The macgregor groom, p.4
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.4

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  * * *

  Crowded, noisy clubs were stimulating. That was why D.C. enjoyed dropping into one occasionally. He could listen to the music, the chatter, watch the movement. Most of all, he could see the shapes of thoughts and emotions. When he sketched in a place like Blues Corner, he didn’t sketch faces or bodies, but feelings.

  Layna watched him, studied the slashes and splots and squiggles he drew on his pad. She didn’t understand them, but they were fascinating just the same. Just like the man who created them.

  He had kicked back and was lounging at their tiny table, shoulders braced against the wall behind them. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt, and had yanked his hair back with some thin string of leather. The lights were a dim, hazy blue; the tables around them jammed with bodies. On the stingy slice of stage a man with hair down to his shoulders plunked deep notes from a bass guitar, while another wearing tiny sunglasses blew aching tenor notes from a sax. A painfully thin young man caressed the keys of a scarred piano.

  Seated on a stool was an old black woman with a face as wrinkled as a raisin. She sang in a voice like whiskey and cream about the miseries of love.

  Layna didn’t understand the music, either, though it pulled and stroked at something deep inside her. It made her sad. It made her want. For somehow the singer made the idea of love worth all the misery that came with it.

  Layna sipped her wine, or what the club pretended was wine, and slanted a look toward D.C. He’d barely spoken to her since he’d brought her into this place. He looked like some kind of bohemian god—the tumble of rich hair, the ripple of muscle against black cotton and denim.

  What was she doing there? What was she doing with him?

  This was definitely the last time, she told herself. Absolutely the last. She couldn’t have been more out of place.

  Under the table her foot tapped time with the bass, and her heart was being torn to pieces by the slow and liquid voice of the singer.

  “She’s great, isn’t she?”

  “Yes.” Layna waved absently as smoke drifted in front of her face from the next table. “But why does it have to be so sad?”

  “The blues reach inside you, grab ahold of what’s sinking your heart. Most times it leaves it lighter for it.”

  “Or shatters it,” she murmured.

  He looked over then, let his pad slide onto the table. “Music’s supposed to touch you, affect you, bring on a mood or end one.”

  “Is that what you’re drawing? Moods?”

  “Yeah. And the music.” He tilted his head. She’d swept her hair back tonight, twisting it into some sort of clip in the back. It changed her look, he noted. Added a hint of fragility. “What mood are you in, Layna?”

  “A fairly relaxed one.”

  “You never look really relaxed. You know what you look?”

  “No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

  “Perfect. Just a little too perfect. I’ve never seen you mussed.” On impulse he reached out, and in one quick move nipped the clip out of her hair. “There, not quite perfect now.”

  “For heaven’s sake.” She skimmed her fingers through her hair in an attempt to smooth it, then made a grab for the clip. “Give me that.”

  “No. I like it down better, anyway.” Grinning, he raked his fingers through it to disorder it again. “That’s a good look for you. Just a little tumbled. Very sexy, especially with that bite of temper in your eyes and a pout on your mouth.”

  “I don’t pout.”

  “You’re not the one looking at your mouth.” His gaze lowered to it, lingered there for one long moment. In one long moment her pulse began to shimmy. “I really like your mouth,” he murmured. “In fact …”

  “Wait.” She pressed a hand to his chest. It was foolish, she knew. Hadn’t she wondered why he’d yet to kiss her? Hadn’t she wondered what it would be like when he did? Yet she found herself almost frightened, taking this minute to draw her defenses together, certain she would need them to survive intact.

  “We’ve already done the waiting part.” He closed a hand around hers, then cupped his other around the back of her neck. “We have to get to this sooner or later—see what’s there. Or what isn’t.”

  He lowered his head just enough to catch her bottom lip lightly between his teeth, to feel her breath shudder out.

  “Let’s see what mood we make.”

  He took her mouth slowly, wanting to savor and absorb. The tastes, the textures, the movement. Dark tastes, with a hint of cool, light wine. Smooth textures. Fluid movements.

  More.

  Her lips parted, in a quiet moan that vibrated under the weeping of the sax. He slipped his tongue between them, taking his time, and when she began to tremble, he shifted angles and lazily took the kiss deeper.

  God, why had he waited so long for this? was all he could think. And drawing her closer, he steeped himself in her.

  She was drowning, sliding down where the air was too thick to breathe and the music seeped into the blood and pulsed.

