Despite knowing the orcas and sharks inhabiting the inland sea were under strict orders not to harm humans, Niall put more power to his strokes when he felt something brush against his leg—because, hell, he wasn’t completely suicidal. An idiot, maybe, for taking a moonlight swim, but he figured he’d rather face a killer whale than go chest-to-nose with a pint-sized spitfire determined to drive him crazy.
Birch Callahan hadn’t been on the job a week before she’d started telling him how to do his job; the only problem being that as chief of police, Niall was fairly certain that didn’t include stirring the good people of Spellbound Falls into more of an uproar. He really couldn’t arrest a man for being a penny-pinching grouch, and even if he could, it wasn’t like he had a jail into which he could throw the poor bastard. But if he caught wind of Mrs. Grouch poisoning her husband again . . . well, maybe sitting in some sturdy wooden stocks in the town park would cool off the couple.
He’d have to check if public punishment was legal in this century.
Not that there was anything private about the Kents’ domestic little war.
Niall stopped swimming and listened to the steady breathing off to his right, then silently sank below the surface when he spotted the broad head coming toward him. But remembering he wasn’t suicidal, he resurfaced well behind the dark mass of solid muscle and fangs to see his pet swimming in circles, its head craned out of the water as it searched the moon-bathed swells with obvious alarm.
“Hey, pooch,” he whispered, causing the huge Chesapeake to whip around with a startled snarl. “Ye worried a shark might mistake you for a tasty harbor seal?” he added with a laugh, heading for shore when the dog started paddling toward him. But not about to bite the hand that fed it, Shep merely powered past with a grumbling growl as Niall settled into an easy pace and let his mind return to his pint-sized problem.
For a woman who supposedly had enough university degrees in human behavior to be running Spellbound Falls’ new Crisis Center, Birch Callahan didn’t seem to know when she was being played. If Noreen Kent was being abused by her husband of forty-six years, Niall would place himself in those stocks.
He still wasn’t sure how wanting a new cookstove had turned into a full-blown war between the couple, much less how it had escalated into the townspeople taking sides. But hell, Logan was still unsteady on his feet from his bout of food poisoning, even though Noreen swears she hadn’t deliberately undercooked the now-infamous dinner. As for showing up at the women’s shelter and claiming she feared for her life after Logan shot the offending stove point-blank with both shotgun barrels . . . well, Niall couldn’t arrest a man for destroying his own property, considering his wife hadn’t even been home at the time.
Noreen was a drama queen, and Birch was only feeding the drama by publicly siding with the seventy-year-old woman. That Birch had personally escorted Noreen back to the scene of the crime to gather some belongings only further proved Niall’s point that the spitfire had more passion for her job than common sense. All of which was why, upon finding himself a bachelor, Logan was now eating three meals a day at the Drunken Moose—ironically spending more money than the cost of a new stove—although the poor bastard was dining alone as of late, since he apparently couldn’t operate a clothes washer any more than he could work a toaster.
Niall stopped swimming again when he heard Shep’s excited barks mixed with the shouts of their neighbor, then powered toward shore with a groan of defeat at the realization he was going chest-to-nose tonight after all. He waded onto the beach and ran up the lawn, but broke into a grin when he saw the tug-of-war taking place in the driveway he shared with the shelter. Aye, Birch might be driving him crazy, but it was more from lusting after the beautiful woman than wanting to throttle her.
Shep finally ended the tug-of-war by simply snapping the broom handle in half, only to quickly grab up the bristled end and tear around the dooryard with his prize.
Niall reached Birch just as she straightened from picking up what remained of the handle and plucked it out of her hand when she headed after Shep. “For the love of God, woman, do ye truly have no sense of self-preservation?”
Birch rounded on him, even as she pointed at the small white dog peeking out from under the car parked next to the main house. “He was terrorizing Mimi again.” She then pointed at Shep. “Next time I’m going to take a shovel to the amorous idiot.”
Niall speared the broken handle clean over the roof of his tiny cottage. “You don’t go after a powerful dog with nothing more than a broom.”
“I’m not afraid of a mutt that’s too dumb to even realize Mimi’s been spayed.”
Niall closed his eyes and tried counting to ten, but only made it to five. “Then I suggest you become afraid,” he said softly so he wouldn’t shout. “Because a less understanding dog would have latched on to you rather than the broom.”
Birch reached in her pocket as she turned toward Shep, who had stopped running victory laps in favor of dropping his prize in front of Mimi. “Maybe a mouthful of bear spray will knock some sense into him.”
Niall plucked the small canister out of her hand and threw it past his pickup in the direction of the camp road.
“Hey!” she yelped, rounding on him again.
“I ever catch wind of you spraying Shep,” he said, not even trying to disguise his anger, “and I will arrest you for cruelty.”
Her eyes widened in surprise, even as she took a step back. “I see. You refuse to do anything about an abusive husband, but you won’t think twice about arresting a woman for defending herself. Is that how the law works for you, Chief MacKeage?” She then muttered what Niall assumed was a French curse before he could respond, and spun on her heel. “I can see why this town needed a women’s shelter, if you and your stupid dog are examples of the male population.” She suddenly stopped and turned to him again. “And I want you to start wearing a robe when you go swimming.”
“This place is a sanctuary,” she whispered tightly. “And the last thing my residents need is to be traumatized by an all-but-naked man strutting down to the beach every evening and reminding them of the hulking brutes they’ve run away from.”
For the love of God, Logan Kent barely came up to his wife’s nose, Macie Atwater’s man was a pacifist, and the new girl, Cassandra, had run away from her slap-happy aunt. “Those traumatized residents?” Niall asked, gesturing at the four women lined up along the shelter’s porch rail, two of whom were smiling, one who was scowling, and—good Lord, Birch’s mother just winked at him. Niall smoothed a hand over his naked chest. “Are ye sure my size and lack of clothes is bothering them, Birch?”
Obviously realizing she was the only one being bothered, Birch crossed her arms under her lovely bosom. “I told you I prefer you call me Miss Callahan.”
Niall made it all the way to the count of six and calmly said, “We’re on the same side, lass. I care about your residents as much as you do.”
“Then go arrest Logan Kent.”
“It’s not against the law to shoot a cookstove. Nor is it a crime,” he added softly, in deference to their audience, “to call your wife an old windbag during an argument.”
The poor woman gasped so hard that she took another step back. “Verbal abuse is just as victimizing as physical.”
“What about relentless nagging?” he shot back, still keeping his voice low. “Is harping on a person until he explodes also considered abuse?”
