The macgregor groom, p.12
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.12

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Married off? What is this, medieval Scotland?”

  “It’s MacGregor Land,” Duncan said with a grin. “Trouble is, they’re perfect together. D.C. and Layna, I mean. The MacGregor hit a bull’s-eye with them—and he’s done it before, starting with my parents. Makes him cocky.”

  She wondered idly if Duncan was going to eat all of his pie. “He arranged your parents’ marriage?”

  “No, just finagled it so that they’d meet, bump into each other. The rest was up to them. He’s been working on the second generation the last few years. And he’s batting a thousand. Up to me.”

  She was far from understanding it, but she nodded. “And you intend to ruin his batting average.”

  “I intend to live my own life, make my own choices.” His fingers slid over the table to toy with hers. “But I do admire his taste.”

  “Hmm. Weird.” Then she shrugged it off and worked on polishing off her pie. “You’ve got yourself a very strange family, sugar.”

  “Darling, you don’t know the half of it.”

  Later, they walked off the meal in the high heat and moist air, ducking into shops now and then to court the chill of air-conditioning and browse. When he caught her eyeing a tin of pralines, he roared with laughter.

  “You can’t possibly be hungry again.”

  “Not now,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “But I will be, so why not be prepared?”

  He bought them for her—not the little tin she’d looked at, but one big enough to feed a greedy family of four. And made her laugh.

  She liked him, she thought. Really, really liked him. And that, combined with the sneaky animal lust she was experiencing, made for a difficult combination to resist. The first was bound to nudge her into acting on the second.

  Be prepared, Cat warned herself as he pulled her into yet another shop. And get out alive.

  This shop was full of trinkets and jewelry. Colored stones and crystals winked in glass cases or were draped artfully over walls and shelves. Lining the side were three curtained alcoves where the curious—and to Cat’s mind the gullible—could have their fortunes told.

  She wandered idly, toying with pretty dust catchers while Duncan perused one of the cases. She heard a sale ring up and shook her head without much interest. The man—she’d come to note—just loved tossing his money away.

  When he tapped her on the shoulder, she turned, and he slipped a thin gold chain over her head.

  “What’s this?” Frowning, she scooped up the sword-shaped yellow gem dangling from the chain. It was lovely, polished to a gleam and slim as a running tear.

  “Citrine. Stimulates communication—and voice projection.” He smiled at her. “Excellent stone for performers.”

  “Get out.” But her fingers had closed around it. “You don’t believe stuff like that.”

  “Darling, I’m Celt and Comanche. I know stuff like that. Besides, it suits you, Catherine Mary.”

  He had the pleasure of seeing surprise, consternation and vague annoyance flicker over her face before she controlled it. “How do you know my full name?”

  “Just one of the many other things I know. Want your palm read?”

  “Now that’s really bunk.”

  “Then it won’t hurt you.” He drew her to the counter to arrange payment for a reading.

  “Fine. You got money to burn, go ahead.”

  She’d never considered herself superstitious. Never traveling without her lucky cap was just a tradition, after all. So she sat in the little alcove, smirked at the pretty young woman who took her hand and waited to be told she’d be taking a long voyage and meeting a tall, dark stranger.

  “You have a strong hand,” the woman said with a sweet smile. “An old soul.”

  Cat rolled her eyes toward Duncan, who leaned against the wall. “Yeah, I’m ancient.”

  “You’ve suffered loss, sorrow and struggle.”

  “Who hasn’t?” Cat muttered, but the woman only stroked her palm with a fingertip.

  “You use them and they’ve made you strong. You chose your direction at a young age, and it’s rare for you to look back instead of forward. Passions, ambitions. You take care to make decisions with your head. Do you think your heart is unreliable?”

  This time Cat looked into the woman’s eyes. “Whose isn’t?” she said flippantly.

  “Yours can be trusted. It’s a steady one. Talent. It runs deep, very powerful, and it feeds you. What you give of it, it gives back. It will take you where you want to go.” She frowned a minute, studying Cat’s face rather than her hand. “Do you sing?”

  The quick tremor came first, making her want to jerk her hand free, but she shrugged, figuring the con. “My pal here must have prompted you pretty good.”

