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The MacGregor Grooms, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “She’s back in Washington. You know Drake’s—the department stores. That’s her family. She’s working in their flagship store there now, and Myra … Well, I’m just going to say it straight out. There’s a charity ball tomorrow night, and Myra’s fussing because the girl doesn’t have an escort. She’s been at me to ask you—”

  “Damn it, Grandpa.”

  “I know, I know.” Daniel used his most long-suffering sigh. “Women, boy—what else can I say? They’ll peck away at us like ducks until we just give in. I told her I would ask you. It would be a big favor to me if you’d see your way clear for this one night.”

  “If you and Aunt Myra are trying to set me up—”

  Daniel interrupted with a hearty laugh that had D.C. frowning. “Not this time, boy. This girl isn’t for you, take my word. She’s pretty enough, and well mannered, but she’d never do for you. Too cool, to my way of thinking, and a bit of the nose-in-the-air sort. No, no, I wouldn’t like to see you looking in that direction. And if you can’t spare the evening, I’ll just tell Myra I reached you too late and you already had plans.”

  “Tomorrow night?” D.C. scooped his fingers through his hair. He hated charity functions. “Is it black tie?”

  “I’m afraid so.” At the muttered oath in response, Daniel made sympathetic noises. “Tell you what, I’ll just call Myra back and tell her you can’t make it. No use wasting your evening with a girl who’s likely to bore you to tears, is there? I doubt the two of you have a single thing in common. Better you start looking for a wife. It’s time you were married and settled, Daniel Campbell. Past time. Your grandmother worries you’ll end up starving in your studio, a lonely old man without a single chick or child. I’ve got another girl in mind. She’s—”

  “I’ll do it,” D.C. interrupted, purely in reflex. If Daniel didn’t think much of Myra’s goddaughter, it meant he wouldn’t be on the phone constantly asking for relationship updates. Perhaps after this favor, his grandfather might ease off his relentless dynasty building—and though D.C. didn’t hold out much hope for that outcome, it was worth a try. “What time tomorrow, and where do I pick what’s-her-name up?”

  “Oh, bless you. I owe you for this one. The affair’s at eight, at the Shoreham Hotel. Layna’s taken over her parents’ town house on O Street.” Examining his nails, Daniel rattled off the address. “I appreciate you getting me out of this little fix, D.C.”

  D.C. shrugged, upending the cereal box into his mouth as he traded family gossip with Daniel. And he wondered fleetingly where the hell he might have packed his tux.

  * * *

  “Oh, Aunt Myra, really.” Layna Drake stood in her underwear, a waterfall of white silk over her arm and a mortified expression on her face. “A blind date?”

  “Not really, sweetheart.” Myra smiled. “You’ve met before—when you were children. I know it’s an imposition, but Daniel rarely asks me for anything. It’s just one evening, and you were going anyway.”

  “I was going with you.”

  “I’ll still be there. He’s a very nice young man, darling. A bit prickly, but still very nice.” She beamed. “Of course, all my godchildren are wonderful people.”

  Myra continued to smile as she sat and studied her goddaughter. Myra was a small woman with hair as white and soft as snow. And with a mind as sharp and quick as a switchblade. When the moment called for it—as it did now—she could adopt a fragile and helpless air. The aged Widow Dittmeyer, she thought with an inner chuckle.

  “Daniel worries about him,” she continued. “And so do I. The man keeps too much to himself. But honestly, who would have thought when I was just casually mentioning tonight’s affair and how you’d come back to Washington, that Daniel would get this idea in his head? I was just …” Myra fluttered her hands helplessly. “I didn’t know how to say no. I realize what an imposition it is.”

  Because her adored godmother suddenly looked so unhappy, Layna relented. “It doesn’t matter. As you said, I’m going anyway.” Gracefully, she stepped into her gown. “Are we meeting him there?”

  “Ah …” Gauging the timing, Myra rose. “Actually, he’ll be here shortly to pick you up. I’ll meet you there. Goodness, look at the time. My driver must be wondering what happened to me.”


  “I’ll see you in an hour or so, darling,” Myra called out, moving with surprising speed for a woman of her age. “You look gorgeous,” she said once she was safely halfway down the stairs.

  Layna stood in the unzipped column of white silk and heaved out a breath. Typical, she thought. It was just typical. Her godmother was forever shoving men into her path. Which left her with the sometimes irritating job of having to push them out again.

  Marriage was something she’d firmly crossed off her life plan. After growing up in a house where manners took precedence over love, and casual affairs were politely ignored, Layna had no intention of finding herself in the same sort of relationship.

  Men were fine as decoration, as long as she ran the show. And at the moment, her career was much more important than having someone to dine with on Saturday night.

