For now forever, p.8
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       For Now, Forever, p.8

         Part #5 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  She couldn’t stop the smile. “And you always get what you want?”

  “Exactly.” Pleased with himself he rubbed a thumb over her cheek before he dropped his hand. “Will you have a drink? There’s some sherry.”

  “I’d rather not.”

  “Have a drink?”

  “Drink sherry. Is there another choice?”

  He felt his nervousness drop away. “I’ve some prime Scotch sent—smuggled if you want the truth—from a friend of mine in Edinburgh.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “It tastes like soap.”

  “Soap?” He looked so astonished that she laughed.

  “Don’t take it personally.”

  “You’ll try it,” he told her as he went to the bar. “Soap.” While he poured, his voice dropped to a mutter. “This isn’t the swill you get at one of your stiff-necked Boston parties.”

  Damn it, the longer she knew him, the more endearing he became. Anna found her hand had wandered to the cameo again. She took a deep breath and reminded herself of the feeling of being at the wheel. Control. When he handed her a glass, she studied it. It was very dark and, she thought, very likely to be as lethal as the swords on the wall. “Ice?”

  “Don’t be silly.” He tossed back his glass and challenged her. Anna took a deep breath and gulped some down.

  Warm, potent and smooth. Frowning a bit, she sipped again. “I stand corrected,” she told him, but handed back the glass. “And if I drink all of it, I won’t stand at all.”

  “Then we’ll get some food into you.”

  With a shake of her head, she offered her hand. “If that’s your way of saying it’s time for dinner, I accept.”

  He took her hand and held it. “You won’t get too many pretty words out of me, Anna. I’m not polished. I don’t have any plans to be.”

  His hair flowed around his face, untamed and magnificent The beard gave him the look of the warrior they both knew was in his blood. “No, I don’t think you should.”

  No, he wasn’t polished, but he surrounded himself with beauty. It wasn’t the quiet sort Anna had become used to, but a bold, bracing beauty that could grab you by the throat. He had a shield and a pike on the wall of the dining room and below them was a Chippendale breakfront any collector of fine antiques would have envied. The table itself was massive, but set on it was the loveliest china Anna had ever seen. She sat in a chair that would have suited a medieval castle and found herself completely relaxed.

  The sun came in red-gold slants through the windows. As they ate, the light softened and dimmed. With silent efficiency, McGee came to light candles, then left them again.

  “If I told my mother about this meal, she’d try to steal your cook.” Anna took a bite of chocolate torte and understood the phrase sinfully rich.

  It gave him a quiet sort of pleasure to watch her enjoy his food, eat from the plates he’d chosen himself. “You can see why I prefer this to a restaurant.”

  “Absolutely.” She took another bite, because some things weren’t meant to be resisted. “I’m going to miss home cooking when I move into my apartment.”

  “What about your own?”

  “My own what?”

  “Cooking.”

  “It doesn’t exist.” Studying him, she took another bite. “Your eyebrows come straight together when you frown, Daniel, but don’t worry. I intend to learn my way around a kitchen. Self-preservation.” Linking her fingers, she rested her chin on them. “I don’t suppose you cook.”

  He started to laugh, then thought better of it. “No.”

  She discovered she liked catching him off guard that way. “But, naturally, you find it odd that I, as a woman, don’t know how.”

  It was difficult not to admire her logic even when he was on the wrong end of it. “You’ve a habit of boxing a man into a corner, Anna.”

  “I enjoy the way you fight your way out. I know this may be a dangerous boon to your ego, but you’re an interesting man.”

  “I’ve a very big ego. It takes a lot to fill it. Why don’t you tell me how I’m interesting?”

  She smiled and rose. “Another time perhaps.”

  He caught her hand as he stood. “There will be another time.”

  She didn’t believe in lies, and in evasions only when the truth didn’t suit. “It seems there will. Mrs. Higgs talked of nothing but you today,” she said as they walked back toward the parlor.

  “Lovely woman.”

  She had to grin. He said it with such self-satisfaction. “She expects you to come back.”

  “I said I would.” He saw the question in her eyes and stopped. “I keep my word.”

  “Yes.” She smiled again. “You would. It’s very good of you, Daniel. She has no one.”

  Uncomfortable, he frowned. “Don’t put a halo on me, Anna. I intend to win the bet, but I’d as soon do it without false pretenses.”

  “I’ve no intention of putting a halo on you.” She flicked the hair from her shoulder. “And I’ve no intention of losing the bet.”

  At the doorway to the parlor, she stopped again. There were candles, dozens of them, glowing throughout the room. Moonlight spilled in through the window to compete. There was music, quiet, bluesy. It seemed to come from the shadows. Anna felt her pulse race but continued into the room.

