Highlander for the Holidays (4 page)

BOOK: Highlander for the Holidays
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Having come close to being kicked out of the military on more than one occasion for not following orders, Ian grabbed Jessie’s belongings and headed after her. Only he hesitated when he saw Merissa in Duncan’s arms, thinking he should tell them what was going on—not that he knew.
“Screw it,” he ground out, heading out the door. Because the only reason he hadn’t been kicked out of the military was that he’d usually been guarding someone’s back when he’d been disobeying orders. He didn’t know what Jessie’s problem was, but he sure as hell intended to find out.
Instead of heading straight into the parking lot, Ian stayed in the shadow of the building as he scanned the lot for Jessie’s late-model Volvo wagon, only to hear her before he actually spotted her trying to get in her car. He stopped next to a utility van parked two slots away, trying to figure out what had her so upset.
“Dammit, Toby, the keys are in my purse,” she cried, a distinct edge in her voice as she uselessly pulled on the handle again and then banged her fist on the roof.
Ian stepped back to peer through the truck’s windows when she looked around the parking lot, the streetlight illuminating her growing panic as she suddenly started toward the woods. And though he wouldn’t say she was limping, her gait definitely was stilted, he decided as he followed.
“We need to find a safe place,” she said frantically. “
Hide
, Toby.
Safe place
,” she repeated, practically stumbling by the time they reached the trees. “S-safe place,” she stammered, openly sobbing now. “Hurry!”
Becoming rather frantic himself, Ian silently stepped into the woods parallel to them and stopped behind a large tree to let his eyes adjust to the streetlights filtering through the bare branches. He heard Jessie faltering in the dried leaves, and then she and Toby disappeared beneath a lowbranched spruce.
Ian crept closer, being mindful to keep silent despite her sobs urging him to rush to her aid. Except he didn’t think Toby would allow him anywhere near her, and Ian didn’t want to distract the dog from what was obviously his true job. So he stopped about ten paces away, balling his hands into fists when he saw Jessie curled into a fetal position on the ground. Toby was settled at her back with his head tucked in the crux of her neck, his massive body absorbing Jessie’s jerking spasms as one of her hands, curled like a claw, lashed out at the empty air.
A seizure? Had Toby sensed one coming on?
Only Jessie’s movements didn’t appear mindless, but defensive, as if she were fighting off an attacker only she could see. Ian broke into a sweat, the knot in his gut rising into his chest to nearly strangle him as he realized Jessie appeared to be having a flashback of some horrific trauma she had experienced. And Toby, perfectly calm, was doing what he could to help her survive the emotional maelstrom.
Christ, he couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. Ian stepped out of the shadows but stopped when Toby immediately rose up and stood straddling Jessie’s body, his hackles raised and his lips rolling back on a soft growl.
Jessie wasn’t even aware of the two males silently battling over her, so deeply consumed by terror that she continued whimpering and twisting, her hands continuing to ward off her unseen demon. She suddenly made the sound of a mortally wounded animal and curled back into the fetal position, her body wracked with tremors. Toby gave one last snarl at Ian, then nosed her shoulder and carefully settled against her again with his head resting on hers.
Ian retreated only a few yards before he came up against a tree and his legs gave out. He dropped to his knees and sat on his heels, his eyes trained on the woman he’d just spent the evening dancing and laughing with. Holy hell, did she have these episodes often?
Christ, she must if she needed a service dog.
Then why was she moving to Pine Creek, not just alone, but thousands of miles away from family and friends and whatever support system she must have had in place? Ian rubbed his hands over his face, trying to come to terms with what he’d just witnessed. How much courage did it take for Jessie to get out of bed every morning knowing what she might face at any given moment? How did she even
function
, much less find the courage to move someplace the exact opposite of what she was used to?
He froze with his hands on his face. Was that it? Had Jessie chosen Pine Creek precisely because it wasn’t a crowded city?
“Oh, T-Toby, you’re the smartest, bravest dog in the whole w-world.”
Ian dropped his hands to see Jessie pushing herself into a sitting position.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” she asked, running her trembling hands over her pet. “Because you know I certainly didn’t mean to.”
Ian blinked in disbelief and felt some of the pressure in his chest give way as he stifled a snort. Was she serious? He doubted anything short of a baseball bat could hurt Toby, as the dog was solid muscle.