“It’s not the . . . That doesn’t mean . . . Mon Dieu, you are such a man.”
“Why, thank you for noticing,” he said, smoothing down his drying chest hair.
“You’re impossible!” she hissed as she turned and stormed off.
“Then we’re even,” he whispered. “Come on, Shep,” he said when Birch kicked the broom out of her way and crouched on her hands and knees to retrieve Mimi.
“I want you to start chaining that mutt,” she called out as Niall headed to his cottage. “Or do you also have a double standard when it comes to leash laws?”
Only able to guess what a leash law was, Niall turned to see Birch clutching the small dog to her bosom, her chin lifted in challenge. “A chained dog isn’t much help against an intruder looking to cause trouble for one of your residents. Why don’t ye try seeing Shep as your first line of defense instead of as the enemy?”
She dropped her chin into her pet’s head of curly white fur. “Then make him stop terrorizing Mimi.”
“You don’t think terrorizing is a bit extreme to call a good-natured dog trying to get to know his pretty new neighbor?” Like his owner is trying to do, Niall refrained from adding. “If you’d give them some time together instead of always rushing to the rescue, you’d realize Shep is only wanting to play.”
Her chin lifted again. “Mimi was mauled by a large male dog when she was a puppy and nearly died. She’s perfectly fine with females and only gets snappy and defensive around huge males.”
Just like her owner, Niall decided. “I will keep better track of Shep,” he said with a nod, heading for his cottage and breaking into a grin at her muttered thank-you—even as he tried to imagine all that spitfire passion in bed.
• • •
“Niall’s right, you know. If you would just spend some time with Shep, you’d realize he’s nothing but an overgrown puppy.”
Birch stopped searching for her can of bear spray and aimed the flashlight beam at her mother’s chest. “That monster is no puppy.”
“Shep’s barely three. Niall rescued him from an abusive owner a year ago.”
“He told you that?”
“No. Peg told me.”
Birch went back to working her way up the driveway. Peg was married to Duncan MacKeage, who was Niall’s cousin. Besides being a town councilman, Duncan owned a construction company and worked almost exclusively for the ultraexpensive Nova Mare and Inglenook resorts in town, which were owned by Maximilian and Olivia Oceanus.
Olivia was the one who had hired Birch as director of the Spellbound Falls Crisis Center a little over a month ago, although the shelter and equally new Birthing Clinic in the basement of the town’s only church were really the pet projects of five local women. Olivia’s mother-in-law, Rana Oceanus—whose husband, Titus, was reputed to be richer than God—seemed to be the head benefactress, while Olivia, Peg, and Julia Salohcin did most of the hands-on work. Director of special events for Nova Mare, Julia was married to a veritable giant named Nicholas, who also worked for the Oceanuses as head of security for both of the resorts. Rounding out the close-knit, civic-minded group was Vanetta Thurber, owner of a restaurant named the Drunken Moose and a bar aptly named the Bottoms Up.
Near as Birch could tell, with the exception of Vanetta, all the women were spending their husbands’ money as fast as the men could earn it. Come to think of it, all the women were married to giants—again, except for Vanetta. Everest Thurber managed the Bottoms Up for his wife and seemed to be the only normal-sized male in the lot, as well as the only one of the men who was from Maine. Well, Niall and Duncan were supposedly from a town south of here, but their accents didn’t really fit, as Mainers living this close to the border usually sounded more Canadian than American, much less Scottish.
Not that Birch cared who was bankrolling the Crisis Center, as long as everyone left her alone to do her job. Even though she’d been hoping to get a position at a prestigious university close to Montreal, she’d snatched up the first job she could find, even if it was in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, to protect her mother from the last parasite she’d married—husband freaking four.
Honest to God, most twelve-year-olds were less naive than her mother.
Hazel Callahan (Birch had once again insisted her mom take back her maiden name after divorcing The Leech two months ago) had never met a person she didn’t like. And if that person happened to have a Y chromosome and buckets of charm, Hazel usually fell in love with him—usually within days. In fact, she’d married parasite number two, His Highness the King of Nowhere, not three months after Birch had left for college. Her mother had then shown up at her graduation four years later with The Loser, and married The Leech when Birch had made the mistake of leaving Hazel alone to go after her doctorate. Husband number one had managed to hang on through most of Birch’s teenage years, but The Bastard had hit a tree and died—and hopefully was rotting in hell—while celebrating his wife’s thirty-fifth birthday by using her money to take his mistress skiing in Europe.
Ironically, Hazel had never married her prom-night sperm donor, although that hadn’t prevented Birch from having to deal with his family.
Basically, calling the men her mother seemed to attract like magnets likeable was about the same as calling a hundred-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever a puppy.
“Word is Niall caught the guy beating Shep,” Hazel continued. “Only no one knows for sure, because he refuses to talk about it. Peg said Niall was living in Pine Creek with his cousin at the time when he just showed up one day with the thin, badly limping dog.”
Well, that would explain his reaction when she’d threatened to spray Shep. Birch went back to searching for the bear spray her next-door nemesis had thrown into the night—likely wishing he could throw her instead. The conceited jerk—thinking she even noticed his hulking size and broad chest and sculpted muscles.
She sure as heck never noticed his piercing green eyes.
“You wouldn’t really have sprayed Shep, would you?” Hazel asked, awkwardly bending to move a fern out of the way.
“Of course not. I was just trying to make a point.”
“And what point would that be? That Niall better not mess with you any more than Shep better mess with Mimi?”
“I was letting him know I’m not afraid of him or his stupid dog. And who does the guy think he is, anyway, lecturing me about going after any dog with a broom? Does he think I’m just going to stand back and watch Mimi get mauled again?”
“I believe Niall was pointing out that you could have been mauled. It’s his nature to be protective.”
“Why? Because he’s a cop?” Birch muttered, thinking the man’s nature ran more along the lines of being bossy. He was condescending, too, dismissing her concern for Noreen and apparently only enforcing the laws he wanted to.
“No. Because he’s a highlander.”
Birch stopped searching again. “A what?”
“If you would get your nose out of those emotionally draining women’s fiction books long enough to read a good steamy romance, you’d recognize an authentic Scottish highlander when you saw one.”
Birch kicked an ankle-twisting rock off the driveway into the woods. “Mon Dieu, Mama, you have to stop downloading those stupid novels off the Internet. And you need to stop flirting with Chief MacKeage.”
“My word of honor,” Hazel said, obviously fighting a smile as she held up her hand in a Girl Guides of Canada salute. “I will not marry Niall.”
