Camry MacKeage has absolutely no intention of telling her parents that she left her job as a NASA physicist for the small-town life of a dog-sitter—which is why she’s spending the holidays alone in coastal Maine with some furry friends. Unfortunately, her irresistibly handsome rival, scientist Luke Pascal, accidentally spilled the beans to her family.
Now he’s on a mission from her mother to tempt Camry home for her family’s annual winter solstice celebration. But Luke is hiding a secret of his own, and he’ll need a little bit of magic to earn Camry’s trust...and a whole lot of mistletoe to seduce his way into her heart.
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A Highlander Christmas Chapter One
The only thing stopping Grey from strangling the shivering man crouched in front of their hearth was that he didn’t wish to upset Grace. And since his wife already looked pale enough to pass out, Greylen MacKeage contented himself with glaring at his son-in-law and chief of police, Jack Stone, who had brought the half-frozen man to them.
Apparently also stunned by the news, Jack merely shrugged.
“Would you mind repeating what you just said, Mr. Pascal?” Grace whispered, clutching the arms of her chair. “As I don’t believe I heard you correctly the first time.”
Luke Pascal turned from warming his hands at the fire, his worried glance darting to Grey before returning to Grace. “When I went to NASA and asked to see her a couple of months ago, I was told that Camry hasn’t worked there since December of last year. Then when I went to her condo, I found out she had sold it sometime last spring. I’m sorry I’ve obviously shocked you, Dr. Sutter, but I assumed you knew. “
Honest to God, if Pascal didn’t stop calling his wife Dr. Sutter, Grey really was going to strangle the bastard. “And how is it that ye know our daughter?” he asked.
Luke Pascal stood up from his crouched position and faced Grey. “I’ve been communicating with Camry by e-mail for quite some time.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Or I had been up until this summer, when she suddenly stopped e-mailing me back.”
Grace suddenly jumped to her feet, which made Pascal step back. “You’re the Frenchman who was giving Camry fits?”
Pascal’s chill-drawn face flushed. “I prefer to think we were engaged in a lively scientific discussion. It certainly wasn’t my intention to give her fits.” He winced. “Though judging from some of her e-mails, I can see that I may have hit a nerve or two.”
“And you say she stopped e-mailing you last summer?”
“Right after I suggested that I should come to America so we could collaborate.”
“My daughter didn’t think that was a good idea?” Grey asked, drawing Pascal’s attention again.
The man took another step back. “According to her last e-mail, I would have to say no, she didn’t.”
“But you came anyway.”
Their slowly thawing guest looked at Grace, obviously knowing she was the scientist in the family and apparently deciding he’d rather deal with her. “I am this close to finally unlocking the secret to ion propulsion,” he said, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart. “And I was sure that if Camry and I tackled the problem together, we could have a working prototype within a year.”
“And her reply was?”
“A rather succinct no,” he muttered, edging back toward the fire. His navy blue eyes moved from Grace to Grey. “You haven’t spoken with her at all in the last year?”
Jack snorted, and Grey shot him a glare, which he then turned on Pascal. “Camry’s been home several times, but she always led us to believe she was returning to Florida whenever she left.”
“And since she has a cell phone,” Grace interjected, “we never bother calling her lab.” She collapsed back in her chair, shaking her head. “I just spoke with her a few days ago, and she told me her work was going great.” She lifted distressed eyes to Grey. “Why didn’t she tell us she’d left NASA? And if she sold her condo, where is she living now?”
Not wanting to discuss family matters in front of a stranger, Grey headed toward the foyer. “Come, Pascal. I’ll take you to our resort hotel and get ye a room.”
“No,” Grace said, jumping to her feet again. “Luke will stay here at Gù Brath.”
“That isn’t necessary,” Pascal said, correctly reading Grey’s desire that he get the hell out of their house. “I really don’t wish to intrude. If I can just sleep in a warm bed for a couple of days to thaw out,” he said with an involuntary shiver, “and get some hot food in my stomach, I will be good to go. I really should be heading back to France anyway, before I find myself out of a job.”
