The macgregor groom, p.18
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.18

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  subtleties. “Naomi, I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight, if you don’t have any plans.”

  “Oh. Well … plans. No, not really. Um …” Oh, please, please, her mind screamed, don’t babble! “You don’t have to feel obliged to—”

  “Let me put this another way,” he said, fascinated by the way warm color rose to her cheeks. “Will you go to dinner with me tonight?”

  “Ah … yes, thank you. That would be nice.”

  “Good. Seven work for you?”

  “Seven, yes, that’s fine.”

  “Should I pick you up at the store, or your apartment?”

  “The—my apartment. I’ll give you the address.”

  “I have it—from your file.”

  “Oh yes, of course.” Idiot. “It’s not far from the store. I can walk to work every day. I like the neighborhood.”

  Shut up, shut up, and get out before you make a total fool of yourself.

  “I should get back.” She got to her feet, jerking to a stop when she realized her hand was still caught in his. “To work. At the store.”

  Her eyes were huge, lovely and, for reasons that baffled him, full of nerves. “Are you okay?”

  “Yes, fine. Just fine. Thank you.”

  “I’ll walk you down.”

  “No, no, don’t bother.” Desperate now, she tugged her hand free. “I know the way.”

  “Naomi,” he said before she could get out the door.


  “The book?”

  “Book? Oh.” Cursing herself, she turned back and handed him the bag she still carried. “Silly of me. I forgot all about it. Well, goodbye.”

  “See you tonight.”

  “Yes, tonight,” she managed and escaped.

  Ian slipped his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. Funny, he mused, she hadn’t struck him as a scatterbrain. He supposed the finality of the partnership agreement had muddled her mind.

  Or, he considered, he made her nervous. Now wouldn’t that be a nice little side benefit? He wouldn’t mind making the pretty and efficient Naomi Brightstone nervous. Not a bit.

  Strolling over to the desk, he buzzed his secretary and asked her to make reservations for dinner for two at Rinaldo’s at seven-thirty. Then, tucking the paperwork into his briefcase, he headed out to the courthouse, whistling on the way.

  He couldn’t remember ever looking forward to an evening more.

  Chapter 22

  Ian was just knotting his tie when the phone rang. He ignored it, not wanting to take time for conversation. He still had to go by the florist’s on the way to Naomi’s apartment.

  But when he heard “Why the devil aren’t you home?” delivered in a booming voice rich with a Scottish burr, he grinned and snatched up his portable.

  “Well, I am home, but not for long.”

  “Can’t any one of my grandchildren stay put?” Daniel demanded. “Gallivanters, the lot of you. Your grandmother doesn’t get a moment’s peace worrying over you.”

  “Oh?” Ian stuck his tongue in his cheek. “I thought she worried I never got out, always had my nose in a law book.”

  “That, too,” Daniel said, without missing a beat. “The woman frets night and day. When are you coming out to see her?”

  “Grandpa, I was there last month for Duncan’s wedding, remember?”

  “So? That was last month, wasn’t it? What’s wrong with this month?”

  “Not a thing. I’ll come out soon.”

  “See that you do. Do you think I want your granny nagging me half to death? Now what are you up to?”

  “I’m up to going to dinner with a pretty woman, thanks to you.”

  “Me? Me? Why, I haven’t done a bloody thing. Don’t you be telling your grandmother I have, either. All I did—”

  “Relax,” Ian said with a laugh. “I wasn’t accusing you of meddling. It’s just a happy coincidence. You asked me to have Brightstone’s find your books while I was there for my meeting with Naomi.”

  “And what if I did? A man’s entitled to his books, isn’t he?”

  “Yes, Grandpa.” Ian raised his eyes heavenward. “Naomi dropped the Walter Scott off at my office today—right after her paperwork came through. So instead of the phone call the papers would have generated, your book got me another personal meeting. And I asked her out. So … thanks.”

  “Ah, well then.” In his office in Hyannis Port, Daniel grinned like a maniac. The boy was sharp, he thought, but not quite sharp enough to match his grandpa. Hah! “That’s fine. She’s a nice young woman, little Naomi. Got manners, got brains.”

