The macgregor groom, p.3
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.3

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  on the proper attire for casual morning gardening. Competent elegance.

  The light was good, D.C. determined, filtering nicely through branches just starting to green with new leaves. He stood where he was and did three quick sketches.

  It amused and intrigued him how precisely she worked. Turn the earth with the spade, mix in fertilizer, carefully tap out the plant, place it exactly in the center of the prepared hole, gently fill in the hole, tamp.

  She was lining them up like little soldiers.

  He was grinning when he stepped outside.

  Because all her concentration had been focused on making a success of her first attempt at gardening, the sound of the screen door slamming was like a bullet in the heart. The spade went one way, the pansies another as she jerked up and spun.

  “Startled you, sorry.”

  “What? How did you get out here?” She had a fist pressed against her racing heart as she stared at him.

  “I walked through the house. You didn’t answer the door.”

  He set his bag on the wrought-iron table centered on the patio, noted the thick gardening book set there and open to instructions on the planting of annuals, then walked over to pick up the pansies that had gone flying.

  “You can’t just walk into someone’s house.”

  “Yes, you can.” He crouched beside her, offered the plants. “When the door’s unlocked. I told you I was coming by.”

  He smelled of soap, she thought fleetingly, and he moved like a big, sleek leopard. “You certainly did not.”

  “Last night. You ought to plant these in a sweep instead of a line, and crowd them some. More pizzazz.” With his eyes narrowed, he took her chin, turned her head to the left. “I said I wanted to sketch your face.”

  She jerked free, as irritated with his touch as with his critique of her novice gardening attempts. “I don’t remember anything about that.”

  “When we were dancing. It’s a nice light out here. This’ll be fine.” He rose to get his pad. “Just keep gardening if you want.”

  When they were dancing? Layna sat back on her heels and tried to think. She couldn’t remember anything that happened when they were dancing except that she’d gone momentarily insane.

  Now he was sitting there, dwarfing the curvy little patio chair, his long legs kicked out and a pencil in his hand.

  “You don’t have to pose,” he told her, shooting her a smile that went straight to her gut. “Just pretend I’m not here.”

  It would be like ignoring a big, sleek panther crouched in the drawing room, she thought. “I can’t work while you’re staring at me. I want to get these planted. They’re calling for some rain this afternoon.”

  “You don’t have more than a dozen left, so take a break.” He nudged the other chair away from the table with his foot. “Sit down and talk to me.”

  She got to her feet, dragging at her gloves. “Didn’t we establish that we have nothing to say to each other?”

  “Did we?” He knew how to charm a reluctant model, and used his smile ruthlessly. “You like music. So do I. Let’s talk music. Chopin suits your style.”

  She shoved the gloves into the pocket of her apron. “I suppose wailing bagpipes suit yours.”

  He cocked a brow. “You have something against bagpipes?”

  She only huffed out a breath, then gave in enough to sit. “Look, D.C., I don’t mean to be rude, but—”

  “You’d never be rude unless you meant to. You’re too well bred. Nice smile,” he commented, drawing quickly as he spoke. “Too bad you’re so stingy with it.”

  “I’m not—when I like someone.”

  He only grinned. “See, you meant to be rude.”

  She couldn’t help it. She laughed. But the laughter ended on a stutter of annoyance when he leaned over and plucked off her hat.

  “It’s shading your eyes,” he said as he dropped it on the table.

  “That was the idea.” Puzzling over him, she leaned back. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but in my opinion you and I didn’t hit it off in any particular fashion last night.”

  “So?”

  She opened her mouth, shut it again. Ridiculous, she told herself, to feel insulted because he agreed with her. “So, what are you doing here, sketching me?”

  “I like your face. It’s strong, all-female. Sexy eyes and classy bones. I don’t have to be attracted to you on a personal level to want to draw you.”

  “I appreciate your honesty,” she said coldly.

  “No, you don’t. It ticked you off.” He’d flipped over a page and started a fresh study. “That’s female, too. Why get irked because we agree we’re not each other’s type? It doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful. You are. Turn your head to the left a little. You need to tuck your hair back.”

  He leaned forward to take care of it himself, skimming his fingers over her cheek. As he did, both of them went very still.

  Her heart fluttered in her chest, continued to dance no matter how firmly she told herself it was a foolish, knee-jerk reaction. The gilded, filtered sunlight was suddenly too hot. Her throat was abruptly too dry.

