Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  Her bewilderment was plain, and his fingers tightened on her hip. "A different part of your brain is affected, I guess. And parts of your memory are already coming back, so by tomorrow you’ll probably remember everything."

  She hoped so; these blank holes in her life were unsettling. It was just a matter of a few hours now, as she regained partial memory of things that had happened both before and after she was hit, but she didn’t like not knowing everything that had happened. She remembered driving with MacNeil, but why couldn’t she remember arriving at the motel?

  Only one way to find out what she wanted to know. "Did I undress myself?"

  Glancing up, she saw him smile at the abrupt change of subject. His voice deepened, evidence of the way the memory affected him. "It was a joint effort."

  Maybe she would have been embarrassed an hour ago, but not now. Instead she felt a sort of aroused contentment fill her at the thought of him pulling off his T-shirt and putting it on her, the soft cotton still warm from his body.

  "Did you touch me?" The whispered words were like heated honey, flowing over him, telling him how much she liked the idea.

  "No, you were too out of it." But he’d wanted to, he thought. God, how he’d wanted to. He helped her over a fallen tree, supporting her so that she wouldn’t stumble, but he was remembering how she’d looked sitting on the side of the bed, wearing nothing but her panties, her eyes closing, her pale hair floating around her delicate, satiny shoulders. Her breasts were high, firm, small but deliciously round, her nipples like dark pink little crowns. His right hand clenched on the reins; his palm was actually aching to touch her now, to fill his hand with that cool, richly resilient flesh and warm it with his loving.

  "Well, darn," she said sedately, and in the glow of the flashlight he saw the welcome in her night-dark eyes.

  He inhaled deeply, reaching for control. They had no time for any delay, much less one that would last an hour. An hour? He gave a mental snort. Who was he kidding? He was so worked up that five minutes was more like it, and that was only if his self-control turned out to be a lot stronger than it felt right now.

  "Later," he promised, his voice a rough growl of need. Later, when this was settled and his job done. Later, when he could take the time with her that he wanted to take, behind a locked door and with the telephone off the hook. Later, when she felt better, damn it, and wasn’t dealing with a concussion. He figured it would be two days, at least, before her headache was gone—two long, hellish days.

  He stopped and looked back. They had gone far enough that he could no longer see the headlights through the trees. A small hollow dipped just ahead, and he led Sole Pleasure into it. The hollow blocked the wind, and tall trees leaning overhead protected him from the light snow. "You’ll be okay here for a couple of hours," he told the horse as he tied the reins to a low, sturdy branch. Pleasure would be able to move around some, and if there were any edible leaves or stray blades of grass, he would be able to graze within a small area.

  "Be good," Maris admonished the horse, stroking his forehead. "We won’t be gone long. Then we’ll take you back to your big, comfortable stall, and you can have your favorite feed, and an apple for dessert." He blew softly, then bobbed his head up and down in agreement. She didn’t know how many actual words he understood, but he definitely understood the love in her voice, and he knew she was telling him good stuff.

  MacNeil took the flashlight from her hand and settled his arm around her again as they walked back to the truck. Pleasure neighed his disapproval of being left alone, but soon the trees blotted out the sound and there was only the rustle of their feet in the leaves.

  "You know what to do," he said. "They won’t follow you too closely on the highway, because they won’t want to make you suspicious. Let them see where you leave the road, but then drive as fast as you can, to give yourself as much time as possible. They’ll be able to follow the tracks. Pull up to the trailer, get out of the truck and get into the trees. Don’t waste time, don’t look back to see what I’m doing. Get into a protected place and stay there until either Dean or I come for you. If anyone else shows up, use that pistol."

  "You need the vest more than I do." Worry gnawed at her. He was sending her out of harm’s way, while he would be right in the middle of it, without protection.

  "They might pull in before you’re completely out of sight and get a shot off at you. The only way I’ll let you do this is if you’re wearing the vest."

