Playing the odds, p.13
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       Playing The Odds, p.13

         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “It’s cold,” she complained. With a sultry laugh she pressed her mouth to his throat. “Can’t you think of something else?”

  “I admire your spirit,” he said, bringing her lips back to his. After running a hand down her hair, he cradled her head on his shoulder. “Want me to call room service?”

  She let out a long, contented breath. “In a little while. I love you, Justin.”

  As he closed his eyes, his arms tightened around her. “I wondered if you’d get around to telling me that.”

  “Didn’t I mention it?” Smiling, Serena propped herself on his chest. “How’s this? I love you,” she began, punctuating her words with kisses. “I adore you. I’m fascinated by you. I lust for you.”

  “It might do for a start.” Taking her hand to his lips, he kissed her fingers slowly. “Serena—”

  “No.” Quickly, she pressed her hand over his mouth. “Don’t ask me again. I’m not going anywhere, and I don’t want to fight with you, Justin. Not now, not tonight.” She touched her cheek to his. “It seems like I’ve waited all my life to feel like this. Everything up to this moment seems like a prelude. It sounds crazy, but I think I knew the first minute I looked up and saw you that everything was going to change.” She laughed again and drew away. “And I thought I was much too intellectually sound to believe in love at first sight.”

  “Your intellect,” he told her, “slowed things down considerably.”

  “On the contrary,” she said with a haughty smile. “It moved them along beautifully. I came here with the idea of becoming your partner so that we could deal on equal terms while I convinced you, you couldn’t live without me.”

  “Did you?”

  She grinned down at him. “It worked.”

  “You might be a bit too cocky, Serena.” Giving her hair a tug, he rose from the bed.

  “Where are you going?”

  “To let a little air out of your balloon.” Opening a drawer, Justin drew out a small box. “I picked this up for you in St. Thomas.”

  “A present?” Scrambling up on her knees, she held out her hand. “I live for presents.”

  “Greedy little witch,” he said as he dropped the box into her outstretched hand.

  Her chuckle faded into silence as she opened it. Twin pinwheels of amethysts and diamonds gleamed up at her, catching fire even in the dim light of dusk. She remembered how they had looked in the sunlit window where she had first seen them. Hesitantly, she touched one with her finger as if the heat were real and not just an illusion in the stones.

  “Justin, they’re gorgeous,” she whispered as she raised her eyes to his. “But why?”

  “Because they suited you, and you wouldn’t indulge yourself. And”—he dropped a hand to her cheek—“I had already decided I wasn’t going to let you walk out of my life. If you hadn’t come here, I’d have brought you.”

  “Willing or not?” she asked, with the beginnings of a smile.

  “I warned you it’s an old tradition in my family.” He tucked her hair behind her ears. “Put them on. I’ve wondered how they’d look on you.”

  Serena took them out of the box and clipped them to her ears. Still kneeling on the bed, she caught her hair back in her hand. “I want to see.” Justin stopped her with no more than a look.

  Her skin was pale and flawless. Her hair, when her hand slowly dropped, tumbled wildly. Wearing no more than a glitter of jewels at her ears, she looked like an exotic fantasy. The flare of desire in his eyes touched off one in her own. As her lips parted, she held out her arms to him.

  Chapter 10

  Serena stretched luxuriously and contemplated getting up. If Justin hadn’t already gone downstairs, the idea of lazing away the morning in bed would have been more appealing. She lay in the center of the tangle of sheets—the spot they had shared, wrapped close, throughout the night.

  He was still worried, she mused. Even though he’d whispered nothing more than a few foolish endearments into her ear before he had left her, Serena had sensed the controlled tension in him. As long as Justin was convinced the bomb planted in Vegas had been a direct threat against him personally, and was a prelude of more, there was nothing Serena could do to soothe him. She could only stay close, trying to convince him she was in no danger, that she could look after herself.

  Men, Serena thought with a small smile. No matter how liberal, they simply couldn’t accept the fact that women could take care of themselves. The last thing she was going to do was sit in Massachusetts while the man she loved sat in New Jersey. It wasn’t logical, Serena told herself as she pulled herself out of bed. She believed exactly what she had shouted at Justin the night before—people in love belonged together.

  Justin wasn’t likely to relax fully until the police caught whoever had planted the bomb, and that could take months—if indeed he were ever caught. He might have given up completely when his plans were ruined. Or he could wait—days, weeks, months—before striking again.

  Taking a robe out of the closet, she considered that possibility, then shrugged off the unease. Whether they caught him or not, Serena didn’t share Justin’s certainty that the man would try again. The note had probably been sent out of frustration after the extortionist’s plans had fallen apart. That made more sense than someone with a personal vendetta against Justin.

