Daring to dream, p.24
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       Daring to Dream, p.24

         Part #1 of Dream series by Nora Roberts
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  She felt Thomas's hand tense in hers and looked up at him with an easy smile and hot eyes. "Don't worry." Rising on her toes, she kissed his cheek. "They got the conniving part right, after all."

  "If I wasn't a man, I'd punch that jealous cat in the nose." His eyes lit up. "I'll get Susie to do it."

  "Maybe later." She gave his hand another squeeze, turned to the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen, if I could interrupt for a moment." She waited while conversations ebbed, flowed, then politely tapered off. "I'd like to thank you all for coming to Pretenses' first reception."

  The speech had been in her head, the one she and Laura and Kate had fine-tuned, but it was slipping away. Using her nerve, she skimmed her gaze over faces.

  "We'd especially like to thank you for staying even after you'd had your fill of champagne. Most of you are aware of my… checkered career, the way it ended with the kind of delectable little scandal we all love to read about."

  She caught Laura's eye and the concern in it. Just smiled. "When I left Europe and came back here, it wasn't because I was thinking of America as the land of opportunity and free enterprise. I came back because home is where you go when you're broken. And I was lucky, because the door was open." She picked her mother out in the crowd, kept her eyes on Ann's. "I don't have anyone to blame for the mistakes I made. I had family who loved me, cared for me, watched over me. That isn't the case with the children who so desperately need what Wednesday's Child offers. They're broken because they weren't loved and cared for and watched over. Because they weren't given the same chances as those of us in this room. Tonight, with my partners, Laura Templeton and Kate Powell, I'd like to take a small step toward giving a few of those children a chance."

  She reached back, unclasped the choker, and let it slide through her fingers. " 'Bye, baby," she murmured. "I hope you'll bid generously. Remember, it's only money." After draping the pearls over a velvet stand, she turned to Thomas. "Mr. Templeton."

  "Miss Sullivan." He took her hand, kissed it. "You're a good girl. Now, then." He turned a cagey eye on the audience as Margo slipped to the rear of the room. His voice boomed out, challenging as he described the single item up for bid, and ordering the bidders, many of whom he called by name, to keep their wallets open.

  "That was better than the script," Laura murmured.

  "Much better." In agreement, Kate slipped an arm around Margo's waist. "Let's hope it inspires some of these tightwads."

  "All right," Thomas called out. "Who's going to get this ball rolling and open the bid?"

  "Five hundred."

  "Five hundred." Thomas's brows lowered. "Jesus, Pickerling, that's pitiful. If it wasn't against the rules I'd pretend I didn't hear that."

  "Seven-fifty."

  He huffed and shook his head. "We have a miserly seven-fifty. Do I hear a thousand?" He nodded at a raised hand. "There's a thousand, now let's get serious."

  The bidding continued, some called out, others signaled—a lift of the finger, a sober nod, a careless wave. Margo began to relax as they slipped over five thousand. "That's better," she murmured. "I'm going to try to think of anything else as gravy."

  "It's making me nuts." Kate fumbled in her bag for her roll of Turns.

  "We have six thousand two," Thomas continued. "Madam, you have the throat of a swan. These pearls might have been made for you."

  His quarry laughed. "Tommy, you devil. Six-five."

  "How much did you say those were worth?" Kate wanted to know.

  "Retail at Tiffany's? Maybe twelve-five." Delighted, Margo tried to see through the crowd as hands went up. "They're still getting a bargain."

  When the bidding topped nine thousand, she wanted to dance. When it hit ten, she wished she had a chair so she could see the bidders. "I never expected it to go this high. I underestimated their generosity."

  "And their competitive spirit." Kate balanced on her toes. "It seems to be between two or three people, but I can't see."

  "And it's serious now," Margo murmured. "No called bids."

  "That's twelve thousand, looking for twelve-five." His sharp eyes darting back and forth, Thomas guided the bidding. "Twelve-five is bid. Thirteen?" At the head shake response, he zeroed in on another bidder. "Thirteen? Yes, we have thirteen. Thirteen is bid, will you bid thirteen-five? The call is for thirteen thousand five hundred. And we have it. Thirteen-five. Will you go fourteen? There's a man who knows his mind. Fourteen is bid. Calling fourteen-five. Fourteen is the bid on the floor. That's fourteen thousand going once, and going twice. Sold for fourteen thousand to the man with exquisite taste and an eye for value."

