For now forever, p.7
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       For Now, Forever, p.7

         Part #5 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  sentiment.”

  Daniel drew on his cigar, paused, then blew out a haze of smoke. There was the slightest of smiles on his mouth, but his eyes, if Bombeck had dared to look at them, were cold as ice. “Is that so, Bombeck? I appreciate you telling me.”

  Bombeck wet his lips. “As manager of Old Line—”

  “Which was about to go belly up one month ago when I bought it.”

  “Yes.” Bombeck cleared his throat again. “Yes, indeed, Mr. MacGregor, that’s precisely the point. As manager, I feel it my duty to give you all the benefit of my experience. I’ve been in banking for fifteen years.”

  “Fifteen?” Daniel said as if impressed. Fourteen years, eight months and ten days. He had the employment records of everyone who worked for him, down to the cleaning woman. “That’s just fine, Bombeck. Maybe if I give this to you in different terms, you’ll understand my way of thinking.” Daniel leaned back in his chair so that the sun shooting through the window behind him turned his hair to fire. Though he hadn’t planned it that way, he’d have been more than satisfied with the effect. “You estimate a five percent profit if we foreclose and auction the Halloran property. Have I got that right?”

  Sarcasm skimmed over Bombeck’s head. “Exactly so, Mr. MacGregor.”

  “Good. Good. However, over the remaining twelve years of the Halloran mortgage, we would see a long-term profit of, conservatively speaking, triple that.”

  “Over the long term, of course. I could get you the exact figures, but—”

  “Excellent. Then we understand each other. Extend it.” Because he enjoyed doing so, Daniel waited a beat before dropping his bomb. “We’ll be lowering the mortgage rates by a quarter percent starting next month.”

  “Lowering, but Mr. MacGregor—”

  “And raising the interest on savings accounts to the highest allowable rate.”

  “Mr. MacGregor, that will throw Old Line deeply in the red.”

  “In the short term,” Daniel agreed briskly. “In the long term—you were understanding the long term, weren’t you, Bombeck?—in the long term we’ll make up for it with volume. Old Line will have the lowest mortgage rates in the state.”

  Bombeck felt his stomach churn and swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

  “And the highest rates on savings accounts.”

  He could almost see dollar bills flying away on little wings. “It will cost the bank . . .” Bombeck couldn’t even imagine. “I could work up the figures in a few days. I’m sure you’ll see what I’m trying to say. With a policy like that, in six months—”

  “Old Line will be the biggest lending institution in the state,” Daniel finished mildly. “I’m glad we agree. We’re going to advertise in the papers.”

  “Advertise,” Bombeck murmured as if in a dream.

  “Something big”— Daniel measured with his hands, enjoying himself—“but distinguished. Why don’t you see what you can come up with and get back to me? Say, by ten tomorrow.”

  It took Bombeck a few seconds to realize he’d been dismissed. Too dazed to argue, he tidied his papers and rose. As he walked out, Daniel ground his cigar in the ashtray.

  Dim-witted, nearsighted dunderhead. What he needed was someone young, fresh out of college and eager. He could salvage Bombeck’s pride by making up a new position for him. Daniel felt strongly about loyalty, and dunderhead or not, Bombeck had been with Old Line for nearly fifteen years. It was something he might just discuss with Ditmeyer. That was a man whose opinion Daniel trusted.

  Bankers had to realize it was their business to gamble. It was certainly Daniel’s. Rising, he walked to the window behind his desk and looked at Boston. At this point, his whole life was a gamble. The money he’d earned could be lost. He shrugged at that. He’d earn more again. The power he now wielded could fade. He’d build it back up again. But there was one thing, he was coming to understand, that if lost, couldn’t be replaced. Anna.

  When had she stopped being part of his master plan and become his life? When had he lost track of the deal and fallen in love? He could pinpoint it to the instant—the instant she’d taken his face in her hands, looked so solemnly into his eyes and touched her mouth to his. He’d gone beyond attraction, beyond desire, beyond the challenge.

