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Megan MacKeage slipped out the front door of her home and strode across the footbridge guarding the entryway. Discovering she no longer was able to button her coat, she pulled it against her rounded belly and headed to the stable. It had been almost two weeks since anyone had last seen Gesader, and Megan didn't buy her sister Winter's explanation that the semiwild panther was merely hiding from the throng of people that had descended on Gù Brath eight days ago.
The social chaos had started with her and her sisters' birthday party four days before Christmas and wouldn't wind down until after the new year. The annual two-week-long celebration had become a tradition since Heather's birth thirty-three years ago -- which had been followed by six more babies over the next ten years, all girls, all born on the winter solstice. As Grace and Greylen MacKeage's seven daughters had grown up and started traveling their own paths, the once-intimate gathering had expanded when the girls returned every December to Pine Creek, several towing husbands and an ever-increasing number of children in their wake.
Two weeks was too long for Gesader to stay away, Megan fretted as she pushed open the huge stable door, and walked to Goose Down's stall. "Hey, big boy," she crooned, giving the huge draft horse's nose an affectionate pat. "How would you like to help me search for
She lifted Goose's bridle off the peg under his nameplate and opened the stall door. "The snow is only up to your knees and there's no icy crust, so the trek should be easy." She slipped the bit in his mouth and tucked the bridle straps over his ears. "I haven't seen that black devil since before the solstice and I'm worried about him, even if no one else is." She led Goose into the aisle, hooked him in the cross ties, then leaned her forehead against his large, warm cheek. "What if he's hurt?" she whispered. "What if he got tangled up in a coyote trap or gored by a buck he was trying to bring down?"
Goose's only answer was a long-winded sigh. Megan headed to the tack room and wrestled the heavy saddle from its stand. "You have to help me sneak off without being seen, Goose, because I don't need any more lectures from anyone, telling me what I should and shouldn't be doing." She grunted, pulling the saddle free. "I'm pregnant, not incapacitated."
"They only lecture because they love ye," a rich-Âtimbered voice said behind her.
Megan spun around with a gasp, dropping the saddle. "Kenzie," she sputtered.
She'd met the imposing highland warrior six days ago at Winter and Matt Gregor's wedding. Kenzie was Matt's long-lost brother, Matt had explained when he'd proudly introduced Kenzie to everyone who had gathered in the high meadow on Bear Mountain for the wedding. Or to be more precise, his thousand-year-old brother. For Matt was also known as Cùram de Gairn, a powerful drùidh who had traveled a thousand years forward in time to seduce an equally powerful wizard -- who just happened to be Megan's baby sister, Winter -- into helping him right a terrible wrong.
No one had been surprised by Kenzie's mysterious appearance, considering that Megan's father, Laird Greylen MacKeage, as well as her uncles Morgan and Callum MacKeage and Michael MacBain, were also time travelers.
Megan's mind reeled at the realization that the magic she had known since birth appeared to be spiraling out of control lately. Or maybe her head was spinning because she'd stopped breathing again -- which seemed to happen whenever she found herself around Kenzie Gregor.
"A lass in your condition shouldn't be lifting heavy saddles," he said, his golden eyes dark with reproach. He picked up the saddle, set it back on its stand, then turned and walked out of the tack room. "Nor should ye be riding."
Megan stared at the door he'd disappeared through, taking deep breaths as she counted to ten. But when she heard Goose plodding back to his stall, she lost what was left of her patience. She ran into the aisle, swiped the reins out of Kenzie's hand, and led her horse back to the cross ties.
"I am quite capable of deciding what I should and shouldn't be doing," she said, striding back to the tack room.
Kenzie's golden eyes lit with amusement as he arched a brow at her glare.
"I understand you've barely been in this century a week," she said. "But you'll soon discover that things have changed in a thousand years. Twenty-first-century women -- pregnant or otherwise -- don't want men lecturing them. We can take care of ourselves."
"Marriage still seems to be the norm, though," he countered. "Which implies it still takes two to raise a bairn." His gaze dropped to her belly, then moved around the barn before returning to her. "Yet I don't see a husband out here helping you."
Megan's cheeks flushed with heat. No matter how civilized Kenzie looked with his modern clothes, clean-shaven face, and short haircut, he still had the mind-set of an ancient. "I don't care if you're older than time itself; you have no right butting into my business."