  She hadn’t expected this, not this. Gathering her defenses had done nothing to protect her from this endless and dreamy onslaught. Her mind clouded, and her body took over, a sweet and steady ache.

  Her heart tripped once, then fell with barely a sound.

  It cost him to draw back, to force himself to remember where they were. Her hand was still caught in his.

  “Now what, Layna? Do we finish this, or do we stop it?”

  “I don’t know.” How could she be expected to make a rational decision when her head was spinning?

  “If you’re going to leave it up to me …” His smile flickered, wicked around the edges, before he rubbed his lips over hers again.

  “No, no, I’m not,” she said quickly, pulling away. “We need to step back and look at the overall picture.”

  “What I see are two unattached adults who have a basic attraction for each other.”

  “I’m not sure what I see yet.” More than a little panicked, she snatched up her purse, shoved back from the table and rushed outside.

  Chapter 5

  He caught up with her on the sidewalk, and was just churned up enough to grab her arm and spin her around. “Look, what’s the problem? All you have to do is say, ‘No thanks, pal, not interested.’”

  She tossed her hair back, suddenly furious that it was messy. “No thanks, pal. Not interested.”

  “Liar.”

  “Jerk.” She turned on her heel and strode down the sidewalk. It didn’t surprise her when he fell into step beside her. It irritated, but didn’t surprise.

  “You weren’t exactly fighting me off in there, baby.”

  She inhaled sharply, had to remind herself the sidewalk cafés were full of people. She would not, absolutely not, be pushed into creating a scene. “I was mildly curious,” she said in a voice like January frost. “Now my curiosity is satisfied.”

  “Pardon me, but I believe I was involved in that same little experiment. You melted like butter.”

  “It was a simple kiss.” Had to be, she told herself with a new sense of rising panic. She didn’t want to feel what she’d felt, want what she’d wanted.

  “A simple kiss is what you give your grandmother on her birthday.” He hitched his bag to his other shoulder and asked himself why he was pursuing this. A lady put up a stop sign, you put on the brakes. End of story.

  But damn it, he could still taste her.

  “Layna.”

  This time she shook off the hand he put on her arm, then sharply turned toward home. “I will not be backed into a corner this way.”

  “You’re making your own corners. If you’d just stand still a minute …” He swore when she only lengthened her stride. “Just hold it.” He took both her arms this time, held her in place. And got a good look at her face.

  Her cheeks were too pale, her eyes too dark. And there was more jittering in them than temper.

  “You’re scared. It scared you.” He knew realizing it should make him feel
sorry, but it didn’t. It made him want to grin. “I figured you for more spine than that.”

  She jerked back, and for the first time in her life found herself actually tempted to strike another human being. “I have absolutely no interest in continuing the conversation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going in.”

  “We can end the conversation. Let’s try this instead.”

  She saw his intention. Thrill wrapped in fear pounded at her heart. “I don’t want—”

  But his mouth was already on hers. No lazy exploration this time, no slow, smooth seduction. He possessed, then conquered, then devoured. Lights exploded in her head; heat swam through her blood. All she could do was hold on and ride that high and savage wave.

  He hadn’t realized he’d lifted her off her feet, that he’d lost himself in the taste of her, until he felt his heart ram brutally against his chest. He was always, always, aware of his size, of the strength of his hands. Now realizing he hadn’t been appalled him.

  He dropped her back on her feet, took two steps back. “Ball’s in your court.” He turned, strode away.

  * * *

  He cursed himself for days. Slept poorly at night. He talked himself into apologizing a dozen times, then talked himself out of it again.

  It was best to stay away from her, he told himself. To let it go, let her go before they tangled themselves up again. Every time he came to that decision, he felt better. He’d work like a demon for hours. Then somehow she’d sneak into his brain again and leave him miserable, itchy and angry.

  Nothing could have pleased him more than the call from his father telling him his grandparents had come down for a quick visit.

  It would do him good to have an easy family dinner, he thought. To spend an evening with people he loved and understood. In fact, he could go back north with them. Spend some time with Julia and Cullum and little Travis, see some of his cousins.

  He could toss a few clothes in a bag, pack up some canvases and paints and be on the road whenever he wanted to. That, he assured himself as he walked to his parents’ home, was the beauty of his lifestyle.

  It was simple, it was basic. It was his.

  The last thing he needed was a woman clogging up the works. God knew women like Layna Drake were major complications. High maintenance, he decided, as the breeze fluttered and sent a shower of fading cherry blossoms flying.

