The macgregor groom, p.7
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.7
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         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts

  “Me, either.”

  “I don’t want to fall in love with you, D.C. I’m not equipped for it, for you. It would be a disaster.”

  “I know it.” With his eyes closed, he rubbed his cheek over her hair. “How close are you?”

  “Awfully close.”

  “Me, too.”

  “Oh God. We can’t let this happen. It’ll ruin everything just when—”

  And his mouth was on hers, taking her away from reason, muddling her thoughts, driving feelings to the surface where she couldn’t escape them.

  “Just be with me, Layna.”

  This time it wasn’t a wild ride but a dreamy one. There were no fierce bursts of heat, but shimmering warmth that trembled straight to the center of her heart. Not a seduction or demand, but a joining as he carried her from the studio and to the bed they’d chosen together.

  Sweetly, patiently, with the afternoon sun beaming through the open windows, he touched her. And shattered any hope of defense.

  Pleasure was quiet, natural as breath, gentle as the breeze that fluttered over her skin as he undressed her.

  She reached for him, wanting more of this slow and sumptuous sensation, finding it as she drew him closer, as she lifted her mouth and opened it to his.

  His warrior’s body was familiar to her now—the bold muscles, the big hands, the wide, strong shoulders. But there was a change in the way he moved to her, moved over her that had her pulses beating thick and slow.

  And it was more he wanted as well, more of this silky surrender, those lazy sighs, those long, long shudders. As she gave it, he took care, sliding her slowly to the peak, watching her face in the light as she trembled up, then glided down again.

  He slipped into her, staggered by the depth of his own desire to give, his need to see those sea-mist eyes cloud and darken, to hear his name whispered.

  He watched her, watched her, until his vision blurred, then he covered her mouth with his once again as body and heart shattered.

  * * *

  It wasn’t the answer, she told herself, and stopped before she could follow instinct and curl up against him. If she allowed herself to feel this way, she’d be lost. If she didn’t pull back enough to think, to plan, to remember what she wanted, she would make a mistake that couldn’t be rectified.

  She rose quickly and began to dress.

  His eyes still hazed from what they’d brought each other, D.C. watched her. “Why are you doing that?”

  She trembled once, fumbled with buttons. “We need to think this through. I’m going home.”

  “Layna. Stay.”

  “No, this is just confusing the issue, and it’s all moving too quickly.”

  He rose himself, tugged on his jeans. “You matter to me.”

  Her head jerked up at that, her eyes swimming with emotions. “I know. I think … That’s just it,” she said with rising panic. “I can’t think. I’m going to take a few days. This could very well be just a matter of mixing emotions into what was supposed to be a simple affair.”

  “Of course it is.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. Otherwise he was going to grab her again, and that wouldn’t solve anything but his own frustrated need. “Isn’t that the problem?”

  “I don’t know what the problem is.” That, she realized, was what frightened her the most. When she looked at him she forgot things—like her plans, her well-ordered, sensible plans. “But we both have some thinking to do before this … situation becomes any more complicated. We’ll just stay away from each other for a few days, and cool off.”

  He leaned back against the wall, arched his brows. “And what if we don’t?”

  “We’ll deal with that when … whenever.”

  “I want you, Layna.”

  “I know.” And her pulse leaped hearing it, knowing it. “If that was all, we wouldn’t have a problem.”

  “That doesn’t have to be a problem. Wanting more doesn’t have to be a problem.”

  “It is for me. I have to go. I have to think.”

  She was nearly to the door when he said her name, just her name, and stopped her in her tracks. She didn’t turn around, didn’t dare. And with a quick shake of her head, ran down the stairs and away.

  He thought about going after her. He could catch her before she got outside. Talk her back into his apartment, drag her back, if necessary. Then take her to bed again. They didn’t have any complications in bed.

  And then what?

  He swore, pushed away from the wall and stalked back to his studio. He avoided the window. He didn’t want to watch her walk away. Instead he studied the two canvases. Layna and Need. And wondered how they had come to be the same thing to him.

  Chapter 9

  She didn’t go home. It was odd, when she was so content there, that it was the last place she wanted to be.

  Damn it, she’d been happy on her own, thrilled with her life and her work. Her ambitions had been simple and straightforward. She would make Drake’s Washington a showplace, cement its reputation as the finest and most glamorous store on the East Coast. By doing so, she would cement her own reputation. Not simply another Drake, not just the daughter. But Layna Drake, in her own right, a savvy businesswoman with a sharp eye for fashion.