  There was polite applause, pleasant laughter. Margo was too busy trying to see through the now milling crowd to notice the looks aimed her way. "We should go congratulate the winner. Make sure the paper gets a picture. Whoever gets up there first, make sure to hold on to him."

  "Margo, dear."

  She hadn't made it two steps before her arm was snagged. Staring into the woman's face, Margo searched desperately for a name, then settled on the usual out. "Darling, how wonderful to see you."

  "I've had the best time. Such a delightful affair, and a charming little shop. I would have been in weeks ago, but I was so… swamped. If I'm asked to serve on another committee, I'll simply slit my wrists."

  One of Candy's friends, Margo remembered. Terri, Merri…Sherri. "I'm delighted you were able to shuffle us into your schedule."

  "Oh, so am I. I've had a wonderful evening. And I've got my heart set on those darling earrings. The little ruby-and-pearl ones. They're just so sweet. Can you tell me how much you're selling them for? I'm going to insist that Lance buy them for me since he lost the choker to Josh."

  "I'll have to check the—To Josh." Her mind stopped searching for price tags and went blank. "Josh bought the choker?"

  "As if you didn't know." Sherri's eyes glittered as she tapped Margo's arm again. "So clever of you to have him buy it back for you."

  "Yes, wasn't it? I'll put a hold on the earrings, Sherri. Come in anytime next week during business hours and take a look at them. You'll have to excuse me."

  She worked her way through the crowd, bid good night to dozens while struggling to keep that bright, careless smile on her face. She found Josh flirting ruthlessly with the teenage daughter of one of his board members.

  "Josh, I have to steal you away for a minute," she began as the girl went automatically to a pout. "If you could just help me with this little thing in the storeroom." She all but shoved him inside, shut the door. "What have you done?"

  "Just giving the kid something to dream about tonight." All innocence, he lifted his hands, palms out. "Never laid a hand on her. I have witnesses."

  "I'm not talking about your pathetic flirtation with a child young enough to be your daughter."

  "She's seventeen. Give me a break. And I was letting her flirt with me. Just target practice."

  "I said I wasn't talking about that, though you should be ashamed of yourself. What do you mean buying the choker?"

  "Oh, that."

  "Oh, that," she repeated. "Do you know what it looks like?"

  "Yeah, it's three strands, beautifully matched pearls with a bow-shaped pave diamond clasp on eighteen-karat."

  She made a sound like expelling steam. "I know what the damn choker looks like."

  "Then why did you ask?"

  "Don't play lawyer games with me."

  "It's really more politics than law."

  Now she held up her hands, closing her eyes until she thought she had a shaky hold on her temper. "It looks as though I wheedled you into buying it—and paying more than it's worth on the retail market—just so I could have my cake and eat it too."

  He decided that telling her she hadn't served any cake would not result in an amused chuckle. "I was under the impression that the proceeds went to charity."

  "The proceeds do, but the necklace—"

  "Was offered to the highest bidder."

  "People think that I asked y
ou to buy it."

  Interested, he angled his head. Yes, her face was definitely flushed, he noted. Her eyes bright and hot. Embarrassment was a new, and not unattractive, look on her. "Since when do you care what people think?"

  "I'm trying to learn to care."

  He considered. "Why?"

  "Because…" She closed her eyes again. "I have no idea. I have no earthly idea."

  "All right, then." He slipped the pearls out of his pocket, running them through his hand as he studied them. "Just grains of sand, hunks of carbon, tricked into something lovely by time and nature."

  "Spoken like a man."

  His gaze lifted, locked on hers, made her stomach tremble. "I made up my mind to buy it when I was inside you, and this was all you were wearing, and you looked at me as if nothing else existed but us. That's spoken like a man, too. A man who loves you, Margo. And always has."

  Terrified and thrilled, she stared at him. "I can't breathe."

  "I know the feeling."

  "No, I really can't breathe." Quickly, she dropped into a chair and put her spinning head between her knees.

  "Well, that's quite a reaction to a declaration of love." He slid the pearls back into his pocket so he could rub her back. "Is it your usual?"

  "No."

  His grim mouth curved a little. "That's something, then."

  "I'm not ready." She drew in air slowly, tried to let it out molecule by molecule. "I'm just not ready for this. For you. I love you too, but I'm not ready."

  Of all the scenarios he'd imagined when she would finally tell him she loved him, none of them had included her saying the words with her head between her knees.

  "Would you mind sitting up and telling me that again. Just the 'I love you' part."

  Cautious, she lifted her head. "I do love you, but—No, don't touch me now."

