The macgregor groom, p.8
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.8

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Good?” Having braced for a lecture, Daniel goggled at her. “Good, you say?”

  “Yes, I do. For once I agree with you. Though I don’t approve of your tactics, Daniel, and we’ll discuss that later.” A smile tugged at her lips. “It’s going to be a very interesting couple of days.”

  Chapter 10

  The last thing D.C. expected to see when he stepped out of his car in front of the fortress The MacGregor had built on the cliffs over the restless sea was his cousin with his arm slung companionably around Layna’s shoulders.

  The misery that had dogged him all along the trip north turned abruptly and viciously to bright green fury.

  Layna’s hair was windblown, her cheeks flushed. He imagined they’d just come from a walk on the cliffs, and the image infuriated him. Even as he watched them, Layna stopped, stared, and that pretty color that had glowed in her cheeks drained.

  “Hey.” Delighted, Duncan grinned and moved forward to give D.C. a hard hug and a slap on the back. “I didn’t know you were heading up.”

  “Obviously. What the hell is this?” His eyes, sparking with blue fire, stayed on Layna.

  “I—I came up with Aunt Myra for a few days. I had no idea you’d be here.”

  “You left town without a word.”

  “I said I was going to take a few days.”

  “I didn’t know where the hell you were.”

  “It was a quick decision.” She straightened her shoulders. “My decision.”

  “I take it you two know each other,” Duncan put in.

  “Shut up. This is between me and Layna.”

  “There’s nothing between us,” she shot back. “Excuse me, Duncan.” She turned and rushed up the steps.

  “Got a minute?” Duncan asked, neatly stepping into D.C.’s path before his cousin could bolt after Layna. The picture had snapped clear in his mind. Grandpa, you wily old bastard, he thought with amused affection, and decided the least he could do was play out his part.

  “Get out of my way.” D.C.’s hands fisted at his sides. “And keep your hands off her or I’ll break you in two.”

  Duncan lifted a brow and his smile turned sharp. “Oh, we can go a round, D.C. We’ve been there before. But why don’t we make sure we know why we’re pounding on each other first?”

  “She’s mine.” He jabbed a finger into Duncan’s chest. “That’s all you have to know.”

  And that, D.C. realized, was all he’d had to know himself. She was his. That was that.

  “Really? Didn’t look to me like she knew that. I guess Grandpa doesn’t know it either, since he’s picked her out for me.” It would be worth a sore jaw, Duncan thought as he watched D.C.’s teeth clench, to see his cousin on the hot seat for a while.

  “The hell he did.”

  “He thinks we’ll suit,” Duncan said easily. “He could even be right. She’s gorgeous, smart, easy to talk with. Then there’s that sexy laugh.” He barely blinked when D.C. grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him to his toes. It would be wise, Duncan supposed, to remember his cousin outweighed him by a good thirty pounds.

  “Have you touched her?”

  “I don’t generally paw women I’ve known less than a day. But if you want to put up the boundaries, cousin, you’d better do it fast. You want to put the moves on her, fine, just—”

  He had the rest of the words shaken back down his throat, and wondered if playing his grandfather’s game was going to land him in the hospital.

  “I’m not putting moves on her, you stupid son of a bitch. I’m in love with her!”

  “Why the hell didn’t you say so?” Duncan shouted back at him, and noting that his cousin looked as though he’d just suffered a blow to the head, he shoved his way free.

  “I just figured it out.”

  “You’d be smarter to tell her than to stand here fighting with me over it.” Duncan brushed a hand down his shirt to smooth it. “I’m a damn innocent bystander.”

  “Fighting with you is easier.” Jamming his hands in his pockets, D.C. stalked into the house.

  He found them in what the family called the Throne Room in honor of the huge chair where Daniel sat to preside over gatherings. It appeared this gathering was a very civilized afternoon tea. The moment he strode in, fury still vibrating around him, his grandmother rose and hurried toward him.

  “D.C.! What a lovely surprise. It’s so good to see you.”

  “I told Grandpa I was coming up to paint for a few days.”

  “That you did.” Daniel beamed fiercely from his chair. “Forgot to tell you, Anna. All this excitement. Well, come in, come in. Maybe now that you’re here these women will let me have some whiskey in my tea. Where’s your cousin?”