  She loved the travel. Milan, Paris, London. She adored attending the top shows and working out the fine details of buying just the right lines, discovering new designers.

  And she was good at it. Over the past few years she’d honed her skills, developed her own style and had learned the business well.

  Business made sense to her. People simply didn’t.

  Sighing, she slowed her pace. How would she know if she were in love? She’d never had to face anything like this before. The men she’d allowed into her life were suitable, they were easy, they were … safe, she admitted. Not one of them had ever tempted her to change her direction, to make compromises, to alter her plans.

  And not one of them had ever touched her heart.

  It was better that way, she assured herself. It had worked for her parents, hadn’t it?

  Oh God, she didn’t want the hollow marriage she’d sprung from. She didn’t want marriage at all—wasn’t that the point?

  Of course it was, she decided, drawing a deep breath. That was exactly the point. All she needed to do was distance herself from him, steady her emotions, and then she could slide right back into her life again.

  She’d arrange for a few days off work, take a short trip to anywhere. Anywhere, she thought, finally turning for home, far enough away to prevent her from backtracking to his apartment.

  Why the devil had fate put her only a few short blocks away from him?

  “There you are!”

  Layna’s head snapped up, and she forced a smile into place as she saw Myra strolling up the sidewalk toward her. Automatically she closed the distance and kissed her godmother’s cheek.

  “I was just out for my evening walk,” Myra began, “and thought I’d take a chance and stop by.” She angled her head, her sharp eyes scanning Layna’s face, noting the pale cheeks and unhappy eyes. “Oh darling, what’s the matter?”

  “Nothing. I don’t know. Nothing,” she said again, more firmly. “Come in. We’ll have some tea.”

  “I’d love some.” Myra slid her arm through Layna’s as they climbed the short stairs to the trim walkway. “And while we’re having it you can tell me what’s made you unhappy. Or should I say who?”

  “I’m not unhappy. I just have a lot on my mind.” Layna unlocked the door. “Make yourself comfortable in the parlor while I start the tea.”

  “No indeed. I’ll make myself comfortable in the kitchen and watch you brew the tea. Cozier.” And it would give Layna less time to fortify her defenses, Myra thought. “Were you out for a walk yourself?”

  “No. Well, yes, as it happens.”

  In the kitchen, Layna put the kettle on to boil, then chose a pretty Dresden teapot. She heated the pot first, as she’d been taught, carefully meas
ured out Earl Grey. “It’s a beautiful evening.”

  “It certainly is,” Myra agreed. “Before much longer we’ll be sweltering in the usual Washington summer. But May is a gentle month. Romantic. Are you having a romance, Layna?”

  “I don’t know what I’m having.” Layna kept herself busy, setting out cups, pouring cream into a small pitcher. “I didn’t want a romance. I don’t want a romance.”

  “Why ever not?”

  “I’m not equipped for them. Drakes don’t deal in romance. They deal in business.”

  “What a ridiculous thing to say.”

  “Why?” Suddenly angry, Layna whirled around. “You know my parents, you know my grandparents. Can you sit there and tell me they had romantic, loving marriages?”

  “No.” Myra sighed and leaned back against the cushions of the pretty breakfast nook. “No, I can’t. Your mother was a disappointment to me in that area, Layna. She married your father because she found him compatible, because she believed their lifestyles meshed, and because she knew she would enjoy being Mrs. Drake. I won’t criticize her,” Myra continued. “She got what she wanted and made a life that satisfies her. And she made you.”

  “I’m not criticizing her,” Layna said wearily. “I don’t want what she has. I like being single. I like being in charge of my own life.” She turned back to deal with the tea. “Marriage and children aren’t in my plans. I like things as they are.”

  “Then why are you unhappy?”

  “I’m just confused. But I’m straightening everything out now.”

  “Are you in love?”

  “I don’t understand love, Aunt Myra.”

  “It’s not meant to be understood. It’s meant to be felt, and celebrated.”

  “I don’t want to feel it.” Panic threatened, forcing Layna to level her voice. Her hands were steady enough as she carried the tea tray to the table.

  “It frightens you?”

