Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  He didn’t argue, didn’t try to convince her. He just shook his head and said, "No."

  She gave his forehead an experimental rap with her knuckles, a puzzled look on her face.

  He drew back a little, blinking in surprise. "What are you doing?"

  "Seeing if your head’s made out of wood," she retorted, her exasperation showing through. "You’re letting your emotions interfere with your job. I’m your best bet—so use me!"

  Mac stood motionless. He couldn’t have been more stunned if this delicate fire-eater had suddenly lifted him over her head and tossed him through the window. He was letting his emotions interfere with the job? That was the last thing he’d ever imagined anyone would say to him. What made him so good at his job was his ability to divorce himself from the emotions that could hamper his actions. He’d always been the one who kept his head, who remained cool no matter how tense the situation. He might have some sleepless nights afterward, he might sweat bullets, but while the job was going down he was an iceman.

  He couldn’t be emotional about her; it wasn’t logical. Okay, so he’d had the hots for her since he’d first seen her. Chemistry happened. With her, it had happened in a big way. And he liked her; he’d learned a lot about her since she had practically commandeered him the night before. She was quick-thinking, had a sense of humor, and was too damned gutsy for his peace of mind. She also responded to his slightest touch, her soft body melting against him, with a sheer delight that went to his head faster than a hit of whiskey.

  He frowned. Only the fact that she was concussed had kept him from taking her, and even then, it had been a near thing. Never mind that they were waiting for a killer to come after them, that he had deliberately left a trail that was just difficult enough to keep from being obvious. He never should have undressed last night; he knew that. But the fact was, he had wanted to feel her against his skin, and so he’d taken off everything but his shorts and slipped into bed with her. Dean would beep him when anyone showed up; if Mac had timed it right, he figured it would take another hour at least before anything happened, but still he should have been dressed and ready in case something went wrong. Instead, he had been on top of her, between her legs, and thinking that only two thin layers of cotton were keeping him from her. It would have taken him maybe five seconds to get those two layers out of the way, and then he would have been inside her and to hell with anything else.

  But none of that was emotion. That was liking, and a powerful lust. So she had this crazy idea, after spending only a few hours with him—and being asleep most of that time—that they were going to get married. Just because she felt that way didn’t mean he did, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let himself be buffaloed into something like marriage, no matter how hard he got whenever she was anywhere around.

  The thought of using her as bait almost made the top of his head come off, but that wasn’t emotion, it was common sense.

  "You’re concussed," he finally said. "You’re moving like a snail, and you don’t need to be moving at all. You’d be more of a hindrance than a help, because I’d have to watch you, as well as myself."

  "Then give me a weapon," she replied, her tone so unruffled that he wasn’t sure he’d heard right.

  "A weapon?" he echoed incredulously. "Good God, you think I’m going to arm a civilian?"

  She straightened away from his grasp, and his palms ached from the loss of contact. All of a sudden her black eyes weren’t bottomless at all, they were cool and flat, and the recognition of what he was seeing jolted him.

  "I can handle a pistol as well as you, maybe better."

  She wasn’t exaggerating. He’d seen that look in the eyes of snipers, and in the eyes of some fellow agents who had been there, done that, and had the guts to do it again. He had seen it in his own eyes, and he’d understood when some women had shied away from him, frightened by the dangerous edge they sensed in him.

  Maris wouldn’t shy away. She looked delicate, but she was pure steel.

  He could use her. The thought flashed into his brain, and he couldn’t dismiss it. Policy said that no civilians should be involved if it could be avoided, but too many times it couldn’t be avoided. She was right; she was his best bet, and he would be a fool if he compromised the investigation by not using her. It wrenched every instinct he had to do it, but he had to put his feelings aside and concentrate on the job.

  Damn it, he thought in surprise, he had been letting his emotions cloud his thinking. That wasn’t a good sign, and he had to put a stop to that kind of idiocy right now.