  “It’s just dinner, Grandpa. Don’t get started.”

  “Started on what? I’m only saying it’s fine you’re having dinner with a nice young woman. What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?”

  “Nothing, not a thing.” Ian glanced at his watch. “And I’ve got to go or I’ll be late.”

  “Then what are you dawdling for? On your way, lad, and call your grandmother before she pines down to the bones.”

  Daniel hung up, then rubbed his hands together. Well, he thought, that was easy.

  * * *

  Naomi agonized over what to wear, then went through another period of misery over what to do with her hair. In the end she settled on a simple black dress with a scooped neck, snug sleeves and straight skirt, and left her hair loose.

  She thought—hoped—it looked sophisticated and just casual enough to indicate she hadn’t agonized. She added her grandmother’s triple strand of pearls, slid her feet into high black heels that would cause her feet great distress before the evening was over but made her feel powerful, then spritzed on the scent that Ian had complimented.

  “There,” she said to her reflection. “You’re fine. You’re ready, and you will not be stupid. A very nice man is being considerate enough to take you out to dinner to celebrate an important moment in your life. That’s all there is to it. Oh God!” she said when she heard the knock on her door. “All right, okay.” And closing her eyes, she took those habitual ten steadying breaths.

  She was steady and smiling when she opened the door. And if her heart sighed at the sight of him—handsome as a fairy tale prince—she managed to maintain her composure.

  “How lovely.”

  “Thanks, you too.”

  She laughed and didn’t feel so foolish. “I meant the flowers.”

  “Oh, these.” He glanced down at the spray of pink roses. “I guess you want them.”

  “Yes, I do.” She gathered them into her arms. “Come in, I’ll put them in a vase. Just make yourself comfortable.”

  It would be easy, he decided. Her living space was attractive, efficient and simple. Like her office, he thought. Like her. He approved of the strong colors—deep greens and mauves—the traditional lines of Queen Anne and Chippendale, the femininity of the accent pieces and the art.

  She came back with the flowers, pleased that though they were the first given to her by a man who wasn’t a family member, she’d only mooned and fluttered over them for a moment.

  Later, she promised herself, she would spend all the time she wanted mooning and fluttering.

  “They really are lovely, thank you.”

  “So are you, and you’re welcome. I like your space.”

  “Oh.” Grateful her hands didn’t bobble the vase as she set it on a table, she straightened. “I wanted something close to work—and I don’t need a lot of room. I know one of the newer complexes might have been more convenient, but I love old buildings. All their eccentricities.”

  “So do I. I just bought a house a few months ago. The floors creak, the plumbing rattles and the cellar’s damp as a tomb. I love it.”

  “Sounds like the one I grew up in. I still can’t drive by it without getting sentimental. Would you like a drink before we go?”

  “No, thanks. You’ll need a wrap. It’s getting breezy.”

  “I have one.” She turned and opened the closet off the sho
rt hallway.

  Testing, Ian stepped up behind her. She was just congratulating herself for behaving normally when she turned, bumped into him, jerked back as if her heels had become springs, and all but fell into the closet.

  He took her arms to steady her, smiled slowly. Oh yeah, he thought, he made her plenty nervous. And wasn’t that delightful? “Sorry,” he lied without a qualm. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

  “I didn’t realize you were behind me. I was just … getting my coat.” She yanked it up between them and very nearly rapped him in the chin.

  “So I see.” He took it from her. “Why don’t I just help you on with it?”

  She doubted, sincerely, that the heart was designed to pound quite this hard. She despised the clumsiness, berated herself for it, then remembered that there would have been a time when she’d have sought comfort against the embarrassment in a jumbo bag of potato chips.

  Now she turned, ordering herself to breathe as he slipped the coat on for her.

  With more speed than grace, she ducked away, grabbed her purse. “Shall we go?”

  * * *

  It was easier in the restaurant, with the soft glow of candlelight and the silky taste of good wine. He was wonderful to talk to, to listen to. And she was quietly amazed they shared so many interests.

  “I like the spirit and the charm of traditional music,” she said. “That’s why I like it playing in the store. It think it lifts the customers’ moods without being intrusive.”