  His systematic courtship had been blown to bits. The blueprint so carefully drawn was in tatters. From that moment, he’d become only a man totally bewitched by a woman. So now what? That was one question he had no answer for. He’d wanted a wife who would sit patiently at home while he took care of business. That wasn’t Anna. He’d wanted a wife who wouldn’t question his decisions, but go quietly about making them into fact. That wasn’t Anna. There was a part of her life that would always remain separate from him. If she succeeded in her ambition, and he was coming to believe she would, she’d have Doctor in front of her name before a year was out. To Anna, it wouldn’t simply be a title, but a way of life. Could a man whose business made such demands, took such long hours out of his day, have a wife whose profession did exactly the same?

  Who would make the home? he wondered, pulling his fingers through his hair. Who would tend the children? Better if he turned his back on her now and found a woman who’d be content to do those things and nothing else. Better, if he followed the advice she’d given him and chose a woman who had no windmills to battle.

  He needed a home. It was difficult for him to admit, even to himself, just how desperately he needed one. He needed family—the scent of bread baking in the kitchen, flowers sitting in bowls. Those were the things he’d grown up with; those were the things he’d gone too long without. He couldn’t be sure he would have them with Anna. And yet . . . If he found them without her, he didn’t think they would matter.

  Damn woman. He looked at his watch. She’d be nearly finished at the hospital now. He had a meeting across town in just under an hour. Determined not to let his life be run by someone else’s schedule, he sat behind his desk again and picked up Bombeck’s report. After one paragraph, he slammed it down again. Grumbling and swearing, he stalked out of his office.

  * * *

  She’d spent five hours on her feet. With a tired satisfaction, Anna thought about a long, hot bath and a quiet evening with a book. Perhaps she’d just soak and plan how she’d decorate her apartment. In two weeks she’d have the keys in her hand and rooms to furnish. If her feet weren’t certain to object, she’d poke around a few antique stores now. With pleasure, she thought of the shiny white convertible waiting for her in the lot next door. The car meant more than the fact that she didn’t have to walk home. It meant independence.

  Taking the keys out of her purse, she jiggled them in her hand and felt on top of the world. Anna had never considered her ego very large, but when her father had all but drooled on the upholstery then demanded a ride, she’d felt her head swell. He’d approved finally. She’d used her own money, her own judgment, and there had been no criticism. She remembered the way he’d dragged her mother outside and pulled her into the backseat with him. Anna had tooled around Boston for nearly an hour with her parents as cozy as teenagers behind her.

  She’d understood that they’d begun to think of her as something more than a little girl who needed guidance. Whether they’d realized it yet or not, they’d accepted her as an adult. Maybe, she thought, just maybe, there would be pride when she earned her diploma.

  Giddy with success, Anna tossed her keys into the air and caught them again. She walked straight into Daniel.

  “You weren’t looking where you were going.”

  She’d been happy before, but was happier yet to have seen him. She could almost admit it. “No, I wasn’t.”

  He’d already decided on the way to deal with her. His way. “You’re having dinner with me tonight.” When she opened her mouth, he took her by the shoulders. His voice was loud enough to turn heads, his eyes fierce enough to turn them forward again. “I won’t have any arguments. I’m tired of them and don’t have time at the moment, anyway. You’re
having dinner with me tonight. Be ready at seven.”

  There were a number of things she could do. In the space of seconds, Anna thought of them all. But she decided the best way was the least expected. “All right, Daniel,” she said very demurely.

  “I don’t care what . . . What?”

  “I said I’d be ready.” She looked at him, her eyes calm, her smile serene. It threw him completely off balance, as she’d been certain it would.

  “I— All right, then.” He scowled and stuck his hands in his pockets. “See that you are.” He’d gotten precisely what he’d wanted, but he stopped halfway to his car and looked back. Anna was standing just where she’d been, in a pool of sunlight. Her smile remained as quiet and sweet as an angel’s kiss. “Damn women,” Daniel mumbled as he yanked open the door of his car. You couldn’t trust them.

