The macgregor groom, p.23
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.23

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  buried in books because it was the only place she felt comfortable. It often still is.”

  She drew a deep breath. “You were the first man to give me flowers, the first to make me dinner, the first to just sit and listen to me, and to look at me when you did.” Her voice broke and had her fighting to finish. “You’re the only man who’s touched me, kissed me.”

  Her first, he thought, in every way that counted. Not just physically, but emotionally. She’d been sleeping like a butterfly, waiting to break free, to spread her wings. And he’d snatched her out of the air before she’d ever really felt the power.

  Oh God, he thought. What had he done? What was he going to do? “I’m not the only one who’ll want to. And you’re wrong if you think this isn’t who you are.” He ran his hands up and down her arms. “This right here. You’ve just started to see her for yourself.”

  He drew her close, rested his cheek on the top of her head. And realized he was going to have to do more than give her time. He was going to have to let her go, and hope that when she really saw herself, accepted herself, she’d come back.

  He gave her arms a quick squeeze, then forced himself to take a step back. “You’re a beautiful woman, Naomi, and a fascinating one.”

  “You’re the only one who ever thought so.”

  Hearing her say it, seeing the glimmer of tears in her eyes as she did, ripped him to pieces. “I don’t think you were paying enough attention. And you know, it occurs to me that I’ve been monopolizing all your free time for the last several weeks.”

  “My free time?”

  “I hadn’t thought about the fact that you were just getting the alterations in the store finished, then helping me with my library.”

  He spoke lightly as he walked past her into the parlor. He could give her six months, he told himself viciously. Six months, then by God, he was going for her. She’d better be ready.

  “I haven’t given you much of a chance to settle into this new life of yours.” To give himself something to do, he crouched and began to lay a fire. “We’ve been moving along pretty fast here. Maybe we should slow down.”

  She opened her mouth, closed it again because the violent kick to her heart had robbed her of breath. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific, Ian. I don’t have enough experience in relationships to be certain I understand the underlying meaning.”

  That, he thought, as he struck a match, stared at the flame, was exactly the point. “No underlying meaning, Naomi. Just slowing the pace, maybe taking a breather.”

  “You don’t want to see me anymore?”

  “Yes, I still want to see you.” He watched the kindling catch hold, but the flare of heat didn’t warm him. “I’m suggesting that our relationship doesn’t have to be exclusive.” He rose, turned, certain that knowing he was doing the right thing for her would eventually cure this sickness that churned in his gut. “You should see other people.”

  “Other people,” she murmured. Other women, she thought. He wanted to see other women. Of course, she should have expected it. “I suppose that’s very sensible. Very reasonable.” A brittle smile curved her lips. “Aren’t we lucky I’ve always been a sensible, reasonable person? I imagine some women would be angry, or at least annoyed with a suggestion like that. But then, I’m not like a lot of other women, am I?”

  “No, you’re not.” He said it quietly. “You’re one in a million.”

  She let out a short laugh. “One in a million,” she murmured. But still not quite good enough. “Well, it’s been a long day. All this excitement. I’m tired. I’m going home.”

  “Naomi. I don’t want you to go tonight.”

  She studied him a moment, with the fire flickering behind him. “And I don’t want to stay.” She walked toward the hall, made it to the doorway before she turned back. “I was honest with you, Ian, as I should have been all along. So I’ll finish this by being honest. I’m in love with you. And I have been, all along.”

  She went quickly to the front door and out before he could say anything kind that would make the ache inside her any worse.

  “I know.” He let it out in a sigh to the empty house. “But you never really had a chance to be otherwise. Now you do.”

  * * *

  He was unhappy for a day, miserable for two more, then surly for the best part of a week. But he didn’t pick up the phone. He didn’t call her. He didn’t give in to his own needs and drive to her apartment and beat on her door.

  He’d worked it out, damn it. Six months and time’s up, he thought, staring out the window of his office, as he seemed to do much too often lately.

  She’d have six months of freedom, to figure out who she was and what she wanted. Six months to see other men.

  And if any one of them touched her, he’d …

  No, that was the whole point, he reminded himself. How could she know she loved him—really loved him enough for a lifetime—if she’d never been romanced, touched, loved by anyone else?

  His lips curled at the knock on his office door. He wanted to ignore it, or better yet to shout out, “Go away, damn it. Can’t you see I’m sulking here?”

