Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The MacGregor Groom, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “Aunt Myra tells me we met some years ago when your father was president.” The last word came out in a squeak as he threaded the little car between a bus and a limo, then careened around a circle.

  “That’s what I hear. You just relocated in Washington?”

  “Yes.” Realizing she’d squeezed her eyes shut, Layna lifted her chin and courageously opened them again.

  “Me, too.” She smelled fabulous, D.C. thought. It was mildly distracting, so he opened his window and let the air whip through the car.

  “Really?” Her heart was in her throat now. Didn’t he see that light was turning red? Wasn’t he going to slow down? She bit back a gasp, nearly strangled on it as he zoomed through the yellow just as it blinked to red. “Are we late?”

  “For what?”

  “You seem to be in a hurry.”

  “Not particularly.”

  “You ran a red light.”

  He cocked a brow. “It was yellow,” he said, downshifting, then screaming past a slow-moving compact.

  “I was under the impression one slowed for a yellow light in preparation for stopping.”

  “Not if you want to get where you’re going.”

  “I see. Do you always drive like this?”

  “Like what?”

  “Like you’re at the wheel of a getaway car after a bank robbery?”

  He thought about it, smiling at her description. “Yeah.”

  He made the turn to the hotel and pulled in with a cocky squeal of brakes. “Saves time,” he said easily, then unfolded those long legs and climbed out of the car.

  Layna sat where she was, catching her breath, offering up her gratitude that she’d arrived in one piece. She hadn’t moved a muscle by the time D.C. rounded the hood, passed the keys to the valet and opened her door.

  “You’re going to want to unhook your seat belt.” He waited while she did so, then took her hand to help her out. It brought them close, made him aware of her scent again, the texture and shape of her hand.

  She was a looker, all right, he mused. Sea-siren eyes in a cameo face. An intriguing contrast. Though portraiture wasn’t the heart of his work, he sometimes sketched faces that interested him.

  He imagined he’d be compelled to sketch hers.

  Her legs were still weak, but she was alive. Layna drew one deep, steadying breath. “People like you shouldn’t be issued a driver’s license and should never be allowed behind the wheel of a car for any reason, particularly that soup can on wheels.”

  “It’s a Porsche.” Because she didn’t seem inclined to move on her own, he kept her hand and pulled her into the hotel lobby. “If you’d wanted me to slow down, why didn’t you just ask?”

  “I was too busy praying.”

  He grinned at that, a quick flash of humor. It didn’t detract from the danger of his face by a whit. Layna would have said it only added to it.

  “Looks like your prayers were answered. Where the hell are we going here?”

  Setting her teeth, Layna turned to the bank of elevators and jabbed the button. Then she stepped in ahead of him and jabbed the proper button for the proper ballroom, simmering.

  Behind her back, D.C. rolled his eyes. “You know …” What the hell was her name? “Layna, if you’re going to sulk, this is going to be a very long, tedious evening.”

  She kept her eyes trained straight ahead and kept a choke hold on her temper. She knew it was a bad one, tending toward blasts of sarcasm if she didn’t maintain control. “I don’t sulk.” Her voice had as much warmth as winter in Winnipeg.

  Only deeply ingrained manners prevented her from stalking off the elevator the minute the doors slid open. Instead she stepped off, turned gracefully and waited for him to stand beside her.

  Temper put color in her cheeks, D.C. noted as he took her arm. Added passion to a cool and classic face. If he’d had any interest in her, he thought he’d make it his business to put that color there, that snap in her eyes, as often as possible.

  But since he didn’t, and he wanted to get through the evening as smoothly and painlessly as possible, he would placate. “Sorry.”

  Sorry, she thought as he guided her into the ballroom. That was it? That was all? Obviously he hadn’t inherited any of his father’s diplomatic skills or his mother’s charm.

  At least the room was full of people and sound. Layna wouldn’t be stuck making conversation with a graceless oaf all night. As soon as manners permitted, she intended to separate and find someone sensible to chat with.

  “Wine?” he asked her. “White?”

  “Yes, thank you.”

  He’d pegged her there, D.C. mused as he got her a glass and selected a beer for himself. He could only be grateful that his adored meddler of a grandfather wasn’t playing matchmaker this time around.

  “There you are!” Myra hurried over, both hands extended. Oh, didn’t they make a handsome couple? She couldn’t wait to tell Daniel how striking their babies looked together. “D.C, you’re sinfully handsome.” She tilted her head as he bent down to kiss her cheek.

