The macgregor groom, p.15
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.15

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  She walked out with a not-so-subtle swing of hips that had him blowing out a breath. Yes indeed, he mused, they would definitely settle up later.

  She finished up the second show, well aware that Duncan had slipped in and was now seated at the table with his grandparents. She’d worked out the timing with Anna, and stepped out of the lights as the crowd began to thin.

  Some would remain, back at the bar or scattered at tables, but she considered this a personal performance. And one that oddly had little wings of nerves fluttering in her gut.

  “Don’t know what your problem is, boy,” Daniel muttered. “That woman’s made for you.”

  “Daniel.” Anna only sighed. She’d come to the same conclusion herself and could have bopped him for saying anything that might tip the balance the wrong way. “Leave Duncan alone. He’s a man grown.”

  “My point! My point exactly. When is he going to do his duty? When is he going to act like a man and settle down, I want to know? He lets that lass slip through his fingers, well, he’s—he’s no blood of mine. Hah!” Folding his arms, Daniel sat back and glared.

  Knowing it would make his grandfather twitch with envy, Duncan drew out a slim cigar, ran it lovingly through his fingers. Then clamping it between his teeth, he lit it, puffed contentedly while Daniel’s blue eyes glittered with annoyance and desire.

  “Who said I was going to let her slip through my fingers?”

  “If you’d use the eyes in your head, you’d see …” Trailing off, Daniel backtracked, sucked in air, then slapped Duncan hard on the back. “Well then! Hah! You see, Anna, didn’t I tell you the boy was bright? Didn’t I tell you not to fret?”

  “Constantly, Daniel.” Adoring them both, Anna laid her hands over theirs. “I like her very much, Duncan.”

  “I know. Now keep him out of it, will you, so I can make it work.”

  “Keep me out!” Insulted, Daniel boomed the protest through the room, making the few heads left in the lounge turn. “Why, you pip-squeak, you wouldn’t be in it if I hadn’t—”

  “What, Daniel?” Anna said it sweetly, with a soft smile on her face. “You didn’t interfere or meddle again, did you?”

  “Ah. No, I did nothing. Nothing at all. Don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just saying … what I’m saying.” He thought it best to retire from the field. “We should be getting along, Anna. You need your rest.”

  “I’ll just finish my wine.” She lifted her glass, shifting in her chair—the signal she’d worked out earlier with Cat.

  Taking her cue, Cat stepped into the key light. “Daniel MacGregor? I have something for you.”

  “Well, what are you doing skulking around then? Come over here and give it to me.”

  “It comes from here. And from here,” she added, touching a hand to her heart.

  She sang for him, the old Scottish ballad “Loch Lomond.” Because she kept her eyes on him, she saw his begin to swim. And felt her own sting in response.

  Duncan had accepted, or nearly, that he was in love with her. But as he sat there, as he saw the softness that came over her as she sang for the man who held such a large piece of his heart, he realized he’d only been falling up to that point.

  Now he tumbled clean.

  It wasn’t the jolt he’d thought it would be. Wasn’t the shock to the system he’d always imagined. It was warm and clear, with her at the core of it. He saw his life change, and was Scot enough to accept it had been heading there all along.

  Now, somewhere, he had to win her.

  Beside him, Daniel sniffed, fumbled for his handkerchief, then blew his nose heartily when the song ended. “Now, that’s a lass,” he managed. “That’s a fine lass.”

  “I’m going to miss you, Daniel.” She stepped over to bend and kiss his cheek. “I’m really going to miss you.”

  “There now.” And to her surprise and weepy pleasure, he drew her into his lap to cuddle.

  “Duncan, take a walk with me,” Anna murmured. She took his hand, drawing him away from the table. “That girl needs love.” She said it softly as Duncan glanced back at the couple holding each other at the edge of the stage.

  “I have it for her. I just have to convince her to take it.”

  Anna squeezed his hand. “My money’s on you.”

  * * *

  He knew she was tired, could see it in her eyes as he walked her to their cabin. He doubted she let her emotions tip over and out very often. For a woman like Cat, Duncan imagined the experience was exhausting.

  “That was a beautiful thing you did for my grandfather.”

