The macgregor groom, p.19
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.19
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         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Well, let’s go get it.”

  “I appreciate it, Jules.” He swung a friendly arm around her shoulders as they headed down the hallway to the front stairs. “Between you and Cullum, this house has really come together.”

  “You haven’t exactly stood around with your hands in your pockets. You’ve done a nice job here, Ian. I know a lot of people think that it’s impractical for a single guy to tie himself up with a big old house like this.”

  “But not you.”

  “There’s nothing like a house, the possibilities within that structure and what you make of them.” She ran her fingers over the newel post of the silky oak banister. “This place feels like you. Open, easy, sturdy, with one eye on the future and the other on the past.” Then she sighed. “And I don’t think I’m walking up those steps. I’d have to walk down again, and I’m having a little trouble seeing my feet these days.”

  “I’ll bring the design down. Why don’t you go sit in the parlor?”

  “Don’t need to sit.” She pressed a hand to the small of her back to relieve some of the pressure. “Need chocolate.”

  “Next time, I swear.”

  While he headed up, Julia wandered. She’d been perfectly sincere when she’d said the house felt like her cousin. It pleased her that she’d helped him find it, had been able to watch him fall in love with it, and that she and Cullum had been able to add their expertise and experience in rehab to make it home for him.

  Ian, she knew, needed home.

  “Easy, Butch,” she murmured, rubbing her side as the baby inside her kicked restlessly. “Daddy’ll be along, and he’ll get us a nice big box of double fudge brownies.”

  At the sound of the doorbell, she moved as quickly as Butch would allow.

  Naomi’s first impression when Julia opened the door was flash. The kind of style that came from the bones out and still had the power to make her sigh with envy. A curling mass of red hair tumbled around a face that glowed with health. Warm brown eyes both welcomed and appraised.

  “You must be Naomi. Hi, I’m Julia, Golden Boy’s cousin.”

  “Yes, I know. I recognized you. I heard you speak at the Women in Business lunch a couple of years ago.”

  “Oh yeah. Well, I was a bit trimmer then.” She patted her belly and stepped back. “Come on in. Ian just went up to get a copy of the design for the library. My husband and his crew are going to do most of the work.”

  Pretty, Julia mused. A little shy. Very well turned out. Gorgeous body, fabulous hair, quiet eyes. Details, she thought, amused, were what her cousins Laura and Gwen would want. “So, you’ve taken over Brightstone’s.”

  “I’m managing it now, yes.”

  “You got chocolate mochas in the café?”

  “Yes. They’re wonderful.”

  Julia moaned. “Easy, Butch. He’s desperate for chocolate,” she explained with a grin when Naomi looked a bit panicked. “He’s got another two months to cook in here. Don’t worry.”

  “He wants chocolate?” Only slightly baffled, Naomi glanced down and watched Julia’s stomach ripple under the long, forest green sweater. “I have some M&M’s.”

  Julia reached out, took a firm hold of Naomi’s arm. “Don’t toy with me.”

  “No, really. I always carry something in case I miss a meal and need a boost.” It was something else she’d learned—not to deny that need for comfort, just to regulate it. She opened her purse and took out a small bag.

  “If you let me have them,” Julia said in a quietly urgent voice, “I’ll name the baby after you. Boy or girl, it’s Naomi.”

  “That’s what you told me when you wanted my caramel sundae when you were carrying Travis,” Ian commented as he came down the stairs.

  “Isn’t your name Travis?”

  Chuckling, Naomi passed the bag of candy. “Enjoy.”

  “I’ll never forget this,” Julia promised as she ripped open the bag and dug out a handful. “Um. Yes. Good. See, he’s happy now. Field goal.”

  “He’s kicking? Cool.” Delighted, Ian laid a hand on his cousin’s belly and grinned. “Wow, from midfield and right through the goal posts. Check this out,” he said to Naomi, and before she could blink he had her hand pressed to Julia under his.

  The first wave of embarrassment never managed to crest as the strong, lively movements under her palm shot a thrill straight to her heart. “Oh! That’s marvelous.”

  When her gaze lifted to Julia’s, something passed between them that only women know.