  “Why shouldn’t it? Don’t you think my mother felt something like love when she had an affair with her tennis pro? Or my father felt something like it when he went off on pseudo business trips with his administrative assistant?”

  Myra puffed out her cheeks. “So, you knew.”

  “Of course I knew. About those, about the others. Children aren’t nearly as stupid as adults want them to be. I won’t put myself in the position of making a marriage, then cheating, or being cheated on.”

  “Not all marriages are like that, darling. Herbert and I had over fifty years of happiness, of love, of faithfulness. I still think of him every day. Miss him every day.”

  “I know.” Touched, Layna reached out and closed her hand over Myra’s. “But you’re the exception, not the rule. I see it all the time, on my buying trips. The little flings and quick deceptions. The carelessness of it. Or I’ll watch a perfectly intelligent woman lose her direction, her sense of worth because she’s fallen in love. It so rarely works.”

  “Fear of failure blocks any hope of success.”

  “Caution and practicality ensure it.”

  “Oh.” Irritated, Myra waved a hand. “You’re too young to close yourself off this way.”

  “I’m old enough to recognize my limitations.” Layna chuckled, soothed by her godmother’s scowl. “And to be practical. I’m going to take a few days off, find a change of scene, and when I come back, I imagine both myself and the man involved will have realized we’ve taken this situation as far as it goes.”

  We’ll see about that, Myra mused, and smiled into her tea. “Well, that’s handy for me. As it happens, I was coming by to see if you had any free time. I wanted to take a short trip up north, but I’m just not able to go on my own anymore.”

  Which was, of course, a lie. Myra Dittmeyer traveled as she pleased and traveled often.

  “Actually, I was thinking—”

  “I always hate to impose, but since you were planning on taking a trip anyway …” Myra smiled and struggled to look frail. “I get so tired and confused in airports these days. Then I’d have to hire a car and a driver. It’s so simple when you’re young.” She sighed wearily.

  “Of course I’ll go with you. I’ll arrange for the time off tomorrow. We can leave the next day if you want.”

  “You’re so sweet to me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Oh, and you’ll love spending a few days in Hyannis Port. Daniel and Anna will love seeing you again.”

  “The MacGregors?” It took all Layna’s control not to choke on her tea. “Oh, Aunt Myra, I wouldn’t want to impose on them.”

  “Nonsense. They’ll adore having you for a few days. I’ll take care of the tickets.” She started to scoot out, reminding herself to move slowly. “I can still use a phone, after all. I’m so pleased you can help me with this, darling. At my age, one never knows how much time one will have with their friends and loved ones.” She patted Layna’s hand. “I’ll just see myself out.”

  She continued to move slowly until she was out of the house, out of sight, then she quickened her pace. Her face was set in a determined smile; her eyes were bright with challenge.

  Twenty-four hours to set things up, she thought. More than time enough—once she called Daniel and got him working on his end.

  * * *

  Daniel peeked out the window of his tower office and scowled. What the devil was taking them so long? He only had a handful of days to settle this matter, and he couldn’t begin until the first of the players were on stage.

  Oh, it was going to work out fine, no doubt about it. Better yet now that his grandson Duncan had flown up for an impromptu visit. Bless the boy, he was just the hammer needed to nail D.C. into place.

  The fates were smiling on this particular scheme. And why shouldn’t they? he’d like to know. It was a fine scheme, a loving one. Not that he intended to take a bit of credit for it.

  And if things went well, he’d just keep his part in it nice and quiet. His family tended to become irritated at the oddest things.

  “Grandpa? You up there?”

  Daniel rubbed his hands together in anticipation and turned to smile as his daughter’s second son strolled in. A fine looking boy, Daniel thought. Tall and dark like his father, with his grandmother’s deep brown eyes and his mother’s sassiness.

  And, he thought with pride, his grandfather’s knack for gambling.

  He had plans for young Duncan, oh indeed, he did. But one thing at a time.

  Duncan angled his head and flashed his quick and cocky smile as he sniffed the air. “What, no cigar?”

  Instantly, Daniel pokered up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “No.” Wise to the ways of The MacGregor, Duncan sat in the deep chair across from the desk, stretched out his long legs and slipped a cigar out of his pocket. Watching Daniel, he ran it under his nose, drawing in the scent.

  “Now then.” Daniel’s face glowed with a delighted smile. “There’s a lad.”