  “Outside. Layna, I’d like to talk to you.”

  She had her composure back, barely. “Certainly,” she said, and continued to sip her tea.

  “Privately,” he said between his teeth.

  “It’s not convenient now. Mrs. MacGregor, these scones are marvelous.”

  “Thank you. They’re one of our cook’s specialties.” Anna rolled her eyes at Daniel before she took her seat again. “D.C., they’re your favorite. Shall I fix you a plate?”

  “No, I don’t want anything. That’s wrong—I do. I want something very much. Layna, will you come outside with me, or am I going to have to carry you out?”

  She sent him a level look over the rim of her cup. The bite D.C. loved was back in her sea-siren eyes. “I suggest you sit down and have some tea. When we’re finished, if you have something to say to me, I’ll be happy to listen.”

  “You want me to sit down and have tea? You want me to sit down and have a nice cup after I come across you hanging all over my cousin?”

  She set her cup down with a snap. “I was not hanging all over anyone.”

  “I’m forced to agree,” Duncan said in cheerful tones as he strolled in. “But I had hopes. Scones?” Delighted, he pounced on the tea tray and helped himself.

  “I told you to keep out of it, or I’ll break that pretty face of yours.”

  Shocked, Layna gaped, then surged to her feet as Anna calmly poured more tea. “How dare you cause a hideous scene, threaten Duncan, embarrass me and upset your family this way?”

  “Let him have it, lass,” Daniel shouted, thumping a fist on the arm of his chair.

  “I wouldn’t have caused a scene, threatened, embarrassed or upset anyone if you’d come outside when I asked you to. It’s your hard head that’s put us here in the first place.”

  “Now we’ll add insults.” Eyes slitted dangerously, Layna stepped forward. “I wouldn’t be here if I’d known you were coming. And since this is your family home, I’ll be the one to leave.”

  “You’re not going anywhere until we finish this.”

  “There, we agree. Excuse us,” she said grandly, then stalked out of the room.

  “Outside,” D.C. muttered, grabbing her arm to steer her to the door.

  “Take your hands off me, I can get there on my own.” She jerked free, then yanked the door open herself. “I thought you’d already humiliated me as much as anyone could be humiliated. Now I see I was wrong. You’ve topped it.”

  She kept going, stalking over the long slope of yard, unaware that inside the house four people had made a beeline for the windows.

  “You’re humiliated? You? How do you think I felt when I come to visit my grandparents and find you snuggled up with my cousin?”

  She whirled on him. “In the first place, I was not snuggled up with anyone. I was having a perfectly innocent walk with a very nice man. And it’s none of your business what I do and with whom I do it.”

  “Think again, baby,” he said much too quietly.

  “I have thought, which is exactly what I told you I intended to do. And I’ve decided that whatever we’d started between us is going to stop.”

  “In a pig’s eye.” He snatched her up, fisted a hand in her hair to yank her head back, and took out his frustration
on her mouth.

  “We shouldn’t be watching this,” Anna murmured, even as she shifted at the window for a better view.

  “Ah, but look at them, Anna.” With a tear in the corner of his eye, Daniel draped an arm over her shoulder. “It couldn’t be more right.”

  “He’s hooked,” Duncan muttered, and bit into another scone. “Pitiful.”

  “Your time’s coining, laddie,” Daniel warned.

  “Not if I can help it.” Confident in his evasive skills, Duncan polished off the scone and watched his cousin take the fall.

  The kiss changed, heat sliding into warmth. A warmth that undid her. “Don’t.” Even as she murmured it, Layna skimmed her hands over his face. “Don’t do this. It’s not the answer.”

  “It is when my heart’s in it. Layna.” He rubbed his cheek against hers. “Can’t you see you’re holding my heart?”

  Because suddenly she could see it, right there in his eyes, her own heart stuttered. “I can’t do this. I don’t know how. It changes everything. Let me go, D.C.”

  “I thought I could. I wanted to be able to.” He did release her, so that they could stand facing each other. The wind whipped through his hair, sent it dancing. “Do you think you’re the only one who had plans, who thought they knew exactly where they wanted to go and how to get there? I didn’t want this. I didn’t want you. Now there’s nothing else but you.”

  “It can’t work. It was fine as long as we just wanted each other. As long as it was that simple.”