  Anna waited until he’d pulled off, then rocked with laughter. Seeing him stumble and stutter had been better than any argument. Still laughing, she went to her car. An evening with Daniel, she admitted, would certainly be more interesting than a book. Turning the key in the ignition, she felt the power. She had control. And she liked it.

  ***

  He brought her flowers. Not the white roses he still insisted on sending her day after day, but some tiny, impudent violets from his own garden. It pleased him to watch her arrange them in a little glass vase as he spoke with her parents. He looked big and brash in her mother’s dainty parlor. He felt as nervous as a scrawny boy on his first date. Edgy, he sat on a chair he felt was better suited to a dollhouse and shared a tepid cup of tea with Mrs. Whitfield.

  “You must come to dinner soon,” Mrs. Whitfield told him. The constant delivery of roses had made her quite hopeful. It had also given her something to brag about over bridge. The truth was she didn’t understand her daughter and never had. Of course, she could tell herself that Anna had always been a sweet, lovely child, but she herself was simply out of her depth when doing something other than choosing material for a dress or a meal from a menu. Anna, with her calm stubbornness and unshakable ambitions, was completely beyond her mother’s scope.

  Still, Mrs. Whitfield wasn’t a fool. She saw the way Daniel looked at her daughter and understood very well. With a strange mixture of relief and regret, she pictured Anna married and raising her own family. If Daniel’s manners were a bit rough, she knew her Anna would smooth them out quickly enough. Perhaps she’d be a grandmother in a year or two. It was another thought that brought mixed feelings. Sipping her tea, Mrs. Whitfield studied Daniel.

  “I realize you and John are business associates now, but we’ll have to keep that in the office. Of course, I know nothing about the business anyway.” She reached over to pat Daniel’s hand. “John won’t tell me a thing, no matter how I badger him.”

  “And badger, she does,” Mr. Whitfield put in.

  “Now, John.” With a light laugh, she aimed a killing look. If this man had serious intentions toward her daughter, and she was certain he did, she meant to find out everything there was to find out about him. “Everyone’s curious about Mr. MacGregor’s dealings. It’s only natural. Why just the other day, Pat Donahue told me you’d bought some property of theirs in Hyannis Port. I hope you’re not thinking of leaving Boston.”

  Daniel didn’t have to scent the air to know which way the wind blew. “I’m fond of Boston.”

  Deciding she’d let him sweat long enough, Anna handed Daniel her wrap. Grateful, he was up like a shot and bundling her into it.

  “You children have a lovely evening.” Mrs. Whitfield would have risen to walk them to the door, but her husband put a hand on her shoulder.

  “Good night, Mother.” Anna kissed her mother’s cheek, then smiled up at her father. She’d never realized he was so perceptive. With a smile, she kissed him as well.

  “Enjoy yourself.” In an old habit, he patted her head.

  Daniel felt he could finally breathe again when they stepped outside. “Your house is very—”

  “Crowded,” Anna finished, then laughed as she tucked her arm through his. “My mother likes to fill it up with whatever catches her eye. I didn’t realize until a few years ago how tolerant my father is.” Pleased that he’d brought the blue convertible, she gathered her skirts and slid into her seat. “Where are we going for dinner?”

  He took his own seat and let the engine roar. “We’re having dinner at home. My home.”

  Anna felt a quiver of nerves come and go. Using her best weapon, will, she eliminated the fluttering in her stomach. She hadn’t forgotten the feeling of control. She’d handle him. “I see.”

  “I’m tired of restaurants. I’m tired of crowds.” His voice was tense and tight. Why, he’s nervous, she realized, and felt a jolt of pleasure. He towered over her even when sitting. His voice had a timbre that could make the windowpanes rattle, but he was nervous about spending an evening with her. It wasn’t easy, but she tried hard not to be smug.

  “Oh? I had the impression you enjoyed being around a lot of people,” she said very calmly.

  “I don’t want a bunch of them staring at us while we eat.”

  “Amazing how rude some people can be, isn’t it?”

  “And if I want to talk to you, I don’t need half of Boston listening to me.”

  “Naturally not.”

  He fumed and turned into his driveway. “And if you’re worried about propriety, I have servants.”

