The macgregor groom, p.22
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.22

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  to take Naomi there for a quick weekend.

  But …

  He didn’t have a doubt in the world that if The MacGregor liked the looks of her, he’d start meddling. Hinting none too subtly about weddings, about duty, about continuing the MacGregor line. Ian grinned, changed a phrase on the screen. Little did The MacGregor know that was exactly what his grandson had in mind.

  And Ian wanted to keep it that way.

  He glanced up at the knock on his open door, lifted a brow at his mother.

  “Busy?”

  “Not too.”

  She walked in, tall, slim, her dark hair swept back from a strong and beautiful face. Then she dropped a load of files on his desk. “Gee, now you are.”

  “Not the Perinsky matter.”

  Diana smiled cheerfully at her son’s distress. “Got it in one. This time she’s determined to sue her neighborhood market for not carrying her brand of tea. Claims it’s violating her civil rights.”

  He thumbed through a file. It was full of the paperwork Mrs. Perinsky loved to generate. Old bat, Ian thought, but not without some reluctant affection. “Laura’s so much better with her.” He lifted hopeful blue eyes.

  “Mrs. Perinsky likes you best.” With a laugh, Diana leaned a hip on his desk. “I think she has a thing for you, sweetheart.”

  “She’s a hundred and fifty, at the very least.”

  “And hasn’t forgotten the thrill of having a handsome young man at her beck and call. I know it’s a pain, Ian, but she’s been a client since before you were born.”

  “Since before you were born,” he muttered, and made Diana laugh again.

  “Nearly, but in any case, she’s just lonely and looking for attention. You’ll give her a little, eat some of her cookies and talk her out of filing a nuisance suit against her very harassed grocer.”

  “I can do that. But then you’ll owe me.”

  “Would a home-cooked meal balance the scales?”

  He considered. Anything involving Mrs. Perinsky required stiff payment. “Maybe if it was a pot roast with the works, it could come close.”

  “I think we can arrange that. Sunday work for you?”

  “It would if you could stretch it to include one more.”

  “Naomi?”

  “Yeah.” Since they hadn’t really discussed it, or her, Ian studied his mother’s face. “Is that all right with you?”

  “I like her very much.”

  “I’m in love with her.”

  “Oh.” Helpless to stop it, Diana felt her eyes fill, and held up a hand. “I’m sorry.”

  “Hold it.” Alarmed, he got up to shut the door, then hurried back to take his mother’s shoulders. “I thought you said you liked her.”

  “I do. I do.” Diana waved her hand, then laid it on his cheek. “You’re my baby.” Straightening, she rested her cheek on his, remembered a hundred sweet and foolish moments. “My baby,” she murmured again. “Oh, Ian, I’m happy for you.”

  “Could’ve fooled me.”

  “No, I am.” She gave a watery laugh and drew back. “But there’s a place inside me where you’ll always be my little boy. And another that’s so incredibly proud of the man he’s become.”

  This time he rested his cheek against hers. “You’ll make me sloppy in a minute.”

  She wrapped her arms around him in one fierce hug. “I know there were other girls, other women.” She took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh and stepped back.

  “Me? Girls, women? I don’t know where you got such an idea.”

  She laughed again, easier now. “Maybe it was the way they kept popping up at the house, or answering your phone at college. But …” She framed his face with her hands. “This is the first time you’ve ever looked at me and told me you were in love. So I know it’s real.”

  “It is. Very real.”

  “She’s a very lucky woman.” Diana kissed him lightly. “And I say that without any prejudice whatsoever.”

  “So maybe you could drop a few comments about what a terrific guy I am when we come to dinner.”

  “I think I could do that.”

  “But subtly. She shies easily and I don’t want to scare her off.”

  Surprise had Diana lifting her brows. “You haven’t told her how you feel?”

  “I’m working up to it. I’ve got it planned out.”

  “Ian, if I have one criticism of you, it’s that you tend to plan things just a bit too carefully. Or perhaps,” she said with a gleam in her eye, “the word should be plot. À la Daniel MacGregor.”

  “Works for him,” Ian said cheerfully. “And won’t it take some of the wind out of his sails when I present him with the woman I’m going to marry before he manages to get his hand into it?”

  Diana pursed her lips, recalling the list of books Daniel had given Ian to purchase, when it would have been a simple matter for Daniel to pick up the phone and order them himself.

