Peg rounded a curve in the peninsula’s winding lane and gasped in surprise when she spotted the strange man striding across the parking lot with Jacob thrown over his shoulder. Even from this distance she could see the sheer terror in her son’s eyes as Isabel skipped backward in front of them, trying to get the man to stop. Peg started running even as she sized up her adversary: tall, athletic build, short dark hair. Yeah, well, instead of traumatizing defenseless little children, Claude the mad scientist was about to find himself on the receiving end of a healthy dose of fear.
“I swear I’ll kick you if you don’t put him down, mister,” Peg heard Isabel threaten. “He wasn’t hurting your stupid machine none. He’s just a baby!” And then the six-year-old actually did kick out when the guy didn’t stop, only to stumble backward as he merely sidestepped around her. “Charlotte! Peter!” Isabel screamed as she scrambled in front of him again. “Come help me save Jacob from the scary man!”
Alarmed that the guy would go after her daughter when she saw him hesitate, Peg didn’t even stop to think and lunged onto his back. “Put him down!” she shouted, wrapping her arm around the bastard’s neck as she tried to pull Jacob off his shoulder with her other hand. “Or I swear I’ll rip out your eyes!”
The guy gave his own shout of surprise and suddenly dropped like a stone when Peter slammed into his right knee. “You leave my brother alone, you scary bastard!” Peter shouted as he rolled out of the way, dragging Jacob with him.
Peg reared up to avoid Charlotte’s foot swinging toward the guy’s ribs, although she didn’t dare loosen her grip or take her weight off him, fearing he’d lash out at her children. He suddenly curled into the fetal position with a grunt when Peter landed on him beside her.
“Get away from him!” she screamed over her shouting children, trying to push them off when they all started pummeling him. “Run to the—” Peg gave a startled yelp when an arm came around her waist and suddenly lifted her away.
“Sweet Zeus,” Mac muttered, dragging her up against his chest as he took several steps back. “You will calm down, Peg, and control your children,” he quietly commanded even as he tightened his grip against her struggles.
“Ohmigod, Jacob, come here!” she cried, holding out her arms. Jacob and Isabel threw themselves at her, actually making Mac step back when he didn’t let her go. “You’re okay, Jacob. You’re safe now,” she whispered, squeezing both trembling children. “You’re a brave girl, Isabel, and a good sister.”
Charlotte called out, and Peg saw the girl pull away from Mac’s father just as he also released Peter. Both children ran to her, giving the bastard rising to his hands and knees a wide berth. Peg took a shuddering breath, trying to get her emotions under control. “You can let me go,” she told Mac over the pounding in her chest. Holy hell, she couldn’t believe they’d all just attacked the giant!
Mac hesitated, then relaxed his hold, letting her slip free to protectively hug all four of her children. “Mind telling me what incited this little riot?” he asked the man who was now standing and wiping his bleeding cheek with the back of his hand.
The guy gestured toward the lower parking lot. “I was taking the boy to find his parents, because I caught him inside my excavator not five minutes after I’d just pulled him off it and told him to go play someplace else.” He shrugged. “I figured his mother or father could explain how dangerous earth-moving equipment is, since he didn’t seem to want to listen to me.” He suddenly stiffened, his gaze darting from Jacob to Peter and then to Peg. “They’re twins.” His eyes narrowed on the boys again. “Identical.”
Pushing her children behind her, Peg stepped toward him. “I don’t care if they’re sextuplets and were driving your excavator or stupid submarine.” She pointed an unsteady finger at him. “You have no business manhandling my kids. And if you ever touch one of them again, I swear to God I’ll—”
“Take it easy, mama bear,” Mac said, dragging her back against him again. “He was only concerned for Jacob’s safety. As well as yours, apparently,” Mac said quietly next to her ear. “Did you not notice he didn’t defend himself when you and your children were attacking him? Duncan’s intentions were good.”
Peg stilled, a feeling of dread clenching her stomach. “D-Duncan?” she whispered, craning to look at Mac. “He . . . he’s not Claude, the scientist?” She lifted her hands to cover her face. “Ohmigod, I thought he was the guy who scolded Jacob for climbing on the submarine yesterday.”