  "All right," he said swiftly, wheeling around to get their jackets. He jerked his on and began stuffing Maris into hers. "Time’s short, so we have to move fast. First we need to get the stallion out of the trailer and hidden somewhere else, then position the trailer so that whoever comes can’t see that he isn’t in it. Then we come back here. You drive the truck, I’ll be hidden in the truck bed, under some blankets or something." He turned out the bathroom light and began ushering her toward the door. "We’ll post Dean down the road, where he can see them arrive. He’ll leave then and get into position at the trailer. He’ll give us warning. You leave by the back way just as they arrive, let them get a glimpse of the truck. They follow."

  They reached the door. MacNeil turned out the lights and took a small radio out of his pocket, keying it. "Is everything clear?" he asked. "We’re coming out."

  "What?" His partner’s voice was startled. "Yeah, everything’s clear. What’s up?"

  "Tell you in a minute."

  He slipped the radio back into his pocket and unchained the door. He paused then, looking down at her. "Are you sure you can do this? If your head is hurting too much, let me know now, before it goes any further."

  "I can do it." Her voice was calm, matter-of-fact, and he gave a short nod.

  "Okay, then." He opened the door, and cold air slapped her in the face. She shivered, even though she was wearing her thick down jacket. The weather bureau had been predicting the arrival of a cold front, she remembered. She had watched the noon news and weather yesterday; perhaps that was why she now had this thick jacket instead of the flannel-lined denim jacket she had been wearing yesterday morning. She was glad she had changed coats, because the temperature now had to be in the twenties.

  She looked around as she left the cozy warmth of the motel room. The motel office and the highway were on her right. MacNeil took her arm and steered her to the left, circling her behind a late-model pickup truck that was covered over with frost. "Hold it a minute," he said, and left her hidden by the truck’s bulk while he went around to the driver’s side. He opened the door and leaned in. She caught the faint metallic jingle of keys; then the motor started and settled into a quiet idle. She noticed with approval that the interior light hadn’t come on, which meant he had taken care of that little detail earlier.

  Interior lights. As he closed the truck door with a barely audible click, the neon light from the motel sign slanted across his high cheekbones, and a door opened in her mind.

  She remembered the way his face had looked last night as he drove, the grimness of his expression highlighted by the faint green glow from the dash.

  She remembered the desperation with which she had hidden her condition from him. She had been afraid to let him know how weak she was, how terribly her head hurt, that she was vulnerable in any way. He hadn’t said much, just driven in dark silence, but even through her pain she had felt the physical awareness running between them like a live electrical wire. If she showed any vulnerability, she’d thought, he would be on her. That was why he’d come with her, not because he was concerned about Sole Pleasure.

  Her thinking had been muddled by the knock she’d taken on the head. She had been terrified for Pleasure’s safety, trying to think of the best way to protect him, and she hadn’t been certain she could trust MacNeil. She had taken a big chance in asking for his help; he had given it without question, but afterward she’d been too unbalanced by the
concussion and the strength and unfamiliarity of her own sensual awareness of him to think straight.

  She had wound up exactly where she was afraid she would, under him in bed. And he hadn’t done a darn thing, except make her fall in love with him.

  "Come on," he said softly, not looking at her. In fact, he was looking at everything except her, his head swiveling, restless eyes noting every detail of their surroundings.

  The early morning was dark and silent, so cold that their breath fogged into ice crystals. No stars winked overhead, and she knew why when a few white flakes began drifting soundlessly to the ground. A cold breeze sliced through her jeans, freezing her legs.

  He led her across to a nondescript tan Oldsmobile that was backed into a parking slot between a scraggly bush, the motel’s attempt at landscaping, and a Volvo station wagon. She walked carefully, and her headache obliged by remaining bearable.

  He opened the rear door of the four-door car and put her inside, then he got into the front, beside his partner. Dean Pearsall was exactly as MacNeil had described him, thin and dark, as well as definitely puzzled. "What the hell’s going on?"

  Briefly MacNeil outlined the plan. Pearsall’s head swiveled, and he looked over the seat at Maris, doubt plain in his expression.

