Once an immortal warrior cursed to live as a panther, Kenzie is finally free to live and die as a man, and his destiny is to help other displaced souls. Of course, if he can get tiny, blue-eyed, curly blond Eve out of the deal, well...life doesn't get any better. But she's as stubborn and fierce as a lioness, and in order to win her love, he must tempt her with forbidden desires....
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Kenzie Gregor politely smiled down at the tiny prattling woman, nodding occasionally. He had no idea what she was saying, as he didn't recognize the language. Stealing a quick glance around the bank lobby, he arched a questioning brow at Father Daar, sitting in one of the chairs against the side wall. When his companion merely shrugged, Kenzie was forced to turn his attention back to the woman.
She appeared quite spry for her advanced years, considering how quickly she'd jumped up from her chair when he and Daar had walked in two minutes ago. Her white hair was coiled on top of her head in a loose bun held in place by two knitting needles.
Kenzie darted another desperate glance around the lobby, hoping to discover whom the woman belonged to. The man at the teller's station, engrossed in his business transaction? The couple sitting at the desk on the far wall, signing papers?
The woman tugged on his sleeve. "Please look at me, young man, when I'm speaking to you," she said, her firm command softened by her smile.
English! "I'm sorry, madam. But I did not understand what you were saying before."
She launched into her foreign tongue again.
"Can ye not see she's touched in the head, Gregor?" Daar said from the sideline. "It's an omen, telling us we shouldn't be here. Handing over all our money to someone else to look after surely makes ye as crazy as the old woman."
Kenzie took hold of the woman's arm when she turned to advance on Daar, and shot the old priest a warning glare. "I promised Matt I would open a bank account the moment I found a town I wished to settle in. Writing checks is how money is exchanged in this time, and I intend to fit in here in Midnight Bay."
"Fine," Daar said in a huff. "Then your brother can just write ye another fat check when the bank suddenly misplaces our money. I can't exactly conjure up more coin now, can I?"
"Mom?" came a woman's voice from Kenzie's left. "Oh my God, Mother," she said, rushing toward them.
Kenzie immediately let go of the old woman and clasped his hands behind his back.
The younger woman stepped between them. "I told you to stay in that chair," she whispered, trying to lead her mother back to the row of seats. "You can't just walk up to strangers and start bothering them."
The older woman pulled free. "I wasn't bothering him, was I, young man? I was merely telling him to do business with the bank over in Oak Harbor," she said, projecting her voice to the whole lobby of onlookers. "And explaining how the people running this bank are trying to steal a widow's only means of support right out from under her."
"Mother!" the young woman quietly hissed, glancing at the back office as she led the woman away once again. "You're not helping matters. I'm trying to get us a new loan." She nudged her into one of the chairs. "Please just sit here and don't speak to anyone."
The moment the young woman turned to give Kenzie an apologetic smile, her mother jumped to her feet and rushed back to take hold of his arm -- which she squeezed. "My, but you're a big, strong man. Are you married?" she asked, glancing at his left hand.
The younger woman turned a lovely shade of pink.
"Eve, come introduce yourself, so this handsome young man will no longer be a stranger."
Kenzie smiled at the beautiful daughter, and gave a slight nod when her crystal blue eyes met his. She immediately dropped her gaze, her short blond curls framing a flawless complexion that was now bright pink.
Thoroughly enchanted, Kenzie held out his hand, suddenly having an overwhelming need to touch her. "Kenzie Gregor," he said, careful to keep his voice soft, as she appeared as delicate as a fawn. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss...?"
"This is my daughter, Eve Anderson. She moved home with me two months ago. I'm Mabel Bishop. Are you moving to Midnight Bay, Mr. Gregor, or just passing through?"
Kenzie dropped his hand when it was obvious Eve Anderson had no intention of taking it. "Father Daar and I are planning to settle here," he said, nodding toward his companion.
Mabel turned to Daar. "I am not crazy," she declared. "I merely get confused sometimes, and it was very unkind of you to refer to me so."
Just then a man emerged from the office. "Eve. I need you to sign the new loan application before I submit it for consideration." He nodded to her mother. "Mabel. You're looking especially fine today."
As Mabel Bishop sat down with a harrumph, pointedly ignoring the man, Eve walked into the office behind him.
