The macgregor groom, p.17
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.17

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “That’s handy, then. Your secretary said you had the papers for me to look over and sign.”

  “The partnership agreement, yes. Pretty standard, and I think we have everything detailed the way your father outlined.” Curious, he opened his briefcase, stalling as he flipped through papers. “Can I assume your father’s retiring?”

  “More or less. He and my mother want to spend more time in their winter home in Arizona, perhaps relocate there permanently. My brother and his family already have.”

  “And you don’t have any yen to go west?”

  “No. Boston is mine.” And so, she thought with a little flutter of the heart, was Brightstone’s. Or it would be. “I’ve been taking on more responsibility for the store over the last eighteen months.”

  “The changes your idea?”

  “Yes.” Ones she’d fought for tooth and nail. “The market changes, customer demands and expectations change. It was time to catch up.”

  She rose at the knock on the door, and taking a tray from the boy delivering the coffee, murmured her thanks. “The café, for one,” she continued, setting the tray on the desk and offering Ian his frothy coffee in an oversize cup and saucer. “It’s the type of service that people want in a bookstore today. They no longer simply come for books, but for the atmosphere, a meeting place, a center.” She smiled again as she sat with her own cup. “And great coffee.”

  “Well, I can vouch for the last of that,” Ian said after a sip. “It’s great coffee. And as I’ve gone over your files, your numbers, the profit-and-loss statements and so forth, it appears your alterations are working.”

  “We increased sales by fifteen percent in the last nine months.” She wouldn’t think, just yet, about what it had cost to make those changes that had helped generate those increases. “I estimate we’ll be up another fifteen within the next six.”

  “I always loved to come here as a kid.”

  “And have you been a customer of Brightstone’s within the last year?”

  He shook his head. “Got me. But I will be.” He set the coffee on the little table between them, then passed her the papers. “You’ll want to look these over. I’ll answer any questions you might have.”

  “Thank you.” She retrieved a pair of wire-rim reading glasses from the desk. The minute she put them on Ian experienced a slow, inevitable meltdown.

  Women in glasses drove him crazy.

  He rolled his eyes, picked up his coffee and told himself to get a grip. She was a client.

  Whose sober and intelligent gray eyes looked fabulous behind those lenses. Then there was that hotly painted and sexily flawed mouth. The lushly curved body in the trim, nearly military style suit. Sensible shoes. Great legs.

  All that stop-and-go in one package would drive a saint crazy, he comforted himself. And the MacGregors weren’t known for being saints.

  Still, he gave his coffee his attention and tried not to think that the thick neat braid and the subtle, all-female perfume was just one more combo to add to the whole.

  Besides, what was the harm in asking her out? To dinner. No, lunch, he decided. Lunch was definitely better. More businesslike. They could have lunch. A very casual, perfectly acceptable lunch—where he wouldn’t give a single thought to nibbling on her neck to see if that was where her scent was warmest.

  Her nails were short, rounded and unpainted. She wasn’t wearing a ring, so he hoped that meant she was unattached.

  He sat, waiting while she read, and planning exactly how to broach the subject of a nice little lunch later in the week.

  Naomi read every line, then allowed herself a long, quiet breath. It was a momentous event for her, what these coolly legal papers symbolized. If she’d been alone, she might have clutched them to her breast and wept. Or shouted with joy. But as she wasn’t, she laid them on the desk, slipped off her glasses.

  “Everything appears to be in order.”

  “Questions?”

  “No, I understand them. I minored in business law.”

  “Well then. You can sign them now if you’re satisfied. You’ll need a witness. Then I’ll send them to your parents in Scottsdale. Once they’re signed and sealed, it’s a done deal.”

  “I’ll just get my assistant.”

  Five minutes later, Naomi held out a steady hand. “Thanks so much for taking care of this for us.”

  “Happy to help. Listen, I have a list here. My grandfather—you’ve met him.”

  “Yes, many times.” Her eyes warmed again; the hot red mouth curved softly. “He and your grandmother often come in when they’re in Boston.”

  “A couple of first editions he’s after. He asked if you’d see what you could do—since I was coming in.”

  “I’d be glad to. We’ll go up to the third floor—and if we don’t have what he’s looking for, we’ll do a search.”

  “Terrific.”