  "The hell with that." He hauled her out of the chair and crushed his mouth to hers with more impatience than finesse.

  Chapter Eighteen

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  Kate opened the door of the storeroom and let out a long, windy sigh at the sight of Josh and Margo locked in a passionate embrace. Maybe it did warm her heart, but there was no reason to let them know that.

  "Do you two mind putting your glands on hold so we can finish out the evening with some sense of decorum?"

  Josh tore his mouth from Margo's long enough to suck in a breath. "Scram," he ordered and got back to business.

  "I will not scram. There are still over a dozen people out there who expect to be bid a fond farewell by the owners. All three owners. And that includes the woman you're currently performing an emergency tonsillectomy on."

  Josh gave her a brief glance over the top of Margo's head. "Kate, you're such a romantic fool."

  "I know, it's a weakness of mine." She stepped up and pried them apart. "I'm sure the two of you can remember where you left off. Come on, partner. Oh, and Josh, you might want to stay in here until you're a little more… presentable."

  He damned near blushed. "Sisters aren't supposed to notice that sort of thing."

  "This one sees all, knows all." She whisked Margo through the door. "What's the matter with you?" she muttered. "You look like you've been poleaxed."

  "I have been. Give me one of those damn Tums you're so crazy about."

  "Soon as I can get to my purse." Concerned, she rubbed her hand over Margo's back. "Tell me what's wrong, honey?"

  "I can't now. Tomorrow." And because she understood her job, she curved her lips into a bright smile and held out both hands to the woman approaching them. "So glad you could come. I hope you enjoyed the evening."

  She repeated those sentiments, with variation, for nearly an hour before the last lingerer trickled out. Necessity, along with aspirin, and antacids, kept her functioning. She wanted a quiet room, a moment to herself to sort out all the emotions whirling through her, but she was swept along when the Templetons insisted on taking the family out to celebrate.

  It was nearly one before she walked into the penthouse with Josh. She should have had it all figured out by now, she thought. She should know exactly what to say and do. But when the door closed behind them and they were alone, she didn't have a clue.

  "I'm going to miss them—your parents—when they go back to Europe."

  "So am I." There was an easy smile on his face. His formal tie was loose now, as were the studs on his tuxedo shirt. Margo thought he looked like an elegantly male ad for an outrageously expensive and sexy cologne. "You've been quiet."

  "I know. I've been trying to think, to figure out what to say when we talk about this."

  "You shouldn't have to think that hard." He stepped toward her, began to slide the pins from her hair. "I've been thinking about being alone with you. Finally." As her hair tumbled free, he tossed the pins on the dresser. "It didn't take much effort."

  "One of us has to be sensible."

  "Why?"

  At any other time, she would have laughed. "I'm not sure why, I just know one of us has to be. And it doesn't look as though it's going to be you. Josh, I'm not sure either of us knows how to handle this."

  "I've got a pretty good idea how to start." His arms slipped around her, raced up her back to cup her shoulders and pull her into him.

  "This part's easy, maybe too easy for both of us. I don't think we want that to change."

  "Why should it?" He skimmed his mouth along her jaw. And the taste of her was warm and silky.

  "Because we've muddied up the waters." How did he expect her to think when he was sampling her as if she was a delicacy he'd chosen from under glinting crystal? "Because I've never really been in love before, and I don't think you have either." Her pulse was already stuttering. "We don't know what we're doing."

  "So, we'll improvise." His mood was soaring too high and too free to let her sudden attack of logic dampen it. He tugged on the zipper at the back of her dress, and when the silk parted, he slid his hands along her skin.

  "Are you saying things don't have to change?" Bubbles of relief warred against flickers of need as her dress slipped down.

  He wanted to tell her everything had already done so. But he knew her so well, understood that if he spoke of change, of commitment, of forever, she'd balk or evade, or simply bolt. "Nothing that we don't want to change. This, for instance," he murmured, skimming his thumbs along the soft white swell of her breasts. They rose, full and white, out of the strapless lace of a black body skimmer. Her stockings stopped high on the thigh, another seductive contrast of black against white. He let his fingers trail from stocking to flesh to lace, and thrilled at each sharply defined texture. All the while, his eyes stayed on hers.

  "The minute you touch me, I want you. It's something I can't seem to control." And it worried her, worried her enough that she purposely pushed all rational thought aside and eased open his stark white shirt to caress the pale gold tint of the flesh beneath. "I've never had a lover who stirred me up so much just by being in the same room. How long can that last?"