  “There’s nothing simple about the way I want you. And if you felt that way, why are you crying?” He reached out, his big hand painfully gentle, to brush a tear from her cheek. “I’m holding your heart, too. I won’t hurt it.”

  “You can say that, you can believe that because of what you come from. Your family is so lovely, so loving. Mine’s empty. It’s a name, it’s a way of living.”

  “You’re not your parents.”

  “No, but—”

  “And neither of us are exactly the same people we were when we met, are we?”

  She crossed her arms over her chest, gripped her forearms. “No, no, we’re not.”

  “We’ve already started to make compromises, to build something together. We’ve already let each other in, Layna. We didn’t notice it right off because it was right. It was just right. I love you.” He cupped her face gently. “You can look at me and see that.”

  “Yes.” It thrilled, and it terrified. “I want you, too, so much. But what if it doesn’t work, if I can’t make it work?”

  “What if you walk away now and we never try?”

  “I’d be back where I thought I wanted to be.” She drew a deep breath, let it out slowly. “And I’d be incredibly unhappy. I don’t want to walk away from you, or from us.”

  Joy shimmered just under his heart, and his lips curved. “Then take that walk with me.” He closed his hand over hers, linked fingers. “We won’t always want to go in the same direction, or at the same pace, but we can end up where we both need to be.”

  She looked down at their hands. So different, she thought. Hers narrow, his wide; hers almost delicate, his so strong. But look how they fit together.

  “I’ve never been in love.” She lifted her gaze, looked into his eyes. “I could always stop it. It never interfered, because I wouldn’t let it. But I couldn’t stop it with you. It made me so angry, so unsettled that I wasn’t able to just step back and say that’s far enough. But it’s not far enough.” Her fingers tightened on his. “I want to go a lot farther.”

  He lifted their joined hands to his lips. “No one mattered before you. Marry me. Let’s make a life together.”

  “I think we’ve already started to.” She brought her free hand to his cheek. “It just took a while for me to realize it’s exactly the one I want.”

  “I’d say that’s a yes.”

  Her smile bloomed. “I’d say you’re right.” She laughed when he scooped her off her feet and spun her in circles.

  “Let’s tell the family.” D.C. kissed her, hard and long, then spun her around again. “It’ll do The MacGregor good to see he can’t maneuver all his grandchildren into taking the matches he picks out for them. Not my type,” D.C. said. “Hah!” And kissed her again.

  Inside, Daniel wiped a tear from his eye.

  From the Private Memoirs

  of

  Daniel Duncan MacGregor

  Seasons come and go more quickly after a man reaches an age. Spring moving to summer so fast you hardly see the tulips bloom before they fade away again. Without family, without the love of them, the passing of time would be a kind of loneliness.

  I’m a man who’s never lonely.

  I’m grateful for that fact every day of my life. For the fine woman who’s spent all these passing seasons with me, for the children we raised, the babies those children gave us. And I realized—better than most, I think—that when a man’s been given such gifts, he’s responsible for caring for them.

  Just yesterday I stood in the church where my oldest son married and watched his son meet his bride. Seasons pass, and generations with them almost as quickly. I know what my boy felt watching his boy take that next step in life. The pride, the bittersweet loss, the hopes for the future.

  Well, I could have told my Alan he’s no need to worry about the future of D.C. and Layna. I’d chosen them for each other, hadn’t I? Not that we’ll mention that outside the hearing of a few select ears. My grandson can have his smug belief that he did the deed all on his own. He’ll be a better man for it, I imagine.

  A fine couple they made, the prettiest of pictures as they exchanged their rings in candlelight, D.C. looking more than a bit, I’m thinking, like his grandfather did sixty years back, and Layna elegant with the MacGregor tartan on her dress and the MacGregor veil over her golden hair.

  The babies they’ll make for me—well, for their grandmother, of course. She’s already making noises about it. The woman has no patience.

  Now that we’ve seen them off on their honeymoon, and seen the bond between them, we’ll leave them to start to build their life together.

  Today I walked on the cliffs with my Anna. Below us the sea tossed, as restless as ever, and above, the sky was a clear summer blue. I felt the wind on my face and Anna’s hand in mine.

  Many’s the time we’ve walked that walk together.

