The macgregor groom, p.20
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.20

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Yes. He trusts me.” Her voice warmed on the words. “It’s going to be very nice to let him know he didn’t make a mistake.”

  She scanned the café, pleased to see it was nearly filled to capacity, and smiled broadly when she spotted a table of women bubbling with laughter as one of them read a portion of Shelly Goldsmith’s book aloud.

  “Here.” Ian took her elbow and steered her to one of the few empty tables. “Lucky to find one. It looks like Brightstone’s Café is a happening place.”

  “Yes, it does. Sometimes I come through here and I get giddy and weepy at the same time. Silly,” she said quickly, annoyed with herself for saying such a thing to him.

  “No, it’s not. You’re making your mark, Naomi. You should be proud of what you’re accomplishing. I watched you working. You’re very good at your job.”

  She wasn’t sure which thrilled most, the compliment or realizing he’d watched her. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. When I was little, I’d come in here with my father. I’d wander the stacks, tuck myself into corners, sit behind the checkout counter. My poor mother used to buy me dolls, and I’d only use them as customers and clerks when I played bookstore.”

  And pretend to feed them the candy I stuffed in my face, she remembered, because I knew she was disappointed I couldn’t be the pretty, frilly little girl she wanted.

  “Some of us are born for something,” he murmured. “This is yours.”

  “Yes, this is mine.” And her days of hiding in corners were in the past. She glanced at the waitress who hurried over. “Busy tonight, Tracy.”

  “We haven’t stopped hopping since five-thirty. What can I get you, Ms. Brightstone?”

  “Two cappuccinos,” Naomi ordered, glancing at Ian and receiving his nod.

  “You got it. You should try a slice of that Chocolate Sin, Ms. Brightstone. It’s awesome, and you’ve been on your feet for hours.”

  “Oh, I—”

  “We’ll split it,” Ian said, flashing a smile at the waitress. “Thanks.”

  “Six million calories,” Naomi muttered, and Ian laughed.

  “Honey, odds are you’ve already burned them off during the event. Where do you get your looks?”

  The “honey” had thrown her off, and the sharp veer in topic finished the job. “Excuse me?”

  “Your coloring. You have hair like my mother’s—that thick, dense black. Is Brightstone Native American?”

  “Yes, actually. There’s some Cherokee on my father’s side, mixed with all manner of others. Some Italian, some French, some English, then English and Welsh on my mother’s. She likes to say her children are hybrids.”

  “I have Comanche through my mother, but Laura got the coloring.”

  “She’s beautiful, your sister.”

  “Yes, she is.”

  “Your whole family’s dazzling. Whenever I see a picture in the paper, or a clip on the news, I’m staggered. You take after your father. I suppose one day you’ll be a mix of the distinguished statesman and the Harvard Hunk.”

  When he winced, she simply goggled. Had that actually come out of her mouth? “I’m sorry. What a ridiculous thing to say.”

  He angled his head, amused that she was more embarrassed than he was. “So I’m not a hunk, and have no hope of achieving distinguished status?”

  “No, of course you are, and …” She simply shut her eyes and wondered if the Grand Canyon might be a big enough hole, after all.

  He laughed until his sides ached, and caused the waitress who brought their drinks to grin in delight. It was about time, as far as Tracy was concerned, that Ms. Brightstone got lucky. And it was looking as though she’d hit the jackpot.

  “I’ll never live down that picture.” Ian sighed and stirred his coffee. “What was I, twenty-three, twenty-four? Out for a sail and minding my own business. Guy takes his shirt off to catch some rays, and snap! He’s immortalized.”

  “It must be intrusive … the press.”

  “I grew up with it.” He scooped up a forkful of the creamy chocolate confection on the plate between them and offered it. “You get used to it.”

  “I’m not sure I could.” Because he didn’t seem offended, after all, she accepted the bite. “I’ve been dealing with the media for over a year now, promoting the store, giving interviews, that sort of thing. It’s necessary for the store, but I can’t say I’m used to it.”

  “Doing it well’s often the bottom line.” He sampled the chocolate himself. “This is very well named. ‘Sin.’” He tormented himself by imagining the taste of her mixed with the chocolate.

  It made her stomach jump. “You’re going to have to sin by yourself.” She picked up her coffee. “I’m resisting.”