  “What is it?” he snapped out.

  “Now that’s a fine way to talk,” Daniel said as he shoved open the door. “Is that how you behave with clients, Mr. Counselor-at-Law, or is it just family that rates?”

  “Sorry.” Ian walked over to accept his grandfather’s bear hug and his grandmother’s warm kiss. “Had something on my mind.”

  “We won’t keep you.” Anna aimed a warning glance at her husband even as Daniel took a seat and made himself at home. “We just wanted to say goodbye.”

  “Goodbye? You only got here a few days ago.”

  “Woman can’t stay still,” Daniel muttered.

  “You want your own bed as much as I do,” Anna said with a laugh. “We’re going by Julia’s to see the baby first, then heading back home.”

  “I’ll miss you.”

  “Then why don’t you come visit more often?” Daniel thumped his fist on the arm of the chair. “Too busy flitting around with some pretty young woman to take time to visit your poor old grandparents.”

  “I’ll come up in a couple weeks. I’m not so busy flitting just now.”

  “And why the devil not? Where’s Naomi?”

  “At work, I imagine.” Ian angled his head. “Why?”

  “Every one of the family’s talking about her.” Daniel tapped his fingers together. “Except you, that is. Why is it I haven’t seen the two of you in the same place since I got here, when talk is you’ve been in each other’s pockets for weeks?”

  “Because we’re taking a break from each other.”

  “Break? Break! Why in bloody hell would you do that? You’re perfect for each other. That girl’s made for you, you dunderhead. She’s smart, got a nice sweetness about her. Comes from a fine family, good strong stock. And don’t let that quiet nature fool you. There’s a sturdy woman in there, the kind who stands firm.”

  “You seem to know quite a bit about a woman you’ve met a handful of times in a bookstore.”

  Daniel glowered. “Know her family, don’t I?”

  “Oh, Daniel.” Anna sighed, shaking her head. “I should have known.”

  “Known what?” His eyes twinkled an innocent blue.

  “You set me up, after all,” Ian said, and sat on the edge of his desk. ‘“Fetch me these books, will you, laddie, and see if little Naomi will help you with it.’” With a half laugh, Ian gazed at the ceiling. “I never saw it coming.”

  “So what? All I did was send you on an errand. If you didn’t like what you saw—as if any kin of mine would be so stupid—you buy the books and you’re on your way. Seems to me,” Daniel continued, a canny smile in place now, “that you liked what you saw just fine and dandy.”

  “Yes, I did.”

  “So what do you have to say about it?”

  “Thank you.”

  Daniel blinked rapidly
, narrowed his eyes in search of the trap. “Thank you?”

  “Thank you for having the good taste to recognize the woman I hope to marry.”

  “Hah!” With surprising speed for a man of his size and age, Daniel lunged out of the chair to clasp Ian against him. “That’s a fine lad. See there, Anna, this one knows how to appreciate his grandpa’s wisdom. That’s why he’s always been my favorite.”

  “Julia was your favorite two days ago,” Ian reminded him. “I heard you tell her so.”

  “Well, she’d just had a baby. Needed some coddling. But you now.” Beaming, he leaned back, then the smile faded. “What do you mean, hope to marry? You are or you aren’t going to marry the lass—and I expect to hear that you are because you’re not a pinhead.”

  “I’m giving her some time. A few months. Afterward, I hope to pick things up where we left off.”

  “Time? A few months?” Daniel roared out the words. “He’s a pinhead, after all! What the devil kind of thinking is this? Go get the girl, for sweet Lord’s sake.”

  “Daniel, leave the boy alone.”

  “The hell I will,” he boomed at his wife, then gave his current favorite grandchild a light cuff on the side of the head. “Are you in love with that pretty young lass or aren’t you?”

  “Yes, damn it.” Ian’s temper was a rare thing, but it could roar as fiercely as his grandsire’s. “Enough to know what she needs and to give it to her. You got it started, and I’m grateful. But I’ll handle it from here.”

  “Handle it? Bobble it’s more likely. Why—”

  “Excuse me,” Caine said at the top of his voice from the doorway. “This is a place of business, the last I looked. Family fights aren’t allowed in the schedule until after six p.m.”