  She sent him a bland look. “I’m not worried in the least.”

  Not sure how to take that, he narrowed his eyes. She was playing games with him, of that he was sure. He just wasn’t sure of what kind, or of the rules. “You’re mighty sure of yourself all at once, Anna.”

  “Daniel.” She reached for the door handle and let herself out. “I’ve always been sure of myself.”

  She decided with one sweeping look that she liked his house. It was separated from the road by a line of hedges that came to her shoulder. The privacy they provided wasn’t as cold or impersonal as a wall, but it was just as sturdy. As she looked at the tall windows, some of which were already softly lit behind curtains, she could smell the mixture of scents from the side garden.

  Sweet peas she recognized, and smiled. She had a weakness for them. He’d chosen an imposing house, large enough for a family of ten, but he hadn’t forgotten to make it a home with something as simple as flowers. She waited until he’d joined her on the edge of the walkway.

  “Why did you choose it?”

  He looked at the house with her. He saw the brick, attractively faded with age, the windows, with their shutters freshly painted. There was no sense of kinship, only of ownership. After all, someone else had built it. As he drew in the evening air, he didn’t smell the sweet peas, but her. “Because it was big.”

  She smiled at that and turned to watch a sparrow on a branch of a maple in the front yard. “I suppose that’s reasonable. You looked uncomfortable in my mother’s parlor, as if you thought if you turned around you might knock down a wall. This suits you better.”

  “For the moment,” he murmured. He had other plans. “You can watch the sunset from those windows.” He pointed, then took her arm to lead her up the walk. “You won’t for very many more years.”

  “Why?”

  “Progress. They’re going to toss buildings up and block out the sky. Not everywhere, but enough. I’m breaking ground on one myself next month.” Opening the door, he drew her into the hall and waited.

  The swords crossed on the wall to her left drew her eyes first. They weren’t the delicate, almost feminine foils used in duels by lace-cuffed swashbucklers. They were thick, heavy, deadly broadswords with underrated hilts and dull, well-used blades. It would take two hands and a strong man to lift one. It would take skill and brute strength to use one to attack or defend. Unable to resist, Anna walked closer. She had no trouble imagining what one of them could do to flesh and bone. Still, though she could term them lethal, she couldn’t term them ugly.

 
The swords are from my clan. My ancestors used them.” There was pride in his voice, and simplicity. “The MacGregors were warriors, always.”

  Was it a challenge she heard from him? It might have been. Anna stepped closer to the swords. The edges of the blades weren’t dulled, but as treacherous as ever. “Most of us are, aren’t we?”

  Her response surprised him, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. He knew she wasn’t a woman to shudder and faint over a weapon or spilled blood. “The English king”—he nearly spat it and had Anna’s full attention—“he took our name, our land, but he couldn’t take our pride. We hacked off heads when we had to.” His eyes were deep, blue and brilliant when he looked at her. She had no doubt he would wield the sword with a ferocity equal to that of his ancestors if he felt justified. “Mostly the heads of Campbells.” He grinned at that and took her arm. “They thought to wipe us out of Scotland, but they couldn’t.”

  She found herself wondering how he’d look in the clothes of his country, the kilt, the plaid, the dirk. Not ridiculous, but dramatic. Anna looked back up at the swords. “No, I’m sure they couldn’t. You’ve good reason to be proud.”

  His hand moved up to her cheek and lingered. “Anna . . .”

  “Mr. MacGregor.” McGee stood still as a stone as Daniel whirled on him. There was a look in Daniel’s eyes that would have made a strong man shudder.

  “Aye?” In the one word, Daniel conveyed a thousand pungent curses.

  “A call from New York, sir. A Mr. Liebowitz says it’s quite important.”

  “Show Miss Whitfield into the parlor, McGee. I’m sorry, Anna, I have to take this. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

  “It’s all right.” Relieved she’d have a few moments alone, Anna watched Daniel stride down the hall.

  “This way, miss.”

  She noticed the brogue, which was heavier than Daniel’s, and smiled. He’d keep his own around him when he could. With a last glance at the swords, she followed McGee’s ramrod-straight back into the parlor. It made her mother’s look like a closet. If big was what Daniel wanted, big was what he had.