  She stepped forward, and he stayed where he was. When her gaze flicked up to his, held, he smiled slow and easy. “You smell fabulous.”

  “Oh.” Her gaze dropped as warm color surged to her cheeks. The hands that had been calm and graceful fluttered once, then linked together, and she visibly shrank back and into herself. “Thank you. It’s, ah, new. That is, I just … well,” she said, despising herself. “We should go up.”

  Hell, he thought as he opened the door and let her scramble out ahead of him. Blew that one, MacGregor.

  Chapter 21

  As far as Naomi was concerned, the Grand Canyon wasn’t a big enough hole to fall into. Only the fact that she was surrounded by books—always a comfort—and performing a set task had kept her from losing it until Ian was gone. After she’d located two of the books on his list and agreed to start a search for the third, she’d formally shaken his hand, thanked him again and politely seen him downstairs.

  Then she’d walked back to her office, quietly shut the door and laid her head down on the desk.

  Moron. Idiot.

  Would she always turn into a babbling fool when an attractive man so much as hinted at a personal interest? Wasn’t that supposed to be one of the benefits in the changes she’d made in herself? The transformation from the pudgy, awkward and dowdy girl to the sleek, stylish and confident woman.

  The one who’d made a fool of herself because Ian MacGregor had complimented her perfume.

  A full week later, and she still wasn’t over it.

  She’d found the book. It sat on her desk, neatly wrapped, ready for delivery or pickup. She’d yet to work up the courage to lift the phone and tell Ian his order was now in stock.

  Moron, she thought again. Idiot.

  After all the work she’d done, all the effort she’d put in. Brightstone’s wasn’t the only project she’d taken on with a vengeance. Naomi had systematically and effortfully given herself a face-lift over the past year.

  Not just the weight loss, which had started when she’d finally convinced herself to stop feeding her shyness, her social clumsiness and her dissatisfaction with her self-image by going on eating binges, and had begun a search for the woman inside.

  A woman she’d found she could like and respect.

  A reasonable diet, healthy exercise, had become habit once she’d understood that all she’d been doing through her miserable teenage years had been hiding.

  It wasn’t just her wardrobe, she thought, mentally reviewing the process, though it had taken her months to finally cull the dowdy out of her closet and replace it with flattering and attractive styles. Incorporating color for a change, she reflected, sighing as she looked down at her new teal suit. Gone were the days of sensible navy, unobtrusive brown and self-effacing gray. Of boxy styles and baggy jackets.

  But that was just surface, she mused, just like the cosmetics she’d carefully learned to select and apply. She no longer faded back into crowds. She’d taught herself how to present a reasonably attractive, competent and professional appearance.

  And she had, for the most part, managed the metamorphosis
from socially awkward to socially adept on the inside as well. She wouldn’t allow herself to be shy, to hide in corners, to avoid people as she’d done most of her life simply because she couldn’t be as beautiful or sophisticated as her mother, as outgoing and confident as her brother.

  Brightstone’s required a savvy, personable manager, and she had become one.

  And she’d been doing so well, she thought in despair. She’d been so proud of herself. Look how nicely she’d been handling that one-on-one meeting with Ian MacGregor. Who was, she mused, just the kind of man who usually tied her tongue into slippery, tangled knots before she managed to say hello.

  The Harvard Hunk. Oh yes, he definitely rated the title, she thought. He was so handsome, so smooth, and when he smiled … well, she doubted hers was the only woman’s heart that beat a bit faster.

  But she’d been fine. They’d shared coffee, had conversation, done business.

  Then he’d given her one quick, casual personal compliment, and she’d babbled like a fool. Stuttered. Blushed, for Lord’s sake. And all because he’d commented on her new perfume.

  And why do you wear perfume, Naomi? she asked herself viciously. You wear it so people notice you, so that you feel both feminine and confident.

  A man like him, she mused, with his looks, his background, his charm, would be well skilled at offering casually flattering comments to women. And would expect them to respond in an easy, sophisticated—or perhaps liberally flirtatious—manner.

  All she’d done was blush and stutter.

  She could only imagine that Ian had laughed about her ridiculous and juvenile reaction all the way home. Or worse, much worse, he’d felt sorry for her.

  Even the thought of it made her wince. She’d spent too many years of her life being the object of amusement or pity.

  Even from her family—though they had always loved her. But when you were the lone duckling in a family of swans, you knew it.