  There that stubborn streak was again, she thought. Streak? Ha! He was permeated with it. She was beginning to think that if she scratched his skin, stubbornness would ooze out instead of blood. Living with him was going to be interesting; as he’d noted, she was used to being the boss, and so was he. She looked forward to the fights—and to the making up.

  Pearsall was waiting for them when they got back. "Everything’s ready," he said. "There’s a six-hour tape in the camera, and the battery pack is fully charged. Now, if we can just get back into position before the bad guys show up, we’re set."

  MacNeil nodded. "You leave first. We’ll let you get out of sight before we follow. Radio if you see anything suspicious."

  "Give me an extra minute so I can swing through the motel parking lot to make sure there aren’t any new arrivals. Then I’ll pull back and take up position." Pearsall got into the car and backed out, his headlights bobbing through the trees.

  Darkness settled around them as they listened to the sound of the car fading in the distance. MacNeil opened the passenger door of the truck and put his hands on Maris’s waist, lifting her onto the seat. In the darkness, his face was only a pale blur. "Whatever happens, make sure you stay safe," he growled, and bent his head to her.

  His lips were cold, and firm. Maris wound her arms around his neck and opened her mouth to him as he deepened the kiss, slanting his head for better contact. His tongue wasn’t cold at all, but hot and strong, and her entire body tightened with excitement as she leaned closer to him. It wasn’t enough; with the pleasure came frustration. She swiveled on the seat to face him, parting her legs so that he stood between them, pressed hard against her as the kiss changed yet again, into something fierce with need.

  It was their first kiss, but there was no tentativeness, no searching. They already knew each other, had already made the inner adjustment to the hot ache of physical desire, and accepted the hunger. They were already lovers, though their bodies hadn’t yet been joined. The pact had been made. Invisible strands of attraction had been pulling them together from the first, and the web was almost complete.

  He tore his mouth away from hers, breathing hard, his breath fogging in the cold air. "No more," he said, the words strained. "Not now. I’m as hard as a rock already, and if we—" He broke off. "We have to go. Now."

  "Have we given Dean enough time?"

  "Hell, I don’t know! All I know is that I’m about ten seconds away from pulling your jeans off, and if we don’t go now, the whole plan is blown."

  She didn’t want to let him go. Her arms didn’t want to release their hold on him, her thighs didn’t want to loosen from around his hips. But she did it, forced herself to open her embrace, because she could feel the truth pushing against her.

  In silence he stepped back, and she turned in the seat so that she faced forward. He closed the door, then walked stiffly around the truck to climb in under the steering wheel, a look of acute discomfort on his face.

  She wasn’t good for his sanity, he thought as he started the truck and put it in gear. She made him forget about the job and think only about sex. Not sex in general, but sex in particular. Sex with her. Again and again, holding that slim body beneath him until he was satisfied.

  He tried to imagine being sated with her, and he couldn’t. Alarm tingled through him. He tried to think of some of the other women he’d slept with over the years, but their names wouldn’t come to mind, their faces eluded him, and there was no concrete memory of how any of them had felt. There was only her mouth
, her breasts, her legs. Her voice, her body in his arms, her hair spread across the pillow. He could imagine her in the shower with him, her face across the table from him every morning, her clothes hanging beside his in the closet.

  The most frightening thing was that it was so damn easy to imagine it all. The only thing that frightened him more was the thought that it might not happen, that he was actually using her in a setup where she could be hurt, despite all the pains he was taking to keep her safe.

  They left the cover of the woods, and he eased the truck across the rutted ditch and onto the highway. No headlights appeared in either direction. Fat snowflakes swirled and danced in the beams of their own headlights, and the low clouds blocked any hint of the approaching dawn.

  The radio remained silent, meaning Dean hadn’t seen anything suspicious. After several minutes the lights of the motel sign came into view, and a few seconds after that they passed the Oldsmobile, pulled off on the side of the road and were facing back the way they’d come. It looked unoccupied, but Mac knew Dean was there, watching everything. No vehicle could approach the motel without being seen.

