MacKenzie's Magic (Chapter 1)
The problem is, she was wanted for horse theft, but she was banged on the head and doesn't remember what happened or how she got there. With no memory, she had little chance of proving her innocence or eluding the villains behind the prize stallion's mysterious disappearance. Her only hope for salvation? The stranger in her bed. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Dear Reader,
Not all that long ago, the world was a much slower place. Generations of a family would be born, grow up, marry, set up their own homes, and all stay within the same neighborhood. It wasn't unusual for a house to be home to three generations at the same time. Babies were born in the same house where grandparents died, and there was a wonderful sense of continuity, of roots, that has gone by the wayside now as families scatter to the four corners of the earth.
But we still have that yearning for the safe place of our hearts, the center of the family, and Christmas is the perfect expression of that "Are you going home for Christmas?" is a phrase spoken thousands¡Xmillions¡Xof times as the holiday nears. People seldom live in the same house their entire lives now, but the house isn't the home; the family is. The family is the sanctuary, and people travel untold miles to reach it every year at that special time, the time of Christmas. I hope you reach your sanctuary, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. Linda Howard Chapter One Her head hurt.
The pain thudded against the inside of her skull, pounded on her eyeballs. Her stomach stirred uneasily, as if awakened by all the commotion. "My head hurts." Maris Mackenzie voiced the complaint in a low, vaguely puzzled tone. She never had headaches; despite her delicate appearance, she possessed in full the Mackenzie iron constitution. The oddity of her condition was what had startled her into speaking aloud.
She didn't open her eyes, didn't bother to look at the dock. The alarm hadn't gone off, so it wasn't time to get up. Perhaps if she went back to sleep the headache would go away. "I'll get you some aspirin." Maris's eyes snapped open, and the movement made her head give a sickening throb.
The voice was male, but even more startling, it had been right beside her; so close, in fact, that the man had only murmured the words and still his warm breath had stirred against her ear. The bed shifted as he sat up.
There was a soft click as he turned on the bedside lamp, and the light exploded in her head. Quickly she squeezed her eyes shut again, but not before she saw a man's broad, strongly muscled, naked back, and a well-shaped head covered with short, thick dark hair.
Confused panic seized her. Where was she? Even more important, who was he? She wasn't in her bedroom; one glance had told her that. The bed beneath her was firm, comfortable, but not hers.
An exhaust fan whined to life when he turned on the bathroom light. She didn't risk opening her eyes again, but instead relied on her other senses to orient herself. A motel, then. That was it. And the strange whump-ing sound she had only now heard was the blower of the room's climate-control unit. She had slept in plenty of motels, but never before with a man. Why was she in a motel, anyway, instead of her own comfortable little house close by the stables? The only time she stayed in motels was when she was traveling to or from a job, and since she had settled in Kentucky a couple of years ago the only traveling she'd done had been when she went home to visit the family.
It was an effort to think. She couldn't come up with any reason at all why she was in a motel with a strange man.
Sharp disappointment filled her, temporarily piercing the fogginess in her brain. She had never slept around before, and she was disgusted with herself for having done so now, an episode she didn't remember with a man she didn't know.
She knew she should leave, but she couldn't seem to muster the energy it would take to jump out of bed and escape. Escape? She wondered fuzzily at the strange choice of word. She was free to leave any time she wanted…if she could only manage to move. Her body felt heavily relaxed, content to do nothing more than lie there. She needed to do something, she was certain, but she couldn't quite grasp what that something was. Even aside from the pain in her head, her mind felt fuzzy, and her thoughts were vague and drifting.
The mattress shifted again as he sat down beside her, this time on the side of the bed closest to the wall, away from the hurtful light. Carefully Maris risked opening her eyes just a little; perhaps it was because she was prepared for the pain, but the resultant throb seemed to have lessened. She squinted up at the big man, who sat so close to her that his body heat penetrated the sheet that covered her. He was facing her now; she could see more of him than just his back. Her eyes widened. It was him.
