The macgregor groom, p.14
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.14

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “It’s obvious enough. I know what I am and where I come from. My father was an ordinary man who had the bad luck to die when he wasn’t yet thirty. My mother’s a waitress who never had a chance to be anything else. And I sing for my supper. Your father might be old and sentimental, but you wouldn’t be.”

  “I see.” Serena considered. “And if I offered you, say … ten thousand dollars to move along, what would you say?”

  Green fire flashed, cold and bitter. “I’d say go to hell, Mrs. Blade.”

  To Cat’s surprise, Serena threw back her head and laughed delightedly. “Oh, I knew I liked you—the minute you tore into Duncan on deck, I knew it. Cat, since you don’t know me, I won’t be insulted by you considering me a shallow snob, more interested in pedigree than my son’s happiness, but …” She paused, and her lovely eyes sobered. “You should think more of yourself than you apparently do.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “I’m talking about the fact that the only one in here who’s thinking of you as less than an interesting, appealing and delightful woman, is you.”

  Gently now, she laid a hand over Cat’s. “I love my son. He’s a beautiful young man in every possible way. How could I be less than happy that you love him, too?”

  “I didn’t say I loved him.” Struck with sheet-white panic, Cat yanked back and scrambled up. “I didn’t say that.”

  Can’t be, she thought dizzily. Won’t be.

  “No.” Serena smiled again. “No, you didn’t. But if you ever do, I’ll be very happy for him. I’ll let you get back to work.” She rose gracefully. “Think about dinner, will you?”

  Serena was nearly out the door before Cat could speak again. “Mrs. Blade?”

  “Yes?”

  “I figured when I saw this setup—” she gestured to encompass the boat “—that Duncan was a lucky man. Looks like I didn’t know the half of it.”

  “Oh yes,” Serena said. “I really do like you.” Then she breezed out, content.

  Chapter 17

  Cat hadn’t expected to fall in love during a six-week gig on the river. And she certainly hadn’t expected to find herself in love with a ninety-year-old man.

  But she fell, head over heels, for Daniel MacGregor.

  He was a rogue, and that appealed to her own sense of adventure. He was a hothead, and she appreciated pitting her own temper against an equal. His heart was sentimental mush, his mind razor sharp. The combination was more than she could resist.

  She wasn’t quite so sure of Anna MacGregor. There, she thought, was dignity, serenity and that steel-and-velvet ladylike quality that could never be learned. You were born with it.

  Her daughter had it, Cat mused. She imagined all the MacGregor women did, including those who’d come into the family through marriage.

  Well, she’d never be a lady, had no desire to be. She didn’t intend to get anywhere through marriage. She was a solo act, and intended to stay that way. But she could meet The MacGregor head-to-head and enjoy every moment.

  “You don’t know one single Scottish ballad? What kind of singer are you?”

  “A torch singer, Mr. MacG.” Enjoying herself, Cat rehearsed in the empty lounge for an audience of one. Daniel had taken to sitting at one of the tables whenever the lounge was closed, and commenting and kibitzing on her song list.

  “That means you can’t have some variety?” He glowered at her from under snowy white eyebrows. “Why, there’s some Scottish tunes that will rip a man’s heart out of his chest while it’s still beating. With that voice of yours, any man with the blood of the Scots in him would fall in love with you.”

  Deliberately, she skimmed a hand through her hair. “They all fall in love with me anyway.”

  He barked out a laugh, thumped his big fist on the table. “You’re a sassy lass, Cat Farrell. Why aren’t you reeling in that handsome grandson of mine?”

  It was another standard question, and Cat grinned wickedly. “Because I’m holding out for you. Why settle for small fry when you can have the big shark?”

  His wide face went pink with pleasure. When he stroked his soft white beard, his eyes, blue as summer, were canny. “He’ll give you fine babies.”

  “Give you, you mean. I’ve figured you out, Mr. MacG.” She leaned over and kissed him. “You won’t be happy until you have enough great-grandchildren to fill an auditorium.”

  “Anna frets for them.” And since his wife wasn’t about, he sneaked a cigar out of his pocket. “And she worries day and night over young Duncan.”

  “Your wife has a very smooth brow for such a worrywart.” Cat picked up a matchbook, struck one and grinned into Daniel’s eyes as he puffed the cigar into life. “If you run away with me, sugar, neither of us will have a worry in the world.”