  “You’ve got great skin.” He said it softly, slowly, as if the words were foreign to him. He trailed his fingers down to her chin, along her jaw, then down so that he felt the pulse in her throat beat hard and erratic.

  He wanted his mouth there, just there, tasting that wild beat.

  Simple, keep it simple, he ordered himself, and picked up his pencil again. Though he wondered how the devil he was supposed to sketch when his fingers seemed to have gone numb.

  “I thought …” She had to clear her throat. “I thought you painted shapes—the modern school.”

  “I paint what appeals to me.” His eyes stayed on hers as his pencil began to move again. “Apparently you do. On some level.”

  Relax, she ordered herself, and unballed the hands she’d fisted under the table. “You had a show in New York a couple of years ago. I didn’t see it, but one of my friends did.”

  “That’s all right. I don’t do a lot of shopping in Drake’s, but my mother does.”

  Layna chuckled, and the smile stayed in place long enough to make his mouth water. “Well, I suppose we’ve exchanged subtle insults now. What next?”

  “We could try a conversation. How do you like being back in Washington?”

  “Very much. I’ve always loved this house, this area.” She glanced back toward the pansies she’d planted. “I’m going to enjoy making a home here.” Her brow creased. “What did you mean, plant them in a sweep?”

  “Hmm? Oh, the flowers. More of a flow, less rigid lines. Something like what Monet did in Giverny.”

  “Yes, you’re right.” And her eyes went soft, her lips curved again as she imagined it. “I tend to follow directions exactly when I’m learning. You make fewer mistakes that way.” She angled her head, and the dappled sunlight flickered over her face, turned it dreamy again, soft again. “But then you’d look at things with an artist’s eye. And I don’t imagine you worry overmuch about making mistakes.”

  “Not usually.” But he realized he was worried about making one now, with her, here where the light was lovely, the music soaring and the air carrying just a shimmer of scent that was her, turned earth and young flowers.

  “I do, so I plan things carefully and very rarely deviate.” Something about him tempted her to make an impulsive turn, almost demanded it. And she imagined the trip would be just as wild and fast as the ride they’d taken the night before.

  The kind of ride, Layna reminded herself, where a woman could end up crashing very abruptly, and very hard.

  “I guess that’s enough for now.” He shoved his pad in the bag. He had to go, before he did something stupid. Like touch her again. “I appreciate it.”

  “You’re welcome.” She got to her feet when he did, intending to see him out. But they only stood there, a bit too close for comfort.

  “I know the way out.” He took the first step back. He
had a feeling if she walked inside with him he’d be unable to stop himself from doing that stupid thing. Like pulling her against him, taking a good long taste of that mouth. Then dragging her to the floor to take a great deal more of her while Chopin crashed around them.

  “All right. Well … goodbye.”

  “Right.” He picked up his bag, turned. He’d nearly made it into the house and away before he was compelled to turn back. She was still standing there, the sunlight on her hair, those misty green eyes watching him.

  “There’s a Dali exhibit at the Smithsonian. Opens Wednesday. I’ll pick you up at seven.”

  No, absolutely not. “All right,” she heard herself say, with some surprise. “That’ll be fine.”

  He merely nodded and strode into the house. He made it to the front door before he started cursing himself.

  Chapter 4

  He thought of a dozen reasons to break the date. He’d have preferred to go alone, enjoy and absorb the exhibit. Then perhaps find an interesting woman to discuss it with. Over coffee or a late supper.

  That was, D.C. reminded himself, the way he operated.

  But he didn’t break the date. Or the next one he found himself making with her. It baffled him that he enjoyed her company. It made absolutely no sense. She liked art to express something specific in tangible terms. She preferred her music subdued and her movies with subtitles.

  They ended up debating half the time, sitting over steaming cups of espresso or glasses of wine. Somehow they’d managed to have three fairly civilized dates. He wondered if she was as surprised as he that they’d enjoyed themselves.

  They were about to have a fourth. Four dates in two weeks, D.C. mused. It was … bizarre.

  He stepped back from the canvas, frowned at it. He often worked in watercolors for a change of pace. He hadn’t intended to do a portrait. The sketches he’d done of Layna had simply been an exercise. But they’d nagged at him until he’d given in and begun to commit the image to paper.

  Watercolors would suit her. Cool tones, soft lines. He hadn’t selected a sketch of her smiling. Again and again, he’d been drawn to his quick study of her looking straight ahead, mouth soft and serious, eyes aloof.

