For now forever, p.6
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       For Now, Forever, p.6

         Part #5 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “You like crystal?”

  “Yes. It seems cold until the light hits it, and then, there are so many surprises.”

  “If you agreed to have dinner with me at my home, I could show you mine.”

  She dismissed the first part of the statement as nonsense, but honed in on the second. “You collect?”

  “I like pretty things.”

  The tone was clear. Her look was as direct and as calm as ever. “If that’s a compliment, I’ll take it for what it’s worth. But I have no intention of being collected.”

  “I don’t want you on a shelf or in a glass case. I just want you.” He took her hand, tightening his fingers on hers when she would have drawn away. “You’re skittish,” he commented, and found that fact pleased him.

  “Cautious.” Without moving her head, Anna shifted her gaze to their joined hands. “You have my hand.”

  He intended to keep it. “Have you noticed how well yours fits into it?”

  She brought her eyes back to his. “You have very large hands. Anyone’s would fit into it.”

  “I think not.” But he released her hand, only to take her arm.

  “Daniel—”

  “It looks like we’re going in to dinner.”

  She couldn’t eat. Anna’s appetite was never large, which constantly made Myra grumble, but tonight it was nonexistent. At first, she’d thought it a trick of fate that Daniel was seated next to her at the long banquet table. But one look at his face and she was certain he’d arranged it. He made his way without problem through the seafood appetizer and the soup course while she nibbled for form’s sake.

  He was attentive, infuriatingly so, while all but ignoring the woman on his right. He leaned close and murmured to her, encouraged her to try a bit more of this, taste a bit of that. Forced by upbringing to keep her manners in place, Anna struggled for composure. Her parents were seated closer to the head of the table. From that direction she saw both speculation and approval. She set her teeth and tried to choke down beef Wellington. It didn’t take her long to realize there was speculation going on at other points of the table as well. She caught the smiles, the nods, the whispers behind lifted hands. Daniel was making it clear, publicly, that he considered them a couple.

  Her temper, always so well controlled, began to heat. Very deliberately Anna cut a piece of meat. “If you don’t stop playing the lovesick suitor,” she murmured, sending him a smile, “I’m going to knock my wineglass in your lap. You’ll be very uncomfortable.”

  Daniel patted her hand. “No, you won’t.”

  Anna took a deep breath and bided her time. As dessert was served, she scooted her hand along the table and nudged. If he hadn’t glanced down just at that instant, he’d have missed it and would have had a lapful of burgundy. He made a quick grab. The glass tilted the other way. Before he could right it, half the contents had splatted over the tablecloth. He heard Anna swear under her breath and nearly roared with laughter.

  “Clumsy.” He sent an apologetic look toward his hostess. “I’ve such big hands.” Unrepentant, he used one of them to pat Anna’s leg under the table. He thought, but couldn’t be sure, that he heard her grind her teeth.

  “Think nothing of it.” Mrs. Ditmeyer surveyed the damage and decided it could have been worse. “That’s what tablecloths are for. You haven’t spilled any on yourself, have you?”

  Daniel beamed at her, then at Anna. “Not a drop.” As the buzz of conversation picked up again, Daniel leaned toward Anna. “Admirable and very quick. I find you more and more exciting.”

  “You’d have been more excited if my aim had been better.”

  He lifted his glass and touched it to hers. “What do you think our hostess would do if I were to kiss you right here, right now?”

  Anna picked up her knife and examined it as though admiring the pattern. The look she sent Daniel was as tough as nails. “I know what I’d do.”

  This time he did laugh, loud and long. “I’ll be damned, Anna, you’re the only woman for me.” His announcement carried easily down both ends of the table. “But I won’t kiss you now. I don’t want you trying your first surgery on me.”

  After dinner there was bridge in the parlor. Though she detested the game, Anna considered volunteering to keep herself occupied and in a group. Before she could manage it, she was urged along outside by a half-dozen younger people.

  The storm still threatened and the moon was covered with clouds, but the air was freshened by the building breeze. As the rain crept closer, the wind began to dance around her skirt. There were lights placed strategically here and there so that the trees and the garden were bathed in a muted glow. Someone had turned on the radio inside so that music flowed through the windows. The group started out wandering aimlessly, then slowly paired off.

  “I wonder if you know much about gardens,” Daniel asked her.

  She hadn’t expected to be rid of him easily. With a shrug, Anna kept several of her friends in view. “A bit.”

  “Steven’s a better driver than a gardener.” Daniel leaned over to sniff at a fat white peony. “He’s neat enough, but he lacks imagination. I was hoping for something more . . .”

  “Showy?” Anna suggested.