"Here you go," he said, handing the aspirin to her. His voice was a smooth, quiet baritone, and though she didn't think she'd ever spoken to him before, something about that voice was strangely familiar.
She fumbled the aspirin from his hand and popped them into her mouth, making a face at both the bitter taste of the pills and her own idiocy. Of course his voice was familiar! After all, she'd been in bed with him, so she supposed she had talked to him beforehand, even if she couldn't remember meeting him, or how she'd gotten here.
He held out a glass of water. Maris tried to prop herself up on her elbow to take it, but her head throbbed so violently that she sank back against the pillow, wincing with pain as she put her hand to her forehead. What was wrong with her? She was never sick, never clumsy. This sudden uncooperativeness of her own body was alarming.
"Let me do it." He slipped his arm under her shoulders and effortlessly raised her to a sitting position, bracing her head in the curve of his arm and shoulder. He was warm and strong, his scent musky, and she wanted to press herself closer. The need surprised her, because she'd never before felt that way about a man. He held the glass to her lips, and she gulped thirstily, washing down the pills. When she was finished, he eased her down and removed his arm. She felt a pang of regret at the loss of his touch, astonishing herself.
Fuzzily she watched him walk around the bed. He was tall, muscular, his body showing the strength of a man who did physical work instead of sitting in an office all day. To her mingled relief and disappointment, he wasn't completely naked; he wore a pair of dark gray knit boxers, the fabric clinging snugly to his muscled butt and thighs. Dark hair covered his broad chest, and beard stubble darkened his jaw. He wasn't handsome, but he had a physical presence that drew the eye. It had drawn hers, anyway, since she'd first seen him two weeks ago, forking down hay in the barn.
Her reaction then had been so out of character that she had pushed it out of her mind and ignored it, or at least she had tried. She had deliberately not spoken to him whenever their paths crossed, she who had always taken pains to know everyone who worked with her horses. He threatened her, somehow, on some basic level that brought all her inner defenses screaming to alert. This man was dangerous.
He had watched her, too. She'd turned around occasionally and found his gaze on her, his expression guarded, but still, she'd felt the male heat of his attention. He was just temporary help, a drifter who needed a couple of weeks' pay in his pocket before he drifted away again, while she was the trainer at Solomon Green Horse Farms. It was a prestigious position for anyone, but for a woman to hold the job was a first. Her reputation in the horse world had made her a sort of celebrity, something she didn't particularly enjoy; she would rather be with the horses than putting on an expensive dress and adorning a party, but the Stonichers, who owned Solomon Green, often requested her presence. Maris wasn't a snob, but her position on the farm was worlds apart from that of a drifter hired to muck out the stables.
He knew his way around horses, though; she'd noticed that about him. He was comfortable with the big animals, and they liked him, which had drawn her helpless attention even more. She hadn't wanted to pay attention to the way his jeans stretched across his butt when he bent or squatted, something that he seemed to do a thousand times a day as he worked. She didn't want to notice the muscles that strained the shoulder seams of his shirts as he hefted loaded shovels or pitchforks. He had good hands, strong and lean; she hadn't wanted to notice them, either, or the intelligence in his blue eyes. He might be a drifter, but he drifted for his own reasons, not because he wasn't capable of making a more stable life for himself.
She'd never had time for a man in her life, hadn't particularly been interested. All her attention had been focused on horses, and building her career. In the privacy of her bed at night, when she wasn't able to sleep and her restless body felt too hot for comfort, she had admitted to herself the irony of her hormones finally being kicked into full gallop by a man who would likely be gone in a matter of weeks, if not days. The best thing to do, she'd decided, would be to continue ignoring him and the uncomfortable yearnings that made her want to be close to him. Evidently she hadn't succeeded.
