The macgregor groom, p.6
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.6

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “See, we cleared that up.” Unoffended, he topped off her wine. “But I still want you. I even like you, for some odd reason. And I damn well know I have to paint you.”

  “If you think that flatters me—”

  “It wasn’t meant to flatter you. I could flatter you,” he said thoughtfully. “You’d have heard it all before, though, and I don’t like to waste my time. You’re a beautiful woman, and that restrained sexuality is compelling—it’s damn near brutal now that I know what’s under it. We’re both free, healthy adults with a basic attraction for each other. We’re acting on it. It doesn’t have to be any more or less than that, unless we want it to be.”

  She said nothing for a moment. What he’d outlined was perfectly sensible. She couldn’t have said why it made her feel afraid, and a little sad. “And if we continue to act on it, we’d both have to recognize the limitations.”

  “I don’t like the word limitations.” It irritated him to have her use it just then when she was sitting across from him in his kitchen, wearing the ancient and ratty robe his mother had given him for Christmas years ago. When the scent of the shower and the sex they’d shared was still haunting his senses.

  “While we’re sleeping together, we don’t sleep with anyone else.”

  Both of her eyebrows arched now at the edgy tone of his voice. “I wouldn’t call that a limitation, but common courtesy.”

  “Call it whatever you like. Nobody puts his hands on you but me.”

  “Just one damn minute.”

  “And if The MacGregor pushes Henry the Banker at you, you just toss him right back.”

  “I don’t know anyone named Henry.” Frustration began to surface again. “And I have no idea why you think your grandfather would push a banker on me. I don’t need a new banker.”

  “It’s a husband he’d be pushing on you.”

  She choked, grabbed her wine and drank hastily. “I beg your pardon?”

  It gave him some dark satisfaction to see the baffled shock on her face. “I was going to explain it to you, before we got distracted. He’s taken to you.”

  “Henry?”

  “No, for God’s sake, you haven’t met Henry, have you? My grandfather.”

  Layna set down her wine, lifted both hands. “I’m confused. Your grandfather is a happily married man in his nineties.”

  D.C. narrowed his eyes. “You’re not being deliberately softheaded. Let’s try again. The MacGregor likes you—he thinks you’re a fine young woman, and that alone is enough for him to decide you need to have a fine young man beside you. You need to be married and having babies. It’s all the man thinks about, I tell you. He’s obsessed.”

  “Well, he never mentioned anything of the sort to me. He did say something in passing about your grandmother fretting because you had yet to settle down and raise a family.”

  “Hah!”

  She jolted a little as D.C. slammed down his glass, then jabbed a finger at her.

  “Hah!” he said again. “There you have it. My grandmother has nothing to do with it. It’s him. He uses that to guilt us into doing just what he wants us to do. And before you know it, you’re buying diapers. I’ve seen it happen before. He focuses in on one of us at a time, like a project. Then he drops the perfect match into our laps, pretends he had nothing to do with it. My cousins are dropping like flies into wedding bliss, but it’s not enough for him. As long as there’s one of us left unmarried, he’ll be at it. The man’s relentless.”

  She waited for the tirade to pass. “All right, I won’t argue with you. You’d know him best. Though I really can’t see that he could maneuver intelligent adults into making a commitment like marriage. But be that as it may,” she continued as D.C. sputtered. “I have no intention of marrying anyone, ever. So it has nothing to do with me.”

  “There’s where you’re wrong—and that’s just how he’ll get you.” D.C. picked up his fork, wagging it at her before he scooped up more pasta. “He’s taken an interest in you, Layna. It’s a relief to me, as he’s shifted his focus for a bit, but it’s only fair to warn you. He’ll be sly, just casually mention to you that he knows this bright young man. Then he’ll find a way to arrange for the two of you to meet.”

  “And this would be Henry.”

  “It would. So you just tell the old meddler you’re not interested in any Henrys.”

  She couldn’t resist and smiled sweetly. “A banker, you say? I wonder if he’s tidy. Did your grandfather mention what he looked like?”

  “Oh, go ahead and joke. See if you’re still laughing when you’re talking to wedding coordinators.”

  “I think I can handle a little attempt at matchmaking. And I’m flattered that your grandfather would be interested in my future.”

  “And that’s another way he wraps you up in a bow,” D.C. muttered.