  He liked the word. “Aye. Showy. Colorful. In Scotland we had the heather, and the brambles were full of wild roses. Not the pretty tame sort you buy at the flower shop, tough ones, with stems as thick as your thumbs and thorns that could rip a hole through you.” Ignoring Anna’s murmur of disapproval, he plucked off a bloom and tucked it behind her ear. “Delicate flowers are nice for looking at, for seeing in a woman’s hair, but a wild rose—they last.”

  She’d forgotten she didn’t want to be alone with him, forgotten to keep within a cautious distance of her friends. She wondered what a wild rose would smell like and if a man like Daniel would rip it out or leave it in the brambles to grow as it chose. “Do you miss Scotland?”

  He looked down at her, for a moment lost in his own memories. “Sometimes. When I’m not too busy to think about it. I miss the cliffs and the sea and the grass that’s greener than it has a right to be.”

  It was in his voice, she realized. Mourning. She’d never thought it possible to mourn for land, only for people. “Are you going to go back?” She found herself needing to know and afraid of his answer.

  He looked away a moment, and the lightning flashed, reflecting fast and sharp on his face. Her heart thudded wildly. He looked the way she’d always imagined Thor would look—bold, ruthless, invulnerable. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and should have soothed her. She felt only more excitement. “No. A man makes his own home in his own time.”

  She ran a finger down a fragile vine of wisteria. Just a trick of the light, she told herself. It was silly to be moved by a trick of the light. “Don’t you have family there?”

  “No.” She thought she heard pain in his voice, pain that went deeper than mourning, but his face was impassive when she looked up. “I’m the last of my line. I need sons, Anna.” He didn’t touch her. He didn’t need to. “I need sons and daughters. I want you to give them to me.”

  Why, when he still spoke the outrageous, did it no longer seem so outrageous? Uneasy, Anna continued along the path. “I don’t want to argue with you, Daniel.”

  “Good.” He caught her around the waist and spun her again. The solemn look that had been in his eyes was replaced by a grin. “We’ll drive to Maryland and be married in the morning.”

  “No!” Though it wounded her dignity, she tried to wiggle away.

  “All right. If you want a big wedding, I’ll wait a week.”

  “No, no, no!” Why it struck her as funny, she didn’t know, but she began to laugh as she pushed at his chest. “Daniel MacGregor, under all that red hair, you have the hardest head known to man. I will not marry you tomorrow. I will not marry you in a week. I will not marry you ever.”

  He lifted her off her feet so that their faces were level. When she got over her shock, Anna foun
d it an odd and not entirely unpleasant sensation. “Bet?” he said simply.

  Her brow lifted, and her voice was cool as a mountain stream. “I beg your pardon?”

  “God, what a woman,” he said, and kissed her hard. The visions that came and went in her head swirled so quickly that she couldn’t separate them. “If I didn’t want to do the honorable thing, I swear I’d toss you over my shoulder and be done with it.” Then he laughed and kissed her again. “Instead I’ll make you a wager.”

  If he kissed her just once more, she’d be too giddy to remember her name. Clinging to dignity, she braced her hands on his shoulders and looked stern. “Daniel, put me down.”

  “Damned if I will,” he said, and grinned at her.

  “You’ll be lame if you don’t.”

  He remembered her threat with the wineglass. A compromise, Daniel decided, and set her down, but he kept his hands around her waist. “A wager,” he repeated.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “You said I was a gambler, and right you were. What about you?”

  She discovered her hands were resting against his chest and dropped them. “Certainly not.”

  “Hah!” There was a dare in his eyes she found hard to resist. “Now you lie. Any woman who takes herself off to be a doctor, thumbing her nose at the system, has gambling in her blood.”

  And right he was. She tilted her head. “What’s the wager?”

  “There’s a lass.” He would have lifted her off her feet again if she hadn’t narrowed her eyes at him. “I say you’ll have my ring on your finger within the year.”

  “And I say I won’t.”

  “If I win, you spend the first week as my wife in bed. We’ll do nothing but eat, sleep and make love.”

  If he’d meant to shock her, he’d fallen short of the mark. Anna merely nodded. “And if you lose?”

  His eyes were alive with the challenge, with the taste of victory. “Name it.”

  Her lips curved. She believed in making the stakes high. “You give a grant to the hospital, enough for a new wing.”

  He didn’t hesitate. “Done.”

  If she was sure of anything, it was that he would keep his word, no matter how absurd the circumstances. Solemnly she extended her hand. Daniel took it for the official shake then brought it to his lips. “I’ve never gambled for higher stakes, nor will I again. Now let me kiss you, Anna.” When she backed away, he caught her again. “We’ve set the wager and named the stakes, but what are the odds?” He brushed his lips against her temple and felt her shiver. “Aye, Anna, my love, what are the odds?”