  “Did you make the Celtic festival last summer?”

  “I spent nearly an entire day there.”

  “Me, too.” He offered her a bite of his grilled portabello mushroom. “Wonderful music—and the dancers, amazing.”

  “I love to watch the step-toe dancers.” Without thinking, she leaned forward to take the offered bite from his fork. “Isn’t it odd how something that disciplined and precise can be sexy, too? Mmm.” She swallowed. “That’s very good.”

  “Want some more?”

  “No, I’m fine. Just a weakness for Italian food.”

  “Me, too. I make a pretty terrific chicken picata.”

  “You like to cook?” She tried to imagine him puttering around in the kitchen, then decided not to risk the rise in her blood pressure. “So do I. And I’d put my clam sauce against your picata any day.”

  “We’ll have to have a cook-off.” When she only smiled vaguely, he warned himself not to move too fast. His grandfather wasn’t the only MacGregor who could scheme, he thought. And he already had a plan in mind.

  “Actually, Naomi, I have a little business proposition for you.”

  “Business?” She gave him a blank look as their appetizer plates were removed and the entrées served.

  “One I hope will be as much a pleasure for you as it will be for me. I want to remodel one of my spare rooms into a library. I have a design in mind that I wanted you to look at and offer suggestions on. Then I’d hoped you could give me some help with setting up my collection.”

  “Yes, of course.” She fought off a wave of disappointment, telling herself it was better this way. Of course he was interested in her on a professional level. What else could she expect? “You’re interested in rare books, for investment purposes?”

  “No, not necessarily. I want a library, not a museum. I want a comfortable room, and I want the books varied. I don’t want anyone to feel as if they should sign a waiver if they take a book off the shelf. I’d want to start with my personal favorites—most of which I own already. Then I’m willing to explore.”

  “I’d love to help you. If you could give me a list of what you have—and what you’re looking for—we can start there.”

  “Great. Can you make time to look at my space and review the design?”

  “All right. Let me know when it fits into your schedule.”

  “How about Saturday, say six?”

  She was too surprised, and too dazzled by his smile, to do anything more than nod.

  * * *

  The wind was up when he pulled in front of her apartment building, rustling energetically through the trees. Moonlight splattered over the streets and sidewalks, and the music he’d tuned in on the radio was quiet and dreamy.

  It was, to his mind, a perfect evening.

  The subtle fragrance she wore drifted through the closed car. She’d relaxed again, he thought, becoming particularly animated and easy when they’d continued to discuss books. He had to congratulate himself on finding the perfect ploy.

  Not that it was precisely a ploy, he corrected. He wanted the library, after all, and she was the logical source for the books. He believed strongly in enlisting experts. It was just a delightful side benefit that she was a lovely woman who stirred his interest on more basic levels.

  And if he wasn’t mistaken, he stirred hers as well.

  “This was wonderful.” She turned, absently brushing the heavy fall of hair back from her face. “Thanks for helping me celebrate.”

  “My pleasure.”

  He slipped out of the car, rounding the hood to open her door. She didn’t fumble with her seat belt, but it was a close thing. Before she could tell him there was no need to walk her to her door, he’d taken her hand.

  Not her arm, Naomi thought with sudden, skittering panic, but her hand. He was holding her hand as they walked, and that was more personal, more … intimate.

  Was she supposed to ask him in? Impossible, out of the question. She hadn’t figured it into her evening plans, so wasn’t prepared for it and was bound to do something humiliating.

  “I imagine you want to get an early start tomorrow,” he commented as they stepped inside the building foyer. “Your first full day as partner.”

  “Yes.” She nearly dissolved in relief at the lifeline he’d tossed her. “I do. There’s a staff meeting, and I have to discuss a new author-signing policy with my events coordinator. We’re holding our first children’s story hour of the fall on Saturday.”

  “Not just selling books, is it?” Idly he rubbed his thumb over her wrist and found to his pleasure that her pulse was rabbiting.

  “No.” Her pulse had nothing on her stomach as they climbed the stairs to her door. “It’s … a good bookstore needs to be a community center. I want—we want—to be able to offer services and events that interest all age groups. Well …” She turned at the door, startled when he took her other hand and held her there. “And we’re sponsoring three different reading clubs. They hold regular monthly meetings in the—in the …” What the hell was it called? “Café,” she said on an explosion of breath.