  She intended to continue her steady climb up the family’s corporate ladder at Drake’s. In ten years, according to her calculations, she would take over as CEO.

  It was another show she intended to run.

  Drake’s wasn’t just a department store, it was an institution. Being single, and remaining that way, ensured she could devote all her time and energies to maintaining its reputation and its style.

  She wasn’t her mother, Layna thought with a faint frown marring her brow, who thought of Drake’s as her personal closet. Or her father, who had always been more concerned with bottom-line profits than innovations or traditions. She was, Layna thought, herself.

  And to her, Drake’s was both a responsibility and a joy. It was, she supposed, her true family.

  Some, she mused, might find that sad. But she found it comforting.

  With a quick move, she zipped the dress. Part of her responsibilities to Drake’s was to mingle, to attend social functions. To her, it was simply a matter of changing gears, from one kind of work to another. The after-hours work called on training she’d received throughout her childhood and was second nature to her now.

  And the “job” often meant being linked with the proper escort.

  At least this time her aunt Myra didn’t appear to have any real interest in making a match. It would just be a matter of making small talk with a virtual stranger for an evening. And God knew she was an expert at such matters.

  She turned and picked up the pearl-and-diamond drops she’d already set out on her dresser. The room reflected her taste—simple elegance with a dash of flash. The antique headboard of carved cherry, the highly polished surfaces of lovingly tended occasional tables topped with vases of fresh flowers or carefully chosen accessories.

  Her home now, she thought with quiet pride. She’d made it her own.

  There was a cozy seating area in front of a small marble fireplace and a dainty ladies’ vanity displaying a collection of boldly colored perfume bottles.

  She selected her scent, absently dabbing it on while she allowed herself to wish, just for a moment, that she could spend the evening quietly at home. She’d put in a ten-hour day at Drake’s. Her feet hurt, her brain was tired and her stomach was empty.

  Pushing all that aside, she turned to the cheval glass to check the line and fit of her gown. It was cut straight at the bodice and flowed without fuss to the ankles, leaving her shoulders bare. She added the short jacket, slipped into her shoes and checked the contents of her evening bag.

  When the doorbell rang she only sighed once. At least he was prompt.

  She remembered D.C. vaguely from childhood. She’d been much too nervous and impressed from meeting the president to notice much else. But she’d heard of him off and on over the years.

  An artist, she reminded herself as she started downstairs. Of the modern school,
which she didn’t pretend to understand. Layna preferred the classics in all things. Had there been some scandal about him and a ballet dancer a few years back? Or had it been an actress?

  Ah well, she thought. She supposed the son of a former president would make news over trivialities. And being the grandson of Daniel MacGregor would only intensify the spotlight. Layna was much happier working backstage herself.

  And obviously the man couldn’t be such a hit with the ladies if he couldn’t even get his own date on a Saturday night.

  Putting on her company smile, she opened the door. Only years of education by Swiss nuns, and the discipline they’d instilled, kept her mouth from dropping open.

  This man—this very dangerous-looking man in black tie, with hair the color of her prized dining-room table and eyes so blue they burned—needed his grandfather to find him a date?

  “Layna Drake?” He had to have the wrong house, was all D.C. could think. This shimmering willow stem in white silk was nothing like the spindly little girl he remembered. Rather than dandelion fluff, her hair was spun gold curved sleekly around a face that might have been carved from ivory. Her eyes were a soft and misty green.

  She recovered, her how-do-you-do smile never faltering as she offered a hand. “Yes. Daniel MacGregor?”

  “D.C. Daniel’s my grandfather.”

  “D.C. then.” Normally she would have invited him in, played hostess for a short time and given them both an opportunity to get somewhat comfortable with each other. But there was something not quite safe about him, she decided. He was too big, too male, and those eyes were far too bold. “Well.” Deliberately she stepped out and closed the door behind her. “Shall we go?”

  “Sure.” Cool, his grandfather had said, and D.C. decided the old man had hit the mark. Definitely an ice princess for all her glamorous looks. It was going to be a very long evening.

  Layna took one look at the ancient and tiny sports car at the curb and wondered how the hell she was supposed to fold herself into it wearing this gown.

  Aunt Myra, she thought, what have you gotten me into?

  Chapter 2

  She felt as if she were locked inside a mechanical shoe box with a giant. The man had to be six-four if he was an inch. But he seemed perfectly content to drive the toy car—at high rates of speed—through the swirling Washington traffic.

  Layna clamped a hand on the padded handle of her door, checked the fit of her seat belt and prayed she wouldn’t be crushed like a bug on the windshield before the evening even started.

  Small talk, she decided, would keep her mind off that particular image.

  “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 fo
r 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.”