  “I’m nuts about him. Seriously nuts about him.” It frightened her, more than a little, that she’d come to care so much about people who could never be hers.

  “I’d say the feeling’s mutual. If it wasn’t for my grandmother and oh, close to seventy years of age difference, I’d be worried.”

  She laughed, settled again, and struggled back a yawn. “I wouldn’t be too sure of myself, even as things stand.” She stepped in ahead of him when he unlocked the cabin, then blinked in surprise at the glow of candlelight, the glint of crystal.

  “What’s all this, Blade?”

  “I thought you might break another rule.” He moved to the ice bucket, took out the chilling bottle.

  “Champagne?” She glanced at the label, whistled. “The good stuff, too. What’s the occasion?”

  “We’ll get to that. Would you like a glass?”

  “I could probably choke one down, thanks. Is this why you didn’t want me to change after the show? So I’d be dressed for fancy French grapes?”

  “No, I didn’t want you to change because I want to undress you. Eventually.” He opened the bottle with an expert twist and cheerful pop.

  He poured two flutes, handed her one, then tapped rims. “To those amazing pipes of yours.”

  She laughed, sipped. “How could I not drink to that?”

  “We’re coming up on the last week of your contract.”

  She was grateful she’d swallowed or she might very well have choked. “Yes, I know. It’s been a good run.”

  “I want to exercise our option.”

  Her heart began to beat again. “Well, I can drink to that, too.”

  “I wanted to talk it over with you before I called your agent.”

  “I fired my agent, so you can deal with me direct.”

  “Fired him?” Duncan pursed his lips, then nodded. “Smart move, but you’ll want representation.”

  “They’re not exactly beating down my door, sugar. I’ll get to it when the time comes, though.”

  “I’d say it’s come. Reed Valentine would like to schedule a meeting and arrange for a professional demo, in studio, in New York, when it suits you.”

  She couldn’t feel her hands. Or her feet. She realized dizzily that all she could feel was the sudden, ferocious hammering of her heart. “Reed Valentine? Valentine Records? A meeting? With me? Why?”

  “Suddenly you’re full of questions.” With a laugh, he toasted her again. “Yes, Reed Valentine of Valentine Records wants a meeting with you because he was very favorably impressed with the tape you put together.”

  “You sent it in? You sent it to Reed Valentine.”

  “I told you I was going to send it to a connection of mine.”

  Valentine Records. Now she couldn’t feel her own lips. But she could feel the abrupt lurch of her stomach. “I didn’t expect—I never thought …”

  “Didn’t you think I meant it, Cat? I don’t play games like that.”

  “No, I don’t—God, I can’t breathe.” She pressed a hand to her chest as if to push out air, but couldn’t find any. “I can’t get my breath.”

  Alarmed, he reached for her. She’d gone dead white. “Hey. Sit down.”

  “No. Yes. No. I need some air.”

  She shoved the wineglass into his hand and bolted for the balcony doors. Her head was light, as if she’d swallowed the whole bottle of champagne in one gulp. She c
ouldn’t get her breath because the air was trapped somewhere under her diaphragm.

  She clutched the rail and leaned out, staring blindly at the slow-moving river.

  “Isn’t this what you want?”

  With her back to him she squeezed her eyes shut, felt the tears pressing hot behind her lids. “My whole life. It’s all I’ve ever wanted in my whole life. Just a chance, just one chance to prove I could be somebody.”

  When her voice broke, she bore down hard. “I need a minute here, Duncan. Okay? Just give me a minute here.”

  Instead he went to her, turned her to face him and saw her eyes were drenched. “I thought I knew how much it meant to you.” He said it gently, as gently as the hand that brushed the first tears from her cheek. “I didn’t. I should have found a better way to tell you.”

  “No, it’s perfect, it’s fine.” She was terrified, down to the bone, of what he was offering. Of him. Of everything that was pounding and beating inside her. “If you’d just leave me alone for a minute. I need to pull myself together.”

  “No, you don’t.” He gathered her close. “You need to let yourself go.”

  Her breath hitched once, then shattered on a sob. She clung, pressing her face into his shoulder, holding on to him, to the feeling, to the gift. “This is everything to me. Everything. Even if they change their minds, hate what I do, kick me out on my butt, this is everything. The chance. I’ll never be able to pay you back for it.”