  “You can trust him, too,” the woman said by way of answer. “His heart’s as steady as yours, though as closely guarded. Changes and decisions, risks and rewards. It will be up to you. You don’t have to be alone, unless you turn away. Family centers you. It’s an anchor no matter how far you drift. You have so many places to go, so many doors opening,” she said with a beaming smile, “that were locked, or seemed to be.”

  Her fingers played over Cat’s hand, skimmed, settled. “You aren’t afraid to work and work hard, but you expect to be paid in kind. You’re thrifty and wish you didn’t have to be. Generous with those who matter. One will, more than others. There’s only one who’ll fit you, body, head and heart, and he’s already in your mind.”

  * * *

  Cat tossed her hair back as they stepped back out into the thick air. “That was pretty lame, Blade. How much did it cost you to set her up with what to say?”

  “I didn’t.” He was vaguely disturbed over what he’d expected to be a passing amusement for both of them.

  “Get out.”

  “I didn’t,” he repeated, and stuck his hands in his pockets rather than taking hers. “I just stopped in there on impulse, figured we’d get a kick out of it.”

  “Hold it.” She put a hand on his arm, narrowed her eyes and studied his face. Either he was a hell of an actor, she concluded, or he was as baffled as she. “Well, that was weird,” she decided.

  “Yeah. Weird.”

  They walked back toward the river in silence.

  Chapter 15

  They stayed two days in New Orleans, slipping away from the docks on the second evening. The celebrational Mardi Gras–style party to celebrate the journey was populated with fresh faces and familiar ones. The music was loud, the drinks colorful, the mood high.

  Duncan circulated, strolling the decks, passing through lounges, greeting new passengers, chatting with those who’d remained for the week’s voyage back north. But he couldn’t find her.

  Until he couldn’t, he didn’t realize that throughout his routine tour of the boat, he’d been looking for Cat.

  Following instinct, he headed down to the kitchen. Dinner preparations were well underway. Pots steamed, pans sizzled, cleavers hacked. Idly, he snagged a carrot stick from a military line on a cutting board, crunching it as Charlie saluted him.

  “Hey, bossman, we’re busy ’round here. You come to stir a pot?”

  “Just passing through. How’s the redfish tonight?”

  “Fresh and fine. Want me to blacken up a piece for you? Got garlic taters, too—less you got you a hot date.” He cackled over his pots. “I hear tell we got some fine ladies this trip up. Groupa sisters, each one pretty as the next.”

  “The Kingston group, yep. Four long-stemmed blondes.” He winked and nibbled the carrot. “I checked them out for you, Charlie. Looking for wife number four?”

  “Ain’t gonna be no number four. I’m swearing offa matrimony.”

  “Heard that before. You seen Cat around?”

  “She passing through, too. Girl’s got her one healthy appetite.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Duncan. “You hoping she take a bite outta you?”

  “Wouldn’t hurt my feelings. She been passing through this evening?”<
br />
  “Got her some dinner before the show, like usual. She likes her redfish black and spicy, too. She took her some strawberry shortcake on up to her cabin. You maybe catch her if you got a long stride.”

  “I’ve got one,” Duncan began, then felt his beeper vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out, checked the code and saw he was needed in the casino. “But I’ll just have to catch her later.”

  * * *

  He didn’t manage any free time until midway through the second show.

  His pit boss was down with a migraine, and two of his best dealers were suffering from a mild case of food poisoning after splitting a bushel of crayfish. The casino was woefully shorthanded.

  Duncan filled in at a blackjack table, taking on the duties of dealer and entertaining his table—one that consisted of the Kingston sisters.

  They were lookers, he thought. Good-natured women with deep pockets and a lot of family affection. And not one of them could play worth spit.

  “Honey, you don’t want to hold on fourteen when the dealer’s got ten showing. The name of the game is beat the house. You want to take me down.”

  “Love to.” She giggled cheerfully while her sisters hooted. “Okay, handsome, hit me.”

  He dealt her a six, causing her sisters to applaud, then went on down the line, coaching each one.

  He paid off two, raked in chips from the other pair, then dealt the next hand. Under usual circumstances, he’d have enjoyed nothing better than playing flirt-and-gamble with a quartet of attractive blondes. But his mind kept wandering … out of the casino and into the lounge beyond.