“You couldn’t even if you wanted to, because they limit people in the States to four marriages,” Birch said, figuring she already was going to hell for all the lies she’d told her mother in the last two months, so what was one more?
“Honestly?” Hazel said in surprise. She shrugged and resumed searching. “Then I guess that means there’s nothing to stop you from marrying Niall.”
Birch silently groaned, knowing exactly where this conversation was going—again. “I’m really not in the mood to discuss my love life.”
“What love life? Oh, here it is.” Her mom straightened and handed Birch the canister of bear spray, the flashlight once again revealing her smile. “Come on, admit it. You’re attracted to Niall.”
“What on earth makes you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you haven’t said one civil word to the man since you discovered him living next door? So I can’t help but find myself agreeing with Queen Gertrude: ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’”
“You’re actually quoting Shakespeare to me?”
“William was the bard of love,” Hazel said with all the conviction of a dedicated theater junkie.
“Gertrude wasn’t talking about love in that scene,” Birch countered. “She thought the woman in the play Hamlet had staged for his murderous stepfather was promising too much by saying she would never remarry if her husband died. So instead of taking shots at my love life, you might try quoting your beloved William to yourself.”
That got Birch a laugh. “I should have known taking you to the Stratford Festival in Ontario every summer would come back and bite me on the butt.”
“What I’m protesting is that Chief MacKeage refuses to take Noreen seriously.”
Hazel rolled her eyes. “You know as well as I do that Noreen is not a battered woman. Personally, I think Logan is the one who should be seeking shelter here.”
“He discharged a gun inside their house.”
“I would have shot that stove, too, if I knew how to load a shotgun. I’m just surprised Logan had the strength, considering he still looks like a soft breeze could knock him over. Noreen nearly killed him trying to make her point.”
“She did not undercook that chicken on purpose. The oven had a faulty thermostat and two of the burners had quit working. Logan wouldn’t have gotten sick if he simply would have bought a new stove in the first place.”
Hazel blinked at her, clearly nonplussed. “Will you please tell me why you insist on believing Noreen?”
“Because I have to believe every woman who comes to me saying she’s being abused. Don’t you understand, Mama?” Birch said gently. “It’s not my place to judge these women or decide if they are or are not in danger. My job is to give them a voice. I can only make sure they’re safe and empower them until they grow confident enough to empower themselves.”
Birch squeaked in surprise when her mother suddenly threw her arms around her in a fierce hug. “Oh, bébé, you are so wise!” She leaned away to clasp Birch’s face, squishing her cheeks. “And I am so proud of you for championing women.”
Birch gently wiggled free and bent to pick up the flashlight she’d dropped. “I’m just doing the job I was trained to do.” She straightened and shot her mother a crooked smile. “And that includes championing abused men.”
The flashlight revealed a twinkle in Hazel’s eyes. “Including Niall MacKeage?”
It was Birch’s turn to roll her eyes. “If someone’s going to be stupid enough to threaten a hulking brute who runs around with a gun strapped to his chest,” she said, shoving the spray in her pocket and heading down the driveway, “then I would take Chief MacKeage’s side.”
Hazel fell into step beside her, grasped Birch’s hand, and playfully swung it between them. “Can you explain something to me? If you know Noreen is exaggerating this fight with her husband, why do you keep insisting Niall arrest Logan?”
“Because I need him to take Noreen’s claim seriously, too. This time it might only be a lonely woman caught up in all the attention she’s getting, but next time it could be a life-and-death situation. I need to know I can count on the police.”
Her mother pulled them to a stop. “At the risk of sticking my nose in your business, has it occurred to you to simply tell Niall that you know what’s going on, but that it’s important the two of you work as a team on these matters?”
“He’s a cop, Mama. At best he would laugh in my face, and at worst he would arrest Noreen for making false charges against her husband.”
“Oh, bébé,” Hazel said sadly. “Not all police chiefs are like your grand-père St. Germaine. In fact, very few are as coldhearted as Fredrick.” She nudged Birch’s shoulder. “However, I believe highlanders are attentive husbands and good lovers.”
“Who told you that?”
“I’ve gathered as much from Peg. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the twins she’s carrying will make her sixth and seventhchildren.”
Birch headed down the driveway again. “Duncan has them living halfway up the fiord where their home can only be reached by boat, and word is his cousin, Alec MacKeage, is building a house all the way at the north end of Bottomless. So what I’ve noticed is that highlanders apparently like to keep their wives isolated and pregnant.” She turned and walked backward, shining the flashlight at her mother’s feet to illuminate the uneven driveway. “I’ve also noticed that except for Vanetta and Rana, all the women on the Center’s committee are pregnant. And so is Macie, and now maybe Cassandra as well. Hasn’t anyone in Spellbound Falls heard of birth control?”
Hazel stopped walking and clasped her chest. “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there’s something in the water around here and you also become pregnant?”
Birch stumbled to a halt. “Are you nuts?”
“Well, at the rate you’re going, I’ll be dead before you give me grandbabies.”
“You only just turned fifty.”
“There really could be something in the water if you believe the legend written on a plaque in the park,” Hazel went on excitedly. “It claims that any couple who kiss while standing in the mist rising from Spellbound Falls will fall deeply in love.”
“When were you in the park?” Birch asked, trying not to sound alarmed that her mother had gone into town without her.
“You remember. I took little Charlie and Ella for a walk there while you were talking to Peg and Olivia outside the Trading Post last week.”
“Oh. Yes. That’s right.”
Damn if her mother didn’t get that twinkle in her eyes again. “Maybe you and Niall could go sit in the park for your little talk about solving Noreen’s problem.”
Having absolutely no idea how to respond, Birch silently turned and walked up the path to the back porch of the main house, making a mental note to drink only bottled water from now on.
And never, ever, be in that park at the same time as Chief MacKeage.
Niall sat in the moon-cast shadows of the Bottomless Mercantile and Trading Post with his ears tuned for any sound other than the muted roar of the falls several hundred yards away and wondered what made him think he had any business being the police chief of Spellbound Falls and Turtleback Station. Hell, forget he was a lawman; he didn’t have any business even being alive.
But when Titus Oceanus shows up in twelfth-century Scotland looking for a husband for his daughter, only a suicidal idiot would refuse the powerful magic-maker’s personal invitation to come compete for her hand. Niall was just thankful his twenty-first-century cousin, Alec, had decided to eliminate the other five time-traveling suitors before helping Niall find sanctuary with two of their magical clansmen in Pine Creek. Not that he wouldn’t have manned up and married the beautiful and intelligent Princess Carolina if Alec hadn’t finally come to his senses. But in all honesty, Niall was more attracted to pint-sized spitfires than he was to leggy princesses who looked him nearly level in the eyes.