She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the light as she watched him return the water glass to the bathroom, and only then did she notice what she herself was wearing. She wasn't naked; she was wearing her panties, and a big T-shirt that drooped off her shoulders. His T-shirt, specifically. Had he undressed her, or had she done it herself? If she looked around, would she find their clothes haphazardly tossed together? The thought of him undressing her interfered with her lung function, constricting her chest and stifling her oxygen flow. She wanted to remember, she needed to remember,but the night was a blank. She should get up and put on her own clothes, she thought. She should, but she couldn't. All she could do was lie there and cope with the pain in her head while she tried to make sense of senseless things.
He was watching her as he came back to bed, his blue eyes narrowed, the color of his irises vivid even in the dim light. "Are you all right?"
She swallowed. "Yes." It was a lie, but for some reason she didn't want him to know she was as incapacitated as she really was. Her gaze drifted over his hairy chest and flat belly, down to the masculine bulge beneath those tight boxers. Had they really… ? For what other reason would they be in a motel bed together? But if they had, why were they both wearing underwear?
Something about those sophisticated boxer shorts teemed a little out of place on a guy who did grunt work on a horse farm. She would have expected plain white briefs.
He turned off the lamp and stretched out beside her, the warmth of his body wrapping around her as he settled the sheet over them. He lay on his side, facing her, one arm curled under his pillow and the other resting across her belly, holding her close without actually wrapping her in his embrace. It struck her as a carefully measured position, close without being intimate. She tried to remember his name, and couldn't.
She cleared her throat. She couldn't imagine what he would think of her, but she couldn't bear this fogginess in her mind any longer. She had to bring order to this confusion, and the best way to do that was to start with the basics. "I'm sorry," she said softly, almost whispering. "But I don't remember your name, or¡Xor how we got here."
He went rigid, his arm tightening across her belly. For a long moment he didn't move. Then, with a muffled curse, he sat bolt upright, the action jarring her head and making her moan. He snapped on the bedside lamp again, and she closed her eyes against, the stabbing light.
"Damn it," he muttered, bending over her. He sank his long fingers into her hair, sifting through the tousled silk as he stroked his fingertips over her skull. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt?" "I didn't know I was." It was the truth. What did he mean, hurt?
"I should have guessed." His voice was grim, his mouth set in a thin line. "I knew you were pale, and you didn't eat much, but I thought it was just stress." He continued probing, and his fingers brushed a place on the side of her head that made her suck in her breath as a sickening throb of pain sliced through her temples.
"Ah." Gently he turned her in to him, cradling her against his shoulder while he examined the injury. His fingers barely touched her scalp. "You have a nice goose egg here." "Good," she mumbled. "I'd hate for it to be a bad goose egg." He gave her another narrow-eyed look, something he had down to an art. "You have a concussion, damn it. Are you nauseated? How's your vision?" "The light hurts," she admitted. "But my vision isn't blurred." "What about nausea?" "A little."
"And I've been letting you sleep," he growled to himself, half under his breath. "You need to be in a hospital."
"No," she said immediately, alarm jangling through her. The last thing she wanted was to go to a hospital. She didn't know why, but some instinct told her to stay away from public places. "It's safer here." In a very controlled tone he said, "I can handle the safety. You need to see a doctor."
Again there was that nagging sense of familiarity, but she couldn't quite grasp what it was. There were other, more serious, things to worry about, however, so she let it go. She took stock of her physical condition, because a concussion could be serious, and she might indeed need to be in a hospital. There was the headache, the nausea… What else? Vision good, speech not slurred. Memory? Rapidly she ran through her family, remembering names and birthdays, thinking of her favorite horses through the years. Her memory was intact, except for… She tried to pinpoint her last memory. The last thing she could remember was eating lunch and walking down to the stables, but when had that been?
"I think I'm going to be okay," she said absently. "If you don't mind, answer a couple of questions for me. First, what's your name, and second, how did we wind up in bed together?" "My name's MacNeil," he said, watching her closely.