  “Won’t it just,” she murmured, and decided to let her baby have his illusions.

  * * *

  Naomi arranged the display of Branson Maguire’s latest thriller personally. She felt she had a special interest in him now, as she’d become friends with his wife and family. She’d even cuddled his children.

  They were such pretty girls, she mused. Just as Laura’s boys were a handsome delight. And Travis. Well, Naomi had to admit she had a special fondness for Julia’s energetic young son.

  She’d always been good with children, Naomi thought as she studiously arranged copies of Killer Run in a dramatic spiral tower. One of her first adult duties at Brightstone’s had been to handle the children’s area and the weekly reading hour.

  Still, she’d rarely allowed herself to think of what it would be like to have children of her own. As she was now.

  If she didn’t do anything to ruin it, Ian could fall in love with her. It wasn’t impossible. Nothing was impossible any longer. He wanted her, and she knew he had strong feelings for her. There was no reason those feelings couldn’t blossom into love.

  The kind of deep, stirring, consuming love she felt for him.

  Then one day he might take her face in his hands as he sometimes did, look into her eyes and say it. I love you, Naomi.

  “Naomi?”

  The brisk tap on the shoulder had her coming back to earth and staring blankly at Julia.

  “Did you have a nice trip?”

  “Oh.” With a laugh, Naomi shook her head to clear her thoughts. “My mind was wandering. Julia! You’re due any minute. You shouldn’t be out driving around.”

  “God, you sound like Cullum.” Julia rolled her eyes. “And you’ll be pleased to know that he’s out looking for a parking place. He let me off at the door so I could waddle inside. Which is how I maneuver these days.” She pressed a hand to her lower back.

  “You know if you’d wanted anything from the store I’d have brought it to you.”

  Touched, Julia smiled, and her eyes softened. “I know. You’re an absolute sweetheart, Naomi. But I wanted to get out for a bit. I was feeling restless,” she admitted. “And very likely driving Cullum insane. He had the bright idea to distract me with a chocolate mocha.”

  “Well, let’s go into the café and get you one.”

  “Yeah, let’s. This looks great, by the way,” she added, gesturing to the display. “Bran will have them lined up around the block.”

  Naomi glanced over the nearly completed display as she took Julia’s arm. “We’re counting on it. Have you read it yet?”

  “I can’t seem to concentrate long enough to read. It was the same way right before Travis was born. I’ve got it in my bag for the hospital, though. As soon as I give birth I can curl up like a cat for hours at a time.”

  “You’ll love it. It’s a heart pounder.”

  “Maybe I should pick up a couple other books while I’m here.” Still pressing a hand to her back, she frowned around the store that suddenly seemed to hold entirely too many choices. “I’m not in the
mood to shop.”

  “Would you like me to pick a few out for you?”

  “Yeah, fine. Whoa!” She jerked to a stop, shoving a hand against a shelf and knocking a trio of books to the floor.

  “Is he kicking? Do you want to sit down?”

  “No, he’s not kicking. He’s knocking to get out. No wonder I’ve felt so snarly all day.”

  “Get out?” Fingers of panic tickled up Naomi’s throat as Julia bent over and panted. “You mean out? Now?”

  “Not right this minute,” Julia managed, a bit surprised at how strongly the contraction came on. With Travis they’d been mild initially before building to flash point. “But pretty soon. Oh hell, I’m not going to get that mocha, after all.”

  “You need to sit down. To sit.” Desperate, Naomi searched the store she knew like the back of her hand because she’d completely forgotten where the closest seating area was located. “Over here. You just sit and do … whatever. I’ll find Cullum.”

  “Good idea.” Julia lowered herself onto a pretty love seat. “And Naomi? Tell him he better hurry. I don’t think Butch is going to waste any time.”

  * * *

  Two hours later, Naomi was pacing a hospital waiting room crowded with MacGregors. She didn’t know how they could be so calm. How they could sit there chatting, laughing, telling family stories.

  Her own stomach was tied in knots and her palms were sweating.

  Ian’s mother sat curled up in one of the chairs, talking cheerfully on the phone to the former president and first lady. Julia’s parents were on their way to Boston, and getting periodic updates on the progress via cell phone.

  Caine was on his own phone, laughing as he spoke to the soon-to-be great-grandparents.

  And Ian, she thought as she peeked into the corridor again, was nowhere to be found.