  "I can do it," she said, not giving him time to voice that doubt.

  "We have to work fast," MacNeil said. "Can you get the video equipment set up?"

  "Yeah," Pearsall replied. "Maybe. We’re cutting it damn close, though."

  "Then let’s not waste any more time." MacNeil popped open the glove box and removed a holstered pistol. He took it out, checked it, then slid it back into the holster before handing it back to Maris. "It’s a .38 revolver, five shots, and there’s a round under the hammer."

  She nodded and checked the weapon herself. A faint smile eased the grim line of his mouth as he watched her; he wouldn’t have taken someone else’s word on the state of a weapon’s readiness, either.

  "There’s a Kevlar vest on the seat beside you. It’ll be way too big for you, but put it on anyway," he instructed.

  "That’s your vest," Pearsall said.

  "Yeah, but she’s going to wear it."

  Maris slipped the revolver into her coat pocket and grabbed the vest. "I’ll put it on in the truck," she said as she opened the door and slid out. "We have to hurry."

  The snowflakes were still drifting down, ghostly in the predawn quiet. Their footsteps crunched on the gravel as she and MacNeil crossed the parking lot to the truck. The defroster had cleared the bottom half of the windshield, and that was enough for him to drive.

  He didn’t turn on the headlights until they were on the highway and he could tell there was nothing in sight in either direction except for the tan Oldsmobile, which had pulled out behind them. Then he hit the switch, and the green dash lights illuminated his face just as they had earlier.

  Maris shrugged out of her coat and into the Kevlar vest. It was heavy and far too big, so big it covered her hips, but she didn’t waste her time arguing about wearing the cumbersome garment, because she knew MacNeil would never give in on this.

  "I remember driving with you last night," she said.

  He glanced at her. "Your memory’s back?"

  "Not all of it. I still don’t remember who hit me on the head, or taking Pleasure. By the way, don’t you think you should tell me?"

  He grunted. "I don’t know who hit you. There’s a choice between at least three people, maybe more."

  "Ronald and Joan are two. Who’s the one you followed to Solomon Green?"

  "The new vet. Randy Yu."

  Maris was silent. That name surprised her; she would have thought of a lot of other people before she would have come up with the vet’s name. She’d been impressed with his skill, and he’d never shown anything but the utmost care for his four-legged patients. He was a quarter Chinese, in his middle thirties, and with the strength a veterinarian needed. If he was the one she’d tangled with, she was surprised she’d managed to get away from him with no more than a bump on the head. Of course, whoever she’d fought with wouldn’t have expected her to know how to fight, much less fight hard and dirty.

  "It makes sense," she said, thinking about it. "A quick injection, Pleasure dies of cardiac arrest, and it looks like natural causes. Not nearly as messy as a bullet."

  "But you ruined that plan for them," MacNeil said, harshness underlying the calm of his tone. "Now they’ll be planning to use bullets—for both you and the horse."

  Chapter 7

  Sole Pleasure wasn’t happy. He didn’t like being alone, he didn’t like being cramped in a small trailer for so long, and he was both hungry and thirsty. MacNeil had backed the horse trailer deep into a section of woods, so deep she didn’t know how he’d managed it, and Pleasure didn’t like the unfamiliar surroundings, either. He was a horse accustomed to open pastures, roomy stalls, noise and people. As soon as they got out of the truck they heard his angry neighing and the thud of one of his rear hooves repeatedly kicking against the back of the trailer.

  "He’ll hurt himself!" Maris hurried to the trailer, moving faster than she should have for the sake of her head, but if Pleasure managed to break his leg, he would have to be put down. "Easy, baby, easy," she crooned as she unlatched the back gate, the special note she used for her horses entering her tone. The kicking stopped immediately, and she could almost see the alert black ears swiveling to catch her voice.

  "Hold it." MacNeil’s hand came down on top of hers as she started to open the gate. "I’ll get him out. He’s fractious, and I don’t want him bumping you around. You stand over there and keep talking to him."

