The macgregor groom, p.11
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.11

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  There was no reason for that to change at this stage of the game. She was more of a challenge than most, certainly more intriguing than any. And that raw, in-your-face sex appeal was like a slim feminine finger beckoning in the dark.

  He was more than willing to answer the call—as long as it was on his terms.

  All he had to do, Duncan mused, was convince her his terms were acceptable.

  Considering, he pulled the coin out of his pocket, flipped it high, caught it nimbly. “Heads, I win,” he murmured, and turning the coin between his two fingers, grinned at the twin faces on either side.

  He was still grinning when the phone rang. Easing a hip onto the desk, he picked up the receiver. “Blade.”

  “Say hello when you answer the phone! Where are your manners?”

  The grin widened. “Hello, Grandpa.”

  “That’s better. How’s the boat?”

  “She’s … a princess. We’re heading toward Memphis and it’s hot as three hells.”

  “Hah! I’ve got a nice breeze coming off the ocean here, and I’m enjoying a fine Cuban.”

  “Which means Grandma’s out.”

  “Woman’s off at some tea party. She’s nagging me about missing you.”

  Anna MacGregor had never nagged a day in her life, but Duncan let that pass. “I’ll come up for a couple days in the fall.”

  “I was thinking she might like a little ride on the river on your boat.”

  “That’d be great. You let me know and we’ll roll out the red carpet.”

  “Your brother was telling her about that new singer you’ve got there. Got your grandmother all fired up to hear her.”

  “Cat Farrell.” Duncan pressed his lips together and tasted her. “She’s worth the price of a ticket.”

  “Don’t I know that? I heard her myself, didn’t I? Told you she’d do.”

  “I appreciate it. She was a hit last night. I heard some of the passengers talking about her show this morning.”

  “Good, good. Sharp looks, too.”

  “She makes a package,” Duncan murmured.

  “The Irish are sturdy stock. Catherine Mary Farrell—Irish as they come.”

  Duncan’s eyes narrowed and he shifted as a thought—as uncomfortable as a tack in the seat—pricked his brain. “Catherine Mary? All I have on her paperwork here is Cat Farrell. How do you know her full name?”

  “Ah, your brother,” Daniel said, cursing himself. “Mac mentioned it to me, and it stuck with me as it’s a pretty name—Catherine Mary.”

  Duncan drummed his fingers on his knee. “So it is. I imagine she’ll keep it even after she marries the piano player.”

  “What! What piano player?”

  “The one she’s engaged to,” Duncan said easily. Got you, you meddling old fox. “Dabny Pentwhistle.”

  “Pentwhistle? Pentwhistle? What kind of a name is that for a smart woman to stick herself with? Where the devil did he come from? She wasn’t engaged last week.”

  “Wasn’t she? And how would you know?”

  “Because I …” Sensing a trap, Daniel backtracked. “It pays me to know details. I’ve got an interest in that boat of yours, don’t I? Means I have an interest in who works on it and what they’re about, doesn’t it? Girl wants to marry some piano-playing Pentwhistle, that’s her business, but it pays me to know what’s what.”

  “Now you know, don’t you? So if you had any half-baked ideas about setting me up with Catherine Mary Farrell, you can put them to rest.”

  “Half-baked? Half-baked? Is that any way to talk to your grandfather? Why, I ought to take a strap to you.”

  “So you’ve said before.” Grinning now, Duncan reached for his own cigar and relit it. “When are you going to?”

  “Next time you’re within arm’s reach, laddie. See if I don’t. Boy your age sitting on some boat letting a Pentwhistle slip a woman like that out from under you. Why, it’s a sin. Girl’s got grit. Got guts and don’t you mistake it. She deserves the best.”

  “And I’m the best?”

  “Hah! A scoundrel is what you are. You’ll break your poor old granny’s heart whiling away your time on that river when you should be settling down and seeing to the future.”

  “And making her babies to bounce on her knee. I know the drill, MacGregor.” Even as Daniel blustered, Duncan laughed. “I love you, Grandpa.”

  “And so you should.” With a warm chuckle, Daniel shifted tactics. “Duncan, laddie, I’m only looking out for you. I want to see my favorite grandchild happy and settled before I die.”

  Duncan was fully aware every one of the grandchildren was Daniel’s favorite. “You’ll never die. And if you do, you’ll come back and haunt the great-grandchildren until they’re paired up and procreating. Now go pick on Ian or one of the others. I’m on to you.”

