The macgregor groom, p.10
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.10

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  He rubbed the side of his finger over his mouth where she had stroked. That little flick had gone straight to his loins. Dangerous woman, he decided. Edgy woman. It was his bad luck he had a weakness for edgy, dangerous women.

  He listened until the last notes died away, until the audience exploded with applause. Then he turned and walked back into the casino, where he knew the odds were in his favor.

  * * *

  Cat didn’t surface until noon. After the second show, she’d stripped out of costume and creamed off her makeup. As the adrenaline rush performing gave her drained, she’d stumbled to her cabin and had fallen facedown on her bed. And had slept like a stone.

  She woke to the shimmer of sunlight through her window, the gentle rhythm of the boat. And the desperate demands of an empty stomach.

  By twelve-thirty she was showered, alert and down in the kitchens. She’d already made friends with one of the cooks. In every hotel, nightclub or dive she’d worked, Cat had made it a policy to get chummy with the person in charge of food.

  You ate better that way.

  Charlie from New Orleans was a ridiculously skinny Cajun with a huge mustache, snapping black eyes and three ex-wives. Cat heard all about them as she shoveled in the inspired shrimp étouffée he’d heaped on a plate for her.

  She chased it down with mineral water. Caffeine made her jumpy. She chatted and ate in the bustling confusion of the kitchen, barely noticing the waitpeople rushing in and out.

  Lunch, she imagined, was being served on the promenade deck, in the dining room and in the staff lounge. She preferred the kitchen, and helped herself to a warm roll.

  “So, Charlie, tell me about the boss.”

  “Duncan?” Charlie eyed one of his line cooks to be certain the mushrooms were being sliced appropriately. “Good man. Smart. He says to me, ‘Charlie, I want food dreams are made on.’” Amused by the memory, Charlie gave a cackling laugh. “He wants food like poetry, so that’s what I give. He pays for it, ’cause he wants the best. He don’t settle for less than that, chère. Not Duncan Blade.”

  “I bet.” Cat munched on the roll.

  “Got an eye for the ladies.” Charlie wiggled his eyebrows. “Smooth moves. Slick. They don’t catch him, no. Not like me. Me, I look at the lady too long, I get a ring in my nose.”

  She laughed. “But not Duncan.”

  “Nosiree—he gives them a tickle, then slips away while they’re still sighing.”

  “Not everyone’s ticklish.”

  “Oh, everybody, they got a spot, little girl. Always a weak spot. Me, I got too many.”

  But she didn’t, Cat assured herself as she left the kitchen to stroll out on deck. When a woman had reason enough, she could cover over those weak spots until they hardened like rock. Then she could be the one to slip away.

  When you had only yourself to depend on, you had to be quick on your feet.

  Leaning on the rail, she watched the flow of the river. It was good to be out of the crowds, she thought, away from the city and the noise. To breathe thick fragrant air, to feel the drowsy heat of deep summer.

  She could use a few more gigs like this, with the benefits of a smooth ride and lazy afternoons. And Charlie was right. Duncan Blade wasn’t stingy. The salary she’d earn over the next six weeks would nicely augment her savings. A little more of a cushion, a little more distance from those days of scrambling for a few dollars more to make the rent on some dingy little room.

  She’d never be poor again, she promised herself. Or desperate again. Or afraid again. Catherine Mary Farrell was on her way up.

  From the deck above, Duncan watched her. She had her arms folded on the rail, her hip cocked, her feet crossed at the ankles. She looked as lazy and contented as a cat in a sunbeam.

  So why was it that just looking at her made him tense?

  She didn’t resemble the sultry seductress of the night before—not with that ridiculous cap on her head, her long flow of hair tugged ponytail-style through the back loop. Her T-shirt bagged over her hips—what there was of them—and her feet were bare.

  Of course, those ragged, hemmed shorts showed off a great deal of leg.

  But it wasn’t how she looked, he decided. It was … the attitude. She stood there radiating absolute confidence, a woman who didn’t give a single damn who looked at her or how. And he supposed that kind of attitude equaled style.

  “Hey! Cat Farrell!”

