prodded at him. Even though every hormone in his body was roaring at him not to do anything to jeopardize his current position, to stay right where he was, on top of her and all but between her legs, he ground his teeth and said what he knew he had to say.

  "Marriage? You must be hurt worse than I thought, since you’re delirious."

  She didn’t take offense. Instead, she curled her arms around his neck and gave him that small, inscrutable, damnably female smile again. "I understand," she said gently. "You need time to get used to the idea, and you have a job to do. This can wait. Right now, you have to catch some damn horse killers."

  Chapter 5

  She needed to clear her head, needed some time away from him so that her nerves would settle down. Maris pushed lightly against his shoulders; he hesitated, but then rolled to the side, freeing her from his weight. The loss of that heavy pressure, the vital heat, was so unexpectedly painful that she almost reached out to pull him over her again. One glance at the straining fabric of his shorts told her that he might not be able to withstand any more temptation, and while her entire body yearned for him, she wanted to be able to fully enjoy their first time together. She had a concussion, and there were an unknown number of people after them who would likely try to kill them, as well as Sole Pleasure—powerful distractions, indeed.

  Gingerly she sat up on the side of the bed, being very careful to hold her head as still as possible. The aspirin had helped; the pain was still there, but it didn’t throb as sickeningly as it had before. She eased into a standing position and was relieved when the room remained stable.

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