  “It’s mine.” Duncan clamped the cigar between his teeth, his shrewd dark eyes dancing. “But I might share if you tell me what the hell you’re up to.”

  “I’m not up to a thing. Just waiting to greet my oldest and dearest friend, and her goddaughter.”

  “The goddaughter.” Duncan took the cigar out of his mouth and pointed with it. “Who, I’m sure, is single, of marriageable age. Strong stock, Grandpa? Good blood?”

  “And if she is?”

  “I’m not interested.”

  Better and better, Daniel thought, and smiled slyly. “She’s a fine lass, Duncan. Pretty as a picture. You’d make fine babies between you, which is something you should be seeing to. Boy of your age—”

  “Just put it out of that canny mind of yours, MacGregor.” Duncan popped the cigar back in his mouth, pleased to have seen through his grandfather so quickly and easily. “I’m happy just as I am—and I’m having a fine time sampling pretty ladies. I can find my own woman.”

  “And you’ve been finding too many of them, puttering around on that
gambling boat. Up and down the river, going nowhere.”

  “Have you seen the latest accounts? The Comanche Princess is a very profitable lady. And the only one who holds my heart.”

  “Aye, I’ve seen them. You know what you’re about, Duncan Blade, but what you need is a wife beside you and babies at your feet. Now this lass who’s coming to visit has a good head for business herself. I expect to see …” He trailed off as a movement outside caught his eye. “Ah,” he said as he turned back to the window. “Here they are now. You go down and make your how-do-you-dos.” Daniel wiggled his brows. “And see if I haven’t picked out a fine one for you.”

  “I’ll go down.” Duncan unfolded himself lazily. “But don’t buy the orange blossoms.” He held out the cigar, then grinning, wiggled his fingers, twisted his wrist and made it vanish before Daniel could take it.

  “Smart aleck,” Daniel muttered, then grinned fiercely as Duncan walked out. “You’re just what we need to get your cousin moving.”

  Humming the wedding march, he went down to greet his guests.

  * * *

  It couldn’t have been more perfect, Daniel decided a few hours later. Duncan fell easily into pattern and flirted charmingly with Layna, made her laugh. It was a fine thing, too, that they were easy together, as they’d be cousins before much more time had passed.

  He expected his family to be a loving and happy one.

  “Duncan, take the girl out in the gardens. You like flowers, don’t you, lass? We’ve fine ones.” Daniel continued beaming at Layna. “They show off particularly well at sunset.”

  “He’s right about that.” Duncan rose, sparing one withering look for Daniel before turning to smile at Layna. “Want to walk?”

  “I’d love to. Thanks.”

  Anna waited until they’d gone out the side door, then leaned forward in her chair. “You can get that smug look off your face, Daniel. Those children aren’t the least bit interested in each other in the way you’d like. And they couldn’t be less suited.”

  He barely resisted winking at Myra when his old friend muffled a chuckle. “They look fine together.”

  “Of course they do.” Exasperated, Anna threw up her hands. “They’re both attractive young people, but your meddling’s doomed to failure this time. And if you try to push those two together, Daniel, I’ll stop you.” She lifted a finger before he could bluster. “They’re not right for each other. Any fool can see that poor girl isn’t happy.”

  “Well, she’d be happy enough if she wasn’t so stubborn.” Daniel sniffed. “Needs to think with her heart for a change—like someone else I knew more than sixty years ago. And we’ll see if she isn’t smiling when she leaves here in a few days.”

  After those sixty-plus years, Anna knew when to stop beating her head against the stone wall of Daniel’s determination. She turned to her friend. “Myra, surely you can see that this is a mistake for Layna.”

  “I just want her happy, Anna. The child is just waiting to open her heart.”

  “Not to Duncan,” Anna said firmly. “You saw for yourself the way she and D.C. looked at each other. If she’s not in love with him, she’s well on the way—and the two of you shoved them together hardly more than a month ago. Putting Duncan, who can charm the stars from the sky, in her way just now is a disaster waiting to happen.”

  At Myra’s burst of laughter, Anna’s eyes narrowed. She took a deep breath and shifted her gaze from her husband to her friend. “Oh, what have the two of you done?”

  “Just set a stage, so to speak,” Daniel told her. “And D.C. will be walking onto it tomorrow.”

  “D.C’s coming?” Anna shut her mouth, sat back, considered. Then she nodded. “Good.”

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