Authors: Janice Kay Johnson
"Actually..." he shrugged a little apologetically, "I'm FBI."
It was Bill who spoke up then, sounding hostile. "Can you prove it?"
Mac's gaze hadn't left Megan. Strangely, there was something vulnerable in his eyes, as though he were waiting for some sign from her. Of approval? But why would he care what she thought of him?
Still watching her, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a leather case. Flipping it open, he held out a badge. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Megan was lost. "But...I don't understand. Why are you here?"
Suddenly looking weary, he tossed the badge onto the worn kitchen table. "It's a long story. I'm going to have to trust you to keep it to yourselves."
Bill picked up the badge and stared at it in apparent disbelief. At last he shook his head. "Weird."
Mac glanced at him with wry humor, then back at Megan. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
"What? Oh! Of course. I'm sorry. You probably still have a headache, don't you?"
He lowered himself carefully into one of the pressed-back oak kitchen chairs and stretched out his long, muscular legs, wincing in obvious pain. "Yeah, you might say so. I suppose I'd better take one of the damn pills."
Megan hurried to get him a glass of water while he produced a small bottle of white capsules from the pocket of his jacket. "Haven't you been taking them?" she asked.
"Didn't feel too bad earlier." He popped one onto his tongue and took a long drink of water. Then he gave her a lopsided smile. "How about that beer?"
"You shouldn't mix..." Megan began automatically.
He interrupted gently, "One won't hurt. And I'll bet your brother could use one, too. Shock is tough on the system."
Megan opened her mouth to argue, then sighed. "All right! But you have to talk in payment. I want to know what's going on. Does Pete Tevis know who you are? And those men. Who were they?”
"Pete Tevis?" Bill echoed. "I don't get it. This whole thing is crazy!"
Mac said, "I'll explain as much as I know. But what I tell you can't leave this room. Do you understand? It isn't just my safety at stake."
Bill glanced swiftly at Megan, then back at Mac. "Yeah, sure, I understand. I guess."
"I think you missed the first installment," Megan told him as she got the beers. "Somebody bopped him over the head the other day and tossed him into the lake. Unfortunately for their plans, I pulled him out."
Her brother absorbed that in silence. "Did you see them?"
"Yeah, she saw, 'em all right," Mac said drily.
"But not well enough to identify," Megan interjected.
Mac took a swallow of beer, coolly holding her gaze. "They're not going to believe that."
She sat down and propped her elbows on the table. "And I still think you're being paranoid."
He grimaced. "Yeah, well, it's an occupational hazard, I'll concede that. In this case, I just don't want to take a chance." He shrugged out of his denim jacket, leaving it draped on the back of the chair, and took another swallow of beer.
"But what's this case?" Bill asked in bewilderment. "I mean, crime is not a big problem at Devil's Lake. We have an occasional boat stolen or maybe somebody has a little too much to drink and slugs somebody else. Not exactly your thing."
Megan scarcely heard her brother. It seemed so strange, the three of them sitting casually around her kitchen table talking. Mac didn't fit here. The leather holster crisscrossing his broad shoulders only accentuated his air of toughness, the guarded look in his gray eyes. In contrast, her handsome, blue-eyed, dark-haired brother seemed very young. Even Mac's voice had a rough edge to it, and she had the feeling he never spoke without carefully weighing his words first.
Now he shrugged. "I was hiding here. And you're right. I picked it because I used to come fishing here and I remembered it as being peaceful. Not the kind of place I'd meet former...ah, acquaintances."
There was a moment's silence. "You know," Bill said. "I don't think I heard your name."
Megan waited curiously for his response. She couldn't help remembering his hesitation when she had asked for his name that morning in the hospital. Was it only yesterday? He'd said it as though the syllables sat awkwardly on his tongue. Without consciously realizing it, she had found it hard to think of him by a name. It had been easy enough to picture him, tall and lean and dangerous.
He didn't look at Bill as he said quietly to Megan, "I lied to you. My name's not Ross McKenzie. I'm sorry. I was uncomfortable doing it, when you'd just saved my life."
"I knew you were lying," she admitted.