  Just as she knew how pleased they all were that she’d finally begun to make an effort to present a more polished exterior. Why, her mother had been almost giddy when Naomi had asked her for opinions on fashion, on cut and color. Just before they’d left for Arizona her father had given her his usual bear hug. But this time instead of calling her his sweet girl, as was his habit, he’d called her his pretty girl.

  It had made her feel—foolishly, Naomi was sure—like a princess.

  They’d trusted her with Brightstone’s because they knew she had brains, knew she would work until she dropped. And because she’d fought a long, difficult battle to win them over to her side. Her father hadn’t wanted to make the changes she’d outlined. He hadn’t wanted to go to the expense, or take the financial risk. He’d wanted—quite reasonably, Naomi mused—to retire and let the store, something that had been as much burden as livelihood, slide quietly into oblivion.

  But she loved it so much. And she needed it. It had been her refuge, her joy, her heart as long as she could remember. In the end, her family had understood that, and had trusted her.

  She wasn’t going to let them down. And she wasn’t, she thought now, going to let herself down, either.

  Brooding and moaning over one small stumble with Ian wasn’t going to change anything. Likely he’d already forgotten it, and her. In order for her to forget it and continue on her quest to become who she wanted to be, she had to face it. Face him.

  She picked up the book on her desk and headed for the door, barely stopping herself from chewing on her lipstick. She wouldn’t call, she decided. She’d deliver the book personally.

  * * *

  When Naomi walked into the lovely old two-story brownstone that held the law offices of MacGregor and MacGregor, she told herself she was perfectly under control. She’d taken the time to freshen her lipstick in the car—because she had indeed chewed it off—and she’d taken those ten calming breaths she found settled her nerves.

  Her problem, she admitted, was her own reaction to him. A reaction that had slammed into her the minute she’d seen him standing on the second level at Brightstone’s, smiling at the teenagers in the study area.

  It had been a similar reaction to ones she’d often experienced in the past, whenever she saw something particularly beautiful, desirable—and completely out of her reach. A kind of low and liquid yearning.

  But she’d gotten herself under control now by reminding herself—often—that all Ian MacGregor was interested in was business.

  She gave herself a booster shot of that advice as she crossed the beautifully appointed reception area decorated in pale greens and creamy whites, with a low fire crackling in a hearth that was framed by a mantelpiece of rose-veined marble.

  Class, she thought. Tradition. They were qualities in business, and family, she appreciated and understood very well.

  She smiled at the woman manning the gorgeous satinwood desk.

  “Good afternoon. May I help you?”

  “I’m Naomi Brightstone. I have—” She broke off as a gorgeous whirlwind burst through the door.

  “I won! Justice once more triumphs and the world is safe for our children.” The woman, a staggeringly lovely brunette in a plum-colored suit, flashed Naomi a dazzling smile. “Sorry. We’re usually more dignified around here. I’m Laura Cameron.”

  “I’m Naomi Brightstone, and congratulations.”

  “Thanks. Are you waiting … Brightstone? The bookstore?”

  “Yes, that’s right.”

  “Oh, I love that place, always have.” Laura tucked up a strand of hair that had escaped her sleek coil on her dash inside. “And the new café is fabulous.”

  The quivers in Naomi’s stomach smoothed out. “Thank you. We’re very proud of it.”

  “We’re handling something for you, aren’t we? Or rather, Ian’s handling something for you?”

  “Yes. I just dropped by to—”

  “I’m his sister.”

  “Yes, I know. Your grandfather wanted a book.” She lifted the small shopping bag. “I had some errands out this way and thought I’d bring it by.”

  “Oh. Do you want me to take it, or did you want to see Ian?”

  “Well, I …” She felt herself begin to fumble, then was both embarrassed and relieved when the cell phone in her purse rang. “Isn’t that the silliest thing?” she said with a laugh. “It always gives me a jolt. Excuse me a moment.”

  She reached in her purse, drew out the trim little phone and engaged. “Hello.”

  “Naomi? Ian MacGregor.”

  “Oh.” She felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “How odd.”

  “What?”

  “I mean, I’m just … I have the book you wanted. I was just—”

  “Great, we’ll kill two birds. Your papers are in. I wanted you to know I’ll be filing them this afternoon. I can swing by and pick up the book after I’m done at the courthouse.”