  But she spotted Gwen coming out of the birthing room and pounced before she could remember she wasn’t family. “How is she? What’s happening?” Her eyes widened as she heard a stream of violent cursing coming through the door.

  “Don’t you tell me to breathe, Murdoch, you bonehead. I know how to breathe. You try it!”

  Gwen chuckled, patted Naomi’s white cheek. “She’s doing great. It’s going to be a quick one, and there aren’t any complications. Fetal heartbeat is strong. She’s fully dilated, completely effaced.”

  Keeping a hand on Naomi’s shoulder, she smiled at the crowd of faces in the waiting room. “I’m going back in. She’s ready to start pushing, so get the cigars ready.”

  “Shelby, did you hear?” Diana laughed. “No, I’ll stay right here on the phone. She’s nearly there. Yes, I know. Gwen will tell her you love her.”

  “On my way,” Gwen promised, then waved down the corridor. “Ian.”

  “Did I miss it?” He was slightly out of breath from the run from the parking lot and up the stairs. The elevators were too damn slow to suit him.

  “Nearly.” She pulled open the door of the birthing room, letting out the next stream of abuse.

  “Don’t you tell me not to push yet, you sadistic moron. You’re fired.”

  “That’s the third time she’s fired her OB with this one. She made it to five with Travis.” Obviously amused, Gwen stepped in and shut the door.

  “She must be in pain.” Naomi wrung her hands. “She must be terrified.”

  “Terrified? Julia? Not in this lifetime.”

  “Oh, what do you know?” Naomi rounded on Ian, making him take a step back and causing both him and his family to eye her with surprise. “You weren’t even here. Where have you been?”

  “Ah, trapped with an irritable old woman and her endless supply of stale sugar cookies. I broke out as soon as the message got to me. Want some water, Naomi?”

  “No, I don’t want any water.” She slapped his hand aside, then marched down the corridor. When she reentered the waiting room, she caught sight of the sea of faces watching her, most of which hadn’t managed to hold back grins.

  She flushed, stammered. “I—I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve never been involved with anything like this. I’m nervous. Why isn’t anyone else nervous?”

  “We’ve been going through this pretty regularly for the past few years,” Ian told her. “Honey, why don’t you sit down?”

  “I can’t.” But she did close her eyes and take her breaths. Ian counted with her to ten. “I am sorry,” she continued, looking at him again. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”

  “You’re allowed to snap when you need to. I was hoping you’d be here.” He put an arm around her shoulders and led her to an empty chair. “I called the store when I got the message about Julia. Wanted to let you know what was going on, and your assistant filled me in. They’ve got a pool going.”

  She found herself sitting. He was clever that way. She tried to stay still, but couldn’t. “Do you think it’ll be much longer?”

  “Hard to say. Seems to me Travis took her, oh, about a decade.”

  “Fourteen hours,” Laura corrected. “Three hours less than it took me for my first, an hour longer than it took for my second.”

  “Same thing,” Ian decided, remembering that with Laura’s first, he’d been just as terrified and fidgety as Naomi while he’d waited out the birth. “Rounds out to a decade for me.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s Bran?”

  “He drew the short straw,” Caine said with a grin. “He’s got all the kids. He asked us to pray for him. Here you go,” he added, and neatly wrapped Naomi’s hands around a cup of tea.

  “Oh, thank you.” Too embarrassed to tell him she didn’t want anything, she sipped dutifully, listened to the chatter, the quick laughter, and didn’t realize her stomach had calmed until she’d emptied the cup.

  “Ladies and gentlemen.” Gwen stood in the doorway again, her face damp with sweat and bright with joy. “I’d like to announce the appearance of Fiona Joy Murdoch. Arriving into this world at 4:43 p.m. at eight pounds even. Mother, father and daughter are doing beautifully.” Tears spilled over. “Absolutely beautifully.”

  Then everyone was talking at once, rushing for hugs, weeping without shame. Naomi found herself kissed, squeezed and swept along. When Ian’s father offered her a cigar, she stared down at it dumbfounded.

  Then Ian lifted her right off her feet. “Isn’t this great?”

  Chapter 28

  They were the most incredible family, Naomi thought. And they’d let her be a part of it, let her share one of their miraculous moments.