  From the cliffs I could see the house we’d built. Some call it a fortress, or a castle. And it’s some of both those things. A bold place it is, made of good native stone, with proud towers and strong lines and the crest of my clan over the front door. A man doesn’t forget his roots.

  But most of what it is is home. The place Anna and I fought our battles, made love—and our children. Where we raised them and watched them grow. It’s a home we share still, though the children have children, and some of them have children of their own.

  Thanks to me, of course.

  I’m happy to have set those who belong to me on the right path. Home and family. Whatever a man, or a woman, makes in this life, that is the base, the foundation of everything else.

  So where are the rest of my great-grandchildren, I’d like to know?

  Not that we haven’t made some progress there, but a man can’t live forever. Not even a MacGregor. I’ve seen five of the children of my children wedded now. And the babies I—that is, Anna—frets for are coming along. We have four bairns to fuss over, and two more on the way. And a joy they are to us—if only they’d visit more often.

  But children must have their own lives, after all. That’s what I’m seeing to. In my own fashion.

  I’m arranging for young Duncan—the second son of my lovely Serena and our handsome Justin—to make his life. Oh, the lad thinks he has one, and just the way he wants it, too. Sailing up and down the Mississippi on his gambling boat, free as a bird. Oh, a clever boy is Duncan Blade, and a charmer as well. He runs the Comanche Princess with a steady hand, for there’s good business sense behind
that quick, sly smile. And woe to the man who sees only a pretty face and crosses him, by God. The boy carries MacGregor blood, after all.

  No prim, shy miss would do for him. He needs a woman with grit, someone with sass. And I’ve just the one.

  All I’ve done—to respond to those who would call me a meddler—is put them together for a time. Just as I did the boy’s mother and father so many years back. Makes me sentimental to think of it. And it’s like a circle closing, isn’t it, to give my daughter’s son the same opportunity?

  We’ll see what he does with it.

  And if he doesn’t do it fast enough, why, I believe Anna and I might enjoy a few days on the river. I’m a gambling man myself.

  Part Two

  Duncan

  Chapter 11

  Duncan Blade played the odds. Whether they were long or short didn’t matter, as long as he knew them, and the pot was rich enough.

  And he was a man who liked to win.

  Gambling was in his blood, both from the MacGregor Scot and the Comanche Blade. Nothing suited him better than running the Comanche Princess. That in itself had been a gamble. His parents had dealt in hotels, of the stationary sort, all of his life. Atlantic City, Vegas, Reno and more. The riverboat had been Duncan’s dream, one he’d conceived, planned and nurtured. He understood his family trusted him to make it work.

  He had no intention of disappointing them.

  From the docks in Saint Louis, he stood, hands tucked in his back pockets, and studied his true love.

  The Princess was a beauty, he mused, with long, graceful lines, wide decks and fussily fashioned railings. She had been built to replicate the traditional riverboats that had once steamed up and down the river, carrying passengers, supplies—and gamblers. Her paint was fresh and blindingly white, her trim a hot and sassy red. Beneath the charm was power. And along with the power was luxury.

  Duncan wanted his passengers relaxed and happy. The food would be plentiful and first-class, the entertainment top of the line. Cabins ran from cozy to sumptuous. Each of the three lounges provided stunning views of the river.

  And the casino … well, the casino was, after all, the heart of it all.

  Passengers paid for the ride—and for the chance to win.

  The Princess would sail from Saint Louis to New Orleans, with stops along the way in Memphis and Natchez. Those who chose to stay on board for the full two weeks from north to south and back again wouldn’t be bored. And whether or not they disembarked as winners, Duncan knew they’d have gotten their money’s worth.

  For now, he had the anticipation of another run. Around him, crew worked to load cargo and supplies in the blistering July heat. He had paperwork to do, details to check, but he wanted to take this moment to watch the action. On board, more crew members were swabbing decks, freshening paint, polishing brass and cleaning glass.

  The Princess would sparkle by late afternoon, delighting the passengers who streamed up the gangplank.

  Everything was in place. Almost.

  Behind the amber lenses of his shaded glasses, his deep brown eyes narrowed. The new headliner he’d contracted had yet to show. She was now nearly twenty-four hours late. And if she didn’t make it within another four hours, they’d be preparing to sail without her.

 
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