  “There’s nothing to pay back. Cat—”

  “It’s everything,” she said again, and framed his face as she drew back. “Everything. I’m so grateful, Duncan.” She let everything she felt pour out into the kiss. “Let me show you.”

  “Cat, I’m not looking for gratitude.”

  “I have to give it.” She kissed him again, hypnotizing them both. “Let me give it.”

  Chapter 19

  She’d been like a witch, Duncan thought, casting spells. Now, in the clear light of day, he was still weaving under them.

  He’d wanted to tell her he loved her. Wanted to ask her to belong to him. But it hadn’t seemed fair when she’d been riding an emotional roller coaster already.

  He preferred to play fair. When possible.

  He could wait until night. Until the air was soft and quiet, and they were alone with the river. In any case, that would give him several hours to figure out how to tell her. What words he should use, what tone.

  He wished he could be certain of her, but some odds were impossible to figure.

  He imagined the ring he’d dashed out that morning to buy after seeing his grandparents off was going to weigh heavily in his pocket all day.

  The best way to make the time pass, he decided, was to fill it with work.

  * * *

  Cat had prepared all morning, had thought it all through. There was only one possible answer. Duncan Blade had given her something she’d been working for all of her life. And he’d done it with no strings attached.

  The only way to repay him, as far as she could see, was to get out of his, quickly, cleanly. No harm, no foul, she told herself as she climbed the steps to his office.

  Her knees were shaking. She stopped, cursing herself as she steadied herself again, as she forced herself to admit she wasn’t being noble. She was running.

  She couldn’t handle what she felt for him. Why the hell should she have to? She didn’t know how to be in love. She’d never be able to make it work, never be able to cover her stake if she gambled here.

  Smarter to cut it off clean now, before she got in any deeper, before she started to let herself believe she could be a real part of his life.

  More, it would be cowardly to wait another week, until the end of her current contract, to tell him she was skipping. The decent thing, the professional thing to do was to give him time to book another act.

  She wasn’t going to pay him back by messing up his business. Or his life.

  It was just her bad luck she’d gone and fallen in love with him.

  She’d wanted to convince herself it was just gratitude, but hadn’t even come close. She wanted to believe she would survive whole and intact when they parted company. But she knew better. It was her doing. She’d opened herself up for it, and now she had to pay the price.

  Suddenly the thrill of attaining a lifelong dream didn’t have quite the shine it should have.

  But Cat Farrell stood by her word, she faced her responsibilities and she handled herself through good times and bad.

  Then she stepped to his office and saw him through the window. Her needy heart collapsed in her chest.

  Oh God, he was so perfect, she thought. What had his mother said? A beautiful young man, in every way. It was perfectly true. It wasn’t just the looks, the charm, the snazzy clothes.

  He was kind and he was caring.

  He wasn’t some kick-it-up trust-fund baby, cruising around on his family money. He worked, and worked hard, and had put his personal stamp on every inch of his boat.

  He had integrity, he had ambition.

  Dangerous Duncan. Heartbreaker, she mused. You’ll forget my name before the season’s over.

  She drew in a breath, tossed back her hair and sauntered into his office. “Got a minute, boss?”

  He leaned back, set his paperwork aside. “Oh, I think I can make one for you. How’re you feeling?”

  “I’m still flying. Did you see your grandparents off?”

  “Yeah, they’re going to spend a day in New Orleans, then fly to Boston to visit my sister and my cousins. Play with the babies. They’ll catch up with my uncle Caine and aunt Diana, then Grandpa will harass my cousin Ian for a while about why he’s still single—a fine young lawyer like him. There was talk about scooting up to Maine so The MacGregor could devil the Campbell side of the family for a bit.”

  Cat’s eyes danced. “It keeps him young.”

  “Then he’ll forever be eighteen, because he’s never going to stop.”

  “Family’s his heart.”

  “Yes. You learned to understand him quickly.”

  “I learned to love him quickly. Love all of you. Love you so much it makes me shake inside. I have an invitation,” she added, and worked up a smile. “An open invitation to visit Hyannis Port anytime I like. I’ve seen pictures of that castle he built there. Very cool.”