  Frosty sex, he thought now. It was the expression of a woman who challenged a man to chip through the ice to the heat. And if he did, what then? Would it be a flash or a simmer, a slow burn or an explosion?

  The wondering was maddening, D.C. decided. And erotic.

  Painting her this way was both intriguing and frustrating. He had to know. He’d never bring that face to life until he knew what went on behind it.

  When that realization struck him, his shoulders relaxed, his mouth curved up. Of course, that was it. That was why he kept going back. He wanted to paint her, and he couldn’t until he knew her.

  Pleased that the puzzle had been solved, he set his brush aside. He picked up his coffee, drinking deeply before he realized it had gone stone cold. With a grimace, he started downstairs to brew a fresh pot.

  When his buzzer sounded, he switched directions and found his mother on the doorstep.

  “I’ve caught you at work,” Shelby said instantly.

  “No, on a break.” He gave her a hard, one-armed hug. “And now you can make the coffee.”

  “Fair enough. I promised myself when you moved back I wouldn’t start popping in unannounced.” She smiled up at him as they walked back to the kitchen. “But Julia sent me new pictures of Travis, and your father’s not home. I had to share them with someone.”

  “Let’s see.”

  He shoved unopened mail, a few dirty dishes and a sketch pad into a pile on the table. Shelby dug a pack of snapshots out of her purse and handed them over as she turned to hunt up coffee beans.

  Her son, she thought, with an eye roll at the state of his kitchen, lived like the clichéd starving artist. But if it suited him, it was fine with her.

  “Damn. He’s great, isn’t he?”

  “He looks very much like you did at that age.”

  “Yeah?” Foolishly pleased, D.C. glanced up from his nephew’s grinning face.

  “Those MacGregor genes. Good blood,” she said in a fair imitation of Daniel. “Strong stock. And speaking of The MacGregor, have you heard from him lately?”

  “Mmm. Just a few days ago. He wanted to thank me for doing him a favor, then nag me to come up for a visit. Grandma’s pining again.”

  Shelby laughed as she ground fresh beans. “You’d think he’d come up with a new one. To hear him say it, you’d think Anna sat around moping all day.” Angling so that she could see D.C. as she measured out coffee, she cocked her head. “What favor did you do for him?”

  “Layna Drake,” D.C. answered absently, as he studied the snapshots. “Aunt Myra was badgering him about her—asked him to have me escort her to that deal the other night.”

  Shelby tucked her tongue in her cheek. “Oh really? And you bought that, did you? Foolish, foolish boy.”

  “Huh?” He blinked, then shrugged. “No, it’s not his usual marry-the-girl-and-make-babies-for-your-grandmother deal. He doesn’t think she’s my type—told me straight-out it was a one-shot to get Myra off his back.”

  Shelby opened her mouth, shut it again. Very, very foolish boy, she thought, amused. “I see. And what did you think of her?”

  “She’s all right. Great face. I want to paint her.”

  “You—” Shelby nearly bobbled the clean cup she’d found in the cupboard. “You don’t do portraits.”

  “Now and then.” In fact, he was debating which snapshot he’d use to paint little Travis as a gift for his sister.

  Once again Shelby decided to keep her mouth closed. Her son had indeed done some portraits. Of the family, she thought now. Of people who mattered most to him.

  Just what, she wondered, did Layna Drake mean to him?

  “You’ve asked her to sit for you?”

  “No, I’m working from sketches.”

  “Then you’ve been seeing each other.”

  “Off and on. A few times.” He glanced up. “Why?”

  “Just curious,” Shelby said lightly. “I know her parents slightly. She doesn’t seem a great deal like them.”

  “And is that a good thing or a bad thing?” He moved his shoulders restlessly. “She doesn’t have much to say about her family.”

  “Well.” Shelby turned, leaned back on the counter. “I suppose I’d call them surface people. Lots of gloss. She has the polish, but there seems to be more under it. I prefer undertones, don’t you?”

  “Yeah.” Appreciating the fact that his mother could always put her finger on the pulse, he grinned. “I’m working on getting down to them with her. I like her—haven’t figured out why yet, but I do.”

  “She isn’t your usual. That wasn’t a complaint,” she added with a laugh when D.C.’s grin turned into a typical MacGregor scowl. “Or a criticism. Just a comment that your usual choice of women lean toward the bohemian or the flamboyant. And she’s neither.”