  “Did you save a dance for me?”

  “Of course. Your parents are here. Why don’t you come sit with us awhile?” She stepped between them, sliding an arm around each and making them a unit. “I know you have to mingle, and of course you’ll want to dance. Glorious music tonight. But I’m entitled to be selfish with you for a few minutes.”

  With the skill and style of long practice, Myra steered them through the crowd, around groups that had gathered to chat, winding among tables spread with white cloths and decked with bouquets of sunny spring flowers.

  She was dying for a chance to watch them together, to study the little details of body language, to see how they behaved. In her head she was already working on the guest list for the wedding.

  “Look who I brought us,” Myra announced.

  “D.C.” Shelby Campbell MacGregor sprang to her feet. Her gown of citrine silk rustled as she opened her arms to her son. The russet curls piled on top of her head brushed his cheek. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

  “Neither did I.” He held her close a moment, then turned to catch his father in a bear hug.

  Alan MacGregor’s silver hair glinted under the lights. A grin spread over his strong face as he looked at his son. “God, you look more like your grandfather every day.”

  Even an oaf could love his family, Layna supposed. But a part of her had softened because the love between them, and their enjoyment of it, was so obvious.

  If she’d met her parents under similar circumstances, there would have been impersonal air kisses and a polite “how are you?”

  Then Shelby turned, her gray eyes warm, the slim brows over them lifting curiously. “Hello.”

  “Shelby MacGregor, my goddaughter,” Myra said with a lilt of pride. “Layna Drake.”

  “It’s wonderful to meet you, Mrs. MacGregor.”

  Shelby accepted the hand, pleased that it felt strong and capable. “You’d be Donna and Matthew’s daughter?”

  “Yes. They’re in Miami now.”

  “Give them my best when you speak to them again. Alan, this is Layna Drake, Donna and Matthew’s daughter—and Myra’s goddaughter.”

  “Myra’s told us a great deal about you.” Alan took her hand, held it warmly. “You’ve moved back to Washington?”

  “Yes, sir. It’s good to be back. It’s an honor to meet you again. I was introduced to you when I was a child. I was terrified.”

  He grinned as he pulled out a chair for her. “Was I frightening?”

  “No, sir. You were presidential. I’d just lost my two front teeth and was feeling miserably gawky. You talked to me about the tooth fairy.” She smiled. “I fell in love with you.”

  “Really?” Alan winked at his wife when Shelby chuckled.

  “You were my first crush. It took at least two years before you were replaced by Dennis Riley—and that was only because he looked so very stalwart in his Boy Scout uniform.”

  Fascinating, D.C. thought, as he watched Layna chat with his parents. Suddenly, all this warmth and animation. Oh, the coolness was still there, a light sheen on the surface, but the charm and vivacity bloomed under it, like the blush on a new rose.

  When she laughed it was like a murmur through fog. Sexy but discreet. He had to admit it was a pleasure to watch her—those smooth, economical gestures; the sleek sweep of gilded hair; the slow curve of soft, shapely lips.

  It was entertaining to listen to her—that low, cultured voice. Especially if he didn’t have to actually talk to her.

  “D.C, for heaven’s sake.” Myra gave him a subtle elbow jab and kept her voice in a whisper. “You haven’t even asked her to dance.”


  “Ask Layna to dance,” she hissed, fighting impatience. “Where are your manners?”

  “Oh, sorry.” Hell, he thought, but obligingly touched a hand to Layna’s shoulder.

  She nearly jolted, and her head whipped around, her eyes meeting his. She’d all but forgotten he was there. Ignoring her duties, she realized with an inward wince. She fixed a smile on her face and prepared to shift her attention from the delightful parents to the oafish son.

  “Would you like to dance?”

  Her heart dropped to her toes. If he danced the way he drove, she’d be lucky to leave the dance floor with all of her limbs intact. “Yes, of course.”

  Feeling like a woman approaching a firing squad, she rose and allowed him to lead her toward the dance floor.

  At least the music was lovely, she mused. Slow, dreamy, heavy on the brass. A number of couples were taking advantage of it, so the dance floor was crowded. Crowded enough that Layna had hope her partner wouldn’t feel compelled to plow through it, stumbling over her feet and wrenching her arms out of their sockets.

  Then he stopped near the edge of the dance floor and turned her into his arms.

