MacKenzie's Magic (Chapter 7)

Her head was throbbing, both from Pleasure's skittishness and from her own desperate run through the woods. She'd heard him moving through the trees, and in a flash she'd known exactly what had happened, what he would do. How he'd gotten free didn't matter; he had heard and smelted them, and pranced happily to greet them, sure of his welcome. She'd known he would catch her scent on MacNeil's clothes and go straight to him. It had been a toss-up which of them would be shot first, MacNeil or Pleasure. All she could do was try to get there in time to draw the horse's attention, as well as everyone else's.

For one awful, hellish moment, when Pleasure screamed and she saw Joan swing back toward MacNeil, she'd thought she'd lost everything. She had stepped out from the trees, moving in what felt like slow motion. She couldn't hear anything then, not even Pleasure; she hadn't been able to see anything except Joan, her vision narrowing to a tunnel with her target as the focus. She hadn't been aware of whistling again, or of taking the pistol from her pocket, but the weapon had been in her hand and her finger had been smoothly tightening on the trigger when Joan jerked yet again, panicked, this time aiming at Maris. That was when Mac had shot her. At such close range, just across the hood of the truck, his aim had been perfect. The bullet had shattered her upper arm.

Joan would probably never have use of that arm again, Maris thought dispassionately. She couldn't bring herself to care.

The entire scene had been recorded, complete with audio. The camera had playback capability and Dean had obliged the sheriff by playing the tape for him. Both Yu and Joan were nailed, and Yu, being the professional he was, was currently bargaining for all he was worth. He was willing to carry others down with him if it would lighten his sentence.

It had stopped snowing, though the day hadn't gotten any warmer. Her hands were icy, but she couldn't leave Pleasure to warm them. Blood glistened on his black chest and down his legs, staining his white stocking, splattering on the snow-frosted leaves and on Maris. She whispered to him, controlling him mostly with her voice, crooning reassurance and love to him while she held his bridle in one hand and with the other held some gauze the medics had given her to the wound on his chest. She had asked a deputy to contact a vet, but as yet no one had shown up.

Yu could have seen to the horse, but he hadn't offered, and Maris wouldn't have trusted him, anyway. It was he who had hit her on the head. As soon as she saw him again she had remembered that much, remembered his upraised arm, the cold, remorseless expression in his dark eyes. Other memories were still vague, and there were still blank spots, but they were gradually filling in.

She must have gone to the big house to see Joan about something. She didn't know why, but she remembered standing with her hand raised to knock, and freezing as Joan's voice filtered through the door.

"Randy's going to do it tonight. While everyone's eating will be a good time. I told him we couldn't wait any longer, the syndicates are pushing for a decision."

"Damn, I hate this," Ronald Stonicher had said. "Poor Pleasure's been a good horse. Are you certain the drug won't be detected?" "Randy says it won't, and it's his can on the line," Joan had coolly replied.

Maris had backed away, so angry she could barely contain herself. Her first concern had been for Pleasure. It was the time when the stable hands would either be eating or have gone home for the night. She couldn't delay a moment.

Her next memory was of running down the aisle to his stall. She must have surprised Randy Yu there, though she didn't remember actually coming up on him. She remembered enough to testify, though, even if she never remembered anything else, and assuming her testimony was needed. The tape was solid evidence.

Another vehicle joined the tangle, and a roly-poly man in his late fifties, sporting a crew cut, got out of a battered pickup truck. He trudged wearily toward Maris, clutching a big black bag in his hand. Finally, the vet, she thought. Dark circles under his eyes told her that he'd probably been up late, possibly all night, with an ailing animal.

Tired or not, he knew horses. He stopped, taking in Pleasure's magnificent lines, the star on his forehead, the bloodstained white stocking. "That's Sole Pleasure," he said in astonishment.

"Yes, and he's been shot," Maris said tersely. Her head was throbbing; even her eyeballs ached. If Pleasure didn't settle down soon, her head would likely explode. "No internal organs affected, but some chest muscle torn. He won't settle down and let the bleeding stop."