  “I didn’t say she was my choice, I said I liked her.” Now he grinned again. “And I’m told my mother was a flamboyant bohemian.”

  Shelby lifted her eyebrows. “I heard that somewhere. What ever happened to her?”

  “She made it fashionable, and she’s still the most important woman in my heart.”

  “Oh.” Touched and delighted, she moved over to fold her arms around him, to rest her cheek on the top of his head. “I’m so glad you moved back, so glad, D.C., that you’re here where I can pretend I’m not going to drop in on you.”

  “Dad pretended not to drop by yesterday.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and squeezed. “Don’t stop.”

  “Can’t.” She sighed. “But we won’t hover.”

  “You never did. You were both just always there—even when you weren’t.”

  “That’s our job.” She kissed the top of his head, then turned back to pour the coffee.

  “Can I keep this one?” he asked, holding up
a shot of Travis showing off his two teeth in a grin.

  “Sure. Sketches in here?” Casually, she flipped open the book on the table, browsing through until she came to several studies of Layna Drake. “She’s lovely,” Shelby murmured, and a little part of her heart sighed. “You’re very attracted to her.”

  “She’s got a great face.” When his mother’s gaze shifted to his, held, he shrugged. “It’s no big deal. Grandpa’s right, she’s not my type.”

  “Yes, The MacGregor rarely misses a step.” Cagey old goat, she thought as she sat down to enjoy her coffee. He was probably already planning the wedding reception.

  She decided then and there it was time to go shopping. She’d take a look at what Drake’s was showing in the new spring lines.

  * * *

  Layna’s assistant was all awed eyes and reverent whispers as she popped her head into Layna’s office. “Ms. Drake, there’s a Mrs. MacGregor to see you.”

  “MacGregor?” Layna glanced up from her sample book. “Shelby MacGregor?”

  “Yes. The former First Lady. She’s right out there. I couldn’t believe it.”

  “Oh.” Flustered, Layna ran a hand over her hair, scanned her office to be certain everything was in place. “Show her right in.”

  Layna rose quickly, smoothed her skirt, hitched at the line of her jacket, then rubbed her lips together to see if she’d chewed off her lipstick again. The answer was yes, but she didn’t have time to dive for her bag and repair the damage. She moved forward with a smile as Shelby came in.

  “Mrs. MacGregor. What a pleasure.”

  “I know I’m interrupting your work, but I was shopping and thought I’d just drop in for a moment.”

  “I’m delighted you did. Please sit down. Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea?”

  “No, no, don’t fuss.” Shelby smiled easily as she surveyed the woman and her office. Tasteful, she decided, choosing a high-backed chair with a petit point seat. Cool but not cold, controlled but not rigid. “I won’t keep you long. I was just browsing through casual wear. You have a lovely selection.”

  “Thank you. Of course, I’m already focused on next fall.” Though puzzled, Layna smiled as she sat. “Plaid’s the big news.”

  “That will delight my father-in-law. You haven’t met Daniel, have you?”

  “Yes, actually. My godmother wanted to visit and didn’t feel up to making the trip to Hyannis alone. I went up with her for a couple days last fall. It’s an amazing house, and your in-laws are delightful people.”

  “Yes, indeed.” And the plot thickens, Shelby thought. “Of all the grandchildren, D.C. most resembles Daniel.”

  And she saw it, that flicker in the eye, the faint rise in color. Oh my, Shelby thought. She’s hooked.

  “Yes, I suppose so. They’re both a bit larger than life, aren’t they?”

  “The MacGregors are all a bit larger than life. They’re demanding, charming, frustrating, generous. Being married to one, I can say that boredom ceases to be part of my vocabulary. And very often chaos becomes the key word.”

  “You must handle chaos very well.”

  “Oh, Layna, I adore chaos.” With a laugh, Shelby rose. “I’d love to have lunch sometime.”

  “I’d like that, very much.”

  “Then I’ll check my calendar and we’ll set it up.” Shelby took her hand, held it a moment. “When the man is larger than life,” she began, “the woman has to be smart and clever. You strike me as a smart and clever woman, Layna.”

  “Ah … thank you.”

  “I’ll call you,” Shelby said as she breezed out. But first, she decided, she was going to call Daniel. After she’d blistered his ears for meddling in her son’s life, she’d tell him she very much approved of his choice.

  That, she mused, would throw the old devil off balance a little—long enough, she hoped, for D.C. and Layna to figure out they were falling in love.

 
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