  “Seducing my grandfather again?” Duncan strolled in, feeling the lift in his heart he experienced whenever he came across them together. Which, he noted, was often.

  “I might have talked him into taking me to Venice if you hadn’t popped up.” She’d barely managed to smirk before Duncan had her by the hair and was kissing the breath out of her.

  “Now then.” Daniel thumped his fist again. “That’s more like it! Keep a good strong hold on that one, lad. She’s slippery.”

  “I’ve got her,” Duncan said easily. And he was beginning to think he meant to keep her. “Lounge opens in twenty, Grandpa,” he murmured, keeping his eyes on Cat’s. “Go play somewhere else now.”

  “That’s no way to talk to your grandfather,” Cat said sternly.

  “It is when he keeps trying to steal my woman.”

  “This woman’s trying to steal him.” She tried to wiggle free and found herself firmly caught. “Some of us are working here, sugar.”

  “I’m the boss, remember? Excuse us, Grandpa, I have to have a little business meeting with the talent here.” As he pulled Cat toward her dressing room, he called back over his shoulder. “By the way, Grandma’s on her way here. You’re going to want to lose that cigar.”

  “Sweet Mary,” Daniel muttered, hurriedly stubbing out the cigar, waving at smoke. Then he smiled sentimentally as Duncan dragged Cat away.

  He was willing to take odds there’d be a wedding before summer ended.

  “Duncan, I was having a conversation with Mr. McG.”

  “You’re having one with him every time I turn around. Can’t believe the old man’s beating my time.”

  “I’m crazy about him.”

  “So am I. But …” He closed the dressing room door, flicked the lock, then nudged her back against the wall. Watching her, he skimmed his hands up her sides, over her breasts, down again.

  “Oh well,” she murmured as her heart rose up to pound hard in her throat. Keep it light, she ordered herself, keep it sexy. Don’t think, don’t feel any more than you can handle. “Why didn’t you say so?” She wrapped her arms around him and prepared to pull him into a hot, turbulent kiss.

  But he framed her face with his hands, let his mouth hover over hers, then brush, then nibble. He wanted to hear her breath catch as it did when he took her slowly under. Wanted to feel that gradual, almost reluctant melting, that fluid surrender.

  Sometimes it was a fire in the blood, all heat and flash and glory. In those moments they couldn’t take each other fast enough.

  Other times it was like carefree children, all wrestling and laughter.

  And now and then, it was slow and tender. All heart. And that, he realized as his mouth cruised lazily over hers, was what he wanted now. He wanted her heart.

  So she sighed, and she sank into his arms. And she gave what she’d never known she had to give. With him there was always more inside her, one more well of emotion to be tapped, one more door to be quietly nudged open.

  She said his name as he picked her up to carry her to the sofa, murmured it as he lay down with her, moaned it as his hands began to move over her.

  The stroke of fingertips over flesh, the warmth of brea
th mingling. Mouths meeting to slide into kisses long and deep and aching.

  He felt her pulse trip under his hands, felt her heart race under his mouth. But he wanted more than excitement, more than desire. He wanted love.

  “Let me in.” He murmured it against her mouth. “I’ll never hurt you.”

  But he was, even then he was. He was ripping something inside her, tearing something out of her that she was terrified to lose. She shook her head, denying both of them, but his mouth was patient, his hands ruthlessly tender.

  They opened her heart, held it wide and let him tumble in.

  The change destroyed her, left her helpless and floundering. He slipped into her, braced so that he could watch her face, the awareness and the confusion in her eyes.

  His own heart filled to bursting. “It’s different.”

  She couldn’t speak, only shook her head, swallowed a sob as his mouth covered hers again. Unable to resist, she flowed with him, over the high warm wave. Then under.

  * * *

  “It’s different,” he said again.

  She grabbed a robe from a hook, shrugged into it. Desperate for balance, she jerked the belt into place.

  Suicide. Hadn’t she said he was suicide? And here she was, teetering right on the edge of the cliff.

  “No, it’s not.” She wanted to mean it. “And it doesn’t have to be.”

  He angled his head. “Why does it scare you to know that I care about you? That you matter to me?”