Since about three weeks ago, however, he was finding himself attracted to one tiny redhead in particular—even if she did seem to have a chip on her shoulder when it came to males. But when he looked past her prickly behavior, Birch’s eyes reminded Niall of the heather growing wild all over his long-lost highlands. And though she might appear as delicate as a kitten, there was no mistaking the woman had a lion-sized attitude when it came to protecting her residents.
Birch’s choice of professions did baffle him, though, making Niall wonder if she might have had some personal experience with abusive men. Why else, according to Duncan, would a woman spend eight years in university to get advanced degrees in social work, only to move to a small town in a whole different country? Birch had even dragged her mother into the wilderness with her, although both women’s wardrobes suggested they were city people.
Niall released a silent sigh, just as baffled as to what he was doing here. Despite the responsibilities that came with having been laird of the MacKeages, he often found himself missing the simplicity of twelfth-century Scotland, when a man knew which side of right and wrong he stood on, how to serve his clan, and how to treat women and children. Nine hundred years ago, life was at worst an everyday struggle for survival and at best a testament to a person’s willingness to embrace that struggle.
And if they were lucky, to actually find joy in it.
Basically, he’d been born in a time when men were men and women loved them for it. But for the twenty months he’d been living in modern-day Maine, his everyday struggles had been those of displacement, frustration, and too often bewilderment—decidedly foreign notions for a warrior who had once owned his destiny.
In his original time, for instance, if a woman found herself dealing with an abusive husband or father, she merely brought her complaint to her laird, and he would go pay the bastard a visit. Few men were foolish enough to anger their laird a second time, but if the abuse did happen again, punishment was swift, painful, and publicly humiliating. Despite having little say in matters back then, women were recognized as the very heart of a clan. Whether young or old or married or widowed, they were respected for their contributions, protected by all, and revered for their amazing strength of spirit.
Which was why, when Birch had first come to him with Noreen’s claim two weeks ago, Niall had immediately paid Logan Kent a visit. What he’d found was a once-strong, wiry woodsman with joints stiffened from years of laboring in harsh weather, who now found himself with only a modest savings, a small monthly government check, and a powerful fear that he hadn’t planned well for old age. So as all once-strong, self-reliant men were prone to do when they felt an uncertain future pressing on their shoulders, Logan had turned tightfisted and grouchy. And like any roost-ruling woman who suddenly found herself with a husband constantly underfoot and sticking his nose in her business, Noreen had panicked.
Nay, he couldn’t arrest a man for being scared.
Niall looked at his watch and grinned in satisfaction. None of the buildings in town would be decorated with crudely spray-painted cartoons again anytime soon, he decided. But then, he didn’t suppose the small gang of vandals was in any hurry to continue their crime spree, since he was fairly certain one of the little hellions had pissed his pants two nights ago when he’d found himself being chased by ahulking brute with a badge and gun and a growling dog with equally lethal fangs.
But upon realizing the culprits couldn’t be more than twelve years old, Niall hadn’t put much effort into the chase, figuring a good scare, as well as learning the new police chief wasn’t a nine-to-five lawman, would make them see the error of their young ways.
Not that he had a jail to toss them into if he had decided to catch the little idiots, which was why the idea of public punishment was growing on him. That is, assuming the local grange ladies would let him erect something in their precious town park. But again according to Duncan—who had been reluctant to give his twelfth-century ancestor a gun and badge in the first place—the newly remodeled park highlighted by the sixty-foot waterfall that roared through the center of town was nothing short of sacred ground.
In fact, Niall had been warned to keep an eye on the grange ladies in particular, several of whom were well into their eighties, as they had a tendency to drive as if they owned the road. And with the summer tourists starting to trickle into town, it was his job to stop vehicle-pedestrian collisions before they happened. He’d also been charged with keeping a small mob of zealots from clogging the road as they protested what they considered to be an evil, devil-worshipping cult that had a settlement halfway down the west side of Bottomless. He was also supposed to enforce the newly implemented speed limit in town, write up people who didn’t cross the road on the newly painted crosswalks, break up bar fights when they became too rowdy for Everest Thurber to handle, and in general keep the peace.
Oh, and keep an eye on the shelter residents in exchange for living in the newly renovated bunkhouse rent-free.
Aye, life may have taken its toll on a man nine hundred years ago, but there had been a hell of a lot fewer laws to deal with. Who in their right mind considered it a crime for a man to ask a bonnie young lass out to dinner? Something Niall had discovered last fall when Jack Stone had threatened to throw him in jail—which Pine Creek actually had—for stalking a minor. For the love of God; in his old time, lasses usually had a babe and another one on the way by the age of sixteen. And they preferred marrying a warrior in his prime who had already proven his cunning, rather than an untried youth who could leave them widowed the first time he went to battle. Marriage was about survival for women, and near as Niall could tell it still took two people and a village to raise children.
A concept that when voiced aloud in the presence of twenty-first-century women, he’d discovered quite by accident, wasn’t well received. That was why Laird Greylen MacKeage—who, ironically, had also been displaced from the twelfth century—had taken Niall on a camping trip last fall and quietly explained modern courtship. Grey had not, however, been able to explain modern women. Even being married to one for over forty years and having seven daughters, Grey had remarked with a shake of his head, had done nothing to help him understand what went on inside a modern woman’s mind.
Not that either of them had understood women in their original century, they’d both admitted halfway through a bottle of Scotch, only that they had desired them.
Niall took one last look around and stood up, then gave a single sharp whistle as he stepped onto the sidewalk and headed toward home, his mind wandering to the many things he did like about this century.
He certainly liked modern forms of transportation. If it had an engine, he wanted to drive it—although he’d learned the hard way that the faster a vehicle went the more violent the crash. And he absolutely loved flying. His first experience soaring higher than birds had been at the mercy of Matt Gregor, his cousin Winter’s husband, in a tiny jet that actually traveled faster than the speed of sound.
Matt also happened to be a powerful tenth-century drùidh who had come here hoping to trick Greylen’s youngest daughter into helping him kill his brother. But upon discovering she was a powerful drùidh herself, Winter had found a way to save Kenzie and mankind from the upset Matt had caused to the Continuum. The deeply-in-love wizards were expecting their third child in a couple of weeks, and the new Tree of Life species their combined powers had created would ensure mankind’s continuance for many more millennia.