  She’d been able to stand at the glass and stare at the beautiful new baby in Cullum’s arms. When Caine had announced they were all going out to celebrate, she’d been dragged right along with them.

  No one looked at her as if she were an outsider, as if she didn’t belong.

  They were open and loving, and most of all, honest. And, she admitted with a weight of guilt, she hadn’t been, not really. Not with Ian.

  When she agreed to go home with him that evening, she was prepared to be.

  “There’ll be another wave of family in by tomorrow,” he said as he unlocked the front door. “You can count on it. Headed up by The MacGregor himself, who’ll puff around for a bit, then sniffle over the new baby. Then, if D.C. and Layna get here by then, he’ll want to know why the devil they haven’t started a baby of their own.”

  He thought it best to prepare her for what was bound to happen. “Then he’ll start on you.”

  “On me?” Miserably nervous, she wandered into the parlor, fluffed pillows that didn’t need fluffing.

  “Why a pretty young lass like you isn’t married. Don’t you like babies? What are you waiting for then?” He laced his speech with a thick Scottish burr and really hoped she’d smile.

  But her eyes were gray and serious as she turned to him. “Ian, this isn’t right. For you, your family. You’re all so kind to me.”

  “What’s not right about that?”

  “I haven’t been honest. You don’t even know me. You’re
not attracted to me.”

  “I beg to differ,” he murmured, and started toward her.

  “No, don’t. Really.” She pressed her hands to his lips and prepared to confess. “I shouldn’t have let you think this was me.” She spread her arms, dropped them. “I’m working on making it me, but it’s just not fair to you.”

  “Naomi, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m looking at you. I’m holding you,” he added when he took her shoulders.

  “Only because I’ve changed the surface. Even two years ago you wouldn’t have looked twice at me. Why would you? No one ever did. Pudgy, working my way up to fat because eating was easier than accepting, really accepting, that I’d never be like my mother, no matter what I did.”

  “Like your mother?” He was baffled by the sudden passion in her voice.

  “Slim, beautiful, completely, naturally female. I could never be that, so I just … ate and hid at the bookstore.”

  “Naomi, a lot of kids go through a pudgy stage—”

  “It wasn’t a stage. It was a condition, and only a symptom of what I was inside. I was drab and dowdy and clumsy. And I only worked to be otherwise because I started to loathe what I was doing to myself. I wanted to find what was really inside and try to like who that was.”

  “And you have. There’s nothing drab or dowdy about you.”

  “But there is!” Impatient, she pushed away. “I still can’t figure out what to wear in the morning unless I check my computer.”

  “Your computer?”

  Oh, it was mortifying. “I have my wardrobe filed on my computer, with cross-references for the right accessories, right down to shoes and shade of lipstick. And I keep another file so I know what I’ve worn when and where so I don’t repeat myself too often.”

  “Really?” He cocked his head. “That’s brilliant.”

  “Brilliant? It’s ridiculous. Any normal woman just goes to her closet and takes something out. Last week we had a power outage and I couldn’t boot my home computer. I nearly called in sick because I panicked.” She huffed out a breath. “It’s pathetic.”

  “Not that you don’t always look fabulous, but I don’t think you need to worry about it quite so much.”

  “You couldn’t possibly understand. You’re beautiful, you grew up beautiful and confident and personable. My parents are absolutely stunning people. My brother looks like a movie star. Then there’s me.”

  “Naomi.” He took her shoulders again. “You are a beautiful woman.”

  “No. I can be very presentable if I’m careful. I’m content with that. Actually, I’m thrilled with that. And I think with more practice it won’t be such a worry to accomplish.”

  “You really believe that, don’t you?” Vaguely annoyed, he pulled her into the hall, turned her firmly around—to face a mahogany-framed mirror. “What do you see there?”

  “You.” Her heart simply rolled over in her chest. “Just you. No one ever wanted me before you.”

  For the first time the full impact of that got through, and began to worry him.

  “I’ve never felt this way about anyone else,” she murmured, compounding what he was beginning to recognize as guilt. “My whole life I’ve felt one step behind, and I never thought anyone would care enough to let me catch up.”

  “Naomi.”

  “Let me finish.” It was terrifying to turn, to face him. “I don’t want you to go on thinking I’m something I’m not, when part of me is still the awkward girl who had exactly two dates in high school—and both of them friends of my brother’s who felt sorry for me. And the young woman who spent her entire college career
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