  “Would you care for a drink, Miss Whitfield?”

  Distracted, Anna turned blankly. “I’m sorry?”

  “Would you care for a drink?”

  “Oh, no, thank you, I’m fine.”

  He gave her the smallest and staunchest of bows. “Please ring if you require anything.”

  “Thank you,” she said again, anxious to be rid of him. The minute she was alone, she turned a slow circle. Big, yes—much bigger than the average room. Unless she missed her guess, he’d had walls removed and combined two into one.

  The unusual size was complemented by unusual furnishings. There was a Belker table twice the size of the wheel of a car, carved so ornately that the edges looked like lace. A high-backed chair done in rich red velvet sat beside it. He could hold court in it, she thought, and smiled at the idea. Why not?

  Rather than sit, Anna simply wandered. The colors were flashy and bold, but somehow she felt perfectly comfortable with them. Maybe she’d lived with her mother’s pastels long enough. A sofa took up nearly an entire wall and would have required four strong men to move it. With a laugh, she decided Daniel had chosen it for exactly that reason.

  Along the west window was a collection of crystal, Waterford, Baccarat. A vase, two feet high, caught the beginnings of the sunset and danced with it. Anna picked up a bowl that fit into the palm of her hand and wondered what it was doing there among the giants.

  He found her like that, standing in the western light, smiling at a small piece of glass. His mouth went dry. Though he said nothing, could say nothing, she turned toward him.

  “What a wonderful room.” Enthusiasm added color to her cheeks, deepened her eyes. “I imagine in the winter, with a fire, it would be spectacular.” When he didn’t speak, her smile faded. She took a step closer. “The telephone. Was it bad news?”

  “What?”

  “Your call. Has it upset you?”

  He’d forgotten it, just as he’d forgotten everything. It didn’t sit well with him that a look from her could tie his tongue and his stomach up in knots. “No. I’ll have to go into New York for a couple of days and straighten out a few things.” Including himself, he thought ruefully. “I have something for you.”

  “I hope it’s dinner,” she said, smiling again.

  “We’ll have that, too.” It occurred to him that he’d never felt awkward around a woman until now. Drawing a box out of his pocket, he handed it to her.

  There was a moment of panic. He had no business offering her a ring. Then as common sense took over, panic faded. The box wasn’t the small velvet sort that held engagement rings, but an old cardboard one. Curious, Anna opened the lid.

  The cameo was nearly as long as her thumb and perhaps twice as wide. Old and lovely, it sat in a little bed of tissue paper. The profile was gentle and serene, but the head was tilted up with just a touch of pride as well.

  “It favors you,” Daniel murmured. “I told you once.”

  “Your grandmother’s,” she remembered. Touched, she lifted a finger to trace the outline. “It’s beautiful, really beautiful.” It was more difficult than it should have been to close the lid again. “Daniel, you know I can’t take this.”

  “No, I don’t.” Taking the box from her, he opened it again and drew out the cameo, which he’d attached to a velvet ribbon himself. “I’ll put it on for you.”

  She could almost feel his fingers brush the nape of her neck. “I shouldn’t take a gift from you.”

  He lifted a brow. “You can’t tell me you worry about gossip, Anna. If you concerned yourself with what people said or thought, you wouldn’t be going to your school in Connecticut.”

  He was right of course, but she tried to stand firm. “It’s an heirloom, Daniel. It wouldn’t be right.”

  “It’s my heirloom, and I’m tired of having it shut in a box. My grandmother would want it to be worn by someone who’d appreciate it.” In a surprisingly smooth manner, he slid the ribbon around her neck and fastened it. It fit into the subtle hollow of her throat as if it had been destined to rest there. “There now, that’s where it belongs.”

  Unable to resist, she reached up to touch it. Common sense slipped away. “Thank you. We’ll say I’m keeping it for you. If you want it back—”

  “Don’t spoil it,” he interrupted, and took her chin in his hand. “I’ve wanted to see you wear it.”

 
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