All with Titus Oceanus’s blessing, of course, since all the drùidhs scattered throughout the world answered to him. Or they did up until a month ago when Titus had turned his authority over to his son, Maximilian, thus making Nova Mare the new reigning seat of power. And now everyone was waiting to see what would happen to Atlantis, since the mystical island Titus had created to cultivate his Trees of Life—which kept mankind’s knowledge safe from the constantly warring gods—was no longer needed.
Whatever the elder magic-maker had planned, Niall expected it would be . . . epic.
“Hey, pooch,” he said when Shep came tearing across the road from the park—ignoring the newly painted crosswalk—and fell into step beside him. Niall noticed his first officer was wet. “Looks to me like you’ve been worrying the fish at the bottom of the falls instead of watching for our vandals,” he said with a chuckle. “The least ye could have done was caught us a couple for breakfast.”
With a grumbling snarl Niall took as an apology, they continued past the church and turned onto the camp road, making the mile walk in companionable silence as Niall found himself recalling the fantastical tale his father, Ian MacKeage, had told him nine centuries ago.
Ian had vanished several years earlier, along with Laird Greylen, Grey’s brother Morgan, and their cousin Callum. Since the MacKeages had been at war with the MacBains at the time, Niall had been elected laird not a month after the four men had gone missing and were presumed dead. The story Ian had given everyone upon suddenly reappearing several years later—despite looking a good twenty years older—had been plausible, though highly unlikely.
But about a month after Ian’s return, his age-bent father had asked Niall to take him on a hunting trip. Only rather than looking for game, Ian had spent the next four days and nights explaining where he’d been living for the last thirty-five years. It seemed an old drùidh named Pendaär—whom they’d know as their clan priest, Father Daar—had needed Greylen to sire his heir. The only problem was the woman destined to be the highlander’s match lived in twenty-first-century America. And being somewhat inept, the old drùidh’s spell had sent Ian and Morgan and Callum, as well as the six MacBain warriors they’d been fighting at the time, forward with Grey. Hell, even their warhorses had gotten sucked into the magical storm.
Of the four MacKeages, Ian had been the only one who’d left behind a wife and children, and of the six MacBains . . . well, all but Michael had died over the next three years chasing lightning storms trying to get back to their original time. So upon finding himself alone in the modern world, Michael had moved to Pine Creek and purchased a Christmas tree farm right next door to his old enemies.
In fact, it had been Michael’s twenty-first-century son, Robbie MacBain, who had brought Niall’s father back when Ian had asked to go home to die. Having discovered he was a Guardian with magical powers of his own, Robbie had granted Ian’s request, along with the assurance that the old man would have many years with his wife and grandchildren before he got planted.
Probably the most fantastical part of Ian’s tale was that upon arriving in Maine, the four MacKeage warriors had purchased a mountain and built a ski resort. Niall gave a silent chuckle, remembering his father saying how he’d thought the notion of riding people up a mountain on tiny benches hanging from a puny cable, just so they could ski down on two thin pieces of wood, was nothing short of crazy. And, Ian had said as he’d spat on the ground, noble warriors had no call to be in such a useless business. But that very nobleness had compelled them to embrace their laird’s decision, and today TarStone Mountain Ski Resort drew people to Maine from all over the world.
Much like the Bottomless Sea was doing in Spellbound Falls.
Except unlike in Pine Creek, Spellbound Falls’ and Turtleback Station’s appeal was the work of magic. A little over four years ago, in what was arguably an outrageous attempt to impress a woman, Maximilian Oceanus had conjured up an earthquake to open a huge subterranean fissure beginning in the Gulf of Maine and continuing all the way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Mac had made the underground river surface in six lakes in Maine and one in Canada, moved several nearby mountains, and cut a deep fiord at the north end of Bottomless Lake—thus changing the forty-mile-long, freshwater lake to an inland sea just so he would have saltwater to swim in.
And the bastard had done it without cracking a single window.
The new Bottomless Sea had actual tides, was home to all manner of marine life, and had inevitably put two sleepy wilderness towns on the worldwide map. Towns which now needed a police force to make sure the small horde of tourists flocking to this ninth natural wonder of the world didn’t piss off the locals.
All of which made his father’s time-traveling tale not so fantastical. But then, twenty months ago Niall had also had the pleasure of riding a lightning storm. And, by God, he had decided he never wanted to ride one again. So he’d hightailed it to Pine Creek before Titus Oceanus—or his enforcer, Nicholas—could send him back.
Except no one had even tried going after him. And upon learning it was Titus who had suggested Duncan offer him the position of police chief, Niall was beginning to suspect that instead of bringing him here to marry Carolina, the elder magic-maker may have had something else in mind for him all along.
And here he thought the two theurgists—divine agents of human affairs—were supposed to protect man’s free will, whereas Titus and Mac seemed to have developed a habit for quietly directing it. Mac had practically hit Duncan over the head with the magic to get him to marry the widow Peg Thompson and her four little heathens, and Titus had all but dared Alec to walk into Nova Mare and steal Carolina. Hell, even their man Nicholas hadn’t been safe from the meddling Oceanuses, with the mythical warrior now happily married to Julia and expecting their first child. A boy, Nicholas had assured everyone; the first of six. But maybe the man did know about such things, since it was rumored he was actually the son of the Norse god Odin.
Niall turned into the shelter’s driveway with a heavy sigh, tired of trying to guess why Titus had brought him here. He stopped and looked at the darkened downstairs window he knew was Birch’s bedroom and hoped whatever the old bastard had in store for him didn’t involve returning to the twelfth century. Because for as much as he loved his homeland, he didn’t miss his clansmen’s constant looks of sympathy. Nor did he miss the daily reminder of his own ineptness whenever he’d stood at his keep’s window and gazed down on Simone’s grave.
Nay, Titus had no business setting him up to protect the good people of two small Maine towns when a mere slip of a seventeen-year-old girl could outfox him with nothing more than a smile just to go get herself killed not three hours before they were supposed to meet at the altar.Chapter Three
As drinking establishments went, Niall supposed the Bottoms Up might be considered typical for a tourist boomtown situated in the middle of the wilderness. The two powerful wizards, mythical warrior, modern highlander, and twelfth-century laird sitting at the back corner table, however, were not exactly typical patrons—Duncan coming the closest as the only native-born Mainer, although the contrary bastard did have the questionable good fortune of being able to command the magic.