She spun on her heel and led Goose outside to the mounting stairs. But before she could brush the snow off the steps, large hands suddenly lifted her onto Goose's saddleless back. And before she'd finished yelping in surprise, Kenzie had vaulted up behind her.
"Where are we off to, then?" he asked with a resigned sigh, taking the reins from her hands.
Megan went perfectly still. "We're not going anywhere. You're going back to the house, and I'm riding up TarStone Mountain to look for my...my cat."
Ignoring her dismissal, her unasked-for escort reined Goose toward the slopes crowded with skiers enjoying their holiday vacation.
Having had plenty of experience dealing with ancient-thinking men, Megan realized he wouldn't be ditched easily. So she might as well take advantage of his willingness to help her -- as well as of the heat that radiated from his overlarge body like a blast furnace. And who knew, maybe some of his brother's magic had rubbed off on him, and Kenzie might be able to conjure up Gesader.
"The other way," she said, reaching in front of his hand to pull on the reins, turning Goose toward the narrow tote road that ran up the forested side of TarStone. "Gesader is likely hiding in the woods. He doesn't much care for crowds."
Kenzie urged the Percheron onto the unplowed logging road. "Most cats would be snuggled up in front of a fire this time of year, instead of tramping through snow deeper than they are tall."
"Not Gesader," Megan said, deciding that riding bareback was much more practical than using a saddle. BeÂtween Goose's warmth beneath her and Kenzie's heat enveloping her, Megan felt like she was snuggled in front of a fire. Or else her hormones were acting up again. "If you're from tenth-century Scotland, how do you speak English so well?"
Kenzie reached around her to her open coat collar. "I've been practicing for several years. Ye should button up," he said, trying to fasten the top button.
She pushed his hand away. "I can't. My belly's getting too big. So you knew for several years that you were coming to this century? Is that what Matt needed Winter's help for? The terrible upset he caused to the continuum that nearly killed all the trees of life -- that was just to bring you here?"
Kenzie pulled her back against him by wrapping one arm around her expanded waist. "More or less. Gesader is an ancient Gaelic word. Why did ye name your cat Enchanter?"
Megan made a production of repositioning herself, and leaned forward to take hold of Goose's mane again. Kenzie Gregor was a virtual stranger, yet he was acting as though they'd been best buddies for years. "My sister named him, as he's really her pet. I've only been back in Pine Creek four months. But with Winter spending so much time with Matt this fall, Gesader seemed to prefer my company to hers. And he's not a house cat, he's a panther."
"Maine has panthers?" Kenzie asked curiously.
"No. We have lynx and bobcat, and there have been rare sightings of mountain lions, but no panthers." Megan smiled. "Our cousin Robbie MacBain brought Gesader forward in time three years ago as a tiny cub. Robbie's our resident guardian who's in charge of keeping Pendaär in line. Or he was, before Pendaär lost all his magical powers." She shrugged. "Now I suppose Robbie must guard us from Winter and your brother. He's the logger married to Catherine and is baby Angus's father."
"Aye, I remember. He carried ye upstairs to bed last night when ye fell asleep in your chair." Kenzie chuckled. "And Pendaär is the cranky old priest who's always the first to sit down at the table and the last one to leave, who keeps eyeing me as if he thinks I'm wanting to steal the whiskers right off his face."
Megan laughed. "That's Pendaär, though everyone calls him Father Daar around the moderns. He was a powerful wizard before he passed on the magic to Winter. He was the one who brought my father and uncles to this century nearly forty years ago. But Daar sort of...
he often bungled his spells, and he ended up bringing three other MacKeage men here, as well as six MacBain warriors and all their warhorses."
She turned to look at Kenzie. "The MacKeages and MacBains were at war at the time, but Michael and Papa declared peace years ago. The MacKeages settled here in Pine Creek when they purchased TarStone Mountain. They built Gù Brath, got the ski resort up and running, then decided to find wives to rebuild their clan."
Kenzie shook his head. "But your poor father sired seven daughters instead."
Megan shot him a scowl and faced forward again. "Another thing you'll discover about the twenty-first century, Mr. Gregor, is that having a bunch of sons is no longer important. Thanks to modern technology, being female is more often a strength than a weakness. Women can do anything men can do." She shot him a smirk over her shoulder. "And most times, we do it better."
He tossed his head back in laughter, his handsome face bathed in the afternoon sun. Megan immediately faced forward again and started calling Gesader's name.
