Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  Instantly he was on his feet beside her, his hand on her arm. "What are you doing? You need to rest as much as possible."

  "I’m going to take a shower and get dressed. If I’m going to be shot at, I want to be on my feet and wearing clothes when it happens." God, he was big, and there was all that naked flesh right in front of her. She took a deep breath, fighting the urge to press herself against him, to find out exactly where her head would fit against his shoulder now that they were standing up. His body was so beautiful, his shoulders wide and powerful, his arms and legs thick with muscle. How silly she’d been to avoid him all these weeks, when she could have been getting to know him! Silently she mourned those wasted days. She should have realized sooner why her reaction to him had been so sharp, why she’d felt that odd sense of fright.

  This was the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life. No matter where her career had taken her, home had always been a mountain in Wyoming, and Alex MacNeil was going to change that. Her home would be with him, wherever he was, and an FBI special agent could be assigned anywhere. Though her life would never be completely without horses, he might be assigned to a city, where she wouldn’t be able to find a job as trainer. She had never before met a man whom she would even consider putting ahead of her horses—but she looked at him and instinctively thought, No contest.

  He was hers. She was his. She recognized it at every level of her being, as if she were vibrating to a resonance that only he produced.

  But danger surrounded them, and she had to be prepared.

  He had been watching her face with that narrow-eyed, intensely focused way of his. He didn’t release her, but drew her closer, his arm circling her narrow waist. "Forget whatever you’re thinking. You don’t have to do anything but stay out of the way."

  His nearness was too tempting. Maris leaned her head on his chest, rubbing her cheek against the hairy roughness as an almost painful tenderness filled her. "I won’t let you do this alone." His nipple was right there, only a few inches from her mouth, and as irresistible as catnip to a kitten. She moved those few inches, and her tongue darted out, delicately licking the flat brown circle.

  He shuddered, his arm tightening convulsively around her. But his gaze was grim and determined as he cupped her chin with his other hand and gently lifted her face. "It’s my job," he said in the even, quietly implacable tone she had heard before. "You’re a civilian, and you’re hurt. The best way you can help me is by staying out of the way."

  She smiled in wry amusement. "If you knew me better, you wouldn’t say that." She was fiercely, instinctively, protective of those she loved, and the thought of letting him face danger alone made her blood freeze in horror. Unfortunately, fate had decreed that she love a man whose profession was putting himself between the lawless elements in society and those he had sworn to protect. She couldn’t demand that he quit his job any more than her family had demanded that she quit the dangerous work of gentling unbroken horses. He was what he was, and loving him meant not trying to change him.

  She straightened away from him. "I’m still going to shower and dress. I still don’t want to face anyone in just my panties and a T-shirt…." She paused. "Except you."

  He inhaled sharply, his nostrils flaring, and she saw his hand flex as if he wanted to reach for her again. Because time had to be growing short, she stepped away from him, away from temptation, and gathered up her clothes. Just as she reached the bathroom door a thought occurred to her, and she stopped, looking back at him. Was he alone? Though Zane and Chance never talked about their assignments, they had sometimes discussed techniques, back in their training days, and she had absorbed a lot. It would be very unusual for an FBI agent to be working without backup.

  "Your partner should be close by," she said. "Am I right?"

  His eyebrows lifted in faint surprise; then he smiled. "In the parking lot. He got into position an hour or so after we got here. No one’s going to take us by surprise."

  If his partner hadn’t been on watch, Maris realized, MacNeil never would have relaxed his guard enough to be in bed with her or let himself be distracted by the sexual attraction between them. Still, she was certain he hadn’t slept but had remained awake in case his partner signaled him.

  "What’s his name? What does he look like? I need to be able to tell the good guys from the bad."

  "Dean Pearsall. He’s five-eleven, skinny, dark hair and eyes, receding hairline. He’s from Maine. You can’t miss the accent."

  "It’s cold out there," she said. "He must be frozen."

  "Like I said, he’s from Maine. This is nothing new to him. He has a thermos of coffee, and he lets the car run enough to keep the frost off the windshield, so he can see."

  "Won’t that be a dead giveaway, no frost on the car?"

  "Only if someone knows how long the car has been there, and it isn’t a detail most people notice." He picked up his jeans and stepped into them, never taking his eyes off her as he considered the somewhat startling workings of her nimble brain. "Why did you think of it?"

  She gave him a sweet smile, her mother’s smile. "You’ll understand when you meet my family." Then she went into the bathroom and closed the door.

  Her smile faded immediately once she was alone. Though she fully realized and accepted the wisdom of not interfering with a trained professional and his partner, she was also sharply aware that plans could go wrong and people could get hurt. It happened, no matter how good or careful someone was. Chance had been wounded several times; he always tried to keep it from their mother, but somehow Mary always sensed when he’d been hurt, and Maris did, too. She could feel it deep inside, in a secret place that only those she loved had managed to touch. She had been almost insane with fear that time when Zane was nearly killed rescuing Barrie from terrorists in Libya, until she saw him for herself and felt his steely life force undiminished.