  She gave him a considering look as she moved to the side. Really, the man was acting as if this were the first time she’d ever been hurt. Anyone who worked with horses could expect to be kicked, bitten, bruised and bucked off—though she hadn’t been thrown since she’d been a kid. Still, she’d collected her share of injuries: Both arms had been broken, as well as her collarbone. She’d had a concussion before, too. What was the best way to handle an overprotective man, especially after you were married?

  Exactly the way her mother handled her father, she thought, grinning. By standing her ground, talking rings around him, and distracting him with sex, and by choosing her battles and sometimes actually letting him have his way. This was one of the times to not kick up a fuss. She would ignore him later, when the stakes were greater.

  MacNeil skillfully backed the big stallion out of the trailer; Pleasure came eagerly, happy to have company again, relieved to be unconfined. He showed his happiness by dancing around and playing, shoving MacNeil with his head and generally acting like any four-year-old. All things considered, Maris was just as happy not to be on the receiving end of those head butts, or to have to control all that power as he danced around. He would have been quieter for her—the horses found her especially soothing—but any jolt right now wasn’t fun.

  MacNeil led Pleasure away from the trailer, the stallion’s hooves almost soundless on the thick pad of pine needles and decomposing leaves that carpeted the forest floor. He tied the reins to a sapling and patted the animal’s glossy neck. "Okay, you can come over now," he called to Maris. "Keep him happy while I reposition the trailer."

  She took control of the stallion, calming him with her voice and hands. He was still hungry and thirsty, but he was such a curious, gregarious horse that his interest in the proceedings kept him occupied. Dean Pearsall had stopped the Oldsmobile farther back, positioning the car so its headlights lit the area. MacNeil got in the truck and put it in reverse, leaning out the open door to check his position as he backed the truck up to the trailer. He was good at it; it took some people forever to get the trailer hitch in the right position, but MacNeil did it on the first try. Pretty good for an FBI agent, Maris thought. He was a fed now, but he’d obviously spent a lot of time around horses in the past.

  It was snowing a little more heavily now, the headlight beams
catching the drifting flakes as they sifted through the bare branches of the hardwoods. The pines were beginning to acquire a dusting of white. MacNeil maneuvered the trailer around, threading it through the trees, repositioning it so that it directly faced the narrow trail they’d made and anyone coming down it wouldn’t be able to see that Pleasure wasn’t inside. There were high, narrow side windows in the trailer, but none in front.

  As soon as the trailer was in position and MacNeil had unhooked the truck and pulled away, Pearsall went to work, squirming underneath the trailer and setting up a video camera so that it couldn’t easily be seen but would still have a good angle on anyone approaching the trailer.

  MacNeil turned to Maris. "While Dean’s working, let’s get Pleasure tucked away back in the woods." He checked the luminous hands on his watch. "We need to be out of here in five minutes, ten tops."

  The trailer contained blankets that had been used to cover the mare who had been brought to Solomon Green the day before. Maris got the darkest one and spread it across Pleasure’s broad back. He liked that, swaying his muscular rump as if he were doing the hootchie-cootchie, and blowing in the particular way he did when he was pleased. She laughed, the sound quiet and loving, as she reached up to hug his big neck. He lipped her hair, but gently, as if he’d somehow realized by the way she moved that she wasn’t quite up to speed.

  "This way." MacNeil’s voice held an odd note as he handed a flashlight to Maris, then untied the reins and began leading Pleasure deeper into the trees. He curved his other arm around Maris, holding her close to his side as they walked. Between the oversize Kevlar vest and her thick down jacket, he couldn’t feel her, so he slipped his hand under the coat, under the vest, resting it on the swell of her hip. "How are you feeling?" he asked as they picked their way through the dark woods, stepping over fallen limbs and evading bushes that clutched at their clothes.

  "Okay." She smiled up at him, letting herself lean closer into the heat and strength of his big body. "I’ve had a concussion before, and though this one isn’t any fun, I don’t think it’s as bad as the first one. The pain is going away faster, so I don’t understand why I can’t remember what happened."

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