  Across the street a leggy brunette in bicycle shorts jogged along with a sleek black Lab on a silver leash. The dog barked happily; the woman gave D.C. a long, slow smile. He watched her long enough to note she tossed a look over her shoulder that radiated invitation.

  And he cursed himself for not having the slightest interest in following up on it.

  Leggy brunettes with slow, hot smiles had always been his style, hadn’t they? So why the hell was he hung up on a cool blonde who never had a hair out of place?

  A change of scene, he told himself, was definitely in order. He’d spend a couple of weeks in Boston and Hyannis Port, play with the kids, do some work and get rid of this ridiculous obsession over a woman.

  He climbed the short set of stairs to the walkway. Vivid red impatiens were spreading on either side of the doorway. His mother would have planted them, he knew. She liked strong colors. They added a touch of flash to the dignity of the town house. Dignity and flash. It was a perfect description of his parents. It made him smile to think of it.

  The potter and the politician.

  Together they’d made marriage, home and family mean something. Mean everything, D.C. mused, then smiled again when he heard his grandfather’s laugh boom through the open windows.

  He didn’t knock, but walked in. He smelled flowers and lemon oil, heard more laughter, and the murmur of voices from the parlor. His uncertain mood lifted and steadied.

  So when he stepped in, he was totally unprepared to see Layna sitting knee-to-knee with Daniel, or the two of them grinning at each other.

  “There’s the lad!” Daniel surged out of his chair, moving with a speed that laughed at more than ninety years of living. His shoulders were broad, his hair a snowy mane that matched his beard. His eyes as they met D.C.’s twinkled blue with delight.

  Daniel hugged him like a bear trap, thumped him on the back with sledgehammer blows and noted—with pleasure—that D.C. had yet to stop staring at the lass Daniel had picked out for him.

  “About time you got here. These women have been pouring tea down my throat when any fool can see I need a whiskey. The lad wants a whiskey, Shelby, and I’ll join him.”

  “Two fingers, Shelby, no more.” Anna MacGregor’s quiet voice held authority. Smiling as her husband complained bitterly about a bairn being able to handle two fingers, she opened her arms to D.C.

  “Grandma.” He folded himself down until their cheeks rubbed. As always, he found both softness and strength. And closing his eyes, breathed her in.

  Layna looked away before it undid her. There was complete, unquestioning, unconditional love in that welcoming embrace. So much love it sparked both envy and need. She didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to feel it.

  “You look tired,” Anna murmured when she cupped D.C.’s face in her hands.

  “Been working.” He kissed her again, then deliberately looked past Layna. “Nice to see you, Aunt Myra.”

  When he kissed her cheek, Myra made certain she had a good strong grip on his hand. “You remember Layna, don’t you?”

  “Yeah.” He looked at her now, straight on, measuring. “How’s it going?”

  “Very well.” Her hands wanted to tremble, so she kept them neatly folded in her lap.

  “Sit down and keep Layna company, darling.” Myra was up and nudging him to the chair. “I need to ask Daniel about … an investment,” she improvised.

  “I’m terribly sorry.” Keeping her voice low, Layna struggled to fix a casual smile on her face. “I didn’t realize you’d be here. Aunt Myra asked if I’d bring her to see your grandparents. We’re supposed to stay for dinner, but I can make an excuse.”

  “What for?” He leaned back and wished to God he’d gotten the damn whiskey before he’d sat beside her. “It doesn’t bother me.”

  That stung. She’d been suffering for days. “I don’t want to spoil your evening with your family. I realize the last time—we were angry with each other.”

  “I got over it.” He lifted a brow in challenge. “Didn’t you?”

  “Of course.” She lifted her chin, cloaked with dignity. “I simply thought since you stalked off like an irritable child you might be uncomfortable having me here.”

  “As I recall, you’re the one who ran out of the club, like a scared rabbit.” His lips curled in a sneer. “You don’t make me uncomfortable, Layna.”

  * * *

  “Just look at them, Daniel.” Myra spoke out of the corner of her mouth as she pretended not to watch the couple across the room. “You can practically see the air sizzle around them.”

  “Don’t know what’s taking them so long,” Daniel complained. “Boy’s just scowling at her. I tell you, I worry about him.”

  “Oh, they’ve just had a tiff, that’s all. It’s just as I told you, Layna’s been sulking for days. I’m just glad you decided to come see for yourself. This might give them the next little nudge.”