"Let's take care of that problem, first off. I'm George Norton, the vet hereabouts." He was working as he spoke, setting down the bag and opening it. He prepared a hypodermic and stepped forward, smoothly injecting the sedative into one of the bulging veins in Pleasure's neck. The stallion danced nervously, his shoulder shoving her once again. She clenched her teeth, enduring.

"He'll quiet down in a minute." The vet gave her a sharp glance as he peeled away the blood-soaked gauze she'd been holding to the wound. "No offense, but even with the blood, the horse looks in better shape than you do. Are you all right?" "Concussion."

"Then for God's sake stop letting him bump you around like that," he said sharply. "Sit down somewhere before you fall down."

Even in the midst of everything that was going on, as the medics readied Joan for transport, Mac somehow heard the vet. All of a sudden he was there, looming behind her, reaching over her shoulder for Pleasure's bridle. "I'll hold him." The words sounded as if he were spitting them out one at a time, like bullets. "Sit down." "I" She'd started to say "I think I will," but she didn't have a chance to finish the sentence. He assumed she was about to mount an argument, and barked out one word. "Sit!"

"I wasn't going to argue," she snapped back. What did he think she was, a dog? Sit, indeed. She felt more like lying down.

She decided to do just that. Pleasure was going to be all right; as soon as he quieted and let the vet do his work, the bleeding would stop. The torn muscle would have to be stitched, antibiotics administered, a bandage secured, but the horse would heal. Even though the truck and trailer were stolen, under the circumstances she couldn't imagine that there would be any problem with using them to transport Pleasure back to Solomon Green. Until the vet was finished and Pleasure was loaded in the trailer, she intended to stretch out on the truck seat.

Wearily she climbed into the cab. The keys were still in the ignition, so she started the engine and turned on the heater. She took off her coat, removed the Kevlar vest and placed it in the floorboards, then lay down on the seat and pulled the coat over her.

She almost cried with relief as the pain immediately began easing now that she was still. She closed her eyes, letting the tension drain out of her, along with the terror and absolute rage. She might have killed Joan. If the woman had shot Mac, she would have done it. Enveloped in that strange vacuum of despair and rage, she had been going for a head shot. She hadn't even thought about Pleasure, not in that awful moment when Joan turned on Mac. She was glad she hadn't had to pull the trigger, but she knew she would have. Knowing her own fiercely protective nature was one tiling, but this was the first time she had been faced with the true extent of it. The jolt of self-knowledge was searing.

Mac had already faced this; it was in his eyes. She had seen it in her father, in her brothers, the willingness to do what was necessary to protect those they loved and those who were weaker. It wasn't easy. It was gut-wrenching, and those who were willing to stand on the front lines paid for it in a thousand little ways she was only beginning to understand. She hadn't had to take that final, irrevocable step, but she knew how close it had been.

Her mother also had that willingness, and a couple of her sisters-in-law. Valiant Mary, intrepid Caroline, sweet Barrie. They had each, in different circumstances, faced death and seen the bottom line. They would understand the wrenching she felt. Well, maybe Caroline wouldn't. Caroline was so utterly straightforward, so focused, that Joe had once compared her to a guided missile.

The door by her head was wrenched open, and cold air poured in. "Maris! Wake up!" Mac barked, his voice right over her. His hand closed on her shoulder as if he intended to shake her.

"I am awake," she said, without opening her eyes. "The headache's better, now that I'm still. How much longer will it be before I can take Pleasure back?" "You aren't taking him anywhere. You're going to a hospital to be checked out." "We can't just leave him here." "I've arranged for him to be driven back." She could hear the effort he was making to be calm; it was evident in his careful tone. "Are things about wrapped up here?" "Close enough that I can leave it with Dean and take you to a hospital."

He wouldn't let it go until a doctor had told him she was all right, Maris realized, and with a sigh she opened her eyes and sat up. She understood. If their situations were reversed, she would be doing the same thing.

"All right," she said, slipping on her coat. She turned off the ignition and picked up the Kevlar vest. "I'm ready."