"Yeah?" He smiled ruefully. "I must be losing my touch."
She just waited.
"My friends call me Mac. That much is the truth. I was born James McClain."
"Born?" That seemed a strange way to put it.
"I've used a few other names along the way." He said it with outward indifference, but Megan thought she heard bitterness he couldn't quite hide.
Obeying a sudden impulse, she touched his hand. "Okay. Mac it is."
His eyes searched hers for a long moment, and then he smiled. The smile was charming, sensuous and very dangerous. Megan's pulse gave a ragged jump.
"So why the fake name?" she asked.
He raked his fingers through his hair. "My last assignment was undercover. I spent almost a year penetrating a particularly nasty crime family in Miami. Mostly into drug distribution. Anyway, my cover got blown by somebody I'd busted before. Sheer bad luck. We had enough to indict some of the lower echelon, but not the kingpin. And since Saldivar doesn't take kindly to what he regards as betrayal, he put out a contract on me. It seemed like a good idea for me to disappear for a while. We'll get Saldivar sooner or later. We're close. In the meantime..." He shrugged.
"Is that how you got the scar?" Megan asked softly.
Mac nodded. Bill looked from one face to the other, but didn't ask any questions.
"So...how did they find you?"
"I don't think they did find me. Although I'm checking out that possibility, too."
She frowned. "But why would anyone else want to..."
"I've made enemies."
"In Devil's Lake?"
He rubbed his forehead, and again Megan noticed how tired he was. There were shadows under his eyes and his face looked drawn. "Not to the best of my knowledge," he said. "Like I said, I picked the place because I came fishing here years ago. I had good memories. And, hell, it seemed like the back of beyond. But I did work here in the Northwest. Maybe somebody who hates my guts has taken up fishing, too. It's always possible."
"You haven't recognized anyone?" she asked tentatively.
"Not a damn soul."
"But, then, isn't it likelier that—"
"How?" he interrupted. "How the hell would they have found me here?"
Megan tried to think, but she knew so little about the alien world he lived in. "Somebody must know where you are."
"A handful of people." He suddenly frowned. "This part isn't your problem."
"But I'm involved!"
"I want you as uninvolved as possible," he said harshly. "When I can be sure nobody is interested in you, I'll disappear again."
Megan tried to imagine what assuming another identity would be like. A strange town, a strange name, anonymity of the soul as well as the body. Wouldn't you begin to wonder yourself who you really were? She found the thought strangely disturbing.
"You make it sound so easy," she said.
He looked surprised. "It is easy. There's nothing to it."
"But your family, your friends." Why was she arguing? Why did it seem to matter so much? "Don't you have a cat or dog? And a home? And...and things?"
Even Bill was staring at her now, puzzled by her sharpness. Mac's expression was quizzical.
"Things can be replaced," he pointed out. "You are who you are no matter who or what's around."
"No." She shook her head forcefully. "I don't believe that. We're shaped by the people we love. 'No man is an island...'"
"I've heard that." His voice was hard. "I don't believe it. If it were true, I wouldn't exist at all."
Again she was caught by his bitterness. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing." The chair legs scraped as he abruptly pushed it away from the table. After pitching the beer can into the trash under the sink, he stood looking out the window, his back to them. He rubbed his neck with one hand, as though trying to release tension, but his voice was almost expressionless. "I work undercover a lot. Do you know what would happen if you spent all your time pining for some damn dog? Or your own TV? Sure you forget who you are. That's the only way you can function. You have to
the slimeball you're pretending to be. But then you walk away from it, from who you were, and that person doesn't exist anymore." He turned to face her. "Nothing to it."
Something painfully close to pity stirred in her chest. "I see," she said carefully. Why did she want to touch him, to smooth away the harsh lines on his face?
"So?" he said. "Are you going to be smart enough to drop out of sight?"
"It's not for me."
"Damn it!" He slapped his hand on the counter. "Don't be a fool!"
Megan didn't say anything, just stared stubbornly back.
He looked at Bill. "Can't you convince her?"