  “There’s Cullum.” Julia tilted her head as she heard the two short toots. “I told him to beep the horn if Travis fell asleep in the car seat. We’ll look over the plans tonight, Ian.” She took them, tipped up her face to kiss him. “Nice meeting you, Naomi.” She rattled the candy in the bag. “And thanks.”

  “Too bad the kid zonked out,” Ian said to Naomi as he watched his cousin walk to the waiting car. “He’s great. Not even two years old, and he can talk your ear off.”

  “You like children.”

  “Yeah.” He shut the door, closing the bright autumn breeze out, when the car drove off. “A lot. In my family, you’d better. We’re loaded with them, and there’s always another on the way. Two right now with Jules working on her second and my cousin Mac and his wife expecting their first. Thanks for coming,” he added, then took her by the shoulders and kissed her.

  When she stepped back abruptly, he arched a brow. “Problem?”

  “No, no, nothing.” Except she’d managed to convince herself that he’d only kissed her good-night after their date because it was what people did at the end of an evening.

  “All right. Let me get you a glass of wine.”

  “I shouldn’t. I’m driving.” But somehow he was guiding her down the hall. “I thought we’d just look over your—the room you want to outfit, and then …”

  She caught the glorious scent of sauce simmering. One step into the kitchen, she saw the beautiful, warm slate counters, the cheerful pots of herbs on the wide window ledge, the trim brick hearth.

  “You’re expecting company,” she said, noting the size of the saucepan. “I won’t keep you long.”

  He’d started to pour from the bottle he’d left breathing on the counter, and now just stared at her. “Ah, Naomi, I asked you to come. You’re who I was expecting.”


  He finished pouring the wine, offered her a glass. “I figured the least I could do, since I was putting you out on a Saturday evening, was give you a meal.”

  “You didn’t have to go to all that trouble. I don’t mind coming by. I’m interested in your library project.”

  “Uh-huh.” He leaned back on the counter. “Am I going to have to dream up an excuse whenever I want to have dinner with you?”

  “I—no. Hmm.” Stumped, she looked down into her wine.

  “Maybe I should ask if you’re only interested in my library project or if you’re at all interested in me.” He watched her gaze shoot up, and what he saw in those lovely gray eyes had him stepping forward. “Or maybe I should just tell you I’m very attracted to you. That I enjoy your company,” he added, taking the glass out of her numb fingers, setting it aside. “That I want to spend more time with you.” He lowered his head to rub his lips over hers. “That I want to get to know you.” Nibbled on them. “That I just want you.”

  A soft, weightless white cloud seemed to drift over her brain. “Want me to what?”

  With his mouth still on hers, he opened his eyes. Drawing back slightly, he shook his head, then began to trace quiet kisses along her jaw.

  Then his mouth came back to hers, and the sudden sharp lance of heat pierced through the cloud. Her lips parted on a gasp of shock; her hands fluttered up to grip his shoulders.

  Wanted her? Her? she thought just before her system went berserk. Her legs dissolved, her bones melted and the blood sang under her skin. One wild wave of sensation swamped her, tumbled her so that she clung to him, certain she’d be swept away.

  He hadn’t meant to move fast, but her sudden vivid response slammed into him. He spun her around so he could press her back against the counter and devour that wonderfully lopsided mouth.

  Desperate to touch, he ran his hands up her hips, along her sides until he could fill his hands with those fabulous breasts.

  Her heart seemed to heave against his palm.

  “Why don’t we get to know each other better later?” Wild with need, he attacked her neck with his teeth. “Everything—life stories, hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes. Damn, Naomi, I’ve got to have you.”

  “Yes. No. Wait.” It terrified her, this fierce and violent hunger inside her own body.

  “Let’s go with yes.”

  “No, please.” She lifted her hands to his chest, felt the tension vibrate. Looked up into his eyes, saw the desire swirl. “Please,” she said again, but didn’t start to tremble until he’d stepped back. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be. We’re moving a little fast.” But he picked up one of the wineglasses and drank deeply. “I figured we were going at the same pace.”

  He was angry, she thought. Trying not to be, but there was temper stirring in his eyes. “No, I am sorry. I misunderstood why you asked me to come over, why you …”

  “Did you misunderstand why I kissed you the other night, the way I kissed you?” She was right, the temper was bubbling. “The way you kissed me?”