  “Actually, that’s not necessary. You see—”

  “It’s no trouble. On my way home, remember?”

  “Yes, I remember. But I’m downstairs.”

  “Where? Here?” He let out a quick, delighted laugh. “Stay,” he ordered, and clicked off, leaving Naomi staring bemusedly at her phone.

  “That was your brother.”

  “Yes.” Laura grinned. “So I gathered. The wonders of technology,” she murmured, and wondered just what that sudden rush of color into Naomi’s cheek signified.

  Ian came down the steps at a jog. Oh yeah, he thought, she looked every bit as good as he remembered. He held out a hand, noted she was still holding the phone, and flashed that grin. “You can hang up now.”

  “Oh, yes. I suppose I can.” Brilliant, Naomi. Why don’t you just let your tongue fall out and swoon at his feet while you’re at it? “I was just running some errands, so I thought I’d bring Mr. MacGregor’s book by.”

  “Great. Come on up.”

  “I don’t want to interrupt your work.”

  “You’re not, especially.” He glanced at his sister,
lifted his eyebrows. “Well?”

  “Slam dunk.”

  “Way to go, champ.” He gave Laura a light punch on the arm that Naomi recognized as brotherly affection. “You can give me the play-by-play later.” He took Naomi’s arm and began to steer her toward the stairs.

  “You must be busy,” she began. The scenario she’d worked out in her head hadn’t included a trip into his office.

  “I’ve got a few minutes. It didn’t take you long to come up with the book.”

  “We have a number of excellent sources. The price was within the range I quoted you—the upper range, I’m afraid.”

  “He wants it,” Ian said simply, and guiding her down a hallway wainscoted in silky mahogany, gave the arm he held a little squeeze.

  She still smelled fabulous, he mused, but he was going to be careful not to mention it and put her off again.

  “Have a seat,” he told her.

  His office suited the mood of the old town house. If she wasn’t mistaken, the desk under the stacks of files and spiffy computer was Chippendale and the carpet over the lovely hardwood floor a Bristol.

  Oak file cabinets lined one wall, shelves of books another. The window with its carved trim looked out on the street where lovely trees were just beginning to burn with fall color.

  Seeing no polite escape, she sat in one of the burgundy leather chairs. “It’s a beautiful building.”

  “My father bought it before my parents were married. He was still working on some of the rehab when my mother took an office here. He wanted—then they wanted—the law housed somewhere with character and warmth.”

  “They certainly succeeded.”

  “How about coffee? Not that what I can serve you will come close to what you gave me.”

  “No, no, I’m fine. I really should—”

  “I’ll be filing the papers,” he began. No way, he thought, was he letting her rush off before he’d had a chance to make up for his blunder.

  He sat, not behind the desk as she’d expected, but in the chair beside her.

  “I have copies for you,” he continued, “but the originals will be in the courthouse. It’s not absolutely official until I’ve filed them, but essentially you’re now a full partner, vice president of Brightstone Books, with full executive power and authority. Congratulations.”

  She opened her mouth to thank him politely, then couldn’t form a single word as emotion filled her throat. All she could do was shut her eyes.

  “Okay?” he said gently.

  She nodded her head, pressed her fingers to her lips until the first edge of the joys and fears had receded. “Yes. Sorry.”

  “Don’t be.” He took her hand before he thought about it. She looked so thrilled and terrified. “It’s a big moment.”

  “The biggest. I thought I was prepared. I am,” she corrected. “I am prepared to do the job. But it’s just hearing it, knowing it’s real, is a little overwhelming. Thank you so much.” She managed a laugh. “I’m glad I was sitting down.”

  “I know how it feels. Like the day I walked into this office, sat down at that desk and knew I was a part of what was most important to me. I sat there—must have been an hour—just grinning. Euphoria and terror?”

  “Exactly.” Her hand relaxed in his. “It’s awesome, isn’t it, to be the next step in a long flight of family tradition?”

  “It certainly is. What are you going to do to celebrate?”

  “Celebrate?” Her mind went blank. “I suppose I’ll get back to work.”

  “Not nearly good enough. How about dinner?”

  “Dinner? Yes, I’ll fix something when I get home.”

  He stared at her a moment, then shook his head. Okay, he decided, no
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