  “All right, all right.” But Daniel grinned fiercely at the phone. “Go play with your boat.”

  “Exactly what I had in mind. Give my love to Grandma.”

  “That I’ll do. Pentwhistle, hah!” Daniel muttered as he hung up, which made Duncan roar with laughter.

  Chapter 14

  Duncan Blade believed in romance, in the power and the beauty of it. In its small details and sweeping gestures. His brother often said romance was Duncan’s religion. And though he himself wouldn’t go quite that far, he did have absolute faith in its powers.

  And in his experience, women were suckers for it.

  He sent flowers to her cabin when they docked in Memphis, perfume when they stopped in Natchez, a heart-shaped trinket box when they turned into Baton Rouge.

  And while they’d glided down the river toward all those places, he’d sought her out at odd moments, to invite her to dinner on his private balcony, for a moonlit walk on deck, for a quiet supper after her show.

  Her answer was always the same. Forget it, sugar.

  Cat Farrell, Duncan decided, was one tough nut, and she wasn’t cracking.

  It wasn’t just maddening, Duncan thought as he studied the docks of New Orleans out his window. It was unreasonable. They’d sparked something in each other that was impossible to ignore. For him, anyway. Since the moment she’d walked out of his office nearly a week before, she hadn’t given him a single opportunity to get his hands on her again.

  Not that she had avoided him, he mused. She wasn’t the type to shut herself in her cabin or duck into crowds. She was there, always there, wandering around the boat, chatting with passengers or crew, rehearsing in the lounge.

  She didn’t stutter or look away when they came across each other, but would give him one of those slow, feline smiles, looking him dead in the eye.

  She didn’t seem the least affected, even when he got close enough to smell the perfume she wore—perfume he’d given her, for God’s sake.

  It was driving him crazy. She was driving him crazy.

  But he was far from ready to call it a day.

  If the combination of Duncan Blade and New Orleans couldn’t soften a woman up, there was no hope for humanity.

  * * *

  In her narrow bed, in her cabin with the thin shade pulled over the tiny window, Cat stretched luxuriously. She knew from the rhythm of the boat that they’d docked. After a week on board, she’d grown accustomed to the movements, the sounds, the feel of the Comanche Princess.

  New Orleans was outside the window, she thought lazily. Beignets, tumbling flowers, cool jazz and drunken tourists. What more could a woman ask for? She had hours to explore it, to wander the narrow streets, to poke into charming shops, to sample the food the city was famous for and listen to street-corner musicians.

  To get off the boat—and away from Dangerous Duncan. Her lips quirked. That was how she was thinking of him these days. A man who paid that much attention to a woman, who was that charming, that gorgeous, that sexy, was every bit as dangerous as a loaded gun.

  And she had no intention of taking a stray bullet.

  But Lord, she thought as she padded into her
tiny bath to shower, the man had a way about him.

  A way of looking at a woman out of those fabulous, dark chocolate eyes as if she were the sole focus of his world. A way of talking to her with that smoothly sexy, all-male voice as if he’d waited his whole life to speak to her. A way of touching her with those clever hands so that a simple brush on the shoulder sent echoes of anticipation straight to the core.

  The charming son of a bitch was making her crazy.

  She couldn’t afford even a short side trip into insanity.

  Sending her flowers, she thought as she toweled off. It was so clichéd. But she was smart enough to know there was a reason clichés worked. Hadn’t she mooned over the blossoms, buried her face in them? Hadn’t she thought of him every damn time her gaze had landed on them?

  And perfume. Never in her life had she owned real perfume. The kind that came in gorgeous bottles, cost the earth and made a woman feel like a queen. Worse, he’d known exactly what kind of scent would appeal to her, would make that glamorous bottle of fragrance irresistible.

  She’d decided he’d been born knowing how to get to a woman.

  But the trinket box had nearly done her in. It was so foolish, so useless, so pretty. She’d never had the time or opportunity to indulge in the foolish and useless, hadn’t realized such things would give her such pleasure.

  Wrapped in a towel, she crossed the tiny cabin and picked up the box from where it sat on her little dresser. It was glossy white on white with a little pink bow at the tip of the heart. And it was empty, as she had no trinkets to put inside.

  But it made her smile.