“But I thought you came here to collaborate with Camry?”
“But Camry doesn’t wish to collaborate with me, Dr. Sutter.”
Grace waved that away, then suddenly looped her arm through his, walking him past Grey toward the stairs leading to the bedrooms. “Please call me Grace, Luke. I haven’t been called ‘Doctor’ in years. Where are your belongings?”
“In my rental car, buried under three feet of snow someplace out there,” he said, motioning with his hand. “I had no idea Maine got such fierce blizzards this early in the season. I thought February and March were your snowy months. I must have walked ten miles before Chief Stone came cruising by on his snowmobile.”
Grace stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned to the men. “Jack, could you find Luke’s car and get his belongings for him?”
Jack nodded. “Not a problem, Mother Mac.”
She started walking up the stairs, Luke still in tow. “In the meantime, I’ll find you something to wear, and while you’re taking a warm shower, I’ll throw together a nice hot meal for you.”
They walked along the balcony, and Pascal gave one last wary glance toward the foyer before disappearing down the hall.
Grey turned to his son-in-law, but Jack raised his hand. “Give me two hours, and I’ll be able to tell you everything you want to know about Luke Pascal, right down to his birth weight.”
“And you’ll find out where the hell Camry is.”
“Well, that might be a little harder,” Jack told him. “If Cam’s been lying to us for over a year about where she’s working and living, she’s certainly smart enough not to leave a paper trail.”
“I’ll call her, and you can trace her cell phone signal.”
Jack shook his head. “That would require involving the feds, and I doubt they’d consider a father searching for his grown daughter to be a threat to homeland security.”
“Then use your own skills for tracking down runaways.”
“It often took me months to find those kids, Grey, and then most times it was sheer luck. Maybe Winter or Matt could help. Or Robbie.”
“No, I don’t wish to involve anyone else in this. Camry’s been lying to them as well, and I would rather find out her reason first, and not embarrass her in front of the entire family.”
Jack nodded. “I can respect that. I’ll quietly track her down, but it might take a while. And anyway, the solstice birthday bash is only a little over two weeks away. You can ask her what’s going on then.”
“She’s not coming this year. She claimed she couldn’t get away from work.”
“I’m sorry. It’s got to be hard finding out from a stranger that your daughter’s been lying to you. But what I can’t figure out is why.” Jack chuckled softly. “Of all your girls, Cam would be the one to throw us a curve, but outright lying?” He shook his head. “That’s the last thing I’d expect from her.”
Grey glanced up at the balcony. “She’s not the only one lying to us. About the only thing Pascal said that I believe is that the blizzard caught him by surprise. By the looks of his beard and the condition of his clothes, he’s been camping out for a while. Where, exactly, did ye find him?”
Jack stepped over to the door and put his hand on the knob. “About twenty miles north of town, on one of the tote roads leading to Springy Mountain.”
“And what excuse did he give for being out in the middle of nowhere?”
“He said he was looking for an old camp that his grandfather used to own. But the moment I introduced myself, he mentioned Camry’s name. That’s when I knew he’d been searching for whatever fell out of the sky and crashed north of here last summer.” Jack glanced up at the empty balcony, then back at Grey. “Are you really going to let him stay in the house?”
Grey found his first smile of the afternoon. “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer, Stone.”
“And Pascal is the enemy?”
“Until he proves otherwise, he is.”
* * *
Luke stood under the blessedly hot shower spray, gritting his teeth against the pain of his toes thawing, and began shaving off his beard with the razor he’d found in the fully supplied bathroom. As the evidence of his last two months of living like a caveman slowly fell away, he wondered if he hadn’t just jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.
First and probably most surprisingly, Grace Sutter MacKeage wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. For a woman with enough academic degrees—two of which were doctorates—to wallpaper a house, she sure as hell didn’t appear to have one nerdy bone in her body. Luke knew she was in her mid-sixties and was the mother of seven girls, but she didn’t look a day over fifty.