Kenzie sat down between Mabel and Daar.
She immediately turned to face him. "So, Kenzie, what is it you do?"
"Do?" he asked.
"For a living. What sort of work are you planning to do in Midnight Bay?" She gave a desolate sigh. "There's not much here, I'm afraid. Just a few clam diggers and lobstermen. The cannery closed quite a while back, and our one industry in town, the lumber mill, has been laying off workers."
"I'm in the process of buying a farm out on the point. I've had thoughts of opening an animal sanctuary. I enjoy working with animals."
Mabel's silver eyebrows arched. "You're wealthy, then?"
Kenzie ignored Daar's snort behind him. "If ye mean do I have enough money to get by, I suppose you could say that."
Mabel leaned closer. "Then I should warn you, Kenzie, that every unattached female in Midnight Bay will be showing up on your doorstep, casserole in hand, the minute word gets out that a wealthy man has moved to town." Her eyes sparkled. "Your being handsome won't hurt, either. Nor will that charming Scottish accent of yours."
Daar snorted again, and Mabel gave him a glare.
"Will your daughter bring me a casserole?" Kenzie asked, having absolutely no idea what a casserole was, but quite intrigued by the idea. "I did not see a ring on her finger."
Mabel gave a small laugh. "Sorry, but you'd probably starve to death waiting for Eve to show up on your doorstep. She swore off men when she divorced two months ago." Her expression turned sad. "It'll be years, I'm afraid, before she'll ever trust another man."
"Your daughter was married?" Kenzie remembered how delicate she'd looked. "Was she forced to divorce him because he abused her?"
Mabel looked surprised, then laughed. "Oh, good mercy, no. Parker wouldn't have dared lay a hand on her. Eve might appear all soft and feminine, but only a suicidal idiot would mess with her. No, Parker ran off with all their savings and their neighbor's wife after Eve suggested I move down to Boston to stay with them."
Mabel suddenly stood up as Eve walked out of the office. "Welcome to Midnight Bay, Kenzie. And you, too, Father Daar," Mabel said, giving the priest a cursory nod. Her eyes sparkled again when she looked at Kenzie. "We'll be neighbors -- Eve and I live out on the point. And if you need a nice woodstove to heat your new place, come to our store and we'll fix you right up. It's Bishop's Hearth and Home, just across Main Street."
Kenzie had stood when she had, and he took her extended hand and gave a slight bow. "It was wonderful to meet you, Mabel. Thank you for the warm welcome. And the warning about the casseroles," he added with a wink.
He held out his hand to Eve, who had taken her mother's elbow. "It was wonderful meeting you, too, Eve. I look forward to shopping in your store."
She gave him a small nod as she stepped away. "Yes, do stop in, Mr. Gregor. We sell the most efficient woodstoves on the market." She glanced at the office she'd just left, then back at him. "Or once we get them in stock, maybe we could interest you in a new wood-pellet stove," she said, ushering her mother from the bank.
Kenzie walked to the large window, clasping his hands behind his back as he watched the two women walk across the street.
"Aren't we buying our farm from a gentleman named Bishop?" Daar asked, coming to stand beside him.
"Alvin Bishop," Kenzie confirmed, watching Eve and her mother enter one of the shops, the weathered sign over the door stating it was Bishop's Hearth and Home. "He could be Mabel's brother-in-law."
Kenzie turned to the banker Eve had been talking to earlier. "Mr. Johnson?" he asked, shaking the man's hand. "Did Chelsea send down the paperwork from Bangor?"
"Yes, she did," Mr. Johnson said, leading the way to the back office. "Your lawyer had everything overnighted. It helped that you and Alvin Bishop used the same law firm. Alvin mentioned Mrs. Rand is related to you?"
"My brother married her sister. Chelsea's actually the one who saw the Bishop farm advertised in the Bangor newspaper and called me last week."
"Alvin should be along soon," Mr. Johnson said, gesturing to the chairs in front of his desk as he took his seat behind it. "He also lives in Bangor, and he called earlier to say he's running late. It seems there was a bad accident on Route One this side of Ellsworth, and traffic was backed up. I'm sorry you had to wait, Mr. Gregor. The woman who just left didn't have an appointment; she simply showed up."
"Eve Anderson. Mabel implied they're having money problems? How long has Mabel been widowed?"