  “Do you know what this boy’s up to?” Daniel shouted. “Your own son? Gets his hard head from you, that’s where he gets it. You’d best be talking some sense into him, or I wash my hands of it.”

  “What a fine idea,” Caine said pleasantly. “Why don’t you go wash your hands of it, and I’ll talk to my son.”

  “See that you do.” Daniel sniffed. “Let’s go see Julia—who has more sense than a radish, unlike some of my grandchildren—and that precious baby. And you …” He cuffed Ian on the side of the head again. “Stop being a pinhead long enough to go get the girl.”

  Caine kissed his mother, then his father, grinning as Anna pulled a still-blustering Daniel from the room. Then he closed the door, chose a chair and continued to grin as Ian rubbed his head.

  “Got a hand like a brick, doesn’t he?”

  “He hasn’t boxed my ears since I was twelve.” Then Ian worked up a smile. “I miss them already.”

  “I know what you mean. Sit down, Ian.” Caine’s face sobered. “The MacGregor called it right. It’s time we talked. I’d like to know just what’s going on and why you’ve been baring fangs at everyone within reach for the past week.”

  “I’ve got things on my mind. I’m not required to be pleasant every damn hour of every day.”

  Caine only lifted a brow. “I said sit down. You’ll save yourself a headache if you remember The MacGregor isn’t the only one who can box your ears.”

  Chapter 29

  Ian sat, but he didn’t like it. Saying nothing, he drummed his fingers on his thigh and met his father eye-to-eye.

  Stubborn, Caine thought, with admiration. It had always been one of his son’s finest qualities, this bullheaded, straight-ahead attitude. It was rare for him to pick a fight, and rarer still for him to walk away from one.

  “What’s going on between you and Naomi?”

  It was just like his father, Ian thought, to zero in on the point. “I’m nearly thirty,” he returned, annoyed by the stiffness in his own voice. “I’d think that would be my business at this point in my life.”

  “Absolutely.” Caine’s agreement was pleasant. “Until it spills over into MacGregor and MacGregor business. You haven’t been at top form the last few days, Ian.”

  “I’ll work on it.”

  “I’m sure you will. But in the meantime …” Caine reached over, laid a hand over his son’s. “Tell me where it hurts.”

  “Damn it.” As his emotions rushed to the surface, Ian shoved himself out of the chair. “Damn it. I’m doing what’s right, what’s best for her.”

  “Which is?”

  “Stepping back.”

  “Is that what’s best for you, Ian? You’re in love with her. That’s not a question,” Caine added. “It’s all over your face. I know how it is. I feel the same way about your mother.”

  “I know. I’ve watched it all my life. I won’t take anything less. Give anything less.” He dragged his hands through his hair. “I’m giving her some time, some room. She has to know what she wants.”

  “And she doesn’t? You’ve asked her?”

  With a long breath, Ian sat again. “She’d never been with anyone before me.”

  “I see.” Considering, Caine studied his own hands. “Did you seduce her?”

  “No, I backed off. It had to be her decision—she had to feel ready. What else could I do?”

  “Nothing, being you. Now it worries you, the fact that you’re the only one who’s touched her.”

  “I thought I had a handle on it. But it’s not just that she hadn’t had sex. She hadn’t had anything. Anyone. All at once she’s standing there telling me that she’s a fraud, that I’m only attracted to her because she’d developed this new image. And it all comes tumbling out of her. She tells me she was pudgy and plain, that she hid behind that, because she didn’t feel she measured up to the rest of her family. She’s barely even dated, never had a chance to see or experience anything. She’s just starting to realize her own capabilities, her own powers, and there I am ready to scoop her up, tuck her into marriage, children, the whole deal before she’s even seen what’s out there.”

  “So … you told her you loved her enough to give her that chance?”

  “If I’d told her I loved her she wouldn’t have listened to the rest.” He brooded over that fact. “She thinks she’s in love with me.”

  “Only thinks?”

  “How the hell would she know?” Ian tossed up his hands and pushed himself out of the chair again.

  “Interesting question. How do you know you’re in love with her?”

  “Because I’ve never wanted to spend my life with anyone else. Because I can see how it could be with us in a year, in ten years. In fifty.” He circled the room, then stopped in front of his father. “You can see I’m right, can’t you? It wouldn’t be fair to take advantage this way, to ask her to marry me before she’d had time to live a little more.”