  She turned, and despite the bill of the cap and the sunglasses, lifted a hand to block the laser beam of the sun. She saw him above, his dark mane of hair ruffling in the breeze. The khaki slacks and light blue shirt showed off a slim and agile build.

  Doesn’t the man ever look less than perfect? she wondered.

  “Hey, Duncan Blade.”

  “Come on up?”

  “Why?”

  “I want to talk to you.”

  She smiled, cocked her elbows on the rail and leaned back. “Come on down.”

  It was, he supposed, one of those times when surrendering a little battle could lead to losing the entire war. “Up,” he said simply. “My office.” He had time to see her shrug before he stepped away from the rail.

  He waited, knowing she’d take her time. He knew he would have. Behind him, passengers lounged on the deck or escaped to the cool lounge for the afternoon talk on the history of the river.

  Others—many others, he knew—were huddled in the casino, listening to the music of the slots.

  When she swaggered up the steps, he simply gestured her up the next flight.

  “There a problem, boss?”

  “Nope. How was your morning?”

  “I don’t know. I slept through it.” When she reached the top, she looked around. “Good thing I like heights.”

  “Come on in.” He opened a door, waited for her to pass through first.

  Obviously he didn’t like to be closed in, Cat thought. The office wasn’t particularly large, but it was ringed by windows that brought the sky inside. She walked across the room, passed the lovely old mahogany desk, through the small sitting area with its curve-backed chairs and glossy tables, and took in the view.

  “It’s a killer,” she murmured.

  “Keeps me from getting cranky over paperwork. Want something cold?”

  “Water.”

  With a shake of his head, he opened a minifridge, selected a bottle. “Is that all you drink?”

  “Mostly.” She turned back when she heard water hitting glass. “So, what’s the deal?”

  “I looked over your press kit and materials again this morning.” He walked to her, offered the glass.

  “So?”

  “So, they’re very professional, well written, and they don’t say a lot.” He sat down, kicked out his legs, slipped a slim cigar from his pocket. “Tell me more.”

  “Why?”

  “Why not?”

  She sat, kicked out her legs in turn. “You hired me, I delivered. What else?”

  He flicked on his lighter, watched her through the haze of smoke. “Doesn’t say where you’re from.”

  “Chicago. South Side. The projects.”

  He lifted a brow. “Rough neighborhood.”

  “How would you know?” she said with a slow, sharp smile. “MacGregors don’t cruise in their limos through rough neighborhoods.”

  Ah, sore spot, he mused, and casually blew out smoke. “The MacGregor worked in coal mines and spent a good part of his youth in neighborhoods as rough as the South Side. My father’s Blade, part Comanche, and he fought his way out of places that make your projects look like paradise. I come from people who don’t forget their roots.”

  “That’s you, Duncan. I’ve ripped mine clean out.” She watched him from behind the shield of her dark glasses as she sipped water. “What are you looking for here?”

  “More,” he said simply. “Where’s your family?”

  “My father’s dead. Drunk driver killed him. I was eight, he was twenty-nine. My mother’s in Chicago.
She waits tables. And what does that have to do with my job?”

  Rather than answer, he leaned forward, quick as a snake, and pulled off her glasses.

  “Hey.”

  “I like to see who I’m talking to.” He set them aside, leaned back again, pleased to have put that gleam of temper in her eyes. “I’ve got a contract with you for six weeks, with an option for six more. Before I decide whether or not to exercise that option, I want to know who I’m dealing with.”

  Another six weeks, she thought. Steady work, steady income with room and board for three full months. She could nearly double her savings, certainly double the check she sent to her mother every month. And it could very well lead to another contract with another MacGregor-Blade arena.

  Not a flicker of the thrill it brought to her, of the hope it had burning like a torch in her heart, showed on her face as she slowly smiled.

  “Well, in that case, sugar, my life’s an open book. What do you want to know?”

  Chapter 13

  He’d pushed the right button, he decided. Money was, for some, the sweetest of talk. With another woman, he’d have waltzed around the objective, led her gradually to the point he wanted, and done it all with charm, finesse and a good deal of canniness.

