MacKenzie's Magic (Chapter 4)

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 fed 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 initially 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, some-one 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 mouthwateringly 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?" 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 Six "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 have 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 pate 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." 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 quickthinking, 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 bead faster than a bit 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 some-thing 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."