  “I’ve got my work cut out for me.” Daniel sighed and sipped lovingly at his whiskey. “Don’t you worry, Myra, we’ll have the two of them wedded and bedded by summer.” He tapped his glass against her teacup. “You have my word on it.”

  * * *

  And being a man of his word, Daniel didn’t loiter. He got to work on D.C. the minute Myra lured Layna out of the room to look at Shelby’s studio.

  “Pretty young thing,” Daniel said casually, and pricking his ears for his wife’s voice, pulled out a cigar. “Could be sturdier, though. Needs some meat on her bones.”

  “Her bones look fine to me.” D.C. cocked his head. “If Grandma comes back in while you’re smoking that, she
ll scalp you bald.”

  “She won’t catch me.” Content, Daniel puffed out smoke and wiggled his eyebrows at his son. “Alan, I’ll have a real glass of whiskey this time.”

  “It’s not worth my head.”

  “Coward,” Daniel muttered, but settled back with his cigar. “Myra’s telling me the girl’s too buried in her work just now. No social life.”

  “Her choice.” D.C. shrugged, and catching Daniel’s sorrowful look, sighed and handed over what was left in his own whiskey glass.

  “You’re a fine, respectful lad.” Daniel sent his son a beetle-browed look that made Alan laugh. “At least we’ve got one here who isn’t afraid of his poor old granny. Now, as I was saying … that young lass has Myra fretting day and night. Glad I got down to get a good look at her again, see what she’s made of. Girl needs the right man beside her. A banker, I’m thinking, or an up-and-coming executive.”

  “What?” D.C. stopped sulking long enough to tune in. “A banker? What the devil are you talking about?”

  “Why, seeing that Layna has some proper companionship. Happens I know a young man right here in Washington. He’s already worked his way up to department manager. Good head on his shoulders has Henry,” Daniel continued, pulling a name out of his hat. “Got a future ahead of him. I’ll just give him a call.”

  “Hold on, just hold the hell on.” Lurching out of his chair, D.C. stared at his grandfather. “You’re going to call some stiff-necked banker named Henry and try to fix him up with Layna?”

  “He’s a good lad, comes from a nice family.” Daniel blinked innocent blue eyes. “It’s the least I can do for Myra.”

  “The least you can do is stay out of it. Layna’s not interested in being bartered off to some banker.”

  “What a thing to say. Bartered indeed.” As glee danced in his heart, Daniel scowled at his grandson. “I’m speaking of arranging a perfectly acceptable social connection between two young people.” He jabbed the air with his cigar. “And if you’d concentrate on finding the proper woman for yourself, you wouldn’t have time to get on your high horse about someone else’s business. What’s Layna Drake to you, I’d like to know.”

  “Nothing!” D.C. threw up his hands and shouted it, pleasing his grandfather enormously. “She’s nothing to me.”

  “Glad to hear it.” The boy’s hooked good and proper, Daniel decided, and thought he’d just reel him in a bit more. “Couldn’t be more ill suited to each other. You don’t want to be casting your eyes in that direction, lad. What you need is a fine, sturdy girl, one who’ll give you lusty babies and won’t be worrying if her nail polish chips. That lass is too elegant for you, when you’re needing more the earthy sort.”

  “I think I’m the best judge of what I need,” D.C. said coolly.

  Daniel got to his feet, shot D.C. a narrow-eyed stare. “You’d do best to listen to the wisdom and experience of your elders.”

  “Hah!” was D.C.’s response to that, and it took all Daniel’s willpower not to laugh out loud and kiss his grandson with soaring pride.

  He watched steely-eyed as D.C. stalked into the hall and shouted for Layna.

  “What are you up to, MacGregor?” Alan murmured.

  “Watch, see and learn, boy.” He remained standing and stone-faced as Layna came down the hall. The ice in her voice could have frosted glass at fifty paces.

  “What in the world are you shouting about?”

  “Come on.” D.C. grabbed her hand, pulling her down the hall.

  “What? Let go of me.”

  “We’re leaving.”

  “I’m not leaving.”

  He solved the problem in a way that made Daniel’s heart swell with family pride. D.C. scooped her off her feet and carried her out the door.

  “Now that’s a MacGregor. He’s—sweet Lord, here comes your mother.” Daniel shoved whiskey and cigar into his son’s hands and bolted for the side door. “Tell her I’ve gone to take a turn around the garden,” he ordered, and escaped.

 
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