  “Then we’ll make a point for you to see it in person.”

  Not until she was certain she could bear it, Cat thought. Which would be approximately never. She stretched out her legs, crossed her ankles and prepared to give the performance of her life.

  “I don’t want to interrupt your work for long, but there’s some business we need to talk about.”

  “Fine. I was going to catch you later, but now’s as good a time as any.” He flipped open a file folder and took out her contract. “It’s a standard option clause, with a guaranteed five-percent salary increase when activated. Everything else remains the same as it did in the original agreement. If you’re shaky about signing papers without representation, we can hook you up with a lawyer here in New Orleans, or in one of the ports going back to Saint Louis.”

  “I’m not shaky about signing papers, Duncan. I never sign anything without reading it all, top to bottom. Including fine print and bottom line.”

  “Smart. Then you’ve already read these, but you might want to read them again.”

  “I don’t have to. I don’t want to sign.”

  He held the papers out between them for several long seconds before he lowered them carefully to the desk. “Excuse me?”

  “I don’t want the option enforced. I’m not interested in another run. As far as I’m concerned, when we dock in Saint Louis next weekend, I’m a free agent.”

  “Take off the glasses.”

  “It’s bright in here.”

  “You want to talk business, you look me in the eye.”

  There, she thought, was that quick shift in his voice. Satin to steel. Because he was right, because i
t was cowardly to hide behind shaded lenses, she slipped them off, swung them by the earpiece.

  He took his time, studying her face, looking for the tells every gambler recognizes. If she was bluffing, he mused, she was damn good at it. “You want to negotiate new terms?”

  “That’s not what I said, and I say what I mean.” She lifted her shoulders, let them fall. “I’ve got fresh fish to fry, sugar, and you to thank for it. There’s no point in me spending another six weeks singing in a riverboat lounge when I could be in New York.”

  “I see. If you read your contract, Cat, you’ll know that I have a right to exercise this option clause. You’re obliged to honor it.”

  Well, she hadn’t thought he’d make it easy, had she? “I hoped you’d let me out without a hassle—for old time’s sake.”

  “Hope springs eternal.” He rose, walked to the mini-fridge and took out a bottle of water for each of them. It felt as though someone had opened his chest and given his heart a bare-knuckled punch. “But this is business, and has nothing to do with the fact we sleep together. Want a glass for this?”

  She snatched the bottle out of his hand before she could stop herself. And the little snip of temper eased one of the knots in his stomach. She wasn’t quite as cool as she wanted to be.

  What was her angle? he wondered. What was the deal?

  “Okay, no favors. Fair enough.” She took a long drink. “So, sue me.”

  “Let’s just see if we can handle this like professionals first.” He made his voice deliberately snide and watched her color come up. Nerves, he decided. Feelings. They were there. So he would use them. “You want to get to New York and follow through with Valentine. I can’t blame you. When we hit Saint Louis, you can go—” He held up a finger before she could speak. “I’ll get an act to fill in for a week. Then you meet the boat in New Orleans, and fulfill the rest of your contract. Everybody’s happy.”

  “I don’t like that deal.”

  “Take it or leave it.”

  “Leaving it,” she said, and got to her feet.

  “Sit down.”

  “Don’t tell me what to do.”

  “Business is concluded. Now it’s personal, and I said sit down.”

  She cocked a hip, lifted the bottle and watched him steadily as she drank. “Is that what this is about, Duncan? Is your ego bruised or something?”

  “Do you really think I’m going to let you walk out?”

  “Yeah, because if you try otherwise, I’ll bruise a hell of a lot more than your ego. Look, it’s been fun, and I owe you a lot. But it’s moving-on time.”

  “And that’s what you do best? Move on?”

  “Yes.” Regret flickered in her eyes before she could stop it. “Sorry, I’ve got to think about number one here. But I won’t forget you, sugar.”

  Then she made a mistake. She flashed a sassy smile and patted his cheek.

  The smile faded quickly when he grabbed her wrist.

  “You’re trembling. Sugar.”

  “No, I’m not.” She couldn’t quite manage to swallow, so shrugged instead. “It’s cold in here, that’s all.”

  “Like hell. Why are you shaking?”

  “You’re hurting me.”

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