  "Let's find out." He eased her onto the bed—pale hair spilling, milk-white skin against black silk and lace. She was all promising scents and luscious curves, long, limber limbs that reached out to enfold.

  She held him against her, reveling in the feel of his weight pinning her, imprisoning sex under sex with slow friction. All she had to know, for this moment, was that she wanted him. And her mouth sought his eagerly for that dreamy mating of tongues.

  When had she come to need the flavor of him, the scent and texture of his skin? After so many years, how had friendship and family shot into passion and longing? And why, when their bodies meshed so perfectly, should it matter?

  Her skin hummed under his hands, those long, gliding strokes that shifted in a pulsebeat to rough and possessive. What spurted to life inside of her was too layered and complex to analyze. She let the heat take her.

  He felt every shift and sigh, knew when nerves had melted into acceptance. Here, in this big, soft bed, th
ere were no questions. She was, and always had been, everything he wanted.

  Long, lean limbs, sumptuous curves, sleek, perfumed skin. Her body had been designed to take and give pleasure. And no one else, he thought as his mouth fused to hers, would take it from or give it to her again. No one else understood her heart, her mind, and her dreams as he did.

  No one else.

  Her heart leapt, then stuttered as his mood turned urgent. Desperate hands, a ravenous mouth raced over her. Sighs deepened into moans as she matched him beat for beat, flame for flame.

  How delicious was madness.

  She rolled over, her hands as quick and fast as his, to drive him as he was driving her. Dangerous heights. Pleasure that was a shuddering kin to pain. She rose up. In the shadowed lights her skin gleamed like damp silk. Her eyes, wildly blue, locked on his. One heartbeat. Two.

  Now. The demand seemed to shimmer in the air around them. In answer he gripped her hips, fingers digging in. In one fluid move, she took him deep, deep, holding there, holding them both trembling. On a long, feline moan, she arched back, skimming her hands over her own body, from center over torso to breast, where she felt her heart thundering. Slow, very slow, acutely aware of every tremor of her body, acutely aware that his eyes were following her movements, she trailed her hands down until they covered, caressed that mating of bodies.

  Glorying in every breath, she sleeked her hands up again, lifted her hair. And began to ride.

  The pace she set was hard and fast and merciless. He watched as she drove herself to the peak, shuddered over it. Sensations battered him like an avalanche, blurring his vision.

  But he knew he'd never seen anything more glorious than Margo lost in her own passion.

  When she cried out, flinging herself forward, her hands braced on his shoulders, her hair curtaining his face, he had no choice but to lose himself with her.

  "Why do I always feel as if I've dived off a mountain whenever I make love with you?" Margo didn't really expect an answer. She thought Josh was asleep, or at least comatose, but he shifted, his lips brushing over the curve of one breast, then the other.

  "Because you and I together, duchess, are a dangerous pair. And I want you again already." He nibbled his way up to her throat, found her warm, swollen mouth.

  She was ready to float again, her arms light and limber as they lifted to circle him. "It's never been like this for me before." Through the daze of sensations building fresh, she felt the change. And understood the reason for it. "I know how that sounds."

  "It doesn't matter." He didn't want to think about it. Only wanted to have her, to hold her.

  "It does. To both of us." Suddenly unsure here, where she had always felt so confident, she cupped his face in her hands to raise it. His eyes were heavy with desire, a hint of irritation now working through. "I think we have to talk about it."

  "Neither one of us took a vow of chastity."

  That was true enough. She also knew that though she had taken lovers before, the press had gifted her with a libido and a trail of broken hearts that was well beyond reality.

  "We need to talk about it," she repeated.

  "I haven't asked you any questions, Margo. Whoever, how many ever, have been in your life before, there's only one now. There's only me."

  The cool, possessive tone might have annoyed her under other circumstances. It was so Joshua Templeton—I see, I want, I take. But they were still linked, still warm from each other. "There haven't been as many as you might think. Josh, I didn't sleep with every man I dated."

  "Fine. I didn't sleep with every woman I took to dinner." He snapped it out as he turned over on his back to drag the hair off his face. "It's now that matters, in any case. Are we straight about this?"

  She wanted them to be. It was his anger, the cold control of it, that told her differently. "Josh, my reputation's never really mattered to me before. In fact, it only added to my bank account. But now… it matters now." Suddenly chilled, she sat up, wrapped her arms around herself. "It matters now because you matter now. And I don't know how to handle it. I don't know how either of us is
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