  “One more,” he murmured, sliding the fork into the dessert, lifting a tempting bite to her lips. And he was pleased to see, when she took it, that she could indeed be tempted.

  He also decided that if he wanted to survive the evening, he’d better shift into business mode. “So, let me show you what I’ve got. Tell me what you think.”

  He opened his briefcase, took out the scale drawing of the proposed design. “I’m handing it over to Cullum tomorrow. He can get started right away.”

  “You move quickly.”

  “Usually,” he muttered, then spread out the drawing.

  Naomi took her glasses out of the little case in her pocket, slipped them on and made Ian’s mouth water. Then she leaned forward, bending over the drawings, and drove him slightly mad as her scent slipped into his senses.

  “Oh, these are wonderful. Just wonderful. You put in the library ladder and the console.”

  “They were good suggestions. Thanks.”

  “I’m so glad I could help. This is going to be fabulous. You have a wonderful space for furniture, too, and with the fireplace here, a perfect spot for enjoying the books you’re going to display.”

  He imagined the two of them doing just that. Sprawled together on the sofa in front of a roaring fire, with a nice bottle of red, and music playing quietly in the background.

  He’d rub her feet, he thought. Then start nibbling until he’d worked his way up to …

  Hold it, he ordered himself, and resolutely shoving the image aside, cleared his throat. “Any changes you’d make?”

  Oblivious, she continued to study, shaking her head. “No. I think it’s absolutely perfect as it is. I love it, Ian.”

  “Good. So do I.” He wanted to touch the hand she had on the table, stroke a fingertip over her knuckles, down her wrist.

  Down boy, he thought, and comforted himself with Chocolate Sin.

  The discreet announcement that the store was closing in fifteen minutes had Naomi looking up. Where had the time gone? “I didn’t realize it was so late.”

  “Do you have anything left to do?”

  “No. And I actually don’t have to be in until midmorning tomorrow. My little treat for the last few twelve-hour days.”

  “Want to go to a movie?”

  “A movie?”

  “We’ve just pumped in all this caffeine.” He smiled easily, noting how quickly her eyes could go wary. If she was going to learn to trust him, to become used to him, he was going to have to start nudging her into his company on a regular basis. “Neither one of us are going to sleep for a while yet. Why not take in a movie?”

  “Well, I suppose …”

  “Great.” Moving quickly now, he folded the drawing. “You walked to work, right? My car’s just down the block. I’ll drive you home afterward.”

  He was already on his feet, the bag and his briefcase in one hand, and his other held out to her.

  Chapter 25

  He was a patient man. He knew how to wait. He understood and appreciated the value of building foundations, developing relationships, bonding friendships.

  He enjoyed taking his time, holding on to moments, planning days. He found those times, those moments, those days he managed to spend with Naomi very precious. And he certainly valued l
earning more about her, having conversations about family, about work, about mutual interests.

  He wasn’t an animal, after all, whose only goal in life was sex. He was a civilized and reasonable man who found pleasure and contentment in the company of a woman he liked, respected and enjoyed.

  And he thought if he didn’t get his hands on Naomi Brightstone soon, he’d go completely insane.

  She was fascinating, fabulous and so unwittingly sexy he spent half his time with her quivering like a stallion wild to cover a mare. And the other half in dazzled delight at having found her.

  He was careful not to touch her—oh, a few brotherly pats or pecks, but nothing that came close to that hot-blooded embrace in his kitchen. He wasn’t about to risk scaring her off.

  And as he’d gotten to know her over the past weeks, he’d realized that she was a great deal more shy, more vulnerable and more insecure than he’d assumed when he’d met her.

  They went to concerts, to films, for long walks. They cooked a few meals together and spent ridiculous amounts of time on the phone late at night.

  He realized he hadn’t experienced such an intense, wonderful, innocent and sexually frustrating relationship since high school.

  And when once or twice he tested the waters, she’d shied back like a rabbit under the gun and had left his gut grinding.

  It reminded him, forcibly, that if they did become lovers, he would be her first and would have not only the pleasure, but the responsibility of that.

  It wasn’t a simple matter, or one to be taken lightly, or quickly. But he was a patient man, Ian assured himself, as he surveyed the nearly finished library. He had always been able to work steadily toward what was really important.