  “Does it matter what I think?”

  “Of course it does.”

  “Then I’ll tell you.” Caine rose, laid a hand on his only son’s shoulder. “You’re a pinhead.”

  “What?”

  “As much as it pains me to agree with The MacGregor on this, I have no choice. You’re a pinhead, Ian. You’re not giving the woman you claim to love nearly enough credit to know her own mind and heart. You’re making a decision for her you have no right to make. And it’s my considered opinion, though it again pains me to echo my father, that your best course of action is to go get the girl.”

  * * *

  He wasn’t convinced the men in his family were right, but Ian planted himself in front of Naomi’s door in her apartment building and waited for her to get home.

  He considered going to the bookstore, but discarded the idea. If they were going to discuss their future, it shouldn’t be done in a place of business.

  Yet, as the hour grew later, he began to worry that he’d taken the wrong tack. At least he’d have found her in the bookstore. Now he didn’t know where the devil she was.

  So when he heard her footsteps on the stairs, he sprang to his feet.

  She stopped dead in the hallway when she spotted him, then shifted her briefcase from one hand to the other and came f
orward.

  “Hello, Ian.”

  “You worked late.” She wore the same scent. That same wonderful scent.

  “Yes, I did.” She took her keys out, slipped them into the lock.

  “I’d like to talk to you. Can I come in?”

  “Now’s not a good time.” It would never, ever be a good time, when just seeing him hurt this much.

  “Please.” He braced a hand on the door to keep it open. “Naomi, we need to talk.”

  “All right.” She could handle it. She’d promised herself she could. “But you’ll have to make it quick. I need to change.”

  “For what?”

  “I have a date.” It was a terrible lie, one she was sure she would be ashamed of later. But for now pride was much more vital than honesty.

  “With a man?”

  The absolute shock on his face had that pride rearing up and showing teeth. “I tried dating baboons, but we didn’t like the same films.” Moving briskly, she set her briefcase aside, hung up her coat. “What can I do for you?”

  Marry me, bear my children. “I didn’t make myself clear the other night.”

  “Oh, I think you did.”

  “No, I didn’t explain to you the what, or why.”

  “I understood perfectly.” And she wanted to hate herself, and him as well, because she was so pathetically in love with him. “I told you that what you saw when you looked at me wasn’t what was underneath. You agreed, and that was it.”

  “No, I—God, is that what you thought? Naomi, I’m sorry.” He reached for her. She stepped back. “That’s completely wrong. I handled it badly. Let me explain.”

  “I’m a little pressed for time, Ian.”

  “Your date will just have to wait,” he snapped, and jamming his hands in his pockets, stalked around the room while she lifted her eyebrows and watched him. “After you’d finished, after you told me you’d never been with anyone …”

  “You knew I’d never been with anyone.”

  “I don’t mean just the sex!” He all but snarled it this time, and had her eyes narrowing. “God. Sex is just a part of things. There’s companionship, there’s fun, there’s sitting around talking half the night, watching bad movies. All the things you do when you’re dating. The things you’ve never done with anyone but me.”

  Certain he was under control again, he turned back to her. “I wanted to give you time so that you could think it through, so you could be sure you wanted to keep doing all those things with only me.”

  “Give me time?” She wished she could come up with one of those cold, go-to-hell laughs, but only managed a derisive snort. “You told me you wanted to see other women to give me time?”

  “I never wanted to see other women!” He shouted it at her, then yanked his temper back. “I thought you should see other men. Which, I can point out, you don’t seem to have much of a damn problem with.”

  “You wanted me to see other men,” she said slowly, staring at him.

  “It’s not what I wanted—are you insane?” His eyes went to a bright and burning blue. “It’s what you needed. How the hell could I ask you to marry me when you didn’t have a single point of reference? Nothing to compare what you thought you felt for me to? I was trying to be fair to you.”

  “Fair to me? Fair to me?” Fury danced over her shattered heart, gleefully scattering pieces. “You decided what was right for me, and that was to break my heart?”

  “No, to protect it. To protect you.”

  “From what? From you? From myself? How dare you make those decisions for me.”

  “I didn’t. Exactly.” He could feel himself slipping down a very big hole. “I only wanted to … Maybe I should take the Fifth,” he muttered.

  “Oh, I could hit you. I could actually hit you.” She had to turn away before
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