Her willingness scared him. She saw his eyes darken, saw his jaw clench. "I'll be okay," she said softly, touching his hand. "I'm going because I know you're worried, and I don't want you to be."

His expression changed, something achingly tender moving in his eyes. Gently he scooped her into his arms and lifted her from the truck.

Dean had brought the Oldsmobile out of its hiding place. Mac carried her to it and deposited her on the front seat as carefully as if she were made of the most fragile crystal. He got in on the driver's side and started the car; the milling crowd in front of them parted, allowing them through. She saw Pleasure, standing quietly now. The bandage was in place, and the wild look was gone from his eyes. He was watching the activity with his characteristic friendly curiosity. As they drove by, Dean lifted his hand to wave. "What about Dean?" Maris asked. "He'll get transport. It isn't a problem."

She paused. "What about you? When do you leave? Your job here is finished, isn't it?" She didn't intend to let him get away, but she wasn't sure exactly how much he understood of their situation.

"It's finished." The words were clipped. The look he gave her was one of restrained violence. "I'll have to do the paperwork, tie up some loose ends. I may have to leave tonight, tomorrow at the latest, but I'll be back, damn it!" "You don't sound happy about it," she observed. "Happy? You expect me to be happy?" His jaw clenched. "You didn't obey orders. You stepped right out into the open, instead of staying hidden the way you were supposed to. That idiot woman could have killed you!" "I was wearing the vest." She pointed that out rather mildly, she thought.

"The damn vest only improves the odds, it isn't a guarantee! The issue here is that you didn't follow the plan. You risked your life for that damn horse! I didn't want him hurt, either, but"

"It wasn't for Pleasure," she said, interrupting him. "It was for you." She looked out the window at the snow-dusted pastures they were passing. It was quiet in the car for a moment. "Me?" He was using that careful tone again.

"You. I knew he'd go straight to you, that he'd catch my scent on your clothes. At the very least he would distract you, bump you with his head. It was even possible he'd give away your position."

Mac was silent, absorbing the shock of the realization that she was willing to risk her own life to protect his. He did the same thing on a fairly regular basis, but it was his job to take risks and protect others. But he'd never before felt the terror he'd known when he saw Maris draw Joan's attention, and he hoped he never felt it again. "I love you," she said quietly.

Damn. Sighing inwardly, Mac kissed his bachelorhood goodbye. Her courage stunned him, humbled him. No other woman he'd known would have put herself on the line the way Maris had done, both physically and emotionally. She didn't play games, didn't jockey for control. She simply knew, and accepted; he'd seen it in the soft depths of her black eyes, an instinctive inner knowledge that few people ever achieved. If he didn't snatch her up, it would be the biggest mistake of his life.

Mac didn't believe in making mistakes. "How long does it take to get married in Kentucky?" he asked abruptly. "If we can't get it done tomorrow, we'll go to Las Vegas, assuming the doctor says you're all right."

He hadn't said he loved her, but she knew he did. She sat back, pleased with the situation. "I'm all right," she said, completely confident. Chapter Ten

"Getting married in Las Vegas seems to be a tradition in my family," she mused the next day as her new husband ushered her into their suite. "Two of my brothers have done it." "Two? How many brothers do you have?"

"Five. All of them older." She smiled sweetly at him over her shoulder as she walked to the window to look out at the blazing red sunset. It was odd how completely connected to him she felt, when they hadn't had tune to talk much, to share the details of their lives. Events had swept them along like gulls before a hurricane.

The emergency room doctor had pronounced her concussion mild and told her to take it easy for a day or so. He had agreed with her that, if she had been going to lapse into a coma, she would already have done so. Over the course of the day her memory had completely returned, filling in the blank spots, so she knew she was okay.

Reassured, Mac had driven her back to Solomon Green and turned his attention to the job, ruthlessly clearing up details and paperwork so he could concentrate on the business of getting married. While she slept, he and Dean had worked. He had arranged for time off, checked into the details of marriage in Kentucky, decided it couldn't be done fast enough to suit him and booked them on a flight to Las Vegas.