  He wasn’t being objective, Serena decided as she belted the robe. The hotels were so much a part of him, he couldn’t see them as an outsider would—buildings worth a great deal of money. The man had played his hand and lost. He had to know the authorities would be investigating and that Justin would tighten his own security. Cowards plant bombs, she told herself. A coward isn’t going to risk getting caught. In time, Justin would see the logic.

  When she heard the knock on the door, Serena automatically checked the bedside clock. Too early for the maid, she reflected as she walked into the living room. Now, who would be … Her hand paused on the knob as all of Justin’s words of the night before ran through her head. Someone’s after me. You’re not safe.

  Suddenly uneasy, Serena peered through the peephole. There, you see, she told herself as her nerves drained away. It’s just foolishness. Opening the door, she grinned at her brother.

  “You must have lost quickly last night if you’re up this early,” she commented.

  Caine stared at her a moment before he stepped into the room. “It’s not that early,” he countered, glancing around. “I came up to see Justin.”

  “You’ve just missed him.” Serena closed the door and tossed back her sleep-tumbled hair. “He went down to his office about fifteen minutes ago. Where’s Alan?”

  Caine’s affection for Justin was warring with the fact that Serena was his sister. His baby sister, damn it, he thought. And she was standing in Justin’s private suite wearing nothing but the short silk robe he’d given her last Christmas. “He’s just having breakfast,” Caine told her as he prowled around the room.

  “Well, you were always the one to be up and about in the morning,” Serena remembered. “I always thought it was a disgusting habit. Want some coffee? It’s one of the few essentials stocked in the kitchen.”

  “Yeah. Sure.” Still dealing with the shock of realizing he had harbored the illusion that his sister was exclusively his sister, Caine followed her.

  The kitchen was roomy and striking. The floor and walls were white, the cabinets glossy black. Serena plugged in the percolator as she gestured toward the breakfast bar with her free hand. “Sit down.”

  “You seem to know your way around,” Caine heard himself saying.

  She sent him an infuriatingly amused look. “I live here.”

  Annoyed, Caine slid onto a stool at the bar. “Justin certainly works fast.”

  “That’s quite a chauvinistic remark for the liberal state’s attorney,” Serena commented as she measured out coffee. “From another point of view it could be said I work fast.”

  “You met him only a month ago.”

  “Cain
e.” Turning around, Serena cocked her head. “Do you remember Luke Dennison?”

  “Who?”

  “He was the local stud when I was fifteen,” she reminded him. “You cornered him in the parking lot of the movie theater and told him if he ever put his hands on me, you’d break all the small, vital bones in his body.”

  She watched Caine’s grin flash as he remembered. “He never did, did he?”

  “No.” Then she walked over to him and grabbed both his ears. “I’m not fifteen anymore, Caine, and Justin isn’t Luke Dennison.”

  Leaning over, he grabbed her ears in turn, applying enough pressure to bring her closer. “I love you,” he told her, and kissed her quick and hard.

  “Then be happy for me. Justin’s everything I want.”

  Releasing her, Caine sat back. “He said the same thing about you.”

  He saw the pleasure darken her eyes. “When?”

  “Yesterday when he asked Alan and me to talk you into going home for a while.” Caine lifted a hand as the pleasure turned to temper. “Don’t go for the jugular, Rena; we both declined.”

  Serena let out her breath in a quick huff. “Justin’s convinced whoever planted that bomb had more than extortion money as a motive. Because of that, he has it fixed in his head that I’m not safe with him.” Frustrated, she gestured widely with both hands. “He just won’t be logical or practical about the whole business.”

  “He loves you.”

  The storm around her stilled instantly. “I know. All the more reason for me to stay with him. Tell me”—she leaned back against the counter to watch him—“what would you do?”

  “If I were Justin, I’d do my damnedest to make you leave. If I were you,” he continued smoothly before she could start to yell, “I wouldn’t budge.”

  “Nothing worse than the analytical, legal mind,” Serena murmured as the coffee perked. “Well, why don’t you tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself? Any fascinating new ladies—or is your work cramping your style?”

  “I manage to eke out a little time for recreation,” he commented, and earned a snort as Serena took down two mugs. “I’ve decided to go back to private practice.”

  “You have?” Surprised, she turned back. “Isn’t that rather sudden?”

  “Not really.” He accepted the mug of black coffee. “I’ve been thinking about it for some time. Alan’s the politician. He’s got the patience for it.” Shrugging, Caine sipped at his coffee. “I miss the courtroom. Bureaucracy doesn’t give me enough time for it.”