  Layna considered for a moment, then pushed her plate aside, leaned forward. “So, this is the reason you went berserk, dragged me out of your parents’ home and carted me down the street? All because your grandfather said he was going to introduce me to a banker? That sounds suspiciously like jealousy to me.”

  “Jealousy?” His eyes flashed to hers. “That’s the thanks I get for looking out for you. Insults.”

  Coolly, she rose, took her plate to the already overburdened sink. “Just an observation.”

  “Then you need to have your eyes checked.”

  “Whatever you say.” She waved a hand in dismissal. “Tell me, have you ever actually run this dishwasher?”

  “I wasn’t jealous. I was … concerned.”

  “Um-hmm.” She slid her plate neatly into the rack of the empty dishwasher.

  “If I’d been jealous I’d have threatened to break Henry into several small pieces.”

  “I see.” Since she was there, and so were they, Layna began to load the mountain of dishes into the washer.

  “Then I would have hunted him down and followed through.”

  “Well, how exciting. Are you done with your plate?” She knew it was ridiculous, but she enjoyed the quick, wild thrill that whipped through her when he shoved back from the table and spun her around.

  “I’m not jealous. I’m territorial.”

  “Fine. You use your term, I’ll use mine.”

  He snarled, lifted her up to her toes, then caught the glint of amused challenge in her eyes. He felt his lips twitch, then let out a laugh. “The hell with it,” he muttered, and was grinning when he kissed her.

  * * *

  But he wasn’t jealous, he told himself later, much later, when he lay in the dark with Layna sleeping beside him. He was simply … protecting what he’d decided to take as his.

  Temporarily as his.

  He liked having her around, even though she’d browbeaten him into cleaning the kitchen before she’d let him talk her back into bed. He liked those cool, measured glances she gave him when they talked, and the hot, greedy stares she sent him when they were tangled up in sex.

  He liked the sound of her voice. Cool again while they were discussing some point of art or music. Husky when she said his name in the dark.

  And he was touched and sorry for the young girl she’d been who’d had so little affection and fun in her life. Advantages, she’d said, but to his mind she’d had very few of those. And that lack of stability and love had made her cross off the possibility of one day having a family of her own.

  He found that terribly sad.

  Not that he was in a hurry for such things himself, he thought quickly. But one day, certainly … when the time was right, the woman was right, he’d want a family, children, a house filled with noise and color. He couldn’t imagine not wanting all those things.

  And he thought that somewhere inside the woman who could smile dreamily over pansies lived a heart that wanted to open and share and be treasured.

  He could still see the way she’d looked in his old robe, the ragged sleeves neatly rolled up, her feet bare, her hair brushed smooth, her mouth full and n
aked.

  And that earnest look in her eyes as she’d explained to him why nothing could really begin between them.

  Now she was curled beside him, wearing one of his T-shirts against the chilly spring night. They’d discovered at least one point of common ground. They both preferred sleeping with the windows open.

  No, he wasn’t jealous, he assured himself as he wrapped a proprietary arm around her and drew her close. He was simply enjoying her. For as long as it lasted.

  Chapter 8

  D.C. stepped back from the portrait and stared, stunned at what had come out of him onto the canvas. He had no false modesty about his work. In fact, more than once he’d been told that he carried an often-annoying confidence when it came to his art. He painted what he felt, what he saw, what he knew or wanted to know. It was a rare thing for him to turn away disappointed from a completed painting.

  It was rarer still for him to be overwhelmed with something he’d created with his own heart and hands.

  But Layna overwhelmed him.

  He hadn’t worked from a sketch, but from memory, a moment in time that had lodged in his head, settled there and had refused to be shifted aside until he’d re-created it.

  He’d intended to work on another watercolor, keeping the colors cool, the tone reserved. That was her image, after all. Her style. Her type.

  But he’d found himself prepping the canvas for oil, choosing vivid tones, bold hues, sweeping strokes.

  He’d painted her in bed, her bed. They’d spent more than a dozen nights together now, some in hers, some in his, and most usually in a frenzy of hunger he’d come to acknowledge baffled them both.

  She looked back at him now, the eyes he’d painted were heavy, the mouth soft and faintly curved in female awareness.

  Her hair was smooth and sleek. He remembered how she’d combed her fingers through it to straighten it—a habit of hers—as she’d sat up with the tangled sheets pooled around her. And she’d turned her head.