  “I don’t know.” Her voice went sharp as she clutched her arms and fought against a miserable combination of embarrassment and confusion. “I just don’t know. I don’t have any experience with this. I’m sorry, I’ve never done what you seem to want me to do.”

  Rising temper died in simple shock. “You haven’t ever? Ever?”

  “No.” Embarrassment won. “I have to go.”

  And because he was still reeling, she managed to dash by him. “Naomi, wait. Damn it.” He caught her in the hall. “Just wait,” he ordered, taking her upper arms. “Give me a minute here, will you?”

  “I’m not going to apologize again,” she said between her teeth.

  “No, I am, if you’ll just give me a minute.” He let her go to rub his hands over his face. He needed to settle, and quickly. To get beyond the surprise, the guilt, and God help him, the arousal her announcement caused him.

  “I’m sorry.” She’d never been touched. Good God, he’d taken her in a series of quick, greedy bites. “Naomi, I’m sorry I moved in on you that way. I must have scared you.”

  “Some. Yes.”

  “I won’t scare you again.” He touched a hand to her cheek, doing his best to make the gesture unthreatening. “And I won’t push you. Why don’t we just take a step back?”

  She studied him a moment, then closed her eyes and took her ten calming breaths. “What kind of step back?”

  “We’ll take a glass of wine upstairs, look at the space for the library. I’ll show you the design. Then we’ll have dinner.”

  “You’re not angry?”

  “No, of course I’m not angry. I’m hoping you won’t be. Will you stay, give me another chance to … get to know you?”

  “Yes, all right.” She smiled a little. “I’d like to.”

  “Good. I’ll get the wine.”

  He started back to the kitchen, resisted rubbing a hand over the knot of desire tangled in his gut. It would take time, he told himself, to earn her trust. He didn’t think it would help the situation to tell her that he only wanted her more now that he knew he’d be the first to touch her.

  “Be careful, MacGregor,” he murmured as he picked up the glasses. “Be very careful.”

  Chapter 24

  It was pointless to be embarrassed that she’d confessed her complete lack of experience with men. A sharper woman would have said she wanted more time, or she wasn’t certain she wanted to have an affair.

  Some, Naomi imagined, would have enjoyed that flash-point kiss, indulged in others, then coolly left the man dangling.

  Later, darling. Maybe.

  Such smoldering promises would be delivered in a husky voice, with a throaty laugh, while keeping a man at arm’s length with a tantalizing skim of beautifully manicured nails along the cheek and a sultry sweep of long, thick lashes.

  Naomi decided that was a female skill she couldn’t even pull off in dreams, much less reality.

  But there was no use being embarrassed that she’d simply blurted out she’d never been with a man.

  In any case, she thought, it had lightened the tension in the air that evening.

  She supposed it was the politician in his blood that had enabled Ian to smooth over the awkwardness so quickly, so completely, and take her upstairs to show her the room he intended for his books.

  By the time they’d reached it, no one would have imagined the two of them had just shared a violent embrace in his kitchen.

  She was having a hard time imagining it herself a few days later.

  Better that way, she told herself. Imagining it too well would only cause that restless stirring inside her again. Work was a much better way, a much more productive way, of spending her time.

  With her hands folded in front of her, she stood at the rear of the events area she and her staff had worked so hard to create for Brightstone’s new monthly Women’s Evening. The guest author was keeping the audience well entertained with off-the-cuff stories and short readings from her book Dates from Hell … And How to Survive Them.

  Spontaneous laughter had drawn a number of other midweek customers over to stand behind the rows of chairs. Business, Naomi predicted, would be very brisk during the after-lecture autographing.

  Unobtrusively, she slipped over to the signing table, to fuss where no fussing was needed. The books were cleverly stacked; pens were at hand. The flower arrangement was in place and would be a gift to the author after the evening was over. There was a pitcher of ice water, and the author would be offered her choice of beverage from the café.

  As far as Naomi could see, her very first Wednesday evening program was a huge success.

  With a murmur to her events coordinator to make certain the author’s autographing would be announced over the loudspeaker at the end of the lecture, she turned. And rammed head-on into Ian.

  “Sorry.” He took her arms to keep her from overbalancing. “I seem to have a habit of sneaking up on you.”