  “I always loved to watch you argue a case,” Serena remembered, taking her seat on the opposite side of the bar. “There was something deadly about your style, like a wolf circling a fire and losing patience.”

  Caine laughed. “There’s that flighty MacGregor imagination surfacing again.”

  “Casting aspersions on the family name?” Alan asked from the kitchen doorway.

  Serena turned to him with a quick, warm smile. The look altered subtly as she shifted her eyes to the man beside her brother.

  “Alan complained that he’d been deserted,” Justin commented. “Any more of that coffee?”

  “I just made it.” She held out her hand to him as he entered. Taking it, Justin brushed a kiss over her fingers before he moved to the coffeepot.

  “Alan?”

  He was looking at his sister. “Yes, thanks.”

  “Caine hasn’t told me how much he lost last night,” Serena began as Alan leaned on the counter.

  “Oh, his luck wasn’t all that bad.” He sent his brother a shrewd look, which Caine returned blandly.

  Serena arched a brow. “You better not have been trying your luck with any of my dealers,” she warned Caine.

  “The little blonde,” Alan supplied with a flashing grin, “with the big brown eyes.”

  “Caine!” Serena sent him a look of astonished amusement. “She’s barely twenty-one.”

  “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” Calmly, Caine sipped his coffee. “Alan was busy trying to impress some redhead in half a dress with his views on foreign policy.”

  “Well.” Serena turned to Justin as he brought over fresh coffee. “It seems to me that neither the staff nor the customers are safe if we let these two loose.”

  “You can keep an eye on them tonight at the dinner show.” Justin handed Alan a mug before he opened the refrigerator for cream.

  “I should have warned you,” Serena told her brothers as she linked her hand with Justin’s. “He has a habit of making arrangements without consulting anyone. But I for one,” she added, smiling at him, “would love to go to the dinner show. Lena Maxwell’s opening tonight,” she mused, looking down at her nails. “I suppose Justin could be persuaded to introduce her if you two would like to come.”

  “What time’s dinner?” Alan and Caine asked together.

  Laughing, Serena rose. “Pitiful. Dangle a sexy brunette in front of their noses, and they’ll follow you anywhere. I’ve got to shower and change.” She stood on her toes and brushed Justin’s mouth with hers. “I’ll be downstairs in a half hour.”

  As she walked from the room, she heard Caine’s question. “Just where is Lena Maxwell rehearsing this afternoon, Justin?”

  While she showered, Serena found herself laughing. If Caine got it into his head to track down Lena Maxwell, he wouldn’t need Justin’s introduction to charm his way into a personal conversation with her. Caine MacGregor had more than his fair share of charm.

  She thought again of his reaction when he found her in Justin’s suite. It was rather endearing really, she decided. And she hadn’t missed the long, quiet look Alan had given her when he had walked into the kitchen with Justin. As soon as her brothers were alone, she concluded, they would discuss her relationship with Justin, probably argue a bit about it, then give her their unqualified support. It had always been that way among the three of them.

  For a moment, with the water streaming hot over her body, Serena felt a wave of regret for Justin. He had never really known the security, the bond, the frustration of family ties. Perhaps with time he would let her show him. Perhaps one day they would have children.

  Deliberately, Serena stuck her head under the spray. She was getting ahead of herself. Far ahead. He loved her, but that didn’t mean he was looking for marriage and children. He’d been solitary for so long, and their love was so new. Children would mean a home, and he’d never chosen to make one. He’d chosen a lifestyle without permanence. And the nomad in him had been, and was, part of his attraction for her. It was foolish to start dreaming about changes when they’d barely lived forty-eight hours under the same roof.

  Yet, he’d spoken of his sister twice, and both times Serena had sensed a hint of regret. Justin hadn’t turned his back on his family, but he had been forced by circumstances to do without. If one day he wanted one, Serena promised herself, she’d be there for him.

  Stepping from the shower, Serena flicked on the overhead heat lamp, then wrapped her hair in a towel. She began to hum as she rubbed scented lotion over her skin. Briefly, she ran over the schedule she’d outlined for herself that day and decided she could accomplish everything before she needed to change for the dinner show. But not if she stood loitering in the bathroom all day, she reminded herself as she slipped into her robe. Unwinding the towel from her hair, she walked back into the bedroom.

  As the door from the living room swung open, she gasped in surprise. “Justin!” Dragging a hand through her hair, Serena let out her breath. “You gave me a start; I thought you’d gone.”

  Dipping his hands into his pockets, he looked at her slowly, from her toes to the crown of her head. “No.”

  Why was it, she wondered, that he’s seen and touched every part of my body, but he can look at me like that and turn me to jelly? “Alan and Caine?”

  “Gone down to compete for Lena, I believe.”