Even though the tables were filled mostly with local men enjoying libations and hearty food on this unusually mild weeknight in early June, Niall knew the bar would soon refill with tourists. The happy hour crowd catching up on town news usually headed home fairly early, since most of them had to be back at work by sunrise. But even before the barmaids could wipe down the tables, a new wave of men and women would come tromping in, hungry and thirsty from spending the day hiking and fishing and cruising Bottomless on tour boats, as well as browsing the steadily growing number of craft shops all vying for their tourist dollars.
Though slightly larger in population and sitting at the southernmost end of the new Bottomless Sea, Turtleback Station was actively—even aggressively—competing for those very same dollars. That is, except when the two towns had called a ceasefire in their little tourist tug-of-war long enough to vote on sharing a police force. There’d been a bit of an uproar, though, when the Turtleback councilmen had learned Niall had been given free housing in Spellbound, and had argued that since they were larger and therefore more vulnerable to crime, the police chief should be stationed in Turtleback.
Not that either town had a station yet. Hell, Niall had had to rig his own pickup with a siren and lights and radio, and even supply his own gun.
The Spellbound councilmen had in turn argued that Turtleback was thirty miles closer to the county sheriff’s office (which was still over sixty miles away) and already had a deputy living in town—conveniently forgetting that Jason Biggs was responsible for patrolling nearly four hundred miles of county roads. And then the councilmen, backed up by a second citizen vote, had offered to contribute sixty percent of the combined law enforcement budget—assuming anyone could call covering salaries and gas an actual budget. And so because the good people of Turtleback were apparently more frugal with their dollars than worried about getting robbed, Niall was living in the Crisis Center’s dooryard and using his truck as a mobile office until he had a stationary . . . station in each town, into which he would eventually post three more full-time officers.
Niall waited until Jasmine finished handing out everyone’s drinks, then softly tugged on her apron before she could leave. “Wait up, lass. Does Macie not usually work Thursday evenings?”
“Usually,” Jasmine said with a snap of her gum. “But she called me an hour ago and asked if I’d come in and cover the rest of her shift.”
“Is she ill?”
The questionably legal-aged waitress shrugged. “She looked fine to me.”
The only reason Niall wasn’t questioning the girl’s age was because he knew Vanetta was too sharp of a businesswoman to risk losing her liquor license by hiring a barmaid who wasn’t even old enough to drink.
Jasmine stopped chewing and leaned closer. “I got the feeling Macie left to meet someone,” she whispered loudly to be heard over the din of many conversations. “My guess is she snuck off to see her baby’s daddy, since Everest said the guy was in here earlier.”
“Why do you say she’s sneaking off?” Mac asked, his grin implying he wasn’t the least bit apologetic to be eavesdropping. “Macie is a grown woman.”
Jasmine looked at him in surprise. “You’re kidding, right? Have you met Warden Callahan? The woman would have a cow if she knew Macie was seeing the guy she ran away from and would probably go after him with that bear spray she carries.” The girl shot Niall a smile. “Wouldn’t it be ironic if you had to arrest the new crisis counselor for assaulting a man? Bet you wouldn’t mind tossing her in jail, if you had one.”
Okay, then; apparently his neighborly little war was becoming as public as the Kents’. “It’s Miss Callahan’s job to protect her residents,” Niall said, not unkindly. “Sometimes even from themselves.” He held up his hand when Jasmine started to protest. “I know Johnny wasn’t abusive, but Birch might be worried he’ll try to talk Macie into going back to the colony. And I’m sure she wouldn’t have a problem with the two of them meeting at the shelter, since it’s also her job to help couples reconcile.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jasmine said, striding off with another snap of her gum.
“Warden Callahan?” Mac drawled.
“The woman’s heart is in the right place.”
“You’re defending her?” Duncan said in surprise. “Didn’t you tell me a few days ago that ye wanted to take the little termagant on a one-way boat ride up the fiord?”
Titus set down his glass, his sharp green eyes lighting with interest. “Are we about to witness another infamous wife-stealing?” The old theurgist arched a regal brow. “You don’t believe three weeks is rather quick to decide a woman is the one, even for a MacKeage?”
“The idea was to leave her there,” Niall said, taking a drink to hide his scowl.
“So, Chief,” Titus continued with a chuckle, “is there a reason you’re still the sum total of our police force nearly two months after its inception?”
“Aye,” Niall said with a grimace, even though he was glad for the change of subject. “To date my choice of applicants have been four boys barely weaned off their mamas, three men whose bellies are so big they likely haven’t seen their peckers in years, two gentlemen old enough to be my grandfather—one of whom told me he has a device planted inside him to remind his heart to beat—and one character I suspect only wanted the job because of our proximity to the border.”
“What is so alluring about working near the border?” Titus asked.
Niall shrugged. “If I had plans to move contraband between countries, I might feel that few people will question a man roaming the woods all hours of the night if he’s wearing a badge and gun.”
Titus’s eyes lit up again. “That was an astute observation.” He looked at Duncan. “And you were astute as well, for seeing what a fine chief your ancestor would make.”
Duncan dismissed the compliment with a tight grin and looked at Niall. “Didn’t any women apply for the positions?”
“Three,” Niall snapped, not liking this subject any better.
“And none of them appeared to be a good fit.”
Duncan shook his head. “We explained that you have to seriously consider women applicants so they can’t sue us for discrimination.”
“And I told you that I’m not putting a woman in harm’s way.” Niall took another drink to keep from growling, then lowered his glass with a glare. “I’d be spending more time watching her back than my own.”
“You’ve met Trace Huntsman, haven’t you?” Mac interjected. “Married to Matt Gregor’s sister, Fiona.”
“Aye,” Niall said with a nod. “Trace and Fiona and the twins often visited when I was living with Matt and Winter. I’ve even been down to Midnight Bay a couple of times and had the pleasure of hauling lobster traps on Trace’s boat.”
“Then maybe you should ask him about putting females in harm’s way,” Mac went on. “Since Trace told me he preferred having women soldiers watching his back when he was fighting his war.” Mac’s grin widened when Niall started glaring at him. “Trace feels that because of their physical disadvantage, women are better at reading the subtle clues people—men in particular—give off, and can often disarm a situation before it turns deadly.”
Niall looked at Nicholas, who, he noticed, appeared more interested in his ale than the conversation. “How many women are on yoursecurity force?”
“Three at Nova Mare and four at Inglenook,” Nicholas said with a shrug. “I’ve found our women and younger guests seem to prefer dealing with female guards.”
Niall decided it was time to change the subject again and turned his attention back to Duncan. “I still contend that thirty miles is too far apart for towns to be sharing a police force. Even at sixty miles an hour, which is pushing the limit of safety on that road, it can still take me thirty minutes to get on-scene.”