  It had happened to Zane, and he was the best planner in the business. In fact, expecting things to go wrong was one of the things that made Zane so good at what he did. There was always a wild card in the deck, he said, and she had to be prepared for it, no matter how it was played.

  Her advantages were that she was trained in self-defense, was a very good shot, and knew more about battle tactics than anyone could expect. On the other hand, her pistol was in her cottage, so she was unarmed, unless she could talk MacNeil into giving her a weapon. Considering how implacable his expression had been, she didn’t think she had much chance of that. She was also concussed, and though the headache had lessened and she was feeling better now, she wasn’t certain how well she could function if the situation called for fast movement. The fact that her memory hadn’t returned was worrisome; the injury could be more severe than she’d initally thought, even though her other symptoms had lessened.

  Who had hit her? Why was someone trying to kill Sole Pleasure? Damn it, if only she could remember!

  She wrapped a towel around her head to keep her hair dry and stood under a lukewarm spray of water, going over and over the parts she remembered, as if she could badger her bruised brain into giving up its secrets. Everything had been normal when she went back to the stables after lunch. It had been after dark, say around six or six-thirty, when she stumbled across MacNeil. Sometime during those five hours she had learned that Sole Pleasure was in danger and either surprised someone trying to kill him or confronted the person beforehand and earned herself a knock on the head.

  It didn’t make sense, but the Stonichers had to be behind the threat to their prize stallion, because they were the only ones who could benefit financially from his death. Since they would make much more by syndicating him for stud, the only way killing him made any sense at all was if he had some problem that would prevent them from syndicating him.

  It wasn’t a question of health; Maris had grown up around horses, loved them with a passion and devotion that had consumed her life, and she knew every detail of the well-being of her charges. Sole Pleasure was in perfect health,
an unusually strong, fast horse who was full of energy and good spirits. He was a big, cheerful athlete who ran for the sheer love of running, sometimes mischievous but remarkably free of bad habits. She loved all her horses, but Pleasure was special to her. It was unthinkable that anyone would want to kill him, destroy forever that big, good-natured heart and matchless physical ability.

  The only thing she could think of that would interfere with his syndication, the only possible reason anyone would grab for insurance money rather than hold out for the much larger fortune to be gained from syndicating him, was if the fertility tests had proved him sterile.

  If that was the case, the Stonichers might as well geld him and race him as long as he was healthy. But injuries happened to even the hardiest animals, and a racing career could be ended in a heartbeat. The great filly Ruffian had been on the way to victory, well ahead of her male opponent in a special match race, when an awkward step shattered her leg and she had to be put down. Given the uncertainties of winning purses on the track and the given of insurance money, if Sole Pleasure was sterile, the Stonichers could conceivably be going for the sure thing and have hired someone to kill him.

  She didn’t want to think it of them. Joan and Ronald Stonicher had always seemed like decent people to her, though not the kind with whom she would ever be close friends. They were Kentucky blue bloods, born into the life, but Ronald particularly seemed to be involved in raising horses only because he’d inherited the farm. While Joan knew the horses better and was a better rider than her husband, she was a cool, emotionally detached woman who paid more attention to social functions than she did to the earthy functions in the stables. The question was, could they deliberately kill a champion Thoroughbred for the insurance money?

  No one else was in a position to collect, so it had to be them.

  They wouldn’t do it themselves, however. Maris couldn’t imagine either one of them actually doing the deed. They had hired someone to kill Pleasure, but who? It had to be someone she saw every day, someone whose presence near the horses wouldn’t attract attention. It was likely one of the temporary hands, but she couldn’t rule out a longtime employee; a couple hundred thousand would be terribly tempting to someone who didn’t care how he earned it.

  She turned off the shower and stepped out, turning the situation around and around in her head. By the time she was dressed, one thought was clear: MacNeil knew who the killer was.

  She opened the door and stepped out, almost stumbling over him. He was propped against the countertop in the small dressing area, his arms crossed and his long legs stretched out, patiently waiting in case she became dizzy and needed him. He, too, had dressed, and though he looked mouth-wateringly tough and sexy in jeans, flannel shirt and boots, she regretted no longer being able to see him in nothing more than tight-fitting boxers.

  Maris jabbed a slender finger at his chest. "You know who it is, don’t you?"

  He looked down at the small hand so imperiously poking him, and one dark brow lifted in bemusement. He probably wasn’t accustomed to being called to account by someone he could have picked up with one hand. "Why do you think that?" he asked in a mild voice, but even so he stood so that he towered over her, silently reestablishing his dominance.

  It might have worked if she hadn’t grown up watching her petite mother rule over a household populated by brawny males. She was very much her mother’s daughter; it never occurred to her to be intimidated. Instead she poked him harder.

  "You said a tip led you to Solomon Green. Obviously the FBI has been working on this for a while, so just as obviously you have to have a list of suspects you’re watching. One of those suspects is now working at Solomon Green, isn’t he? That’s what tipped you off." She scowled up at him. "Why did you say I was a suspect, when you know darn good and well—"

  "Hold it." He held up a staying hand, interrupting her. "You were a suspect. Everyone was. I know who my main suspect is, but he isn’t working alone. This ring has to have the collusion of a lot of people. The owners are the main ones to profit, but any of the employees could also be in on it."