  He didn’t think any of those would work with Cat. “Is there a man?”

  Her brows lifted in mild amusement. “Well, you get right to it, don’t you?”

  “Just a matter of adjusting my stride to the person I’m walking with, darling. Is there?”

  “There’s no man unless I want there to be.” She sipped again, taking her time and making him certain she spoke no less than the truth.

  “No man—at the moment,” he continued. “You don’t drink—as a rule. Don’t gamble. No vices, Cat?”

  Now her eyes danced over the rim of her glass. “Is that what I said? You drink, gamble, and I imagine there’s a woman when you want there to be. Does that mean you’re riddled with vices, Duncan?”

  “Good point.” Absently, he picked up a coin from the table and began to fiddle with it. “You impressed me last night.”

  “In the dressing room?”

  His grin flashed in sheer appreciation. “Oh yeah. And onstage. You’ve got a hell of a talent.”

  “I know.”

  He inclined his head. “The fact that you do know, and use it, is in your favor. Where do you want to take it?”

  “As far as I can go, and then some.”

  “Why aren’t you recording?”

  She caught a drop of water from her top lip with her tongue. “Record producers have been beating down my door,” she said dryly. “I just ignore them.”

  “You need a new agent.”

  She snorted out a laugh. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

  “I can help you.”

  Slowly, she lowered her glass, set it aside. Those marvelous green eyes had gone cold and brittle. “And just what do you want for your percentage?”

  The fingers that had been casually manipulating the coin went still. “I don’t barter for sex. I don’t pay for it, and I don’t play for it.”

  She said nothing for a moment, a little surprised at how that smooth voice could so suddenly cut like a razor. Then she let out a sigh, because when she was wrong, she believed in admitting it. Even when it stung.

  “Sorry, my mistake. Let’s just say I haven’t had a lot of people offering to help me without some very sticky strings attached.”

  “Sex is for pleasure. Business is for … a different kind of pleasure. I don’t tie one to the other. Clear?”

  “Crystal.”

  Satisfied, he began to flip the coin through his fingers again. “I have some contacts in entertainment. Put together a tape in the next few weeks. I’ll pass it on.”

  “Just like that? Why?”

  “Because I like your voice. I like the package.”

  She hesitated, looking for the strings, the drop-offs, the hidden traps, but couldn’t find any. “I appreciate it. A lot.” To seal the bargain, she held out a hand, then grinned in pure delight as the coin in his vanished. “Cool. Got any more tricks?”

  “Too many to count.” Amused by her reaction, he brought the coin back, flipping it between the tips of two fingers. Clamping the cigar between his teeth, he held up two fists, then flashed his hands open, and the coin was gone.

  Her laugh was quick, rusty and low as she leaned forward. “Do it again. I’ll figure it out.”

  “Wanna bet?”

  Her gaze shifted to his briefly. “I’ve got a very sharp eye.”

  “Gorgeous eyes. They had my mouth watering when I still thought you were a teenage delinquent. Then there’s this hair.” His voice had softened as he reached out to run a hand down the stream of her ponytail. With his eyes on hers, he slipped the cap off, dropped it into her lap. “Fabulous. Where’s the coin, darling?”

  “What?”

  Progress, he thought, and smiled. He leaned back, lifted both hands again, palms out. “Nothing up my sleeve.”

  When she realized her mind had simply clicked off for a very dangerous moment, she let out a long breath. “You’re good.”

  “Damn right.” He picked up her cap. “Hold out your hand,” he told her, then, turning the cap over, spilled out the coin. The instant before it dropped into her palm, he snatched it out of the air. And it was gone.

  She couldn’t help it; she laughed again. “Really good. Well, this has been fun, but I want to run through a couple of new numbers I’m hoping to work in.”

  She rose, but found her wrists caught in those quick and clever hands. Something bumped inside her, hard, but she tipped her head back, met his gaze straight on.

  “Feel that?” he murmured.

  “What?”

  “The connection.”

  “Maybe. Let go.”

  He held on just long enough to worry and irritate, then his fingers loosened, his hands dropped away. “No strings, Cat.”