“You are such a smart boy,” she continued, resting her head on Toby’s shoulder. “You gave me enough warning so I didn’t embarrass myself and you picked a good place for us to hide. I think we’re going to be okay here in Pine Creek, Tobes,” she whispered, hugging him fiercely. She gave a soft snort. “These trees sure are a lot nicer than a public bathroom stall or janitor’s closet, and there certainly seem to be plenty of them around here.”
Oh, Christ; Ian’s gut knotted again imagining Jessie searching for a decent place to hide in the city. Toby suddenly looked directly at him—as if to let Ian know he was still on guard—then turned his attention back to his mistress.
“So,” Jessie said on a heavy sigh as she brushed leaves and spruce needles off her coat, “what do you think my chances are of keeping this from Merissa? I have her convinced I haven’t had an episode in over a month, and we both know if she finds out I had one tonight, I’ll never get her to leave on Thursday.”
When all she got for an answer was a lick on her cheek, Jessie rolled to her hands and knees and grabbed an overhead branch to awkwardly pull herself to her feet. Ian took advantage of the noise she made and also stood. He picked up her purse and cane, then stepped behind a large tree, peeking back around it in time to see Jessie grab a sapling when she lost her balance. But since Toby obviously expected her to be unsteady, the dog had positioned himself at her side to let her take hold of his collar.
Ian started out of the woods so he could make it appear as if he were just coming out of the bar to find her, but hadn’t taken two steps before he heard her gasp.
“Oh no, my boob fell out! We have to find it. Boob, Toby. Find my
boob
.”
Ian staggered backward, completely nonplussed as he watched Jessie drop to her knees and Toby put his nose to the ground, and they both began searching the area under the spruce. No, he couldn’t possibly have heard right; she couldn’t really have said she’d lost her boob, could she? Seriously? Her
boob
?
“Oh, good boy!” she cried, taking something out of the dog’s mouth.
Ian ran a hand over the back of his neck as he watched Jessie wipe an object the size of a woman’s fist on her sleeve. She pulled herself to her feet, pushed her coat aside, lifted her sweater, then tucked the . . . object inside the left cup of her bra.
“There,” she said, facing Toby as she looked down at her chest. She took a deep breath and pulled at the hem of her sweater. “Do they look even?” She suddenly palmed both breasts, gave them a jiggle, then threw back her shoulders and smoothed down her sweater and scarf again—only to suddenly giggle. “I wonder what Mr. Sexy Ian MacKeage would have to say if I walked back into Pete’s with one of my boobs half the size of the other. ‘Why, lass; I do believe there’s something different about you. Why don’t ye let me slip my hands under yer blouse and see if I can find out what the problem is,’” she said in an exaggerated brogue. She snorted. “In his dreams,” she muttered, grasping the dog’s leash and letting him lead her out of the woods.
For the love of Christ, how could the woman joke about losing a boob?
Wait—had she just called him sexy?
Walking a bit taller and with the knot in his chest slowly loosening, Ian stayed just ahead and to the side of them but halted at the edge of the woods when they emerged into the parking lot and Jessie stopped.
“Hey, Tobes,” she said, sounding excited. “I just realized I’m not completely wiped out like I usually am. Heck, I’m not even shaking with lingering terror. Oh Toby, it’s
working
,” she said with a laugh, bending to give her dog a hug. “Everyone thought I was crazy for wanting to move to Maine, but I
knew
this was a powerful place to start my brand-new life.” She straightened with another laugh, and then walked between the cars and pickups toward the bar.
Ian ducked down and ran alongside her two rows away. Oh, the lass would be safe here, all right—from everyone but him. Because whether or not Jessie Pringle knew it, her brand-new life was going to include Mr. Sexy.
“Jessie!” Merissa said in surprise as she came around the side of the building, Duncan not two steps behind her. The woman’s already flushed face turned an even deeper red. “We were just . . . It’s not . . . I was . . .” Merissa sighed, and finished tucking her shirttail into the waist of her pants. But then her eyes suddenly widened when Ian stepped out from behind a nearby pickup. “Ohmigod,
Jessie
?” she squeaked, covering her mouth as she stepped closer. “You came outside with Ian?”