  Why that single instant still lived so vividly in his mind, he couldn’t say. That simple turn of the head, that hint of a smile, the way the lamplight had slanted across her shoulder. And she’d crossed an arm over her breast, not so much in modesty, he thought, but again in habit.

  That moment of sexual punch, of quiet reserve, of casual intimacy refused to leave him. Out of it he’d created something more than he’d ever done before. It lived. It knew him, and even as he looked into it, it looked into him.

  “Who the hell are you?” he murmured, shaken because he thought he’d known and was no longer sure.

  With something close to fury, he tossed his brush down and stalked to the window. When had she gotten inside him this way? How had he let it happen? And what the hell was he going to do about the fact that he was falling in love with a woman he wasn’t even sure existed?

  How much of what he’d painted was Layna, and how much was what he wanted from her?

  He wasn’t entirely sure of what he wanted from her, but he knew it wasn’t just a body in the night. It had never been, no matter how hot the need.

  She was already a part of his life, and he of hers, though neither of them seemed able to admit it. She’d nudged him into unpacking boxes. He’d bought her a flat of snapdragons and had pushed her into planting them willy-nilly along the border of her patio.

  Then they’d sat, in the fragile light of dusk, and admired the results.

  He’d bought a bed, a real one, then had let her convince him to go with the twisty brass headboard, though he’d feared it would look too feminine.

  She’d been right—it had suited the room perfectly. And he’d enjoyed thanking her for her perception the minute the bed had been in place.

  They went to the opera, a street fair, a ball game and the ballet. For some reason that mix of styles and tastes seemed to slide into a perfect union.

  Impossible, he reminded himself. It wasn’t the right time, and she wasn’t the right woman.

  Then he saw her, walking down the sidewalk in long, graceful strides. She’d changed from work, he noted. She habitually wore some trim and stylish business suit during working hours. Now she was in slim linen-colored trousers and a tailored shirt the color of ripe limes. She carried an enormous shopping bag with the Drake’s logo. And looked both ways, he saw with reluctant amusement, before she crossed the street.

  Even as he told himself he wanted to be alone, he pushed open the window and leaned out.

  The sound had her glancing up, stopping. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and though she knew it was ridiculous, suffered a sharp sensory shock from the sight of him.

  His shoulders all but filled the opening.

  “Hello.” She smiled and tried not to squirm. He was staring at her so intensely. “Are you still working?”

  He hesitated, knowing if he said yes, she’d politely go back the way she’d come. They didn’t tread on each other’s working hours. “No, come on up.”

  She had a key. That was something else he suddenly realized had happened without either of them planning it. Like a man who’d just managed to reach the surface of a dream, he dragged his hands through his hair, rubbed them over his face.

  He walked out to the head of the stairs just as she came in the door below. They stood, staring at each other.

  God, I want you, was all he could think. When is this going to stop?

  “I took a chance you’d be home and not busy.” Her palms had gone damp and made her want to shift the bag from hand to hand. “I was just going to drop this off for you.”

  Oh help! her mind screamed. I don’t know what to do about you.

  “What is it?”

  “A new bedspread.” She worked to perk up her smile. “Very simple, and masculine enough not to disturb the general ambiance of Army Surplus meets the East Village.”

  He lifted his brows. She’d already taken to ordering the place. It didn’t bother him. He didn’t mind living with tidy, as long as he wasn’t required to do the tidying. “That’s domestic of you. Bring it on up.”

  “It was on sale,” she said, stiffly now. “If you don’t care for it, you can use it for a drop cloth. Either way, it’s better than that rag you’ve been using—though of course you never bother to make the bed.”

  When she reached the top of the steps, she shoved the bag at his chest. “You’re welcome.”

  “I haven’t thanked you yet. I would have if you hadn’t been so busy lecturing me.”

  “That wasn’t a lecture, it was a comment.”

  He dropped the bag and grabbed her hand before she could turn and march back down the steps. “Where are you going?”

  “Home. And the next time I have an impulse to do you a favor, believe me, I’ll resist it.”

  “No one asked you to buy me bed linens or wash my dishes or pick up fresh fruit at the market.”

  Fury and embarrassment waged a quick and bitter war, with fury edging out on top. “Point taken,” she said with deadly calm. “And I’ll be sure not to do so again. Or to drop by without calling, as I’m obviously unwelcome unless you’re ready to jump into bed.”