She peeked through her fingers at the man she and her kids had just attacked, horror washing through her when she saw the blood on his cheek and scratches on his neck. “Ohmigod, I’m sorry,” she cried, jerking away from Mac and rushing to her children. Even though he was over half as tall as she was, Peg picked up Jacob and set him on her hip as she herded the others ahead of her, wanting to flee the scene of their crime before she burst into tears. “C-come on, guys,” she whispered roughly, her heart pounding so hard it hurt. “Let’s go to the van.”
Mac’s father plucked Jacob out of her arms and settled him against his chest, giving the boy a warm smile as he smoothed down his hair. “That was quite a battle you waged, young Mr. Thompson,” Titus Oceanus said jovially, shooting Peg a wink as he took over herding her children away when Mac pulled her to a stop. “I’ll have to remember to call on you young people if I ever find myself in a scary situation,” Titus continued, his voice trailing off as he redirected them toward the main lodge.
Damn. Why couldn’t Mac let her slink away like the humiliated idiot she was?
“It will be easier to face him now rather than later,” Mac said, giving her trembling hand a squeeze as he led her back to the scene of her crime. “Duncan’s a good man, Peg, and you’re going to be seeing a lot of him in the next couple of years.”
Wonderful. How pleasant for the both of them.
“Duncan,” Mac said as he stopped in front of the battered and bleeding giant. “This beautiful, protective mama bear is Peg Thompson.”
God, she wished he’d quit calling her that nickname.
“She’s not only Olivia’s good friend, but Peg is in charge of keeping the chaos to a minimum here at Inglenook.” He chuckled. “That is, when she’s not creating it. Peg, this is Duncan MacKeage. First thing Monday morning, he and his crew are going to start building a road up the mountain to the site of our new resort.”
MacKeage. MacKeage. Why did that name sound familiar to her?
All Peg could do was stare at the hand her victim was holding out to her, feeling her cheeks fill with heat when she saw the blood on it. Which he obviously only just noticed, since he suddenly wiped his hand on his pants, then held it out again.
Peg finally found the nerve to reach out, saw his blood on her hand, and immediately tucked both her hands behind her back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, unable to lift her gaze above the second button on his shirt—which she noticed was missing. “We . . . I thought you were the man who scared Jacob yesterday. He had nightmares all night and I barely got him back here today.”
He dropped his hand to his side. “I’m the one who needs to apologize, Mrs. Thompson, as I believe you’re correct that I shouldn’t have touched your son.” She saw him shift his weight to one leg and noticed the dirt on his pants and small tear on one knee. “I assumed he was the boy I’d just told to get off the excavator. And having a large family of young cousins, I thought nothing of lugging him off in search of his mother or father.” He held out his hand again. “So I guess I deserved that thrashing.”
Damn. She was going to have to touch him or risk looking petty. Mac nudged her with his elbow. After wiping her fingers on her pants, Peg finally reached out, and then watched her hand disappear when Duncan MacKeage gently folded his long, calloused fingers around it.
Oh yeah; she had been a raving lunatic to attack this giant of a man. Not that she wouldn’t do it again if she thought her kids were being threatened.
Okay, maybe she was a protective mama bear.
It seemed he had no intention of giving back her hand until she said something. But what? Nice to meet you? I look forward to bumping into you again? Have we met before? Because I’m sure I know someone named MacKeage.
Damn. She should at least look him in the eye when she apologized—again.
But Peg figured the first three times hadn’t counted, since she’d mostly been sorry that she’d made a complete fool of herself trying to gouge out his eyes with her bear hands. But looking any higher than that missing shirt button was beyond her. “I’m sorry!” she cried, jerking her hand from his and bolting for the main lodge, her face blistering with shame when she heard Mac’s heavy sigh.
Duncan stood leaning against the wall of Inglenook’s crowded dining hall, shifting his weight off his wrenched knee as he took another sip of the foulest kick-in-the-ass ale he’d ever had the misfortune to taste, even as he wondered if Mac was trying to impress his guests by serving the rotgut or was making sure they never darkened his doorstep again. He did have to admit the ancient mead certainly took some of the sting out of the claw marks on his neck, although it did nothing to sooth his dented pride at being blindsided by a mere slip of a woman and her kids.