Kenzie reached in the inside pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out the check Matt had given him over a month ago. "It's from a Maine bank. Matheson Gregor is my brother. There shouldn't be any problem," he said, setting the check on the desk.
Mr. Johnson picked up the check, read it, and snapped his gaze from Kenzie to Daar, then to Kenzie again. "Of course, Mr. Gregor. And the balance, after you've purchased the Bishop farm? Will you be leaving the rest on deposit with us?"
Kenzie leaned back in his chair and propped his right foot on his knee. "That would depend on whether or not ye took care of Mabel's problem to her daughter's satisfaction."
"Excuse me?" Johnson's gaze darted nervously to a stack of papers on his left. "But what...um...are you a friend of Eve's?"
"I'm a friend of Mabel's."
The banker slid an account document toward Kenzie. "But I've known Mabel most all my life, and I've never heard her mention you. If you would just sign here, Mr. Gregor, to open your account with us."
"I only met Mabel today." Kenzie pulled the pen Matt had given him from his pocket, still leaning back in his chair, and nodded toward the papers on the banker's left. "I'm not sure I wish to do business with a bank that is trying to take away a widow's means of support." He dropped his foot to the floor and reached for his check.
The banker immediately leaned back, taking the check with him. "I was only able to get a three-month extension on Mabel's business loan, but I give you my word, Mr. Gregor, that I will do everything in my power to persuade the main office to give Eve a working line of credit to expand their business."
Kenzie smiled, clicking the pen to make the ballpoint appear, and quickly signed his name. "Then I look forward to our doing business, Mr. Johnson." He slid the signed document toward him. "Make the transfer. I'm eager to go explore my new land."
Kenzie settled Father Daar on the sheltered knoll overlooking the ocean so that the old priest was facing the late April sun. He placed a blanket over Daar's legs before walking back to the truck for the basket of food.
"I cannot believe we have to spend five more nights outdoors when we just paid a king's ransom for a warm, dry house," Daar muttered.
"Which is occupied at the moment," Kenzie said, setting the basket beside him. "You saw that someone was still living there when Alvin Bishop showed us the farmhouse after we signed the papers. And you heard him ask if I'd give his tenants five days to move out."
"I heard ye say you don't mind waiting," Daar said, opening the basket and scanning its contents. "I did not hear anyone ask me if I minded." He grabbed one of the sandwiches and glared at Kenzie. "Nor did I see my name on the deed beside yours. Considering all the trouble your blackguard of a brother caused me last year, I believe I'm entitled to a portion of that check."
"You've taken a vow of poverty, remember?"
Daar harrumphed and bit into his sandwich.
Kenzie sat down beside him and rummaged through the food basket. "This is good land," he said. "It has nearly four hundred acres and is surrounded by ocean on three sides, which will afford us plenty of privacy. And turning it into a working farm will be a good disguise for our true mission. The farmhouse seems sturdy, sitting high on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of Maine, though the barn is in need of repair." He pointed at the ocean. "The deed claims we also own those small islands. I'm sure William will find one of them to his liking."
"Speaking of William, where is the accursed beast?" Daar asked, before stuffing the last of his sandwich in his mouth.
"Holed up in a nearby pine grove," Kenzie said. "He'll join us after dark." He lowered his own sandwich to his lap. "I'm worried that William's not adjusting well to this century. Maybe the ocean air will give him some comfort by reminding him of his old homeland."
"Not that you gave any thought to my comfort," Daar said. "The damp air makes my bones ache."
"The salt breeze will do you good as well, old man."
"I miss my cabin. TarStone Mountain has been my home for nearly forty years, and until you bullied your way into my life, I was perfectly content to die there."
"You're many years away from dying, priest. So, what do ye think of Mabel Bishop and Eve Anderson?" Kenzie took a bite of one of the sandwiches he'd had the waitress make up for them at breakfast.
"I think the daughter left no doubt she isn't interested in you," Daar said with a scowl. "Don't think I didn't notice the way ye were looking at her." His scowl intensified. "Ye best not be entertaining any notions of being attracted to her. Women have a sneaky way of diverting a man's attention from his true work." The old priest's face suddenly softened. "I know ye returned to being a man only a few months ago, Kenzie, but ye must fight any romantic notions of getting involved with a woman in this modern time. Helping displaced souls become human again is going to demand your full attention."