  “It doesn’t.” To settle her restless hands, she snapped up her brush and began to drag it through her hair. “Whatever you may think of me, I don’t have sex with men unless I matter.”

  “That’s not what I said or what I mean.” He tugged on his slacks, then reached for his shirt. “You’re good at turning the point around to suit yourself, Cat. But I’m just as good at sticking to what’s important. Right now, you are.”

  “Well, that’s fine.” Her eyes met his in the mirror. “I like being important.” Steadier, she set the brush down, then turned and leaned back against the counter. “You’re important, too, Duncan. Is that what you want to hear? Of course you are, or I wouldn’t still be with you. Don’t complicate this.”

  “Funny, I actually think I’m simplifying it. What do you feel for me?”

  “A great many things. I want you—I think that’s obvious enough. I enjoy you.” Smiling, she walked over to run her hands up his chest. “I like your style, I like your face and I downright adore your body.”

  The amusement she’d hoped for didn’t flicker in his eyes. They remained steady, level and just a little cool. “And without the sex?”

  “Hard to say.” She shrugged, turned away to straighten the cosmetics on the counter, but her hands felt numb. “Since we’re not without it, are we? But for the sake of argument …” She made herself turn back. “I’d still like you. You’re a likable man. I don’t make a lot of friends, Duncan. I’m not in one place long enough to go to the trouble or take the risk that friendship involves. You’re an exception.”

  His brow winged up. Odd, he mused, to feel delighted and irritated at the same time. “So, we’re friends?”

  “Aren’t we?”

  “I suppose we are.” He gave her the same easy smile she gave him. “Well, pal, we’ll be pulling out of port shortly. I have to get to work.”

  “I’ll see you around.” She felt a shudder, as if some major crisis had been narrowly evaded. “Oh, and Duncan? Nice doing business with you, sugar.”

  He flashed a grin as he opened the door. But when he shut it behind him, his eyes narrowed, darkened, and the smile went thin.

  He’d always considered himself a lucky man. But what the hell kind of luck was it for him to so suddenly fall in love, so ridiculously in love, with a woman who didn’t follow any standard pattern?

  Love wasn’t a game he’d expected to play until he was damn good and ready. But the cards had already been dealt. He was just going to have to see that she anted up and didn’t bluff him out of the pot.

  Because when Duncan Blade played, he played to win.

  Chapter 18

  For the rest of the week he let it ride, held his cards close to the vest and let the pot build.

  It wasn’t exactly a sacrifice, he decided as he did his pass through the casino. The more she relaxed, the more … demonstrative she became.

  And he enjoyed watching the way she flirted with his grandfather, the way she gradually warmed toward his grandmother. Once he’d come across the two of them with their heads together on deck and would have sworn the sexy Cat and the serene Anna were sharing secrets.

  He needed to talk with Cat himself and hadn’t managed to make time that afternoon. He’d skimmed over her contract, refreshing himself on the details of the option. It seemed only fair he talk to her before he called her agent and enforced it.

  Then there was the call he’d gotten just that morning from Reed Valentine of Valentine Records. He imagined Cat was going to be very pleased with how well the demo he’d sent in had been received.

  It wasn’t something he wanted to tell her on the fly. Such news, he concluded, required the right setting. And he’d already taken steps to provide it after her second show.

  It made him smile to think of it, so the warmth of that showered onto the Kingston sister who grabbed his hand as he passed the blackjack table.

  “Oh, I’m going to miss that.” She shot him her very best smile in return. “I can’t believe our vacation is up tomorrow.”

  “I hope you enjoyed it.” Which one was this? he wondered vaguely. Cindi? Sandi? Candi?

  “Every minute. We’re talking about doing it again next year. It’s so much fun.”

  “We aim to please. Any luck?”

  She kept her baby blues on his. “Not as much as I’d like.”

  He had to laugh. “I meant with the cards.”

  “There either, but it’s been entertaining. I don’t suppose you ever get to Philadelphia.”

  “I’ve been known to.” Then he saw Cat swagger into the casino and everything else went out of his mind. “Excuse me.”

  The blonde watched him walk away, blew out a wistful sigh. “Some people have all the luck,” she said to the dealer.

  Cat watched him, too, studying the way he moved, the way he strode through the tables, past the machines, through the tempting, seductive sounds of money being won and lost.