  Slowly he skimmed his mouth over her skin, teasing, promising, but never quite meeting her mouth. His hands, at once gentle and confident, roamed up her back to toy with the sensitive skin of her neck, then retreat again to her waist. He could feel the instant when her body gave in to its own needs and to his. He could feel his own climb higher. But he continued slowly, effortlessly to seduce.

  The thunder rumbled again, but she thought it was her own heartbeat. When lightning flashed, it was like the fire in her own blood. What was passion? What was need? What was emotion? How could she tell when no man had ever brought her any of those things with such intensity before? She knew it was vital to separate them, but they flowed together into one incandescent sensation.

  This was beauty. As her body went fluid, she recognized it. This was danger. When her muscles went lax, she accepted it.

  His mouth brushed over hers again but didn’t linger. Frustrated, edgy, she moaned and strained closer. Did he laugh, or was it the thunder again?

  Then the skies opened and rain poured over them. With a curse, Daniel swooped her off her feet. “You owe me a kiss, Anna Whitfield,” he shouted. He stood a moment while the rain poured down his wild mane of hair. The lightning was in his eyes. “Don’t think I’ll forget.” With that he bundled her close and ran for the terrace.

  ***

  Was it any wonder she was distracted in the hospital the next day? Anna found herself walking down corridors, then having to stop and sort out where she was going and what she was doing. It worried her. It infuriated her. What if she had her degree, if she had patients and became so easily rattled? She simply couldn’t permit herself to think of anything but her duties as long as she was in the hospital.

  But she remembered the wild thrill of being carried in Daniel’s arms through the pounding summer storm. She remembered, too, the way he’d burst through the terrace doors and sent the quiet bridge game into chaos by demanding towels and a brandy for her. It should have been humiliating. Anna had found it sweet. That was something else that worried her. Thinking of how Louise Ditmeyer’s eyes had widened like saucers, Anna smothered a laugh. He’d certainly added spice to a sedate dinner party.

  She spent the majority of her day in the wards, bringing books and magazines to the patients and talking to them as they lay in beds set side by side. Lack of privacy, Anna thought, could be as debilitating as the illnesses that had brought them there. But there was only so much room, so many doctors. She smiled a bit, thinking that the impulsive bet she’d made with Daniel would do some good.

  With a glance at her watch, she realized she had less than an hour to meet Myra. Today, she’d pick out her new car. Something practical certainly, she reminded herself. But not dull. Maybe it was foolish to be excited over the purchase of four wheels and an engine, but she kept thinking of the long, solitary drives she’d take. She’d been speaking no less than the truth when she’d told Myra that she wanted freedom. She thought of it now and longed for it. Still, she couldn’t leave for the day without stopping in on Mrs. Higgs.

  Planning the rest of her day as she went, Anna made her way to the fifth floor. She’d take Myra out to dinner and splurge. There was nothing Myra would like better. Then maybe they’d drive out of town and give the new car a test. Some weekend soon they’d drive out to the beach and spend the day in the sun. Pleased with the idea, Anna swung through the door of 521. Her mouth fell open.

  “Oh, Anna, we were afraid you wouldn’t come by.”

  Sitting up in bed, eyes bright, Mrs. Higgs fussed with the edge of her sheet. On the table beside her was a vase of red roses, fresh, flamboyant and fragrant. Sitting beside the bed like a suitor was Daniel.

  “I told you Anna wouldn’t leave without coming in to see how you were.” Daniel rose and offered her a chair.

  “No, no, of course I wouldn’t.” Confused, Anna approached the bed. “You’re looking well today.”

  Mrs. Higgs reached for her hair. The young redheaded nurse had helped her brush it that morning, but she hadn’t been able to use a rinse for weeks. “I’d have fixed myself up a bit if I’d known I was having a caller.” She looked at Daniel with nothing less than an adoring smile.

  “You look lovely.” He took one of her thin hands between both of his.

  He sounded as though he meant it. What impressed Anna most was the fact that his voice carried none of the patronizing tone that so many people used when speaking with the ill or the old. Something flashed in Mrs. Higgs’s eyes. It was both gratitude and pride.

  “It’s important to look your best when you have a gentleman caller. Isn’t that right, Anna?”

  “Yes, of course.” Anna wandered to the foot of the bed and tried unobtrusively to read the chart. “The flowers are beautiful. You didn’t mention you were coming to the hospital, Daniel.”

  He winked at Mrs. Higgs. “I like surprises.”

  “Wasn’t it nice of your young man to come by and visit me?”

  “He’s not—” Anna caught herself and softened her voice. “Yes, yes, it was.”

  “Now I know you two want to run along, and I won’t keep you.” Mrs. Higgs spoke briskly, but her energy was flagging. “You’ll come again?” She reached up for Daniel’s hand. “I so enjoyed talking with you.”