"I am well aware of my duties," Kenzie countered. "I just wanted to touch the lass, to see if she felt as soft as she looked." He sighed. "Ye needn't worry, old man. Mabel said Eve doesn't trust men after what her husband did to her, so it matters not if I find her attractive."
"Mabel Bishop is crazier than a loon." Daar shot Kenzie a reproachful glare. "And ye had no business sticking your nose in her money problems. The whole point of us moving to this godforsaken coast was to remain anonymous. We haven't been in town one day, and ye already started throwing your weight around to rescue some crazy woman ye just met."
"I was testing Matt's theory that the pen he made me would prove to be mightier than my sword, even when I don't use the magic he placed in it," Kenzie said with a shrug, not at all contrite. "It does appear that in this age, ink is a rather powerful weapon. Instead of having to hold a sword to his throat to get Johnson to help Mabel and Eve, withholding my signature got him to give me his word to help them get credit to expand their business."
Daar was back to glowering at him again. "And if that hadn't worked, you'd have gone to the truck and gotten your sword, I've no doubt. What's a casserole? Do you suppose it's something to eat?"
"I have no idea." Kenzie looked over to see Daar holding a large muffin. "I thought the older a person gets, the less of an appetite he has," he said with a chuckle. "I've never met anyone who worries so much about his next meal before he's even finished the one he's eating. Yet you're so thin, a good wind would carry ye off. Why do you eat as if every meal might be your last?"
Daar stopped with the muffin halfway to his mouth. "God's teeth, I'm eighteen hundred years old; every meal could be my last. And you were once an eleventh-century highland warrior who never knew where your next meal might come from. How many battles did you fight on an empty belly?"
"All of them, if I wanted to win. A full belly would have slowed me down." He gestured toward the basket of food. "But this is the twenty-first century, not the eleventh. And here a person can't travel five miles without passing a store or diner." He snorted. "You and William suffer from the same affliction. That beast is going to eat himself to death."
Daar set the muffin back in the basket with a sigh. "I visited Ireland once in the ninth century, about the time William would have been living there." The aged priest puffed up his chest. "I was at the peak of my powers, and the council of drùidhs asked me to go straighten out some old witch who had gotten too big for her britches."
Kenzie gaped at him. "Is there a reason you're just telling me this now, after I've spent months trying to help William? Could it have been the same witch who cursed him? Why didn't ye tell me you knew her?"
Daar shrugged. "I'd just as soon forget what happened in Ireland." He shot Kenzie a defensive glare. "And because it matters not. My powers are gone, Gregor. I can't help you with William any more than I can light a candle without a match, now."
"But I'm only just discovering my own abilities. And though you may have lost the magic, ye still have the knowledge. Do ye think I asked you to come here with me because of your cheery disposition? What happened to the hag?"
"You're a bigger blackguard than your brother," Daar growled. "I only agreed to come with you and William because Pine Creek had too many wizards and too many damn bairns being born." That said, he gathered the blanket around him and lay down, his back to Kenzie.
"Ye left because you were bored to tears, now that you don't have the power to interfere in everyone's lives." Kenzie sighed. "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. We're a good fit, you and me, both of us being outcasts of sorts. And living on TarStone as a panther for the last three years...well, I'd have gone hungry many nights but for the meat you left out for me."
"I tossed out those leftovers for the raccoons."
Kenzie chuckled. "Aye, even when the wee bandits were taking their winter sleep. So what happened to the old -- " Kenzie suddenly got to his feet. "Do ye hear something?"
Daar sat up, canting his head. "It's only the breeze."
"Someone is calling out." Kenzie walked to the crest of the knoll and scanned the shoreline to the west. "It coming from this direction. There! I see a woman." He leapt onto a boulder for a better angle, and watched a wave nearly knock the woman off her feet as she scrambled up onto an island. "It's Eve Anderson! She's waded out to one of the islands, and she's calling her mother."
"I knew those two were going to be trouble," Daar muttered, standing up. "Women always are."
"The tide is coming in, and she'll be trapped." Kenzie jumped off the boulder and ran toward the island. "Bring the blanket. We're going to need it." Copyright © 2009 by Janet Chapman