  “Lovely,” she commented, noting the silver coffee urn had been set up near the sofa.

  As Daniel went to pour brandy, she stood, looking completely at ease. She wondered if her muscles could knot any tighter. “I like the way you look in candlelight,” he told her as he handed her a snifter. “It reminds me of the first night I met you, when you stood on the terrace near the gardens. There were moonbeams on your face, shadows in your eyes.” When he took her hand, he thought for a moment that it trembled. But her eyes were so steady. “I knew then when I looked at you that I had to have you. I’ve thought of you every day and every night since.”

  It would have been easy, too easy, to give in to the thoughts bursting in her head. If she did, she could feel his mouth on hers again and would tingle for the touch of those big, wide-palmed hands on her skin. It would have been easy. But the life that she’d already chosen, or that had chosen her, wasn’t.

  “A man in your position must know how dangerous it is to make a decision on impulse.”

  “No.” He lifted her hand and kissed her fingers, slowly, one by one. The breath backed up in her lungs.

  Through sheer will she spoke calmly and, she hoped, carelessly. “Daniel, are you trying to seduce me?”

  When would he ever, how would he ever, get used to that quiet voice and frank tongue? After a half laugh, he drank some brandy. “A man doesn’t seduce the woman he intends to marry.”

  “Of course, he does,” Anna corrected and patted his back when he choked. “Just the same as a man seduces women he doesn’t intend to marry. But I’m not going to marry you, Daniel.” She turned away to walk to the coffeepot then looked over her shoulder. “And I’m not going to be seduced. Coffee?”

  He didn’t just love her, he realized. He very nearly adored her. There were a great many things he found he wasn’t certain of at that moment, but he knew without a doubt he couldn’t live without her. “Aye.” He walked to her and took the cup. Maybe he was better off with something in his hands. “You can’t tell me you don’t want me, Anna.”

  Her body was tingling. He had only to touch her to feel her need, her weakness. She made herself look at him. “No, I can’t. That doesn’t change anything.”

  He set the coffee down untasted. He’d have preferred throwing it. “The hell it doesn’t. You came here tonight.”

  “For dinner,” she reminded him calmly. “And because, for some odd reason, I enjoy your company. There are some things I have to accept. There are others I can’t risk.”

  “I can.” He reached out and cupped her neck gently, though it was difficult to be gentle when he wanted to drag her to him and plunder. He felt her quick move of resistance, ignored it and
pulled her closer. “I will.”

  When his mouth was on hers, Anna accepted one more thing. Inevitability. She’d known they couldn’t be together without passion rising up. Yet, she’d come to him freely and on equal terms. Between them there was a fire raging that she could only bank for so long. There would come a time, she knew, when nothing would stop it from consuming both of them. She slid her arms up his back and stepped closer to the heat.

  When he lowered her to the sofa, she didn’t protest but drew him closer. Just for a moment, she promised herself hazily, just for a moment she’d have a taste of what it could be like. His body was so firm against her. She could sense the desperation, and despite all good judgment, she reveled in it.

  His mouth raced over her face. Her name was murmured again and again against her lips, her throat. She could taste the fire of brandy as his tongue met hers. The scent of candlewax surrounded her. With the music came a low, pulsing beat that urged, teased, enticed.

  He had to touch her. He thought he’d go mad if he couldn’t have more. Then as he slid his hand over her, felt the softness, the race of her heart, he knew he’d never get enough. His hands, so wide, so large, passed over her with a tenderness that made her tremble. When he heard his name in her shaky whisper, he fought to keep himself from grabbing what he longed for. He brought his mouth back and found hers warm, willing and open.

  Desperate, he fumbled with the buttons running down the front of her dress. His hands were so large, the buttons so small. The blood began to pound in his head. Then he discovered, to his delight, that his dignified Anna wore silk and lace next to her skin.

  She arched when he found her, arched and shuddered, then strained for more. He was taking her beyond the expected, beyond the anticipated and into dreams. Large, wide-palmed hands continued to pass over her with incredible gentleness. They stroked, lingered, tested. Unable to resist, she let him guide her. Control no longer seemed essential. Ambitions became unimportant. Need. There was only one. For one mindless moment, she gave herself to it.

  There was a desperation in him that grew sharper each time his heart beat. He knew what he wanted, what he would want until the grave. Anna. Only Anna. Her mouth was hot on his, her body cool and slim. The images that rushed through his mind were as dark and dangerous as any uncharted land. She clung to him and seemed to give everything. His head spun with it. Then she buried her face against his throat and went very still.

  “Anna?” His voice was rough, his hands still gentle.

  “I can’t say this isn’t what I want.” The tug-of-war going on inside of her left her weak and frightened. “But I can’t be sure it is.” She shuddered once, then drew back. He could see her face in the candlelight, the skin pale, the eyes dark. Beneath his hand her heartbeat was fast and steady. “I never expected to feel this way, Daniel. I need to think.”