  He pulled into the parking lot and backed into a slot, so that she could get out faster. He left the engine running, though he killed the lights. He turned to face her. "You know what to do. Do exactly that and nothing else. Understand?"


  "All right. I’m going to get into the back of the truck now. If the fools start shooting early, hit the floorboards and stay there."

  "Yes, sir," she said, this time with a hint of dryness.

  He paused with his hand on the door handle. He looked at her and muttered something under his breath. Then she was in his arms again, and his mouth was hard, urgent, as he kissed her. He let her go as abruptly as he’d grabbed her, and got out of the truck. Without another word, he closed the door, then vaulted lightly into the truck bed, where he lay down out of sight and waited for a killer to appear.

  Chapter 8

  The motel was located where a small side road entered the main highway. The highway ran in front of the motel, the secondary road along the right side. Dean had checked out the little road as soon as he arrived and found that it wandered aimlessly through the rural area. No one looking for them was likely to arrive by that route, because it went nowhere and took its time getting there. The Stonichers and/ or their hired killer would be on the highway, checking motels, following the faint but deliberate trail Mac had left. The plan was for Maris to let their pursuers catch a glimpse of her as she drove around the back of the motel and onto the secondary road. She would turn left, then right, onto the highway. They would notice immediately that she wasn’t pulling the horse trailer, so instead of trying to cut her off, they would hang back and follow her, expecting her to lead them to Sole Pleasure.

  At least Mac hoped that was how it worked. If Yu was the only one following them, that was how it would go down. Yu was a professional; he would keep his head. If anyone else was with him, the unpredictability factor shot sky-high.

  It was cold in the back of the truck. He had forgotten to get any blankets to cover himself, and the snow was still falling. Mac huddled deeper into his coat and tried to be thankful he was out of the wind. It wasn’t working.

  The minutes dragged by, drawn out agonizingly by his tension as he waited. Dawn finally began to penetrate the cloud cover, the darkness fading to a deep gray, though true daylight was at least an hour away. Traffic would begin picking up soon, making it difficult for Dean to spot their tail. People would begin leaving the motel, complicating the traffic pattern even more. And better light would make it more difficult for Maris to hide in the woods.

  "Come on, come on," he muttered. Had he made the trail too difficult?

  Right on cue, the radio clicked. Mac keyed it once in reply, then gave a single rap on the back of the cab to alert Maris, who had shifted into position behind the wheel.

  The radio clicked again, twice this time. Quickly he rapped twice on the cab. Maris put the truck into gear and eased out of the parking slot. She was turning the corner behind the motel when headlights flashed across the cab as a vehicle pulled into the lot, and Mac knew the lure had been cast. In a few seconds they would know if the bait had been taken.

  Maris kept the truck at an even pace. Her instinct was to hurry, but she didn’t want whoever was following them to know they’d been spotted. The car hadn’t turned the corner behind them by the time she pulled onto the secondary road, so if it was them, they were hanging back, not wanting her to spot them.

  She stopped at the stop sign, then turned right onto the highway. Watching her rearview mirror as she turned, she saw the car easing out from behind the motel. Its lights were off now, and its gray color made it difficult to spot in the faint light; she wouldn’t have noticed it at all if she hadn’t been looking for it.

  They were driving Ronald’s gray Cadillac. Maris had only seen it once or twice, because she usually dealt with Joan, who drove a white BMW. The driveway wasn’t visible from the stables, and she seldom paid attention to the comings and goings at the big house. All that interested her was at the stables.

  Still, she wondered that they would drive one of their personal cars at all, until she realized that it didn’t matter. Sole Pleasure was their horse, and no crime had been committed. If she had called the police, it would have been their word against hers that a crime had even been attempted, and no one in the world would believe the Stonichers were willing to kill a horse worth over twenty million dollars.