Her husband, however, sent chills through Luke that had absolutely nothing to do with his state of near frostbite. Greylen MacKeage had to be closer to seventy, and every damn year of experience showed in his sharp, piercing green eyes. When Luke had innocently mentioned that Camry hadn’t worked for NASA for over a year, Greylen had appeared ready to kill the messenger—as if somehow it was his fault that Camry had been lying to them.
When Luke had found out his rescuer was Jack Stone, who he knew was married to Camry’s sister, Megan, he’d thought his luck had finally changed. That is, until he’d come face-to-face with the woman whose life’s work he had destroyed. It had been all he could do not to throw himself at Dr. Sutter’s feet and beg her forgiveness for destroying Podly.
Although to be fair, he’d only been trying to eavesdrop on Podly’s transmissions, not hijack the little satellite. And he sure as hell hadn’t meant to make it fall out of orbit. But to have it crash so close to Pine Creek . . . that was just outright eerie.
Then to have his childhood idol welcome him into her home and treat him with nothing but kindness? Well, he definitely was going to hell for his deceptions.
Luke turned to let the hot spray cascade over his clean-shaven face and started washing his hair. Stone hadn’t believed him about searching for an old family camp; Luke had read the suspicion in the quiet lawman’s eyes before he’d even finished telling the lie. So he’d switched to the half-truth that he knew Camry MacKeage, and that he thought she lived in Pine Creek. Chief Stone had then loaded Luke onto his snowmobile and driven the machine right through town, into the TarStone Mountain Ski Resort, and right up to what he could only describe as a castle. Hell, they’d even had to walk across a drawbridge to reach the front door!
So now what was he supposed to do? He’d just spent the last five months searching for Podly: the first three going over trajectory data, and the last two scouring Springy Mountain. And he still didn’t have a clue where that satellite was; the damn thing could be at the bottom of Pine Lake for all he knew.
Once again, Luke fought the overwhelming urge to throw himself at Grace’s feet, beg her forgiveness, then ask her to help him find her satellite that he had lost. But then all he had to do was picture Greylen MacKeage’s piercing green eyes, and remember the lethal-looking antique sword he’d seen hanging over the hearth. Confessing might be good for his soul, but getting skewered by an enraged husband was another matter entirely.
Which brought Luke’s thinking around to their daughter; did Camry take after her mother or her father?
Her father, he would guess, judging by some of her more scathing e-mails—which had actually fired his desire to meet her in person.
That is, until today. Now he wasn’t so sure he wanted to lock himself in a lab with Camry, because if she had inherited any of her daddy’s highlander genes, one of them might not come out alive.
Maybe Grace was the MacKeage he should be trying to collaborate with. He certainly wouldn’t mind fulfilling his childhood dream of working with the legendary woman. It was Grace Sutter MacKeage, after all, who had turned him on to space travel when, at the age of twelve, he’d come across an article she’d written in a science journal, where she’d talked about her ongoing search for a more efficient rocket fuel.
But she was probably on the phone to her daughter right now, telling Camry about his unexpected and decidedly unceremonious arrival. And Camry was probably telling her mother to kick him out on his frozen ass.
How had his altruistic endeavor turned into such a fiasco?
All he’d been trying to do was unlock the secret to ion propulsion, but he’d ended up destroying the final piece of the puzzle instead. Did Grace even know her forty-year-long experiment was scattered over several square miles of densely forested mountain terrain?
She had to. The entire civilized world knew something had crashed in these mountains; he just didn’t know if Grace was aware it was her beloved Podly.
Finally able to feel his toes again, Luke shut off the water and dried off. He wrapped the towel around his waist, padded into the large, tastefully decorated bedroom he’d been given, and stopped dead in his tracks.
While he’d been in the shower, someone had set clean clothes on the bed, started a roaring fire in the hearth, and placed a tray of food on a table in front of it.
Oh, yeah. He definitely was going to hell.