MacNeil. MacNeil. Memory rushed back, bringing with it his first name, too. "I remember," she breathed. "Alex MacNeil." His name had struck her when she'd first heard it, because it was so similar to the name of one of her nephews, Alex Mackenzie, her brother Joe's second-oldest son. Not only were their first names the same, but their last names both indicated the same heritage. "Right. As for your second question, I think what you're really asking is if we had sex. The answer is no." She sighed with relief, then frowned a little. "Then why are we here?" she asked in bewilderment. He shrugged. "We seem to have stolen a horse," he said. Chapter Two
Stolen a horse? Maris blinked at him in total bewilderment, as if he'd said something in a foreign language. She'd asked him why they were in bed together, and he'd said they had stolen a horse. Not only was it ridiculous that she would steal a horse, but she couldn't see any connection at all between horse thievery and sleeping with Alex MacNeil.
Then a memory twinged in her aching head, and she went still as she tried to solidify the confused picture. She remembered moving rapidly, driven by an almost blinding sense of urgency, down the wide center aisle of the barn, toward the roomy, luxurious stall in the middle of the row. Sole Pleasure was a gregarious horse; he loved company, and that was why his stall was in the middle, so he would have companionship on both sides. She also remembered the fury that had gripped her; she'd never been so angry before in her life. "What'is it?" he asked, still watching her so intently that she imagined he knew every line of her face. "The horse we 'seem' to have stolen is it Sole Pleasure?"
"The one and only. If every cop in the country isn't already after us, they will be in a matter of hours." He paused. "What were you planning on doing with him?"
It was a good question. Sole Pleasure was the most famous horse in America right now, and very recognizable, with his sleek black coat, white star, and white stocking on the right foreleg. He'd been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, had been named their Athlete of the Year. He'd won over two million dollars in his short career and been retired at the grand old age of four to be syndicated at stud. The Stonichers were still weighing the offers, determined to make the best deal. The horse was black gold prancing around on four powerful, lightning-fast legs.
What had she been going to do with him? She stared at the ceiling, trying to bring the hours missing from her memory back to the surface of consciousness. Why would she steal Sole Pleasure? She wouldn't have sold him, or raced him in disguise, of course, on her own. She rejected those possibilities out of hand. Stealing a horse was so foreign to her nature that she was at a loss to explain having apparently done exactly that. The only reason she could even imagine having for taking a horse would be the animal was in danger. She could see herself doing that, though she was more likely to take a whip to anyone mistreating one of her babies, or any horse at all, for that matter. She couldn't bear seeing them hurt. Or killed. The thought knifed through her, and suddenly she knew. Oh, God, she knew.
She jerked upright in bed. Instantly pain mushroomed inside her skull, the pressure almost blinding her for a second. She gave a gasping, almost soundless cry; a hard arm shot upward and closed around her, preventing her getting up, but it didn't matter anyway. She felt her muscles going slack, unable to support her, and she slumped over on him. The pain quickly subsided to a far more manageable level, but the moment of agony left her weak and shaking, collapsed on his chest, in his arms, her eyes closed as she tried to recover from the shock. MacNeil gently turned so that she was flat on her back and he was half over her, one heavy, hairy, muscled leg thrown across her much slimmer ones, his arm under her neck, his broad shoulders blocking the light from her closed eyelids. One big hand covered her left breast, the contact brief and warm and electrifying, then moved up to her throat. She felt his fingers pressing against the artery there, then a soft sigh eased from him, and he brie fly leaned down to press his forehead against hers, very gently, as if he were afraid the touch might hurt her. She swallowed, trying to control her breathing. That was the limit of her control, though, because there was nothing she could do about the speed at which her blood was thundering through her veins. Only the thought of Sole Pleasure kept her focused. Maris gulped, opening her eyes and staring up at him. "They were going to kill him," she said in a stifled tone. "I remember. They were going to kill him!" Renewed rage bubbled in her bloodstream, giving force to the last sentence. "So you stole him to save his life."