“It beats waiting two or three hours for a county sheriff to show up,” Duncan countered. “That’s why the plan is to station a couple of officers in each town while pooling our resources to save on administrative costs.”
“What resources?” Niall countered back. “I don’t even have one station.”
“We’re working on that.”
“And while you’re working on it,” Niall went on, “see if ye can’t get your fellow councilmen to pony up enough money for me to hire a secretary. When I trained with Jack Stone, it was obvious that Ethel is the heart of Pine Creek’s force for keeping everything organized, answering the phone, and dealing with walk-ins.”
“I’ll try, but don’t hold your breath.” Duncan suddenly sighed. “It’s hard for people who’ve lived paycheck to paycheck all their lives to wrap their minds around a budget that now involves millions of dollars instead of a few hundred thousand.”
“But are the towns not collecting millions in taxes?” Titus asked. “What with all the new businesses springing up and the grand year-round homes being built to replace the old seasonal camps, the town coffers should be flush with dollars.”
“Aye,” Duncan admitted. “But the older folks are stubbornly tightfisted, and they don’t like the idea of building an infrastructure that’s turning their wilderness into small cities—especially if they can sneak by with what they have.”
Such as not purchasing a new cookstove if two burners were still working, Niall thought as he grinned into his ale.
Apparently not liking this subject, since he was directly responsible for turning Spellbound and Turtleback into small cities, Mac lifted his glass in salute. “To progress,” he offered, “and the wisdom and courage to embrace it.” He looked at Titus. “Speaking of which, how is your mass exodus coming along?”
Titus let out a resigned sigh of his own. “Folks becoming set in their ways is a timeless affliction, I’m afraid.”
“How many are left?” Mac asked with a chuckle.
“Eight families for a total of two dozen stubborn souls. And don’t think the irony is lost on me that it’s the younger islanders who are reluctant to leave. I finally gave them the choice of being gone in two weeks or becoming instant celebrities when an army of twenty-first-century scientists descend on their long-lost mythical home.”
“Wouldn’t it simply be wiser to leave Atlantis lost?” Duncan asked. “Are ye not worried that any number of nations will go to war over it? Hell, at least seven countries have laid claim to Antarctica.”
Apparently deciding that was a rhetorical question, Titus turned his attention across the table. “Is there a reason you’re quieter than usual this evening, Nicholas? You appear ready to fall asleep in your cups.”
“Julia is nesting,” Nicholas said as he glanced at Mac. “Has Olivia shaken you awake in the middle of the night yet and informed you the nursery needs to be finished by yesterday?”
Mac crossed his arms over his chest, his expression equally beleaguered. “By the time Julia is pregnant with your sixth son, you’ll be lucky if he’s not sleeping in a bureau drawer, since the more children you have the less nesting is needed, apparently. Olivia has put Sophie and Ella in charge of decorating their new sister’s room, and to date I’ve ordered and canceled three different furniture sets, now know more about themes than any man should, and have painted the walls five times.”
Aye, Niall thought with a silent chuckle; having been told last week that Olivia was expecting another girl, the wizard obviously didn’t like that Nicholas was having only sons, since it was looking as if young Henry would be Mac’s only male heir.
“Why don’t ye just have the resort facility crew do the painting?” Duncan asked, obviously fighting a grin.
“Because Sophie informed me that modern dads participate,” Mac explained—Sophie being his twelve-year-old stepdaughter.
“Oh, come on,” Niall said. “What does a wee babe care what color its room is? I’m not even sure they can see past their noses for several months.”
Three sets of incredulous eyes turned on him, and Titus merely sighed again.
“The babes don’t care,” Duncan said. “Their mothers do.”
“Women nest,” Nicholas muttered, “and the nest has to be lined with perfect feathers.”
“At least for the first one or two babes,” Mac added. “Then they turn everything over to the older siblings and us husbands.”
“Aye,” Duncan agreed, “while constantly threatening to kill us in our sleep if we get them pregnant again.”
“Until their friends get pregnant,” Mac countered, shooting a pointed glare at Duncan and then at Nicholas, “and they suddenly announce they want ‘just one more.’” Mac then turned his glare on Niall, as did the other two expectant fathers. “You want to be part of this conversation, MacKeage, go steal yourself a wife and get her pregnant.”
Knowing he didn’t have a hope in hell of changing this subject, Niall stood up with a laugh. “Thank you for the advice, gentlemen, but I believe I’ll wait for a brave lass to come along and steal me.”
“You might want to be careful what you wish for,” Titus said quietly, “lest you find yourself being taken on a one-way boat ride up the fiord by a pint-sized spitfire.”
On that note, Niall hightailed it for the door as he tried to recall if he had ever referred to Miss Callahan quite that way around the scheming old magic-maker.
• • •
Niall exited the Bottoms Up to find Shep licking an ice-cream cone being held by what appeared to be a three – or four-year-old tourist; the only problem being he wasn’t sure if the little girl was wanting to share her treat with a dog that looked her level in the eyes, or if she hadn’t dared say no. As for the girl’s parents . . . Well, the mother looked poised to whisk her child to safety and the father appeared ready to use his camera bag as a weapon even as he kept snapping pictures of his daughter feeding a stray dog in Maine. Niall cleared his throat, causing Shep to whip his head around in surprise, only to sigh when the dog turned back and gave the girl’s face a lick before trotting over—too happily licking his own snout to be feeling guilty, apparently.
Niall sent the parents a sheepish nod and stepped into the brightly painted crosswalk glistening under the newly installed streetlamps, which were already on even though it was nearing the longest day of the year. But the town proper sat in the looming shadow of Bent Mountain, which was responsible for the waterfall that thundered into a deep pool of frothing water before Spellbound Stream continued under the foot – and road bridges and shot into Bottomless.
“Am I going to have to take ye back to Kenzie Gregor for another little talk?” Niall asked when they reached the old railroad bed the grange ladies had converted to a footpath. Besides being Matt’s brother, Kenzie was an eleventh-century highland warrior who lived down on the coast near Trace Huntsman, along with their good friend William Killkenny, an Irish nobleman who’d come to this century seeking Kenzie’s help when an old hag’s curse had turned him into a dragon twelve hundred years ago.
Maine, it would appear, was growing rife with time-travelers.