"Ye mentioned you refer to the old priest as Father Daar around the moderns. What do you mean by moderns?" Kenzie asked when she paused.
"It's how my father and uncles have always referred to the people here. Those who traveled through time are the old ones, and anyone of this century is a modern. What was it like, to travel through time?"
"Violent. Terrifying. Nothing I care to repeat."
"Robbie's wife, Catherine, accidentally traveled back with him once, and she said she never wants to do it again, either. She also said that when she landed in twelfth-century Scotland, she was naked." Megan grinned.
"Is that why she and MacBain had to marry?"
"No. In fact, today men and women can even make love without having a wedding -- not that it's any of your business."
"Are we still talking about Robbie and Catherine?" Kenzie asked softly. "Ye sure do get prickly at the mere mention of marriage, lass. Why is that? Did the father of your babe not ask ye to marry him?"
"That's none of your business!"
"We're related now, are we not? Does that not make you my business?"
"Your brother is married to my sister," she countered. "That doesn't exactly make us kissing cousins."
Megan immediately slapped her hand over her mouth. Kissing cousins? Where in hell had that come from?
Kenzie laughed so hard she would have fallen off Goose but for his strong arm wrapped around her. "No," he said through his laughter, "that doesn't make us kissing cousins." His arm around her tightened. "So where is the father of your babe?"
"Burning in hell, I hope," she snapped.
"Tell me where he is, and I'll to go fetch the bastard."
"What for?" she sputtered, looking over her shoulder.
"To marry ye!"
Megan took a deep breath and faced forward again, reminding herself what century he was from. "I would never consider marrying a man who doesn't love me."
"Love has nothing to do with it, lass. The two of ye are having a bairn together, whether ye wish it or not."
"I am quite capable of raising my child without him."
"I don't doubt ye are. But does your babe not deserve to know his father?"
"He or she will have dozens of uncles and male cousins. I have a whole family to help me here in Pine Creek. If Wayne Ferris ever grows a conscience and decides he wants to meet his son or daughter, I will deal with him then. In the meantime, I want nothing to do with the jerk."
"Does he know about the babe?"
Kenzie fell silent for a time, then softly said, "Our sister was abandoned by the father of her babe. Her name was Fiona, and she had no family to help her. Matt and I were off fighting wars, and our mother had died the year before. Fiona only had our father, and it's my understanding he'd started to lose his mind by then."
"What happened to her?"
"She died giving birth, and her babe died soon after."
Megan hugged her rounded belly. "I'm so sorry. I guess that pretty much explains why you're so concerned for me." She gave him a reassuring smile. "But I really will be fine."
Goose plodded onto a windswept ridge and the forest opened to a spectacular view of Pine Lake nine hundred feet below. Kenzie reined to a stop and dismounted, then helped her down.
"Aye, you'll be fine. I will make sure of it," he said. "Now, about Gesader," he added, gently gripping her shoulders. "There...ah...there's something I'm needing to explain to ye, lass, about your missing pet."
Jack Stone rested his arms on the door of his cruiser to steady himself, and trained his binoculars on the north face of TarStone Mountain. He started his search at the narrow fingers of snow stretching from summit to base, ignoring the skiers as he looked for more substantial, four-legged movement. Satisfied the horse wasn't traveling up the edge of the ski slopes or along the chairlift paths, Jack panned west over the dense spruce and pine trees, stopping at occasional openings in the forest long enough to determine each one was empty.
"Come on, sweetheart. Where'd you disappear to?" he said softly. "And who are you riding with?"
Jack continued working his way across the mountain, though he knew spotting his target in the rugged terrain was about as likely as finding a teenage runaway in New York City. But having beaten those very odds more than once, he continued his methodical search with the patience of a hunter unaccustomed to failure.
"Bingo," he said, when the horse carrying two riders stepped onto a granite ridge halfway up the mountain ten minutes later. Jack tossed the field glasses on the seat of his cruiser, strode to the back of the blue and white SUV, opened the rear hatch, and grabbed his rifle case. He looked up and down the remote road, then lifted out the high-powered rifle that had not been issued with the handcuffs and badge when he had become head of Pine Creek's new police force last week.
With a derisive snort, he slid open the bolt of the rifle. Some force. He was chief of exactly one deputy officer fresh out of the academy, and a grandmotherly clerk.