Hell, if Mac and Titus hadn’t intervened, he’d probably still be getting pummeled.
Duncan slid his gaze to the bridesmaid sitting at one of the side tables with her four perfectly behaved children, and watched another poor chump looking for a dance walk away empty-handed. Peg Thompson appeared to be a study of innate grace, quiet poise, and an understated beauty of wavy blond hair framing a delicate face and dark blue eyes—which was one hell of a disguise, he’d discovered this morning. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman had left her mark on him, much less taken him by surprise, which perversely made him wonder what the hellcat was like in bed.
She was a local woman and a widow, raising her four children single-handedly for the last three years, Mac had told Duncan just before leaving him standing in the parking lot bleeding all over his good shirt. After, that is, Mac had subtly explained that he also felt quite protective of his wife’s friend. A warning Duncan didn’t take lightly, considering Maximilian Oceanus had the power to move mountains, create inland seas, and alter the very fabric of life for anyone foolish enough to piss him off.
But having been raised with the magic, Duncan wasn’t inclined to let the powerful wizard intimidate him overly much. He was a MacKeage, after all, born into a clan of twelfth-century highland warriors brought to modern-day Maine by a bumbling and now—thank God—powerless old drùidh.
And since his father, Callum, was one of the original five displaced warriors, not only had Duncan been raised to respect the magic, he’d been taught from birth not to fear it, either. In fact, the sons and daughters and now the grandchildren of the original MacKeage and MacBain time-travelers had learned to use the magic to their advantage even while discovering many of them had some rather unique gifts of their own.
Hell, his cousin, Winter, was an actual drùidh married to Matt Gregor, also known as Cùram de Gairn, who was one of the most powerful magic-makers ever to exist. And Robbie MacBain, another cousin whose father had also come from twelfth-century Scotland, was Guardian of their clans and could actually travel through time at will. In fact, all his MacKeage and MacBain and Gregor cousins, whose numbers were increasing exponentially with each passing year, had varying degrees of magical powers. For some it might only be the ability to light a candle with their finger, whereas others could heal, control the power of mountains, and even shape-shift.
Duncan had spent the last thirty-five years wondering what his particular gift was. Not that he was in any hurry to find out, having several childhood scars from when more than one cousin’s attempts to work the magic had backfired.
That’s why what had happened here last week wasn’t the least bit of a mystery to the clans, just an unpleasant shock to realize that Maximilian Oceanus had decided to make his home in Maine when the wizard had started rearranging the mountains and lakes to satisfy his desire to be near salt water and the woman he loved.
Duncan sure as hell wasn’t complaining, since he was benefiting financially. Mac was building his bride a fancy resort up on one of the mountains he’d moved and had hired MacKeage Construction to do a little earth-moving of its own by building the road and prepping the resort site. Duncan figured the project would keep his fifteen-man crew and machinery working for at least two years.
And in this economy, that was true magic.
Spellbound Falls and Turtleback Station would certainly reap the rewards of Mac’s epic stunt, since there wasn’t much else around to bolster people’s standard of living. Not only would the resort keep the locals employed, but stores and restaurants and artisan shops would soon follow the influx of tourists.
It would be much like what the MacKeage family business, TarStone Mountain Ski Resort, had done for Pine Creek, which was another small town about a hundred miles south as the crow flies. Only it was too bad Mac hadn’t parted a few more mountains to make a direct route from Pine Creek to Spellbound, so Duncan wouldn’t have to build a temporary camp for his crew to stay at through the week. As it was now, they had to drive halfway to Bangor before turning north and west again, making it a three-hour trip.
Then again, maybe Mac didn’t want a direct route, since the clans had recently learned the wizard was actually allergic to the energy the drùidhs he commanded gave off. And that had everyone wondering why Mac had decided to live so close to Matt and Winter Gregor, who were two of the most powerful drùidhs on earth.
Apparently the wizard’s love for Olivia was greater than his desire to breathe.
Not that Duncan really cared why Mac was here; only that the money in his reputed bottomless satchel was green.