  He heard the plea she tried so desperately to hide. “I’ll come again.” Leaning over, he kissed her cheek
.

  When he stepped back, Anna adjusted Mrs. Higgs’s pillows and made her more comfortable with a few efficient moves. He saw then that Anna’s hands weren’t just soft, delicate things made to be kissed, but that they were competent, strong and sure. It brought him a moment’s discomfort. “Now you try to rest. You mustn’t tire yourself.”

  “Don’t worry about me.” Mrs. Higgs sighed. “Go have fun.”

  She was already dozing when they walked from the room.

  “Are you done here for today?” Daniel asked as they started down the hall.

  “Yes.”

  “I’ll drive you home.”

  “No, I’m meeting Myra.” As always the elevator was slow and temperamental. Anna pushed the button and waited.

  “Then I’ll drop you.” He wanted her to himself, away from the hospital where she’d looked so efficient and at home.

  “No, really. I’m meeting her a couple of blocks away.” Anna stepped into the elevator with him.

  “Have dinner with me tonight.”

  “I can’t. I have plans.” Her hands were locked tightly together as the doors opened again.

  “Tomorrow?”

  “I don’t know, I . . .” Emotions churning, she walked out into sunshine and fresh air. “Daniel, why did you come here today?”

  “To see you, of course.”

  “You went to see Mrs. Higgs.” She continued to walk. She’d only mentioned the name once. How was it he’d remembered? Why should he have cared?

  “Shouldn’t I have? It seemed to me she looked only the better for a bit of company.”

  She shook her head, struggling to find the right words. She hadn’t known he could be kind, not really kind when the gesture brought no gain. He was in business, after all, where there was profit and loss and accounts to be forever balanced. The price of the roses would have meant nothing to him, but the gift of them everything to Mrs. Higgs. She wondered if he knew.

  “What you did means more at this point than any of the medicine they can give her.” She stopped then and turned. He could see the swirl of emotion in her eyes, the steady intensity of feeling that locked on him, and demanded. Anna asked, “Why did you do it? To impress me?”

  No one could lie to eyes like that. He had done it to impress her and had been damn pleased with the idea until he’d begun to talk to Mrs. Higgs. He’d seen a mirror of his mother’s fading beauty and tired dignity. And he’d go see her again, not for Anna, but for himself. He had no way of explaining it to her, and no intention of exposing feelings that had been private for so long.

  “The main idea was to impress you. I also wanted to see what it was about that place that keeps bringing you back. I still don’t understand it all, but maybe I see part of it now.”

  When she said nothing, he stuck his hands in his pockets as they walked. This woman worried him a good bit more than he’d anticipated. He wanted to please her—he was surprised how much. He wanted to see her smile again. He’d have even settled for one of her cool, regal stares. Frustrated, he scowled straight ahead. “Well, damn it, were you impressed or not?”

  She stopped to look up at him. Her eyes were cool, but he couldn’t read them. Then she took him totally by surprise. She put her hands on both sides on his face. In her strong, unhurried way, she drew his face down until she could touch her lips to his. It was hardly more than a hint of a kiss, but it exploded through him. She held him there a moment, her eyes locked on his. Then saying nothing, she released him and walked away.

  For the first time in his life, Daniel found himself speechless.

  Chapter 5

  Daniel sat in his office in the Old Line Savings and Loan, puffing on his cigar and listening to the long-winded report from his bank manager. The man knew banking, Daniel conceded, and he was a whiz with figures. But he couldn’t see more than two feet in front of his face.

  “Therefore, in addition to my other recommendations, I further recommend that the bank foreclose on the Halloran property. Auctioning this property off would cover the outstanding principal, plus, in a conservative estimate, yield a five percent profit.”

  Daniel tapped his cigar in an ashtray. “Extend it.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “I said extend the Halloran loan, Bombeck.”

  Bombeck pushed his glasses up on his nose and fluttered through his papers. “Perhaps you didn’t understand that the Hallorans are six months behind on their mortgage payments. In the past two months, they’ve failed to keep current with the interest. Even if Halloran finds work as he claims he will, we can’t expect the loan to be brought up to date within this quarter. I have all the figures here.”

  “I don’t doubt it,” Daniel muttered, bored. Your work, he thought, should never bore you, or you lose your touch.

  Drawing the papers out, Bombeck placed them on Daniel’s desk. They were, as Bombeck was, tidy and assiduously correct. “If you’ll just look them over, I’m sure we can—”

  “Give the Hallorans another six months to bring the interest up to date.”

  Bombeck blanched. “Six—” Clearing his throat, he shifted in his chair. His neat hands worked together. “Mr. MacGregor, I’m sure your sympathies toward the Hallorans are admirable, but you must understand that a bank can’t be run on
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