  “Lord, I hate to miss that,” she thought aloud as she walked to the closet.

&
nbsp; “What are you doing?”

  “Well, I’m getting dressed,” she returned with a laugh. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

  “Seems like a waste of time, since I’m just going to take whatever you put on off you again.”

  She sent him an arch look over her shoulder. “Somehow, I think Kate might find it odd if I walked into the office wearing my robe.”

  He gave her a slow, cool smile. “You’re not getting out of this room.”

  “Justin, don’t be ridiculous.” With another laugh Serena began to poke through the clothes in the closet. “I have a dozen things to do before dinner, and—” The rest of the words caught in her throat, then came out as a whoosh of air as he tossed her onto the mattress.

  Standing above her he nodded. “I like the way you look in a rumpled bed.”

  “Oh, really?” Serena pushed herself up to her knees. “Well, I’d like to know where you got the idea you could throw me around.” As she stuck her hands on her hips, her loosened robe fell off one shoulder. “It’s not the first time,” she went on, remembering her dunking in the ocean, “but if you think you can make a habit—”

  “I know, nobody pushes a MacGregor around,” he murmured as he hooked a finger in the opening of her robe.

  “That’s right.” She pushed his hand away and succeeded in widening the gap down her front. “So just remember that the next time you get a wild urge to toss me around.”

  “I will. Sorry.” With an apologetic smile he held out his hand. Though wary, Serena accepted it as she started to climb back out of the bed. In an instant she was on her back, pinned under him.

  “Justin!” Fighting against laughter, she pushed at him. “Will you stop? I have to get dressed.”

  “Uh-uh, you have to get undressed. Let me help you.” With one long gesture of his hand he parted her robe completely.

  “Stop!” Amused, frustrated and aroused, she struggled against him. “Justin, I mean it! The maid could walk in here any minute.”

  “She won’t be coming until this evening.” He found a spot, low on her ribs, and felt a thrill of pleasure as she moaned. “I called housekeeping.”

  “You—” With a new spurt of energy she tried to wrest free. “You did it again!” She nearly managed to get her arms free before he pinned them. “Didn’t it occur to you that I might have had plans? That perhaps I don’t want to spend the afternoon in bed with you?”

  “I figured the odds were good that I could persuade you,” he countered easily.

  “Oh!” She kicked out, tangling her legs with his as she wiggled under him.

  “Okay, we’ll wrestle first, best three out of five.”

  “This isn’t funny,” she said, swallowing a giggle. “I mean it.”

  “Deadly serious.” He rolled her over until she was on top of him. “That’s one apiece.” Before she could catch her breath she was back under him. “And two for me.”

  “Oh, sure.” Serena blew the wet hair out of her eyes. “A real even match when I’m half naked and you’re fully dressed.”

  “You’re right.” He covered her face with quick, teasing kisses. “Why don’t you do something about that. My hands are busy.”

  She moaned involuntarily as they ran down her body. “Foul,” she said breathlessly. “Justin …”

  “Stop?” he asked halfheartedly, his eyes intent on her face as he let his fingertips do the persuading.

  “No.” Tangling her fingers in his hair, she brought his mouth down to hers.

  It was always the same, always unique. Every time his lips met hers, she felt that enervating shock of heat. Her bones would soften with exquisite slowness until she thought her body was one warm, fluid mass. Yet the thrill was always fresh, as though it were happening for the first time. Forgetting his request that she undress him, Serena went lax with the first flood of pleasure.

  Justin felt her surrender, a surrender he knew was only a prelude to her breathless excitement and frantic demands. He enjoyed the brief, heady power of total control. She was his now, a strong, vital woman who for a few precious moments would be like putty in his hands. The knowledge made him gentle, so that he caressed with more tenderness than he had believed himself capable of. Did love make so much difference? he wondered as he ran long, lean fingers over her skin.

  His lips touched hers, muffling her soft sound of enjoyment. Her eyes, not quite closed, met his. When he traced the shape of her mouth with his tongue, her lids fluttered. He rubbed his lips over hers, savoring the taste, then found that his hands had stilled. His whole being seemed focused on the meeting of mouth to mouth. The power he had felt became a vulnerability, no less of a surrender than Serena had given him. He felt weak with it, and fearless.

  “I love you,” he murmured against her mouth. “I didn’t know how much.” The kiss was deep and slow and more arousing than anything he’d ever known.

  Then her tongue sought his, moving through his lips to draw in all the tastes and flavors. As a shudder passed through him, he knew her surrender was over.

  Serena slipped the soft wool of his sweater up his torso, over his shoulders, so that their lips were forced to part, but only briefly. Her hands were busy,
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