  This was important in its own way, too, he thought, running his fingers on the freshly waxed trim of one of his custom-designed, built-in units. The creation of something that was well thought out, that was right, that would last. Cullum did beautiful work, he mused. Precise, creative. The cherrywood gleamed, its corners softly curved, almost fluid.

  Shelves stood at varying heights, as Ian had wanted to avoid the look and feel of uniformity. He wanted nothing rigid or forbidding about the room. Between the two tall windows he’d set a huge, festive, ornamental lemon tree in a brass pot. A gift from his parents. They always knew what suited him best, he thought, smiling as he trailed a fingertip over a glossy leaf.

  He’d already arranged the seating area. A long, take-a-nap sofa in cheerful blue, a pair of wide chairs, low tables that invited the occupants to put up their feet and relax. Naomi had helped him choose the lamps, he recalled—the charming die-cut tin shades, the romantic globes—on one of their shopping forays.

  The stately pewter candlesticks that graced the mantel were heirlooms, housewarming gifts from his grandparents. The bronze-colored mums that stood in a Wedgwood vase between them had come out of his own garden.

  There was a great deal of himself in the room, Ian realized. And pieces of those he loved.

  Including Naomi.

  He sat in one of the oversize chairs, dragged his hands through his gilt-edged hair. There was no point in turning away from it, he told himself. He was in love with her, was nearly sure he’d fallen flat on his face in love the instant he’d met her.

  He believed in such things—in love at first sight, in fate, in mating for life. He wanted such things, Ian admitted. Even during his college years, when he’d played as hard as he’d worked, he’d always had an eye focused on what was ahead for him.

  His career and where he wanted to take it. His life and where he needed it to go. And that was home, marriage, family, children.

  Pushing out of the chair, he began to pace. He couldn’t use his feelings to pressure Naomi. He felt dead certain that if he told her he loved her, she’d let him make love with her. From there he could persuade her to move in with him, then nudge her gently into marriage.

  And he’d have exactly what he wanted.

  Which said nothing of what she wanted. He jammed his hands into his pockets and stared out the window. It had to be her decision.

  * * *

  She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. Naomi pulled up at the address Julia had given her and studied the gorgeous old brick house. A house only blocks away from Ian’s.

  She wanted to be with him. As much as it scraped at her heart, she wanted to be where he was.

  He’d be arranging his books today, she thought with a sigh. Books they’d pored over together; books she’d helped him select. He’d asked her to come by and be part of the final stage of the library. He was so sweet about it, she thought with a sigh.

  But she’d already agreed to come here and join what Julia called Girl Day.

  Naomi had become so fond of Julia over the last few weeks, as they’d consulted on Ian’s library project, that she hadn’t been able to make excuses.

  She took the glossy white bakery box and climbed out of the car. And crossing to the house through the Sunday sunshine, she smiled. Well, after all, she’d never been part of a Girl Day before.

  When she’d been a teenager and the other girls were riding in herds, having slumber parties, talking about boys and clothes, she’d stood on the outside, unable to break into that lovely haze of young femininity. Telling herself she didn’t want to.

  But, of course, she had.

  Now, at least for a day, she’d have a taste of it.

  Casual, Julia had said, and Naomi tugged at the hem of her red sweater before she knocked.

  “Hey!” Julia homed in on the box even as she grabbed Naomi’s hand to pull her inside. “What’d you bring?”

  “Brownies.”

  “I love you. And you timed it perfectly, as we’ve just put all the midgets down for naps.”

  “Oh, I was hoping to see Travis.”

  “You will. He and Laura’s Daniel never stay down long.” She pulled Naomi into a beautifully finished parlor as she spoke. “You met Laura, right?”

  “Yes, hello.”

  “Hi, glad you could come by.” Laura sat on the floor eating from a bowl of potato chips. “What’s in the box?”

  “Brownies.”

  “Oh God. Gimme.”

  “Don’t be greedy,” Julia returned. “And this is our cousin Gwen.”

  “I’ve heard lots about you.” Gwen rose out of her chair where she’d been studiously painting her toenails. “I’m in your store all the time. Branson’s doing one of your author events next month.”

  “He’s wonderful! Branson Maguire’s one of Boston’s best and brightest,” Naomi replied. “I have all of his books in my personal collection—signed by the author.”