“Have ye recovered from your trouncing this morning, MacKeage?” Kenzie Gregor asked. He looked toward the Thompson family sitting quietly at their table and chuckled. “I can see why ye were so soundly defeated, as together the five of them must outweigh you by at least two stone.”
Wonderful; help a man rebuild his home after it was nearly destroyed by a demonic coastal storm, and the guy felt the need to get in a shot of his own. But then, Kenzie was an eleventh-century highlander who’d only arrived in this time a few years ago, so Duncan figured the warrior didn’t know better than to poke fun at a MacKeage. Kenzie might have his drùidh brother Matt to back him up, but the sheer number of MacKeages was usually enough to keep even good-natured ribbing to a minimum.
“If you’re needing a lesson on defending yourself,” William Killkenny said as he walked up, a large tankard of mead in the ninth-century Irishman’s fist, “we could go find a clearing in the woods. I have my sword in the truck, and I’m more than willing to show another one of you moderns the art of proper fighting.” He looked toward the Thompson table, then back at Duncan and shook his head. “It pains me to see a man defeated by a wee slip of a woman and a few bairns.”
“I think Duncan is probably more in need of dance lessons,” Trace Huntsman said, joining the group. “Have I taught you nothing of modern warfare, Killkenny?” Trace slapped Duncan on the shoulder even as he eyed William, making Duncan shift his weight back onto his wrenched knee. “Our friend here knows the only way he’s going to defeat the Thompson army is to lure their leader over to his side. And women today prefer a little wooing to feeling the flat of a sword on their backsides.”
William arched a brow. “Then someone should have explained that to his cousin, don’t ye think? Hamish kidnapped Susan Wakely right out of Kenzie’s dooryard in broad daylight, and rumor has it he wouldn’t let the woman leave the mountain cabin he took her to until she agreed to marry him.”
Trace gave Duncan a slow grin. “So I guess it’s true that you first-generation MacKeages inherited many of your fathers’ bad habits?” He shook his head. “You do know you’re giving us moderns a bad reputation with women, don’t you?” He nodded toward the Thompson table. “Maybe you should go ask her to dance and show these two throwbacks a better way to win the battle of the sexes.”
“And let her trounce me twice in one day?” Duncan gestured in Peg’s direction. “I believe that’s bachelor number five walking away now, looking more shell-shocked than I was this morning.”
“Sweet Christ,” William muttered. “The woman just refused to dance with a fourteenth-century king of Prussia.”
“Who in hell are all these people?” Duncan asked, looking around Inglenook’s crowded dining hall.
“Friends of Titus, mostly,” William said, “who aren’t about to incur old man Oceanus’s wrath by not showing up to his only son’s wedding.”
“I can’t believe he dared to put time-travelers in the same room with modern locals,” Trace said, also glancing around.
“And serve liquor,” Duncan added, just before taking another sip of mead—because he really needed another good kick in the ass. His knee was throbbing, the scratches on his neck were burning under his collar, and social gatherings weren’t exactly his idea of a good time. But like most everyone else here today—the small party from Midnight Bay plaguing him now likely the only exception—Duncan wasn’t about to insult the younger Oceanus, either, considering Mac was his meal ticket for the next two years.
“Uh-oh, your target is on the move,” William said, his gaze following Peg Thompson and her ambushing children as they headed for the buffet table. He nudged Duncan. “Now’s your chance to show us how it’s done, MacKeage. Go strike up a conversation with the lass.”
“Maybe you could offer to let her children sit in your earth-moving machine,” Kenzie suggested. “That would show her ye don’t have any hard feelings.”
“Kids and heavy equipment are a dangerous mix,” Duncan growled, glaring at the three of them. “Don’t you gentlemen have wives and a girlfriend you should be pestering?” He elbowed William. “Isn’t that Maddy dancing with the king of Prussia?”
“Oh, Christ,” William muttered, striding off to go reclaim his woman.
Kenzie also rushed off with a muttered curse when he saw his wife, Eve, start to breastfeed their young infant son under a blanket thrown over her shoulder.