Pine Creek, along with the neighboring townships of Lost Gore and Frog Cove, had been growing in leaps and bounds, the town selectmen had explained to Jack during his interview. And though they had the county sheriff's department and state police to back them up, the three small resort communities wanted their own arm of the law to call whenever someone thought it would be fun to swap personal possessions between citizens.
Honest to God, those were the very words the selectmen had used. Nothing had actually been stolen; a few gas grills, toys, holiday decorations, and mailboxes had merely been redistributed between houses, seasonal camps, and businesses. Jack had nearly offered to take the job for free, if a bunch of bored teenagers constituted Pine Creek's hottest crime wave.
He walked to the front of his truck and leaned on the hood to look through the scope attached to the rifle barrel. He spotted the horse, riderless now, and then the two people standing beside it. Without taking his eye from the lens, he turned up the magnification until Megan MacKeage finally came into perfect focus.
Jack sucked in his breath at the sight of her. Her shoulder-length red hair kept blowing in her face despite her attempts to tuck it behind her ears, her lightly freckled cheeks were flushed from the cold, and her eyes -- which Jack knew were startling green -- were narrowed against the noon sun as she looked up at the man holding her shoulders.
Jack had made the TarStone Ski Resort part of his daily rounds, fairly confident that if he were to drive past Megan, she wouldn't recognize him. Seeing people out of context of their known environment, especially when their looks had changed as much as his had, always made hiding in plain sight easier.
While cruising through the resort's parking lot this morning, he'd spotted Megan leaving her home on horseback, snuggled against the chest of a man he'd never seen in town. Jack was good with faces, postures, mannerisms, and genetic heritages. And though the man had been a couple of hundred yards away, Jack hadn't seen any resemblance to any of the MacKeage and MacBain men he'd met, other than the guy's size.
Jack trained the powerful rifle scope on him now. He surely was a big bastard, at least a foot taller than Megan's five foot three. His shoulders were broad and he had the build of someone Jack would want on his side in a fight.
A cousin? Or an uncle, maybe?
Or a boyfriend?
The sound of a vehicle approaching from the direction of town ended his surveillance, as well as his speculation. Jack strode to the rear of his truck and set the rifle back in its case, then dropped the hatch just as a blue and white pickup rounded the corner and came to a sliding halt.
Officer Simon Pratt emerged through the cloud of powdered snow he'd created. "Your radio's not working," he said, peering in the open front door of Jack's SUV. "Hey, it's not even turned on," he added, reaching inside to the console. He straightened and frowned at Jack. "Ethel and I have been calling your cell and radio all morning, and I've spent the last two hours hunting you down."
Jack pulled his cell phone out of his pocket to check for a signal, only to discover it wasn't turned on, either. "Sorry," he said, turning the phone on before tucking it back in his pocket. "So what's up?"
"The bakery was broken into last night. The place is a mess."
"They broke in? And trashed the place?" he asked in surprise. "But that's not their MO. They usually just take stuff sitting around outside."
Simon shrugged. "The bakery's not open on Monday, so the owner didn't arrive until eight this morning. She'd planned to catch up on some paperwork, and found the back door busted open and most of her supplies scattered everywhere. She called our office, and Ethel and I have been looking for you ever since. We were just about to call the sheriff."
His question seemed to startle Simon. "Because we couldn't find you."
Jack gave him a level look. "Did it ever occur to you to just go to the bakery without me and process the scene?"
"Ah, sure, I did that, I mean, I secured the scene. I strung tape around the place and had the owner put a Closed Until Further Notice sign in the front window."
Jack plucked his binoculars off the seat and slid into his cruiser. "Then let's go have a look at your crime scene. On the way, try to recall what the academy taught you about processing a break-in."
"My crime scene?" Simon looked startled again.
"You took the call, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah. But you're the chief."
"And I won't always be available, will I? So since you're my second in command, I expect you to deal with whatever comes up." He lifted a brow. "You graduated with honors, right?"
Simon squared his shoulders. "I could process that scene in my sleep."
"Then I'll follow your lead," Jack said, closing his door.
He watched Simon stride back to his truck, looking a good two inches taller. Jack turned the key in the ignition and put his truck in gear, gave one last frowning glance at TarStone, and stepped on the accelerator.
Oh, yeah. He would definitely follow Simon's lead -- because despite what his résumé implied, Jack didn't know squat about processing a crime scene, since his talents ran in a completely different direction.
Copyright © 2008 by Janet Chapman