  She’d be singing, standing center stage with the mike in her hand and some sexy little dress barely covering her. Her voice would be filling the room, radiating through it. Deep and rich and smooth.

  He realized he didn’t want to just see her, he wanted to hear her. He wanted to find a table in the back of the room, in the dark, and just listen.

  “I’ve got twelve.” The sister on the end batted enormous baby blues and demanded attention. “What should I do, Duncan?”

  “Take a chance. I’m showing nine, so you have to figure nineteen.”

  “Okay, but be gentle with me.”

  He clobbered her with a king and smiled sympathetically.

  “Oh, pooh.” She pouted prettily. “Maybe I’m just better at other games.”

  Signal received, he thought. Loud and clear. And what the hell was wrong with him? He didn’t feel the least bit tempted to bounce back with a signal of his own. And felt nothing but relief when Gloria stepped beside him.

  “Changing dealers, ladies,” she said cheerfully. Their responding chorus of awws had Gloria chuckling. “Say good-night, Duncan.”

  “Good night, ladies. You’ve got the floor from here,” he murmured to his manager.

  “Yeah, under control. Why don’t you go on into the lounge and take in the rest of the show—since that’s where your mind’s been for the last hour, anyway.”

  “Might just.” He gave her a quick flick on her nose. “Gloria will take good care of you,” he said to the table, and four pairs of big blue eyes followed him out the door.

  “So, is he taken?”

  Gloria arched her brows at the blonde across from her, then grinned. “Yeah, he is. He just doesn’t know it yet. Ladies, place your bets.” I have, she thought, and laughed to herself.

  Duncan slipped quietly into the lounge, adjusting to the dim lights and the heat of Cat’s voice. She was singing about loving the wrong man, but there was as much defiance as sorrow in the vocals.

  He’d meant to ease down the side and toward the back, order a brandy and sit sipping while he listened to her. But he stayed where he was, in the shadows just to stage left.

  She knew he was there, would have sworn there’d been a change in the air the moment he’d stepped in. Something charged and edgy that had her skin prickling. As if to test them both, she shifted her gaze, met his, held it. Let the song pour out of her, and into him.

  It wasn’t until the applause sounded that she realized she’d yet to break the connection. She lowered the mike so her shaky expulsion of breath wouldn’t carry, then turned a sparkling smile to the audience.

  She had a patter, some that was scripted in her head, more that came as suited the mood—hers and theirs. But she knew how to play the audience and enjoyed it, because she enjoyed them.

  So she would concentrate on them instead of the dangerous man standing in the shadows.

  He had yet to recover his breath when she began talking, sliding into an intimate conversation with those who sat at the tables.

  She charmed them, he noted, calling for the lights to spot on a couple near the front who were celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. She made a few jokes, just bawdy enough to have the room roaring, then cuing the music, she began to sing a suggestive version of “Big Spender” directly to the man.

  She stroked his cheek, skimmed her fingers through his hair, slid into his lap as his wife giggled helplessly and he turned a deep pink accented with a foolish grin.

  Duncan found himself grinning, too. Damn, she was good, he thought. She’d wrap them around her finger and keep them right there until she was done.

  And she was doing exactly the same to him.

  But the difference was, he told himself, he intended to do some wrapping himself.

  Leaning back against the wall, he watched, and kept watching until the end of the show.

  It made her jumpy to know he was still there, right where he’d been since he’d come in, where she’d have no choice but to pass him on the way to her dressing room.

  And because she was jumpy, she was all the more determined to pretend she couldn’t care less.

  “You don’t usually stay so long,” she commented, unscrewing the top of the bottle of water she always kept close by the stage. “Spot checking the talent?”

  “I wanted to see you.” He said it simply because it was true—and because he knew it would throw her off.

  “Well … you did.” She started past, pausing when he took her wrist.

  “Let’s go outside.”

  “No thanks. I need to change.”

  “No, you don’t. I like looking at you in that delightful excuse for a dress.” It was black tonight, plunging deep, front and back.

  “I’m tired, Duncan.”

  “No, you’re not. You’re revved.”