  It was surprise, she decided, sheer surprise that had her mind fogging. Who would have believed that such a big man could move so well? The large hand at her waist wasn’t rough or awkward, but it was very, very male. It made her outrageously aware there was only a thin barrier of silk between it and her skin.

  The lights twinkled down, dancing over his face, over that not-quite-tamed mane of richly colored hair. His shoulders were so broad, she thought numbly. His eyes so blue.

  She struggled to clear such ridiculous thoughts out of her mind and behave. “Your parents are wonderful people.”

  “I like them.”

  She was slim as a willow, he thought. A long-stemmed rose. He watched the lights play over her face, hardly aware he’d drawn her closer. Their bodies fit like two pieces of a complicated puzzle.

  Her pulse quickened. Without thinking, she slid her hand over his shoulder so her fingers brushed the back of his neck. “Um …” What had they been talking about? “I’d forgotten how lovely Washington can be in the spring.”

  “Uh-huh.” Desire snaked up his spine, circled in his gut. Where the hell had it come from? “I want to sketch your face.”

  “Of course.” She hadn’t heard a word he was saying. She could only think that a woman could blissfully drown in those eyes. “I believe they’re calling for rain tomorrow.” A little sigh escaped when his fingers splayed over her back.

  “Fine.” If he dipped his head, he could have that mouth, find out if the taste of it would soothe the edges on this sudden clawing need, or sharpen it.

  Then the music ended. Someone bumped them and shattered the thin glass bubble that seemed to have surrounded them.

  Both of them stepped back. Both of them frowned.

  “Thank you,” Layna said, and her voice was carefully controlled again. “That was very nice.”

  “Yeah.” He took her arm, keeping the contact very light, very impersonal. He wanted to get her back to the table, dump her and escape until his mind cleared.

  More than willing to cooperate, Layna let herself be guided through. She wanted to sit down quickly before her legs gave way.

  Chapter 3

  D.C.’s big plan for Sunday was to sleep late, eat an enormous breakfast, which he’d specifically shopped for, and spend a couple hours at his health club. After that his most knotty decision would be whether to while away the afternoon in solitude or to wander down to M Street to the blues festival.

  The plan broke apart when he found himself awake and restless just after sunrise.

  Annoyed, he tried to sink back into the fitful sleep that had plagued him through the night. But every time he began to drift, he started to think of her. That was more irritating than getting up.

  There was no reason for Layna Drake to be on his mind. That one moment of physical connection, of awareness, had been a short side trip in a long and uneventful evening. They’d been scrupulously polite to each other, had mingled, socialized and made tedious small talk, together and separately.

  He’d driven her home—deliberately keeping his speed under the limit, signaling for every turn, and braking gently. They had exchanged lukewarm handshakes and goodbyes at her door. And, he was certain, had each been desperately relieved to have parted company.

  So it was ridiculous for her to keep chasing through his brain, for him to remember exactly the way it had felt to hold her, to smell her, to watch her eyes go soft and dreamy in the dance.

  It was her face, that was all. He was intrigued by it. In an artistic sense, of course.

  So he went to the gym early and spent a couple hours trying to sweat out the restlessness. He told himself he felt better, more alert, more clearheaded. By the time he got back to his apartment, he was ready for that big breakfast.

  He turned the stereo up to blast, pushed up the sleeves of his black sweatshirt, then put bacon on to fry. Feeling a great deal more cheerful and in control, he sang along with John Fogerty and mixed eggs for scrambling.

  When the phone rang, he answered one-handed as he scooped crisp bacon out of the pan.

  “So, you’re up and about,” Daniel boomed out at him. “Turn that music down, boy. You’ll have no hearing left.”

  “Hold on.”

  D.C. spent a few seconds looking for the remote control—he could never find the damn thing when he needed it—then jogged into the living area to turn down the music manually. On his way back through the kitchen, he snagged a piece of bacon.

  “Yeah, I’m up and about,” he said into the phone. “I’ve already been to the gym and I’m about to clog my arteries.”

  “Bacon and eggs?” Daniel sighed wistfully. “I remember when I used to sit down to a Sunday breakfast like that. Your grandmother, she’s so strict. Frets about my cholesterol, so I’m lucky if I’m allowed to look at a picture of bacon these days.”

  “I’m eating some now.” With a wicked grin, D.C. crunched, loud and deliberate. “Fabulous.”

  “You’re a sadistic young man.” Daniel sighed again. “And to think I called you up to thank you for doing me such a favor. Now I hope you had a miserable evening entertaining Myra’s goddaughter.”