  She tugged one of her hands free, yanked her purse from under her arm with some notion of digging out her keys. “So, well, thank you for a lovely dinner.”

  She dropped the keys, nearly bumped heads with him as they both bent to retrieve them, then jerked up straight as a flagpole.

  Ian debated a moment, then, handing her the keys, took her face in his hands to hold her in place. “Let’s try it this way,” he murmured, and laid his lips gently on hers.

  She didn’t move a muscle, which made him wonder if he’d misread that tangle of signals. Then her lips parted under his on a sharp intake of breath, and he couldn’t resist.

  His hands slid into that thick stream of hair. A low hum of pleasure sounded in his throat as he skimmed his tongue over hers, drew her closer.

  The world had been none too steady under her feet in any case. Now, with his mouth moving warm and easy over hers, it just dropped away.

  The keys slipped out of her hands for a second time, landing with a musical crash as her fingers clutched at his arms, curled into his coat. Then slowly, swaying, she leaned into him.

  Rainbows, misty at the edges, circled in her head.

  He drew back, watched those heavy gray eyes, blurred now, flutter open. Watched that mouth, with its seductive, heavy top lip, tremble on an unsteady breath.

  He skimmed his hands down to her shoulders, and felt her shudder. “I have to d
o that again.”

  “Oh, well.” She stared at him, so obviously staggered, he smiled. “All right.”

  His mouth took hers again, a little deeper now, a little hotter. He felt the same sharp stab of desire he’d experienced with the first taste. She gave a sexy little sigh that had his blood simmering.

  He steeped himself in the taste of her, surrendered to that singular scent that had teased his senses since the moment he’d met her. She clouded his brain.

  The hesitant brush of her fingers on the back of his neck, the slow yielding of her mouth under his, rattled him. Well aware that he was close to asking for more, he drew back.

  Saying nothing, he bent down to pick up her keys, then unlocked the door for her. “Good night, Naomi.” With his eyes on hers, he pressed the keys into her hand.

  “Yes, good night. Thanks.” She all but staggered into the apartment and, without turning, shut the door in his face.

  He stood there a moment, wondering if he’d made a mistake by kissing her—or had made one in stopping. Then he heard it—the musical clink of her keys hitting the floor yet again.

  Grinning widely, he strolled away. No mistake either way, he decided. And he planned on kissing the very interesting Miss Brightstone again. Very soon.

  Chapter 23

  “Don’t you have any chocolate?”

  As he stirred his pot of red sauce, Ian glanced back over his shoulder at his cousin Julia. She was, he thought, as pretty as ever, impatient as always and grandly pregnant.

  “You ate it all the last time you were here.”

  Eyes sharp, Julia continued to root through his cupboards. “You could go to the store now and again, couldn’t you?”

  “There’s fresh fruit in the fridge, but unfortunately it’s not chocolate covered. Here.” He gestured her over with a jerk of his head and held a hand under the bowl of a wooden spoon. “Try this.”

  Deciding beggars couldn’t be choosers, Julia walked over and, resting a hand on the wide shelf of her belly, sampled the sauce he offered. “It’s good. Where’s dessert?”

  He laughed and set the spoon aside. “Doesn’t Cullum ever feed you?”

  “It’s not me. Butch here wants chocolate.” She patted her swollen belly. “I’m just the delivery chute. Not even a candy bar?”

  “Sorry. I’ll stock up. With Travis it was ice cream, wasn’t it? Gallons, as I recall.”

  “He still loves ice cream,” she said with a soft maternal smile. “His first words were ‘fudge ripple.’” When Ian laughed again, she cocked her head. “You’re in a pretty chipper mood, pal.”

  “There’s a woman.”

  “Yeah, that’s the usual answer. Brightstone?”

  “That’s the one. She’ll be here shortly, so …”

  “Cullum and Travis will be along to pick me up. I won’t cramp your style. Where’s the final design for the library?”

  “Upstairs. I was looking at it last night.”

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