Jessie turned and took a step back when she saw him, her face washing pale in the streetlight. “You
followed
me?”
Ian held up her purse and cane even as he gestured toward the parking lot. “I realized you’d forgotten your cane and was coming to look for you.”
Merissa plucked a leaf off Jessie’s shoulder. “Jess?” she whispered, pulling another leaf from her hair. “Did you have . . . Were you—”
Jessie laughed. “I fell,” she said, brushing at her coat. She darted a suspicious glance at Ian, then waved toward the trees. “I took Toby into the woods to do his business, and I tripped on a root or something.”
Merissa’s eyes narrowed. “That’s all? You just . . . fell?”
Jessie walked over and took her purse and cane out of Ian’s hand, then headed toward the entrance. “I don’t know about you guys, but I could use a drink.”
Merissa pulled her to a stop. “Um, I was just heading back inside to tell you . . .” She looked at Ian, then leaned closer to Jessie. “That I’m going to have Duncan bring me back to the resort . . . later.”
Ian couldn’t decide if he should wipe that smug look off Duncan’s face right here in the parking lot or drag the arrogant bastard into the woods to beat some sense into him. Duncan had read both women just as easily as he had, and the idiot knew leaving with Merissa would put Jessie in an awkward position.
“Oh. Okay. I’ll see you back at the room . . . later,” Jessie said, giving Ian an uneasy glance as she continued into the bar.
After a pointed glare at Duncan that even an idiot could interpret, Ian followed Jessie inside only to find her and Toby standing on the edge of the dance floor staring at their occupied booth. She jumped in surprise when he took hold of her elbow. “We can have our drink at the bar,” he suggested.
She pulled free with a heavy sigh. “No, I think I’ll just call it a night.” She smiled up at him and patted his arm, letting her hand linger as she said, “But I had a wonderful time this evening, Ian. Thank you.” She gave his arm another pat, then turned and headed over to Paula at the bar.
As dismissals went, Ian decided as he followed, that was as good as any—if it had come from a
maiden aunt
.
“Did you say Duncan paid both bills?” he heard Jessie ask Paula, looking up from her open purse in surprise. She started rummaging through it again and pulled out a twenty. “Well then, here, take this for . . . for your good advice.”
Paula snorted, shoving the twenty in her apron. “Fat lot of good it did your friend,” she said, shaking her head.
Jessie laughed. “Did you ever consider that maybe Duncan and Ian are the ones who should have made sure Merissa and I are harmless? Because all us city girls are taught from the cradle how to turn tigers into pussycats.”
Realizing Jessie didn’t know that Ian was standing directly behind her, Paula pulled her down the bar—wrongly thinking she’d moved them out of earshot. “Then you better start thinking like a wilderness girl, honey,” Paula said, “at least when it comes to MacKeages, since Merissa told me you’re moving here.” She leaned closer. “The MacKeages and MacBains and Gregors are like one big Scottish clan, and are a good chunk of our population. And although their wives are real friendly, all the men are so old-fashioned it’s scary, even the ones born here. So you might want—”
Ian stepped over and took hold of Jessie’s arm before Paula could do any real damage, and started for the door. “Thanks for the service, Paula,” he said with a wave over his shoulder. “I believe I’ll walk ye to your car, lass, and then follow you to the resort to make sure you arrive okay. It’s starting to mist, and it may freeze on the road.”
“How much of that did you hear?”
Ian stopped in the parking lot to face her, and folded his arms over his chest. “Enough to wonder how many tigers you’ve turned into pussycats since you emerged from your cradle.”
She strode off, forcing Toby to break into a trot to keep up. “I was talking about
Merissa
,” she said when Ian fell in step beside her. She fished her keys out of her purse, pushed the button on the fob, and opened the rear door of her car. “So you don’t have to worry; I’m so out of practice, I don’t even remember the rules of engagement,” she muttered, tossing her cane and purse on the floor in the back.
Ian waited until Toby had hopped in the backseat before he used his hip to close the door even as he pressed his palms to Jessie’s face and tilted her head back. “Maybe all you’re needing is a little reminder,” he murmured, capturing her gasp of surprise in his mouth.
BOOK: Highlander for the Holidays
3.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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