Bill had the bewildered expression of a spectator at a football game who'd been asked to take the quarterback's place. "Convince her? To do what? I don't understand."
"She needs to take a vacation away from here for a while. Just until this whole mess is cleared up."
"But if she didn't see anything..."
He swore. "I didn't know it was possible to be so naive!"
"Better naive than paranoid," Megan said sharply.
His laugh was short and humorless. "Let me spend the night at least."
She reacted with instinctive alarm. "What do you mean?"
"Obviously not what you're thinking. I'll sleep on the couch, keep out of your way."
"That might not be a bad idea," Bill said. "Unless... Hey, why don't you come home with me? You can even have my bed. Or sleep in the truck. They'd never find you there."
"They, they, they!" Suddenly angry, she jumped to her feet. This whole thing was ridiculous—no, insane! She refused to be frightened out of her own house! But she couldn't help remembering those headlights that had appeared from nowhere in her rearview mirror, the car hesitating at the head of her driveway. "Enough already! If it'll make you happy, you can sleep on the couch, I don't care! But don't think for a minute that I believe any of this!"
"Hey, calm down," Bill said. "He's just trying to take care of you."
She gave her brother a fierce look. "Drop it! I agreed, didn't I?" When neither man said anything, she stalked out. Using some of her adrenaline, Megan snatched sheets and blankets out of a closet and wrenched the couch in the living room out with a clatter. With quick, angry movements she made it, trying not to think about Mac's long, hard body sprawled carelessly on those pristine sheets.
When she looked up, Mac stood in the doorway watching her with an odd expression. "I'm sorry," he said in that rough-edged voice. "You're having to pay a price for saving my life. That's not fair."
Somehow her anger had slipped away. Megan gave the pillow a last punch and straightened. "We always pay a price for our choices."
"It's the price others have to pay for us that hurts."
She knew that too well. Trying to change the subject, she said at random, "You don't even have a toothbrush."
"You could go get your..."
One dark brow quirked. "Things?"
"Yes, things!" she said acerbically. "Surely even you like to brush your teeth and put clean underwear on in the morning?"
At that he grinned, and again Megan was startled by the transformation. Laughter warmed his face, made him wickedly charming. Her heart seemed to lurch, and she bit her lip. He wasn't for her; she had to quit responding as though he were. He was a man who'd known so many names he had probably forgotten some of them, a loner. Soon he would be gone, without looking back. If she let him touch her heart, even a little, she would be sorry.
"Okay. If your brother will hang around until I get back, I'll go get my 'things.' " With that he vanished from the doorway.
A moment later Bill appeared. "He's gone," he said abruptly. "Megan, I don't know if we should trust him. His story's so far out, it's like something on TV! And he's made damn sure we can't call anybody to check on him. I don't know. Maybe you should come home with me instead."
It was hard for Megan to separate into small compartments the muddled feelings she had for Mac. Fear and uncertainty and anger and a deep, unreasoning attraction that she suspected had had something to do with her capitulation. But trust?
"I'm pretty sure he's telling the truth," she said slowly. "I saved his life and he doesn't like the idea of owing anybody. Unnecessary or not, this is his way of paying off the debt. I think I should let him."
Bill continued to hover in the doorway. He looked uncertain. "Listen," he said awkwardly. "Is there something...well, between you two? I sort of felt in the way. I mean..."
"No!" She tried to moderate her voice. "No. Really. There's nothing. It's just...different, when you've been through something together like that. We're strangers but we're not. It makes us uneasy with each other. That's all."
From her brother's expression, Megan didn't think she'd convinced him. She hadn't even convinced herself. There was an odd thread of tension between her and the man who'd come so dramatically into her life. It was more complicated than mere physical attraction, although her feminine instincts told her that it was mutual. But she didn't understand it and wasn't sure she wanted to.
Refusing to let herself get too analytical, Megan forced a smile for Bill's benefit. "I could use a cup of tea. How about you?"
"Did you already have dinner?"
"I took a break at work."
Her brother shrugged. "I'll have another beer."
Twenty minutes later Mac returned with a small suitcase. Bill left immediately, after telling Megan in an undertone to call if she wanted him.