When Niall had first gotten Shep, he’d barely been able to get close enough to tend his wounds, and coaxing the snarling, defensive dog to eat out of his hand had been an exercise in patience. Shep’s distrust of people—males in particular—had at first forced Niall to camp out in the woods for fear of putting Winter and her children at risk. That is, until Matt had suggested the dog might benefit from a visit to his brother in Midnight Bay, since Kenzie was able to . . . talk to animals.
Not that Niall thought the highlander’s gift strange, considering Kenzie had spent several centuries living as various animals—most recently a black panther—before Winter had helped Matt turn him into a man again.
Niall stopped on the trestle bridge and crouched down to grab hold of Shep’s snout, forcing the dog to look at him. “The deal is you’re supposed to be an invisible first officer,” he explained, talking only loud enough to be heard over the thundering falls. “The whole point of ye not wearing the K-9 police vest Jack Stone gave ye as a going away present was to make you appear unassuming.”
But when Shep merely took another swipe of his sticky nose, Niall stood up with a chuckle. “Aye, maybe there is nothing more invisible than a street beggar.” He scanned the length of town in the deepening dusk. “Now if I were Macie, where would I plan on meeting a man I wasn’t even supposed to talk to?”
Not in a public park, he didn’t think.
Niall looked up to see several daring tourists standing on the viewing platform perched at the top of the falls, thinking the forested trail leading up to it had many resting benches where two young lovers could meet. But he just as quickly decided that a woman growing cumbersome with child probably wouldn’t risk the steep climb.
Niall headed toward the park at a leisurely stroll, nodding to fellow strollers as he decided he would drive down to Turtleback tomorrow. Trying to split his time evenly, he’d made a point of visiting all the businesses in both towns like Jack had suggested—not that he’d needed to be told the value of building a good rapport with the people he’d sworn to protect, since that in essence had been his job as laird. He turned down the path leading to the park that surrounded the deep pool at the bottom of the falls, giving a chuckle when he passed the bronze marker telling the legend of a mystical spell being cast over any couple brave—or foolish—enough to kiss while standing in the mist.
Niall wondered if he were brave enough to kiss Miss Callahan in the mist.
Nay, that probably would be foolish, as the woman would likely spray him with bear repellent, then push him in the pool.
Apparently needing a drink to wash down the ice cream, Shep bolted for the water, and Niall chuckled again when he heard a loud splash not a heartbeat after the dog disappeared into the mist. He continued following the path, which wound through plantings of young fir and white birch trees surrounded by carefully tended flower beds, then stopped at a signpost. Deciding the less-traveled, thickly wooded trail that followed the base of the mountain offered plenty of places for a private meeting, Niall headed into the forest as he kept his ears tuned for the sound of conversation.
Not really worried he might be overstepping his duty to serve and protect, since he only intended to make sure Johnny truly was a pacifist, Niall grinned at having guessed correctly when ten minutes later he heard two people talking against the backdrop of the distant falls. He left the trail and quietly made his way through the forest that was nearly pitch-black now that the sun had set completely, then crouched several feet away from the couple sitting on a fallen log—his grin widening at the realization that, if anything, Johnny better hope Macie was also a pacifist, judging by her tone. But not five minutes after Niall had settled comfortably against a tree, Johnny suddenly stood up.
“Come on, Mace,” the young man said as he stood facing her. “How many times are you going to make me apologize for something I had no control over?”
“Dan didn’t let the lack of control bother him.”
“Because he was new. He didn’t have anything invested in the settlement, so what did he care if Sebastian kicked him out?”
Dan, Niall happened to know, was actually Dante—an Atlantean warrior Nicholas had brought to Nova Mare as a security guard. It had been at Titus’s request that Dante go undercover at the colony, hoping to learn what sort of magic they were practicing.
“I swear to God,” Macie said tightly, “you’d better not tell anyone it was Dan who helped me escape. I told you that in confidence.”
Johnny gave a humorless laugh. “Exactly which god are you swearing to, Mace? Certainly not the one we’ve been trying to call forth, because he’s still not here.”
Aye, but he was, Niall thought with a scowl, only nobody knew what the bastard looked like or where he was hiding.
“That’s because he’s supposed to be a goddess,” Macie shot back. “And why would she be in a hurry to show up if it means having to deal with Sebastian?”
There was a long silence, then a heavy sigh. “Are you ever going to forgive me?”
“Are you ever going to leave the settlement?”
Another silence, and then, “Getting close to the kind of magic that can move mountains was your dream, too, Mace.”
“It was, until Sebastian showed up and started bossing everyone around,” she muttered, standing up and starting back toward the park.
“But the baby’s gonna be here in a couple of months,” Johnny said as he ran to catch up with her. “And I really want to be part of its life. And yours.”
Unable to hear Macie’s answer because they were too far away, Niall got to his feet and followed. He watched Johnny catch hold of Macie’s hand when they reached the park and give her a hug that lasted until a group of people walked past. The young man stepped away, hesitated, and made a helpless gesture, then turned and walked up the path to the trestle.
Macie continued staring after him until he disappeared down the road in the direction of Turtleback, then sat on one of the benches along the outer edge of the park. Niall walked over and stood in front of her, breaking into a grin when she gasped and nervously glanced at the trail she’d just exited before looking up at him in horror.
“Would ye care for some company, Miss Atwater?” Niall asked. He gestured at the woods behind her. “And maybe allow me to meddle in your business a little?”
She dropped her gaze, her cheeks clearly flushed in the lamplight, and scooted over to make room for him on the bench.
Niall sat down beside her and stared at the mist rising from the pool. “I don’t have Miss Callahan’s schooling,” he began, keeping his voice only strong enough to be heard over the noise of the falls. “But I do seem to have a knack for taking a man’s measure.” He shot her a grin. “As well as an occasional woman’s. And from what little I overheard of your conversation, it appears to me that your child’s father is a good man. He might have his priorities confused, but his heart seems to be in the right place.”
“Johnny didn’t do anything when Sebastian realized I was pregnant and dragged me out of the bathhouse wearing only a towel and then locked me in a room for two days,” she returned, a touch of anger in her voice. “There’s no telling what would have happened if one of the other men, a guy named Dan, hadn’t helped me escape.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Sebastian,” Niall said, nodding when she looked over in surprise. “I made a point of introducing myself the day after I became chief of police to let him know I was dealing with the people protesting the colony.”
“I’m never going back there.”
“What I’m trying to say is that I can see how your young man got caught up in Sebastian’s vision. Charisma is a powerful force, and when someone like Sebastian shows up with an agenda similar to your own . . . well, few men are immune to that sort of passion.”
“Then how come none of the women fell for his charisma?”