More Than Magic

First Book of the Kindling

Excerpt #2

MoreThanMagiclg Scrambling to get everything back into his pack, which had tipped over, Nick sniffed the air like mad, checking the wind, trying to get a direction. His GPS unit, which hadn’t been working a minute ago, had suddenly acquired a signal, or was trying to. But he was in a shallow ravine surrounded by rocks. He would have to climb up to acquire enough satellites.

His compass was working though. South. The smell was drifting from the south. Of course that didn’t mean much, since he had no idea exactly where on the map he was, but he could figure it out pretty accurately once he had the last trackpoint the GPS had dropped.

Right now he wanted to reconnoiter and get a visual. Blundering into a working operation alone wasn’t what this case was about and likely wouldn’t answer any of his boss’s questions, but he could at least confirm what his nose was telling him.

He hefted his pack by the straps and scrambled out of the ravine, one eye on the GPS display, expecting it to disappear at any second, but hoping—

The dog didn’t so much bark as yell at him—a deep baying noise that scared the crap out of him and made him drop the GPS and his pack. He had almost reached his gun before he recognized the slender figure in the gaudy but colorful hat catching up with the dog. The crunch his pack made as it hit the rocks below echoed in the silence. His GPS made an equally loud noise scraping back and forth against the zipper of his jacket as it swung on its tether.

Pooka stood in front of him, tongue lolling, apparently not sure whether to go for his throat or lick him.

“Am I glad to see you,” he said, looking up at Grace as he sank to his knees in front of the dog. “I thought I was a goner.”

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Lovely.

Mr. City Man was kneeling in front of her dog in the middle of her trail to her sang bed and for just a moment he hadn’t looked at all like the convalescent who had checked in last night. In fact, she had regretted coming up here without her 12-gauge. But now he looked like he was going to throw up.

Grace took a deep breath. A million questions tumbled through her brain and adrenaline made her hair stand on end. Was Nick merely another guest who got lost out here thinking his fabulously expensive GPS would save him? Was he following her? Why on earth would a very sick man—because he was clearly still ill whether he would admit to it or not—get up at an ungodly hour to follow her into the cold damp of these woods?

She looked at the perspiration beading on his upper lip with a clinical eye. He was either running a fever or really scared. And she honestly couldn’t tell which without whipping out her thermometer.

Was he after the sang? Not in his condition. He couldn’t dig it up or transport it, but he might be trying to map its location for future digging. But why? He didn’t look like the average sang poacher. Clearly he had money of his own. Top of the line GPS. Top of the line hiking boots. Top of the line windbreaker, although it looked a size too large for him. More evidence that he was, or had been, really ill.

And she wasn’t really worried about the sang. Far better sang hunters had tried and failed to follow this trail, much less actually find the bed.

“Are you insane?” she asked.

Pooka relaxed and sat back on his haunches, but Nick gave her a puzzled look.

“Wha—”

“No, don’t answer.” She threw up her hand. “I apologize. That was an unfair question.” She took a breath. “What are you doing out here?”

Nick looked bewildered for a moment, then he looked down at his pack, and at his GPS, and back up at her again. “Hiking?”

She grimaced.

Trying to hike?” he offered again.

“I suppose you forgot to look at the map I told you about. The one with the trails marked expert and beginner?”

He appeared baffled by her question and fished inside his jacket for a much-used map. “I had one that a guy recommended with the GPS waypoints—”

“This is private land,” she said, and felt an instant pang of guilt when he flinched.

“It is?”

She sighed. “Yes it is. This is my family’s land. Has been for generations. It isn’t on that map of yours. It is, however, on the map that we provide in the cabin. I don’t mind you hiking it, but I wouldn’t want you to get injured or lost on a trail that’s too difficult for you. I know you signed a waiver, but it would be bad for business.”

At that, Nick sat back on his heels, put his hands on his thighs and shook his head. “I don’t know what to say. I— I’m— I mean I was lost, pretty much. My GPS went out and then my compass started acting up, back there, so I headed in the direction I thought I had come and I—”

“Got more lost.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Well,” she said slowly, enunciating every word. “If you read the instructions at the cabin, there are specific warnings about what to do if you get lost out here. They do not include walking further into the woods.”

Nick was looking up at her with the same expression Jamie had the day that Grace found the goats in the lettuce bed—completely guilty and completely preoccupied with getting away with it. Except Jamie hadn’t been pale and sweaty.

He hadn’t struck her as an absolute idiot, but he was certainly acting like one at the moment. Perhaps it was the fever. She crouched down to his level.

“Are you all right? Because, I hate to be blunt, but you look like hell.”

He wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his jacket sleeve. “I might’ve pushed it a bit. I’m…not good at pacing myself, I guess.”

“Well, your doctor should’ve given you specific instructions on how much exercise your body could manage at this point.”

There was that dimple again. “Yeah, well, I’m…not good at following instructions, I guess.”

Grace smiled in spite of herself. “I can see that.”

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There was no way in hell that a woman with eyes like that—with a damn hat like that—could be hiding a meth operation in these woods. Was there?

“And I thought I smelled something,” Nick said.

Grace scrunched her face up as if she were trying not to laugh at him and having a difficult time of it. “Well, there are a lot of things out here to smell,” she said in that science-teacher voice of hers.

“No, this was weird, like ammonia—a lot of ammonia.”

She stood as if she’d been stung, sniffing the air in all directions and scanning the trees.

He stood with her, looking around. “What?”

“I don’t smell anything like that. Just a trash fire somewhere. Probably the Taggarts—”

“But what was it that you were worried about? What smells like ammonia out here?” Yes, Dr. Grace, what?

“Well, as I told you last night, some people have reported seeing a big cat out here—a pain—a mountain lion. Sometimes they mark their territory and their food caches—”

“A mountain lion?” No. He knew the smell of a meth lab pretty damn well. It wasn’t like a giant litter box, there was more to it. Sulfur and other fumes. She was right, though, the smell had disappeared beneath the smell of a trash fire. Or he had imagined it.

“Yet another reason not to walk further into the woods when you are lost,” she repeated in that teacher voice again. And, damn her eyes, she was about to smile at him.

For the briefest moment, he had a mental flash of shutting her up by sinking his hand into that hair of hers, and kissing her—hard.

“But that trash fire smelled pretty nasty for a minute there.” She sniffed the air. “Could that have been it?”

He took a deep breath. There was nothing on the air now except her scent. “I—I don’t think so, but hey, I could be imagining things.” Is that perfume or is that the way you smell all the time?

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