  His eyes flamed. Temper clawed so viciously at his gut that he forced himself to take a step back. “This isn’t about sex.” Unable to trust himself, he turned on his heel and stalked back into his studio.

  “Oh, isn’t it?” The hurt and anger were huge, pushing her forward and over the threshold of an area of his life where she’d yet to be invited. “What then?” she demanded, striding into the studio behind him.

  “I don’t know what then.” He rounded on her, ready to fight, then found himself staring at her as he’d stared at her portrait a short time before. “I don’t know,” he said with a sigh, then turned back to the window. “You walked in on a mood, Layna.” Wanting to clear his head, he braced his hands on the sill and leaned out. “I have a lot of them.”

  And this one, she thought, had suddenly shifted from irritable to unhappy. She resented the fact that sh
e wanted to walk to him and soothe. It wasn’t her job to soothe him, nor to tolerate his capricious tempers.

  She told herself to go, to walk out and cross the last few weeks off her list as a learning experience. But instead she turned slowly and looked around the room.

  He was everywhere in it, she thought. From the canvases leaning against the walls, to the absurd disorder of paints and brushes and jars. The scents in here were sharp—foreign and familiar. His scent—that combination of male animal and soap. Others that were turpentine and mixers and fresh paints.

  It was a large room, filled with light. Filled with him. She studied canvases, streaks of color here, clashing shapes and textures. Another that was brooding shadows, and yet another that was bright and foolish and joyful.

  She couldn’t understand them, not really. But they made her feel. That, she supposed, mirrored exactly her reaction to the artist.

  “Moods, yes, I see.” She wandered to an easel. “You have a number of them. That would be part of what makes you what you are.”

  He turned back to study her studying his work. “And you, stable, balanced. That makes you what you are. What the hell are we doing together, Layna?”

  This was expected, she reminded herself as she continued to stare at the canvas. That he would come to that conclusion after she had convinced herself it didn’t have to matter, after all.

  “I often ask myself the same thing five minutes after we’re not.” She shrugged a shoulder, determined to be practical. “It’s just what we said from the beginning. Basic attraction. Physical.”

  “Is it?”

  “This is.” She gestured toward the canvas he’d completed only hours before she’d come into his life and changed everything. “This is all feeling, all passion. It’s raw and dangerous and not entirely comfortable.”

  “It’s Need,” he murmured.

  “Yes. Needs are met, and then they change.”

  “Even when you’d prefer it otherwise. Come over here.” He held out a hand. “And tell me what you see.”

  She crossed the room, but didn’t take the hand he offered. Touching him would be a mistake, she was certain, when they were coming to the end. And the ache in her heart was like a burning.

  “Tell me what you see,” he said again, and because she wouldn’t touch him, he put a hand on her shoulder to turn her toward the canvas, and herself.

  Shock came first, causing her to lift her arm, cross it over her body in a near reflection of the pose in the painting. Her heart stumbled, her throat closed.

  “It wasn’t what I expected to paint,” he said quickly. “Or to see. Or to feel. I’d just finished it. Then I looked out the window and watched you walk down the street.”

  “You … you’ve made me beautiful.”

  “You are beautiful.”

  It was too … intimate, Layna thought with a flutter of panic. The woman in the portrait had no shield, no mask. And the woman he had painted knew things she didn’t.

  “I’m not like that.”

  “That’s how I saw you, in that moment. Full of power and pleasure. It isn’t what I meant to paint,” he said again, “but it’s what came out of me.” He touched her cheek, then slid his fingers down until he cupped her chin. Lifted it. “It staggers me. Why haven’t we burned each other out, Layna? Why can’t I get enough of you and move on?”

  “Was that the plan?”

  “Damn right it was. It’s not working. You’re starting to worry me,” he murmured as he lowered his mouth to hers. Gently, softly, barely a whisper of a kiss. It rocked her down to the bone.

  “We should take a break from each other.”

  “You’re absolutely right.” His other hand lifted until he’d framed her face.

  “We’ve been seeing each other constantly for weeks.” She leaned into him, circled his waist. “We should ease back a little, take stock.”

  “Makes sense.”

  She sighed, rested her head on his shoulder. “That’s not what I want.”

 
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