  “I wasn’t looking… .” She stared into his eyes, and suddenly she could imagine very well, all too well, that staggering kiss. She could all but taste it.

  Then he gave her arms a light, somewhat fraternal squeeze and let her go.

  “You pulled in a crowd tonight.”

  “Yes.” She glanced behind her as the audience erupted with laughter. “Shelly Goldsmith.”

  “I saw the ad in the paper. Clever idea, the women’s night. Yours?”

  “I worked on it with my events coordinator. Did you come to hear the lecture?”

  He lifted a brow as the applause rang out. “If I did, I’m a little late.”

  “Oh. Excuse me.” She hurried to the front, slipped up to the podium to shake the author’s hand.

  Handles it well, Ian mused. Professional, polite, but warm. The “thank you” into the mike was neat, cheerful and included an invitation to the audience to have their books signed by the author.

  He kept out of the way while Naomi settled her charge, offered her something from the café, then flicked a single glance at a hovering assistant, who dashed off to fetch the coffee. Then she took a moment to chat with Goldsmith, bending down to speak quietly with a smile.

  Efficient, personable. Incredibly sexy in the trim, moss green suit with her hair—all that terrific hair—coiled in a neat roll at the base of her neck.

  Her very tasty neck.

  And he had to stop thinking that way.

  He’d known she’d be busy. It had been his intention to go straight home after work. He’d had no business detouring by the bookstore … just for a look at her.

  Hadn’t he vowed to give her plenty of space? And here he was, only days after he’d nearly devoured her in his kitchen, jumping back in and sniffing around her like a puppy.

  It was demoralizing. It was stupid.

  It was irresistible.

  He gauged the line forming at the table, decided that the efficient Ms. Brightstone would stand by her author for the duration. So he took himself off to wander.

  She saw him go out of the corner of her eye and tried not to let her shoulders slump. It was likely he’d just dropped in for a book—it was a bookstore, wasn’t it? she reminded herself viciously. He’d seen the crowd and had come back to satisfy his curiosity.

  Now he’d find his book and leave. And all she’d managed to do was trip over his feet.

  Pulling herself together, she turned to chat with some of the waiting customers.

  * * *

  It was after nine before the event wound down. Naomi considered it a very productive two hours—which had taken more than forty man-hours to create. And worth every minute, she decided after personally escorting her featured guest to the door.

  Now all she wanted was a quiet place to sit down and close her eyes for fifteen minutes.

  “Nice job.” Ian had waited her out, but hadn’t wasted time. He had a loaded Brightstone’s shopping bag weighing down one hand.

  “I didn’t realize you were still here.”

  “I was going to browse.” He grinned and shook the bag. “At this rate, I’m going to have to add more shelves to my library design.”

  “Brightstone’s appreciates your patronage.” She smiled when she said it and managed to stop herself from fussing with her hair. “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

  Found you, didn’t I? “It looks that way. And as an extra service, I did some spying for you.”


  “Well, eavesdropping, anyway. You have some very satisfied customers. There was a group of women scouring the new fiction section. They were pretty chirpy about tonight’s event, and already talking about making an evening of it next month.”

  “Wonderful. That’s what we’re after.”

  “Are you done, or are you going to be tied up for a while?”

  “No, that was it.” She blew out a breath. “Thank God.”

  He chuckled. “How about I buy you some excellent Brightstone’s coffee?” He watched her blink, hesitate, and shoving guilt aside, he pushed. “I really hoped I could show you the changes we’ve made in the design. I think we’ve got it now.”

  “I’d love to see them. Do you want to go upstairs?”

  Where he could be alone with her? Not a good idea, he decided. “The café’s fine with me.”

  “All right. But Brightstone’s buys the coffee. It’s the least we can do for such a good customer.”

  She led the way, noting that the Children’s Corner needed to be tidied. If Ian hadn’t been with her, she would have stopped and stored the scatter of toys and books herself.

  “Tired?” he asked as they climbed the short flight to the café.

  “Hmm? No, actually, I’m a little wired, I suppose. I authorized the advertising and promotion budget for this new program. I could almost see my father wincing over the phone.”

  “He’s given you pretty much a free rein, hasn’t he?”

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