  “I got through it.”

  “Well, I appreciate it. I know you’ve better things to do with your time. Not that she’s not a sweet-enough girl, but just not the type who’d interest you. We’re looking for a livelier lass for you.”

  D.C. frowned at what was left of his slice of bacon. “I can do my own looking.”

  “Well, why aren’t you? Locked away in that place with your paints and canvases. Hah. Ought to be out romancing some suitable woman. Do you know how your grandmother frets? Picturing you there, by yourself in that stuffy apartment, with all those paint fumes?”

  “Um-hmm.” So accustomed to the lecture he could recite it himself, D.C. grabbed another slice of bacon.

  “It’s a fire trap is what it is, that place you live in. At your age you need a nice house, a good woman, noisy children. But I didn’t call to remind you of a duty you should already have seen to,” Daniel rushed on. “I appreciate what you did. I remem
ber, before I found your grandmother, the evenings I spent cross-eyed with boredom with some girl who didn’t have a single interesting thing to say. What you need is common ground, and a spark. Can’t waste your time with someone without those things. You wouldn’t have them with little Linda.”

  “Layna,” D.C. muttered, irritated for no good reason. “Her name’s Layna.”

  “Oh yes, there you are. Odd name, don’t you think? Well, it’s neither here nor there. It’s done now, and you won’t have to waste any more of your evenings on her. When are you going to come up and see your grandmother? She’s pining for you.”

  “I’ll come visit soon.” Scowling, D.C. tossed the rest of the bacon back on the platter. “What’s wrong with Layna?”

  “Who?” In his office in his fortress in Hyannis Port, Daniel had to cover the mouthpiece on the phone until he was certain he’d controlled the bark of laughter.

  “Layna,” D.C. repeated through his teeth. “What’s wrong with Layna?”

  “Oh, nothing, nothing at all’s wrong with her. Pretty young woman. Fine manners, as I recall. She’s just not for you. Chilly sort of thing, isn’t she? Her parents are cold fish and stiff as two boards, if I remember right. Well, you eat your breakfast, lad, and make time to come see your grandmother before she nags me to distraction.”

  “Okay, yeah. Give her my love.”

  “Oh, that I’ll do.” And Daniel hung up, wondering how long it would take his grandson to pay a call on pretty Layna Drake.

  * * *

  It took under an hour—particularly since D.C. found he’d lost his appetite and had poured his egg batter down the sink. He put his sketchbook and his pencils and charcoals in a battered leather bag and slung it over his shoulder. He decided to walk to give himself time to think.

  His grandfather was right, of course. That grated a bit—the idea that the old man would so confidently eliminate her. It grated just as much, D.C. discovered, as it did when Daniel tossed selections of proper candidates for marriage at his feet.

  He’d damn well make his own choices.

  He certainly wasn’t thinking about Layna in that manner. He just wanted to sketch her face. And since they’d more or less agreed he could come by and do so that day, he might as well get it done.

  She didn’t answer his knock. Vaguely peeved, he shifted his bag and told himself he’d be smarter to walk down to M Street, after all, and do some sketching there. But he could hear the light and liquid notes of a Chopin concerto drifting through the open windows.

  With a shrug, he tried the door, found it unlocked and stepped inside. “Layna?”

  He glanced around, interested, as she hadn’t let him over the threshold the night before. The foyer had polished wood floors and walls the tone of lightly toasted bread. An antique gateleg table held a vase of white tulips.

  Two pencil sketches on the wall caught his eye—street scenes, cleverly done with a fine eye for detail and movement. He moved to the steps, laid a hand on the glossy newel post and called up. He considered going up and searching her out, then decided it was wiser to look through the main floor first.

  She wasn’t in the parlor, with its dignified furnishings, or the book-lined library, which smelled of leather and roses. By the time he’d poked into the sitting room, the dining room and the kitchen, he had a solid grip on her taste and lifestyle.

  Elegant, traditional, tidy—with occasional and surprising touches of splash. A conservative woman who liked beautiful things, preferred classics in furnishings, reading and music, and kept everything in its logical place.

  He saw her through the kitchen window. The postage-stamp patio beyond was outlined with flowers. Layna was underplanting more white tulips with sunny-faced yellow pansies.

  She wore buff-colored garden gloves, a wide-brimmed straw hat and a brown gardening apron over simple beige slacks and a thin summer sweater.

  She looked, he thought, like a picture in some country style magazine article