  Dean’s Oldsmobile was nowhere in sight. Maris hoped she was giving him the time he needed to drive the car deep enough into the woods that it couldn’t be seen and to work his way into position on foot.

  Watching the mirror, she saw the Cadillac turn onto the highway behind her. Without its headlights on, and with the swirling snow cutting visibility, she could barely make out the gray bulk. They would be able to see her much better than she could see them, though, because her lights were on; that was why they were hanging back so far, because they were unable to judge how visible they themselves were.

  Their caution was working for her and against them. The distance would give her a few extra seconds to get out of the truck and hide, a few seconds longer for Dean to get set, a few seconds longer that Mac was safe. She tried not to think of him lying on the cold metal bed, unprotected from any stray bullets except by a thin sheet of metal that wouldn’t even slow down a lead slug.

  It was only a few miles to the place where she would leave the road and drive into the woods. A couple of times the snow became so heavy that she couldn’t see the Cadillac behind her. The white flakes were beginning to dust the ground, but it was a dry, fluffy snow that swirled up with every breath of wind, and the passage of the truck blew it off the highway.

  She maintained a steady speed, assuming they could see her, even though she couldn’t see the Cadillac. She couldn’t do anything that would make them suspicious. Finally she passed the mile marker that told her she was close, and she began braking, looking for the tire ruts where they’d driven before. There. She steered the truck off the highway, bouncing across the ditch faster than, for the sake of her head, she wanted to, but she didn’t want to go any slower than she already was. Now that they had seen her leave the highway, she wanted to go as fast as she could, to gain a few more of those precious seconds.

  Her headache, which had lessened but never disappeared, increased in severity with each bounce. She ignored it, gritting her teeth against the pain, concentrating on steering the truck on the narrow, winding path MacNeil had already blazed through the trees. She couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to do this with the trailer in tow, but it was a testament to both his stubbornness and skill that he had.

  The Cadillac wouldn’t be able to take the bumps and holes as fast as the truck did; it was too low to the ground. More seconds gained.

  A bare limb scraped over the windshield, then her headlights caught the dark
bulk of the trailer, almost concealed among the trees. Now. She parked the truck in the exact position MacNeil had decreed, killed the lights so the glare wouldn’t blind the camera hidden under the trailer, then slipped out the door and walked swiftly to the trailer and then beyond it. She cut sharply to the left, stepping in places where the snow hadn’t sifted down. She left no tracks as she removed herself from the scene so he could do his job without worrying about her.

  She’d caught movement in her peripheral vision as she walked away, a big, dark shape silently rolling over the side of the truck bed to conceal himself behind one of the tires. At least he would have some protection, she thought, trying to console herself with that. His mind might be easier now, but hers certainly wasn’t. He needed the vest she was wearing; she would never forgive herself if he was killed because she’d agreed to take his vest. It would have been better to remove herself entirely, even if it meant they wouldn’t be able to get any solid evidence against the Stonichers. The FBI would get another crack at Randy Yu, but she would never find another MacNeil.

  She’d gone far enough. She stopped, her back against a big oak. Snowflakes drifted silently down in the gray dawn, settling in a lacy cap on her unprotected head. She leaned her aching head against the tree and closed her eyes, listening, waiting, her breath almost halted, her heart barely beating, waiting.

  Mac waited, his eyes never leaving the rutted trail. They might drive right up to the truck, but if Yu was in charge, they would probably get out of the car and come the rest of the way on foot. He and Dean were prepared for both circumstances. The underbrush was thick; if they tried to force their way through it, they would make a lot of noise. The best thing to do was to walk up the trail, staying close to the edges. Maris had parked the truck so that they could bypass it only on the driver’s side; the tailgate on the passenger side was right up against the bushes. Anyone coming along that trail would be funneled into the camera’s view and duly recorded on tape.

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