  Still, she set it down and began to dress for a day of steamy summer heat. She knew what Dangerous Duncan was up to. It was a kind of campaign, she thought—carefully, strategically planned. And she was the hill he intended to take.

  Once he’d won her and planted his flag—so to speak—he’d move on to the next campaign, the next hill.

  “That’s what heartbreakers do,” she murmured.

  She shrugged, tucking the hem of a simple white T-shirt into simple black shorts. It was fortunate she knew just how to handle him. She slipped on sandals, stuffed some cash in her pocket, then grabbed her cap and sunglasses.

  When she pulled open her door, Duncan was just raising a hand to knock.

  “Good, you’re up.”

  It jolted her coming face-to-face with him when he’d been so heavily on her mind, and that was irritating. But she swung her glasses casually by the earpiece and cocked her head. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

  “Because you rarely climb out of bed until after noon.”

  She only smiled. “Then why would you be knocking on my door at nine in the morning?”

  “To wake you up. But since you’re up, dressed and ready, we’ll have more time. Let’s go.”

  “Where?”

  “Ever been to New Orleans?” In a subtle move, he reached behind her and pulled the door closed.

  “No. But that’s my current plan.”

  “Great. We’ll start with beignets at Café du Monde like proper tourists. Are those shoes comfortable?”

  “Yeah. My current plans were solo, sugar.”

  “Adjust them,” he suggested as he nudged her along to the steps. “I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans. One of my favorite places.” He kept right on talking as he steered her up on deck, toward the gangplank. “It shows best at night, but there’s a lot to be said for it on a sultry summer day. It’s all atmosphere. You like seafood?”

  “I like food.”

  “Good. I know a great place for lunch.”

  “Look, Duncan—”

  He stopped, turned, slid his hands up her arms to her shoulders and pinned her with one of those long, focused looks. “Spend the day with me.”

  Oh yeah, she thought with an inward sigh. The man had a way. “Why not, but you’re buying.”

  It was like walking through a hot river, and she loved it. Every steamy step. In the French Quarter, the buildings were grand, elegant, feminine with their fussy balconies and tumbling flowers. The smells were rich, undertoned with the warm smell of decay. The streets were narrow, the parks green, the pace sleepy and slow.

  She’d eaten three beignets and had sampled a sip of Duncan’s café au lait. She’d listened to the patter of Cajun French and the clip-clop of horses pulling carriages around Jackson Square. With him she’d wandered along, studying the sidewalk artists and their wares and had laughed delightedly at a charcoal caricature of Elvis.

  Because the day called for it, they strolled hand-in-hand, under huge, shady trees, along blistering sidewalks.

  She stopped to watch three young boys tap-dancing in a square, their faces gleaming with sweat, their feet fast and clever. And she noted that Duncan dropped bills into their cardboard box instead of coins.

  Generous, she thought. Carelessly and sweetly so.

  “Those kids probably make a killing every afternoon,” she commented.

  “They earn it. Ready for lunch?”

  She laughed. “Sugar, I’m always ready.”

  She’d expected him to take her to some fancy restaurant where the tables were draped in linen and the waiters were discreetly efficient. She’d been completely prepared to be unimpressed. Instead he steered her into a dimly lit, crowded café where the tables were bare, scarred wood shoved up against one another family style, the napkins were paper and the menu was scrawled on a chalkboard.

  It was, Cat thought, two steps up from a dive, and exactly her style.

  The woman behind the counter was enormous, three feet wide if she was an inch. The apron she wore was big as a tent and stained with splashes of color and shapes that reminded Cat of an abstract painting.

  Her moon-size ebony face was smooth as satin and creased into a huge smile when her eyes lit on Duncan.

  “There’s that handsome boy! Come give Mama a kiss.”

  He grinned, leaned over and gave her a hard, smacking one on the mouth. “Bonjour, Mama. Ça va?”

  “Oui, oui. It comes, it goes. Who’s this skinny girl you bring me?”

  “Cat, this is Mama. She’s the best there is.”

  “Cat? Well, she looks like a cat. We gonna feed you up here, chère.”

  “I’m counting on it.” Cat took a deep sniff. “Smells like paradise.”

  “Paradise.” Mama slapped a hand on her belly as if to hold it in place as she let out a rolling laugh. “Go take your skinny girl and sit. I fix you up.” She waved them away.

  “You don’t order?” Cat asked as she sat across from Duncan at one of the wobbly tables.