  Desire burned inside him. “I can think for both of us.”

  She lifted her hands to his face before he could kiss her again. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” Shifting, she sat up. Her dress was open nearly to her waist, with her soft white skin exposed for the first time to a man. But she felt no shame. Steadily she began to hook the buttons. “What is happening between us—what could happen between us—is the most important decision in my life. I have to make it myself.”

  He took her by the arms. “It’s already been made.”

  Part of her thought he was right. Part of her was terrified he was. “You’re sure of what you want. I’m not. Until I am, I can’t promise you anything.” The fingers that had been steady trembled before she could control them. “I may never be able to promise you anything.”

  “You know when I hold you that it’s right. Can you tell me that when I touch you, you don’t feel that?”

  “No, I can’t.” The more agitated he became, the calmer she forced herself to be. “I can’t, and that’s why I need time. I need time because whatever decision I make has to be made with a clear head.”

  “Clear head.” Furious, aching with need, he rose to stalk the room. “My head hasn’t been clear since the first time I laid eyes on you.”

  She rose as well. “Then whether you like it or not, we both need time.”

  He picked up the brandy she’d left unfinished and downed it. “Time’s what you need, Anna.” He turned to her. She’d never seen him look fiercer, more formidable. A smart woman would guard her heart. Anna struggled to remember that. “I’ll be in New York for three days. There’s your time. When I come back, I’m coming for you. I want your decision then.”

  Her chin lifted, exposing a slender, elegant neck. Dignity covered her in a cool, silent wave. “Don’t give me deadlines and ultimatums, Daniel.”

  “Three days,” he repeated and set down the snifter before he snapped it in two. “I’ll take you home.”

  Chapter 6

  When three days turned into a week, Anna didn’t know whether to be relieved or infuriated. Trying to be neither, to simply go about her life as she always had, wasn’t possible. He’d given her a deadline, then didn’t even bother to show up to hear her decision, which, she admitted, she hadn’t made yet.

  Invariably, whenever Anna set her mind to a problem, she solved it. It was a matter of thinking through all the levels and establishing priorities. There seemed to be too many levels in her relationship with Daniel for her to deal with each or any one of them rationally. On the one hand, he was a rude, boastful annoyance. On the other, he was fun. He could be unbearably arrogant—and unbearably sweet. His rough edges would never be completely smoothed off. His mind was admirably quick and clever. He schemed. He laughed at himself. He was overbearing. He was generous.

  If she couldn’t successfully analyze Daniel, how could she hope to analyze her feelings for him? Desire. She’d had very little experience with that feeling, aside from her ambitions, but she recognized it. How would she recognize love? And if she did, what would she do about it?

  The only thing Anna became certain of during Daniel’s absence was that she missed him. She was certain of it because she’d been so sure she wouldn’t even give him a second thought. She thought of little else. But if she gave in, if she threw caution to the winds and agreed to marry him, what would happen to her dream?

  She could marry him, have his children, dedicate her life to him—and resent everything they built together because she would have divorced herself from her vocation. That meant living half a life, and Anna didn’t think she could do it. If she refused him and went on with her plans, would that mean half a life, as well?

  Those were the questions that tormented her at night, that nagged at her throughout the day. Those were the questions she found, then rejected answers for. So she made no decision, knowing once it was made, it would be final.

  She forced herself to continue her routine. To tone down speculation and questions, she went to the theater with friends and attended parties. During the day, she threw herself into her work at the hospital with energy born of frustration.

  Habitually she visited Mrs. Higgs first. Anna didn’t need a degree to see that the woman was fading. Before seeing to all her other duties, Anna could spend as much time in 521 as needed.

  A week after she’d last seen Daniel, making certain her smile was in place, Anna opened the door to Mrs. Higgs’s room. This time the shades were drawn and there were more shadows than light. They seemed to be waiting. Anna saw Mrs. Higgs was awake, staring listlessly at the faded flowers on her table. Her eyes brightened when she saw Anna.

  “I’m so glad you came. I was just thinking of you.”

  “Of course I came.” Anna set the magazines down. Instinct told her that pictures weren’t what Mrs. Higgs needed today. “How else could I give you all the gossip about the party I went to last night?” On the pretext of tidying the sheets, Anna scanned the chart. Her heart sank. The deterioration of the past five days was increasing. But she was smiling as she took her seat beside the bed. “You know my friend, Myra?” Anna was aware how
much Mrs. Higgs enjoyed stories about Myra’s escapades. “Last night she wore a strapless black dress cut two inches past discretion. I thought some of the older ladies would faint”

  “And the men?”