  “No strings,” she agreed. “And I like my hands free.” So saying, she reached up, cupped the back of his neck and pulled his mouth down to hers.

  She expected the jolt. She liked a good, hard jolt—or what was the point of a kiss? She’d already concluded there would be heat, and she enjoyed a solid blast of heat.

  But it was more than a jolt when it knocked you flat. It was more than heat when it singed and sizzled through the blood.

  She wanted to crawl right into it until her bones dissolved, until this fist of unexpected need loosened inside her. But her survival instinct was strong and keen and had her pulling back. “Well,” she managed, more than a little shaken when she couldn’t quite clear her head.

  “Well,” Duncan echoed, then clamped his hands on her hips before she could escape. “My turn.”

  He lowered his head, kept his mouth an inch from hers just long enough to hear her quick intake of breath, to see the gold ring around her pupils shimmer.

  Then he rubbed his lips over hers, slow and easy.

  She’d taken him by surprise before, and he was afraid it could become a habit. If he didn’t stay on his toes, didn’t stay in control, she’d be leading him around by the nose before the first week was up.

  He didn’t intend to let that happen.

  He knew how to pleasure a woman. How to give and how to take. His hands slid up, skimming her torso, the sides of her breasts, then curved around her back to bring her closer. Slowly, inch by inch, until their bodies bumped, brushed, held.

  “Oh, hell.” Her oath was next door to a moan. Accepting the inevitable, she wound her arms around his neck.

  Still his mouth did no more than play with hers, tormenting with nibbles, inciting with lazy strokes of the tongue, torturing with gentle nips along her jaw.

  And finally, finally, she trembled against him.

  His mouth took hers then, hot and hard, strangling the air in her lungs, misting the reason still struggling to surface in her brain. With a low purr of pleasure, she opened fo
r him.

  She flooded his senses. Tastes, scents, textures. When his hands fisted in her hair, her head arched back, welcoming him to take them both deeper. But there was no surrender. They met flash for flash now, mouths, bodies, needs fused into one. She strained against him, moved against him, sliding, pressing arousal to arousal.

  He felt himself begin to slip, heard the animal inside him snarl and fight against its chain. He clawed his way back, forcing himself to gentle the kiss, to stroke his hands quietly over her before framing her face with them.

  He waited for one more delicious tremor, then eased back.

  His pulse was wild. A dozen hammers slammed against anvils inside him. Need tore like claws through his gut. But his hands remained gentle on her face as those gorgeous eyes of hers opened heavily.

  She ran her tongue around her lips as if to absorb just a bit more of his flavor, and her breath came quickly.

  “I guess we could call that a connection,” she said.

  It made him smile. “Works for me. Come to my cabin after the show tonight. We’ll … connect.”

  She let out a sigh because there wasn’t anything she wanted more, or could risk less. “Sugar, you are suicide, and I’ve got too much at stake to jump off a cliff right now.”

  His fingers tightened just enough to hold her in place. “This doesn’t have anything to do with business, Cat.”

  “I got that part.” She lifted her hands to his wrists. “And maybe we could even make that stick. That’s not what I mean.” She gave his wrists a quick squeeze before stepping back, reaching down for her cap and glasses. “You’re a heartbreaker, Duncan, and I can’t afford any cracks in mine.”

  “I don’t break hearts. Don’t even bruise them.”

  She laughed, slipped her glasses back in place. “I bet you believe that.” She tapped a finger to her lips, tossed the sassy kiss at him and got the hell out before she let herself believe it, too.

  He started to go after her, then stopped himself. It would be, he realized, entirely too much like begging. The fact that he could almost picture himself doing so made his palms sweat.

  He had to figure the odds here. Pacing, he slipped his hands into his pockets and fingered the coin. Wanting a woman was easy; it was natural. It was enjoyable.

  Seducing one was all that and more.

  He didn’t doubt he could seduce her. There was too much sizzling between them for either one of them to walk away without seeing it through.

  And she was wrong, he thought with a frown. He wasn’t a heartbreaker. He’d never hurt a woman. Inevitably he began to ease away before emotions became tangled and messy and led to hurt on either side.

 
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