  Oh yeah, she mused. This was definitely his turf.

  “Hey.” He took her hand, toyed with her fingers. “You never come in here.”

  “No reason to. I don’t—”

  “Gamble as a rule. Ever break the rules?”

  “All the time, sugar.”

  “Want a game?”

  “I’ve only got twenty till cue.”

  “Time enough.” He spotted an empty table, pleased she’d chosen the early hour to wander in. “Come on. I come from a long line of blackjack dealers.”

  “Sure you do.”

  “Well, a short line then. My mother was a dealer. That’s how she met my father.”

  “Really?” It intrigued her enough to let him draw her over. “And who won?”

  “Both of them. I’ll spot you a hundred.”

  “I can cover my bets.”

  “Fine, you’re on credit then.” With nimble fingers he counted out and stacked her chips. “You look especially delicious tonight, darling.”

  What the hell, she thought, and slid onto a stool. Her midnight blue dress clung to every curve and shimmered under the lights. “Last night before we dock. I always want to leave them happy.” She nudged a five-dollar chip onto her mark. “Deal ’em, sugar.”

  He dealt her a five and a seven, gave himself a facing ace. “Possible blackjack. Insurance?”

  “I don’t believe in it. Hit me.” She took an eight and smiled.

  “The hand is twenty.” He flipped over his down card. “Dealer has seven or seventeen, takes ten, busts on twenty-four.” He slid her win
nings over, slipped more cards out of the shoe. “How about a date later, beautiful?”

  “Maybe.” She glanced at her cards. Eighteen. And his. A six showing. “I’ll hold.”

  “Holds on eighteen, dealer has fifteen, wins with nineteen.” And grinned as he turned up a four.

  “Do you often call your shots?”

  “As often as possible.”

  He was good. She imagined he was good at whatever game he played. But then, so was she. And most often she played to survive, so she never, never wagered anything she couldn’t afford to lose.

  Not money, not time. And never her heart. But when she laid down her stake, she played to win. “Deal,” she said, and smiled at him.

  He nipped her the next three hands running and had her eyeing him narrowly.

  “Nothing up my sleeve,” he assured her. “We run a clean game.”

  “Can’t beat the house.”

  “You don’t gamble,” he pointed out. “You hold too easily, aren’t willing to chance the cards.”

  “I can’t control the cards, especially if I’m not dealing them.”

  “Want to switch? Come on.”

  She started to refuse, then shrugged her shoulders. “Why not? You never know when you might need a fallback career.” Amused, she walked around to stand behind the table, scanned the casino. “Different perspective, isn’t it?”

  “Same game, same odds.”

  “Only now they favor me. I’ll spot you, sugar. Place your bet.”

  He slid one of her chips over, waited for his cards. She looked entirely too pleased with herself when she turned up the corner of her hold card under her nine.

  He had two eights. “Split. Deal me two more.”

  “I know how it’s done,” she said dryly. Then lifted a brow when he tapped on the hand now showing sixteen. “You’re going to hit that?”

  “That’s right. A five will do.” When she dealt him a four and frowned, he nodded. “Close enough. Hold here, hit there,” he said, and gestured to the second hand of thirteen. She topped it with an eight and swore under her breath.

  “Nineteen loses,” she muttered, flipping over her queen. It wasn’t just the cards, she decided. She kept losing ground to him; he kept tempting her to risk a little more. And every time she did, every time she let herself sink into him, it was harder to remember how much it cost when your hand—or your heart—went bust.

  “You’re good, Blade.”

  “That’s my job.”

  “Well, since you’ve just taken me for thirty bucks in about five minutes, I’m done. At this rate I’ll lose my shirt before cue.”

  “We can play strip blackjack later.”

  She laughed, and bent down to lean on the table. That was a game she could afford—where the odds were even between them. “I just came in to tell you I’ve got a little surprise for your grandfather at the end of the second show. Thought you might get a kick out of it.”

  “What is it?”

  “Come see for yourself.” She slid her eyes to the side and smiled smugly at the Kingston blonde. “If you can tear yourself away from your harem.”

  “Sweetheart, I’m all yours.”

  “Right.” She chuckled, patted his cheek, then straightened. “We’ll settle up later. Got to go earn my losses.”

 
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