  “Well, let’s just say Myra didn’t miss a dance.”

  Mrs. Higgs laughed, then caught her breath as pain sliced through. Anna was on her feet instantly.

  “Lie still. I’ll get the doctor.”

  “No.” Surprisingly strong, the thin hand gripped hers. “No, he’ll just give me another shot.”

  Trying to soothe, Anna rubbed the frail hand as she took her pulse. “Just for the pain, Mrs. Higgs. You don’t have to be in pain.”

  Calmer, Mrs. Higgs settled back again. “I’d rather feel pain than nothing. I’m all right now.” She managed a smile. “Talking to you is much better than medicine. Did your Daniel come back yet?”

  Still monitoring her pulse, Anna sat again. “No.”

  “It was so kind of him to visit me before he left for New York. Imagine his coming by here before he went to the airport.”

  The fact that he had was just one of the things that added to Anna’s confusion. “He likes visiting you. He told me.”

  “He’d said he’d come again when he got back from New York.” She looked at the week-old roses she refused to let the nurses take away. “It’s so special to be young and in love.”

  Anna felt a stab of pain herself. Did he love her? He’d chosen her, he wanted her, but love was a different matter. She wished she had someone to talk to, but Myra had seemed so preoccupied lately and no one else would understand. She could hardly pour her problems out on Mrs. Higgs when she’d come to comfort. Instead, she grinned and patted her hand. “You must have been in love dozens of times.”

  “At least. Falling in love, that’s the roller coaster, the ups and downs, the thrills. Being in love, that’s the carousel—around and around with music playing. But staying in love . . .” She sighed, remembering. “That’s the maze, Anna. There are all the twists and turns and dead ends. You have to keep going, keep trusting. I had such a short time with my husband, and never tried the maze again.”

  “What was he like, your husband?”

  “Oh, he was young, and ambitious. Full of ideas. His father had a grocery store, and Thomas wanted to expand it. He was very clever. If he’d lived . . . But that wasn’t meant. Do you believe some things are meant, Anna?”

  She thought about her need to heal, her studies. She tried not to think of Daniel. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

  “Thomas was meant to die young, like a lovely flash fire. Still, he packed so much into the short years. I admire him more as I look back. Your Daniel reminds me of him.”

  “How?”

  “That drive—the kind you can see on their faces. It tells you they’re going to do amazing things.” She smiled again, fighting back another surge of pain. “There’s a ruthlessness that means they’ll do whatever is necessary to accomplish it, and yet there’s kindness, very basic kindness. The kind that made Thomas give a handful of candy to a child who didn’t have the money. The kind that makes your Daniel visit an old woman he doesn’t know. I’ve changed my will.”

  Alarmed, Anna straightened. “Mrs. Higgs—”

  “Oh, don’t fret.” She closed her eyes a moment, willing her body to build back some strength. “I can see on your face you’re worried I’ve tangled you up in it. Thomas left me a nest egg, and I invested. It’s given me a comfortable life. I have no children, no grandchildren. It’s too late for regrets. I need to give something back. I need to be remembered.” She looked at Anna again. “I talked to Daniel about it.”

  “To Daniel?” Disturbed, Anna leaned closer.

  “He’s very smart, just like Thomas. I told him what I wanted to do, and he told me how it could be done. I’ve had my lawyer set up a scholarship. Daniel agreed to let me name him executor so he can handle the details.”

  Anna opened her mouth to brush the subject of death aside, then realized she would be doing so only for herself. “What kind of scholarship?”

  “For young women going into medicine.” Pleased with the stunned look on Anna’s face, Mrs. Higgs smiled. “I knew you’d like it. I thought about what I could do, then I thought of you, and of all the nurses here who’ve been so kind to me.”

  “It’s a wonderful thing, Mrs. Higgs.”

  “I could have died alone, without anyone to sit and talk to me. I was lucky.” She reached out and curled her fingers around Anna’s hand. Because it was difficult to feel, she tightened them. Anna felt barely any pressure. “Anna, don’t make the same mistake I did by thinking you don’t need anyone. Take love where it’s offered. Let it live with you. Don’t be afraid of the maze.”

  “No,” Anna murmured. “I won’t.”

  There was barely any pain now, barely anything at all. Mrs. Higgs stared at the outline of light around the shades. “Do you know what I’d do if I could start all over again, Anna?”

  “What would you do?”

  “I’d have it all.” The light was blurring, but she managed to smile. “It’s so foolish to think you have to settle for pieces. Thomas would have known better.” Exhausted, she closed her eyes again. “Stay with me a little while.”

  “Of course I will.”

  So she sat in the shadowed room. Keeping the frail hand in hers, she listened to the sound of breathing. And waited. When it was over, she fought back the
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