  “I take what she gives me.” He flashed a smile. “And I like it. So will you.”

  He couldn’t have been more right, Cat decided, as she plowed her way through barbecued shrimp, a mountain of dirty rice and corn bread. Her only comment when Duncan slid two of his shrimp from his plate to hers was a muffled grunt of assent.

  Nursing his beer, he watched her eat. He’d watched her before, and marveled. She had the appetite of a starving trucker.

  “Why aren’t you as big as Mama?”

  “Um. Nothing sticks,” she said with her mouth full. “But I keep trying.”

  He laughed, sipped his beer. “Better save room for dessert. She makes a killer pecan pie.”

  “Pecan pie?” Cat swallowed and glanced over at the glass-fronted display of desserts. “Ice cream on the side?”

  He shook his head in amazed admiration. “Sure, if you want.”

  “Do.” When her plate was all but licked clean, she sat back and blew out a breath. “Good stuff.”

  “I never miss a trip to Mama’s if I can help it.” He leaned forward. “Here, you’ve got a little sauce.” He rubbed his thumb at the corner of her mouth, then stayed as he was, looking at her, touching her. Wanting her. “And a great mouth,” he murmured. “Let me just … help you out with it.”

  He kept leaning forward, easing off the chair until he could fit his mouth over hers
. His hand slid around, skimming her ear, then cupping her neck, with those long fingers gently kneading.

  Her heart dropped down to her toes, then bounced into her throat.

  He was doing it to her again. Making her mind fuzz, her skin shiver. The clatter from the late lunch crowd dimmed away, and her system was suddenly full of the scent of him instead of the spices, the sauces.

  But she could handle him, she told herself as her lips parted. Later.

  “Boy, you let that girl alone till she eats her pie.” Mama gave Duncan an affectionate whack on the butt.

  Wanting to take just a bit more of Cat’s taste with him, Duncan scraped his teeth lightly over her bottom lip before he broke the kiss. He kept his eyes on Cat’s as he sat again. “She wants ice cream with her pie, Mama.”

  “Well, don’t I got it right here?” Chuckling, she dumped the plates in front of them and scooped up the dirty dishes. Then she winked at Cat. “Him, he got a fine mouth for kissing, eh?”

  “Yeah.” Determined not to sigh, Cat picked up her fresh fork. “It’s not bad,” she said, then took the first bite of pie. “But this,” she added, closing her eyes. “This is a miracle.”

  “She eats good.” Mama gave Duncan a bat on the shoulder. “Be smart. Keep this one.”

  “I really ought to introduce Mama to my grandfather,” Duncan commented when Mama glided away. “They think alike.”

  “Really?” Cat ate more pie and wondered what a black cook from New Orleans and a staggeringly wealthy Scot from Hyannis Port could have in common.

  “Yeah. They both think I should be married and raising a small herd of children. One or the other is always trying to fix me up.”

  Cat swirled ice cream in pie and lifted her eyebrows as she studied his sharply handsome face. “You don’t look like you need help in that area, sugar.”

  “Tell them.” He gestured with his beer, sipped, then decided it would be entertaining to see her reaction to his grandfather’s latest scheme. “The MacGregor handpicked you for me.”

  She blinked, and for the first time since he’d met her, appeared completely at sea. “Huh?”

  “My grandfather. He wants me to marry you.”

  Now she laughed and went back to her pie. “Get out.”

  “I’m serious. Girl’s got grit,” he said, dramatically rolling his r’s. “Guts. Good blood, strong stock.”

  “How would he know? I barely met him.”

  “You’d be surprised how much he knows. The man’s uncanny—and tenacious. I figured it was only fair to let you know what he has in mind.”

  She drummed her fingers on the table, trying to figure the angle, and simply couldn’t find it. “Do you do everything your granddaddy tells you?”

  “Nope. So rest easy, darling. That wasn’t a marriage proposal. I didn’t figure it out until he called a few days ago, checking up.” Grinning now, Duncan settled into his own dessert. “I got the drift and needled him. Told him you were engaged to a piano player. Dabny Pentwhistle.”

  “Pentwhistle? What the hell kind of name is that?”

  “Exactly what The MacGregor wanted to know. He was pretty disappointed in you, sweetheart,” he added with a wag of his fork. “Wasting your time on some piano player. But he didn’t buy it for long. The old man’s damn sharp. He just married off my cousin D.C.”

 
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