  He could feel the energy pouring out of her, wanted to capture it. Watching her eyes, he lifted the hand he held to his mouth. “It’s warm on deck, and there’s a moon. Take a walk with me. I won’t touch you unless you want me to.”

  That was the trouble, she thought. She did want him to. Maybe it was time to stop pretending otherwise. “All right. We’ll walk. I could use some air. Nice crowd tonight.”

  He guided her through the tables and out the doors. “You made Anniversary Boy’s night. Possibly his year.”

  She laughed at that, shook back her hair and drew in the deep, dark scent of the water. “His wife set it up with me before the show, gave me fifty bucks to pour it on.”

  “She got her money’s worth. Let’s go up, closer to the moon.”

  “I hear you’re a big hit with the Kingston sisters,” she commented as they climbed the stairs.

  “Did you?”

  “They were in the lounge earlier, giggling and sighing over you.”

  “Nothing more rewarding to a man than to make the ladies giggle and sigh.” He climbed steadily up to the third deck, pleased to find it deserted.

  “I bet.” She walked to the rail, leaned out. “God, this is fabulous. Really fabulous. I love the night on the river.”

  “My personal favorite. I’ve been hoping to wear you down enough to get you out here with me.” He turned her slowly. “At night on the river.”

  “That’s not where you want me, Duncan.”

  “Just one of the many places.” He ran his hands up her arms, but didn’t draw her against him. “Y
ou sang to me.”

  Her heart began to flutter, an uncomfortable and, she thought, idiotic feeling. “I sing to everyone. It’s my job.”

  “You sang to me,” he repeated, his voice quiet and smooth. “It made me want you so much my bones ached.” His fingers skimmed over her shoulders, up the side of her throat. “And it made me see you wanted me right back.”

  He lowered his head, keeping his mouth a whisper from hers. “You’ll have to ask me, since I promised I wouldn’t.”

  “Do you always keep your word, Duncan?”

  “Yeah.” His breath fluttered over her lips. “I do.”

  “And I never ask,” she told him, and fisting her hands in his hair, dragged his mouth to hers.

  She cut him off at the knees with that wild and sudden slap of lust. Her mouth was like a flame, branding and burning and making him desperate for more. He knew if he didn’t take control he’d simply snap and take her where they stood.

  He broke the kiss, ordered himself to gentle the hands that had clamped on her shoulders. “My cabin’s right behind us.”

  She angled her head, smiled slowly. Desire was a slow and steady burning in the blood. “I know.”

  He backed up, sliding his hands down to hers, drawing her with him. Then he circled her, freeing one hand to dig for his key, watching her face as he slipped it into the lock.

  “Why don’t we go inside?”

  “Why don’t we?” she murmured, and turned to walk into the room.

  He’d left a light burning by the bed and the wide window undraped and open to the moon. Though her blood continued to pump hot and hard, she took a careless turn around the room.

  There was an antique table graced with pictures framed in gleaming silver, deep-cushioned chairs in a vivid shade of blue, brass lamps with glass globes, a gracefully arched niche filled with books and more photos.

  The bed was brass as well, with fluid lines and of generous size.

  “Nice digs.” She glanced over her shoulder as she heard the scrape of a match, and watched with both pleasure and surprise as he lit a group of slender white candles. “You’re quite the romantic, aren’t you?”

  He blew out the match, then walked over to switch off the bedside lamp so they stood in the soft glow of shifting light and shadows. “You have a problem with that?”

  “No, not particularly.” But it made her just a little shaky. To counter it she curved her lips and reached back to unzip her dress.

  “Don’t.” He stepped forward, ran a single fingertip from the base of her throat to the edge of the plunge of black silk. “I want to undress you.”

  She let her arms fall back to her sides. “What’s stopping you?”

  “Nothing.” He lowered his head, nibbled gently at her neck. “Not a thing. You smell like you look.”

  She fought the urge to shake her head clear. “You bought the perfume … big spender.”

  He chuckled and lapped at her. “Taste like you look.”

  Her breath was going ragged despite her efforts to control it. “You’ve had a sample or two before.”

  “Not enough. Not nearly.” He worked his way back up to her mouth, but barely skimmed it. “Should I tell you what I want to do with you … or should I just surprise you?”

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