  “Did you know the psycho in Do No Harm was based on Gwen?” Laura commented.

  “Not the psycho part,” Gwen said with a laugh. “Just the dedicated-doctor part. We’ve got hot chocolate. Chocolate mousse, chocolate drops and chocolate-covered pretzels.”

  “Julia chose the menu,” Laura put in.

  “Butch did.” Setting the box down, Julia opened it. “And he’s going to really go for these. Have a seat, Naomi, and pull up some calories.”

  * * *

  Within an hour her system was jangling with caffeine, her stomach groaning from overindulgence she hadn’t allowed herself in over three years, and she’d laughed more than she could ever remember.

  The girl she’d once been wouldn’t have been able to indulge herself only once. She wouldn’t have been able to sprawl comfortably on the floor and talk about so many wonderful and foolish things, or to feel a part of the whole.

  Before and After, she thought, and nearly laughed at herself. When was she going to remember, to really accept, that she was firmly rooted in the After?

  Here, she thought, in the time it took to demolish a boxful of brownies, she had somehow made three friends.

  “Mmm.” Julia licked chocolate from her fingers. “Wait till you see Ian’s library,” she said to Gwen. “It’s great.”

  “Cullum did a
fantastic job on the built-ins.” Laura poured more hot chocolate.

  “Hey, I helped design them.” Julia jerked a thumb at Naomi. “And so did she.”

  “I didn’t do that much. Ian already knew what he wanted.”

  “He get the books in yet?” Julia wanted to know.

  “He’s doing that today.”

  “So … how are the two of you getting on?”

  “Oh, fine. He’s a wonderful friend.”

  “Friend?” Laura choked out a laugh. “I wouldn’t say the looks he was giving you the last time I was over were pal to pal. Looked to me like he wanted to start gnawing at your neck.”

  “He doesn’t think of me that way.”

  “Since when?”

  Naomi shrugged and decided one more chocolate drop couldn’t hurt. “He did, but now he doesn’t.”

  “Excuse me.” Julia held up a hand. “Are we all friends now?” Without waiting for an answer, she nodded. “Good. Naomi, are you out of your mind?”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Ian’s gone over you, honey. He’s sunk, he’s gaga. Name your terms. Gwen, you haven’t seen it, but you know our boy, Ian, right?”

  “Know him and love him,” Gwen said, and stuck out her bare feet to admire her toes.

  “Well, in your medical opinion, knowing the patient well, what’s your diagnosis on a guy who spends all his free time with one woman, talks about her constantly, goes into daydreams with a dopey look on his face and cooks cozy dinners for two?”

  “Hmm.” Gwen pursed her lips, wiggled her toes. “In medical terminology that would be gaga.”

  Julia patted her belly to soothe the actively kicking Butch. “See?”

  “He moons at the office, too,” Laura commented. “And I heard him tell his secretary last week to hold all of his calls while he worked on this brief—unless it was Ms. Brightstone.”

  “Terminally gaga,” Gwen said with a sober nod. “A heartbreaking condition that has so far baffled medical science.”

  “But he’s not.” Unsure whether to laugh or moan, Naomi dug into the chocolate drops again. “He treats me like a sister.”

  “A very sick man,” Gwen murmured. “If you’d care to share more details, I’d be happy to try to suggest a course of treatment.”

  “He kisses my cheek,” Naomi muttered, while a frown slowly formed on her brow. “Pats my head. Once in a while he looks at me, and I think, oh boy, here it comes. Then nothing. Before I told him I’d never had sex, he kissed me brainless, but now … oh!” She moved quickly, rapping Laura on the back as Ian’s sister choked. “Are you all right?”

  “Oh, poor Ian!” Then Laura burst into wild laughter.

  Baffled, Naomi stood, looking around the room as her three new friends howled until tears ran down their cheeks.

  “Sorry, sorry.” Laura pressed both hands to her heart. “I doubt it’s funny to you—or him—but we’re his family. We have to laugh. He must be suffering the torments of the damned. Gwen?” Helpless, Laura waved a hand for her cousin to take over.

  “He’s terrified of you,” Gwen told her. The thought made her smile. And she remembered how sweetly, how romantically Branson had become her first.

  “That’s just silly.”

  “No.” Sympathetic now, Gwen held out a hand. “He wouldn’t want to push, not a
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