Trace Huntsman, however, didn’t appear to be in any hurry to leave. “If it’s any consolation,” Trace said, “Peg Thompson was more rattled by this morning’s attack than you were. Maddy and Eve and my girlfriend, Fiona, were there when Peg came to Olivia’s cottage. Fiona told me it took the four of them over twenty minutes to calm her down.” He shot Duncan a grin. “The women all promised Peg they would have done the exact same thing if they’d caught a stranger manhandling their child. Can I ask what you were thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking,” Duncan said. “I manhandle dozens of children every time my family gets together. Everyone looks out for everyone’s kids, making sure the little heathens don’t kill themselves or each other. Hell, that’s the definition of clan.”
Duncan tugged his collar away from his neck as he eyed the widow Thompson leading her gaggle of children back to their table, each trying to reach it without spilling their plates of food. He sighed, figuring he probably better apologize to her again, seeing how she owned the only working gravel pit in the area.
Just as soon as Mac had hired him to do the resort’s site work, Duncan had started calling around to find the closest gravel pit to Spellbound Falls. He would eventually dig his own pit farther up the mountain, but he needed immediate access to gravel to start building the road. Duncan had been relieved to discover that the Thompson pit was just a mile from where the resort road would start, and that it had a horseback of good bank run gravel. Only he’d also learned Bill Thompson had been killed in a construction accident three years ago.
Which is why a feather could have knocked him over this morning as he’d stood beside his truck in the parking lot changing his shirt, when he’d finally put two and two together and realized he’d just pissed off the person he wanted to buy gravel from. Assuming she’d even sell to him now. And then even if she did, he’d likely be paying an arm and a leg for every last rock and grain of sand.
“Which branch of the military were you in?” Trace asked.
Duncan looked down at himself in surprise. “Funny; I could have sworn I left my uniform in Iraq.”
Trace chuckled. “You forgot to leave that guarded look with it.” He shrugged. “It’s common knowledge that every MacKeage and MacBain serves a stint in the military.” He suddenly frowned. “Only I’ve never heard it said that any of the women in your families have served.”
“And they won’t as long as Greylen MacKeage and Michael MacBain are still lairds of our clans,” Duncan said with a grin. “It’ll take a few more generations before we let our women deliberately put themselves in harm’s way.”
Trace shook his head. “You really are all throwbacks. You must have a hell of a time finding wives. Or is that why some of you resort to kidnapping?”
Duncan decided he liked Trace Huntsman. “There’s no ‘resorting’ to it; we’re merely continuing a family tradition that actually seems to work more often than it backfires. And besides, it beats the hell out of wasting time dating a woman for two or three years once we’ve found the right one.”
“You don’t think the woman might like to make sure you’re the right one before she finds herself walking down the aisle, wondering how she got there?”
Duncan shifted his weight off his knee with a shrug. “Not according to my father. Dad claims time is the enemy when it comes to courting; that if a man takes too long wooing a woman, then he might as well hand her his manhood on a platter.”
Trace eyed him suspiciously. “Are you serious?”
“Tell me, Huntsman; how’s courting Fiona been working for you?”
“We’re not talking about me,” he growled. “We’re talking about you MacKeages and your habit of scaring women into marrying you.”
“I did notice you managed to get an engagement ring on her finger,” Duncan pressed on. “So when’s the wedding?”
Trace relaxed back on his hips and folded his arms over his chest with a heavy sigh. “You don’t happen to have an available cabin in Pine Creek, do you?”
Duncan slapped Trace on the back and started them toward the refreshment table. “Considering Fiona is Matt Gregor’s baby sister, I think you might want to look for a cabin a little farther away. Hell, everyone within twenty miles of Pine Creek heard Matt’s roar when he learned she was openly living with you without benefit of marriage.”
Trace stopped in front of the large bowl of dark ale and glared at Duncan. “A fact that has brought us full circle back to women being warriors. The only reason I’m still alive is because Fiona puts the fear of God into her brothers if they so much as frown at me.” He looked at Peg Thompson, then back at Duncan—specifically at the scratch on his cheek. “Trust me; the strong-arm approach won’t work on any woman who can handle children. Not if a man values his hide.”
Duncan refilled his tankard. “Which is exactly why I’m still a bachelor,” he said, just before gulping down his third kick-in-the-ass like a true highlander.