  She didn’t like to think any of her people would be involved in murdering a horse for profit, but she had to admit it was possible. "So you followed him there and you’ve been watching him, trying to catch him in the act so you’ll have proof against him." Her dark eyes caught fire. "Were you going to let him actually kill a horse, so there would be no doubt?"

  "That isn’t the outcome we’d like," he said carefully, watching her. "But we’re aware that could be the scenario."

  Her eyes narrowed. She wasn’t fooled by his formal "official speak," used by both the military and law-enforcement organizations. Reading between the lines, she knew that while he might not like letting a horse be harmed, he’d been willing to let it happen if that was what it took.

  She wasn’t thinking of slugging him; she was angry, but not foolish. He’s already proven he was more than a match for her. Still, the expression on her face must have made him think she was about to try again to take him down, because his hand came up in one of those lightning-fast movements and caught her wrist, holding it against his chest.

  She drew herself up to her full five feet almost three inches and lifted her chin. "I refuse to sacrifice a horse. Any horse."

  "That isn’t what I want, either." He gently cupped her stubborn chin, his fingertips tracing over the satiny skin of her jaw. "But we can’t make our move until they do something conclusive, something we can make stick in the courts. We have to tie everything together in a knot some slick lawyer can’t undo, or a murderer is going to walk. This isn’t just about horses and insurance fraud. A stable hand was killed, a kid just sixteen years old. He must have stumbled across something the way you did, but he wasn’t as lucky. The next morning there was a dead horse in the stall and the kid was missing. That was in Connecticut. A week later his body was found in Pennsylvania."

  She stared at him, her dark eyes stark. The Stonichers might just be after the money, but they had aligned themselves with people who were truly evil. Any regret she might have felt for them vanished.

  MacNeil’s face was like stone. "I won’t move too soon and blow the investigation. No matter what, I’m going to nail these bastards. Do you understand?"

  She did. Completely. That left only one thing to do. "You refuse to compromise the case, and I won’t let Pleasure be hurt. That means you’ll have to use me as the bait."

  Chapter 6

  "Absolutely not." The words were flat and implacable. "No way in hell."

  "You have to."

  He looked down at her with mingled exasperation and amusement. "Sweetheart, you’ve been the boss for so long that you’ve forgotten how to take orders. I’m running this show, not you, and you’ll damn well do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it, or you’re going to find yourself handcuffed and gagged and your sweet little ass stuffed in a closet until this is over."

  Maris batted her long eyelashes at him. "So you think my ass is sweet, huh?"

  "So sweet I’ll probably be biting it before too much longer." The concept appealed to him; she could tell by the way his eyes darkened. She was rather taken by it, herself. Then he shrugged the moment away and grinned. "But no matter how good you taste or how fast you flutter those eyelashes, you aren’t going to change my mind about this."

  She crossed her arms and offered him an irrefutable fact. "You need me. I don’t know what I saw or who hit me. It could have been one of the Stonichers, or it could have been whoever they hired. But they don’t know that I can’t remember, and they don’t know about you, so they think I’m the biggest threat to them."

  "That’s exactly why you’re staying out of sight. If it’s one of the Stonichers holding the gun, I can’t predict how he or she will act. Give me a professional killer any day, rather than an amateur, who’s likely to panic and do something really stupid, like shooting you in front of a bunch of witnesses."

  "God forbid you should ha
ve to deal with anyone who would get rattled by committing murder," she said, sweetly sarcastic, and he gave her another of those patented narrow looks of his. She continued with her argument. "They’re probably surprised that I haven’t already called the cops on them. By now they’re figuring I was either hurt more than they’d thought at first and I’m lying unconscious somewhere, or that I’ve realized I have no proof to take to the cops, so I have no excuse for stealing a priceless horse. Either way, they want me. I’m the perfect patsy. They can kill Pleasure, make it look like I did it, and then kill me. Everything’s tied up nice and clean, and who knows, the insurance policy may even pay double indemnity, which is more money in everyone’s pocket. Nothing will make them commit faster than seeing me."

  "Damn it, no." He shook his head in exasperation. "I can’t believe the way your mind works. You must read a lot of thrillers."

  She glared at him, affronted. Her argument was perfectly logical, and he knew it. That didn’t mean he liked it. It didn’t even mean he would agree with it; she was fast learning that she could add protective to the list of his characteristics. And stubborn. God forbid she should forget stubborn.

  "Sweetheart…" He smoothed his hands over her shoulders, an unfamiliar, tender ache in his chest as he felt the delicacy of her bones. He tried to think of the words that would convince her to leave this business to him and Dean. It was their job; they were trained for it. She would be in the way, and worrying about her would drive him crazy. God, she evidently thought she was seven feet tall and made of pig iron, but he could see how pale she was, how carefully she moved. She wasn’t normally fragile, despite the slightness of her build; he’d seen her ride, effortlessly controlling stallions that most men would have trouble handling, so he knew she was strong. She was also alarmingly valiant, and he didn’t know if his nerves could stand the stress.

  "Look at it this way," she said. "As long as they don’t know where Pleasure is, I’m safe. They need me to get to him."

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