The macgregor groom, p.9
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.9

         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  Annoyed with having his enjoyment of the moment spoiled, Duncan pulled the flip phone out of his pocket and once again called Cat Farrell’s agent.

  He paced the docks as he waited for the connection, his strides long and loose. His looks bespoke his heritage—tall and dark with dark gold skin, eyes of deep brown heavily lashed and lidded, and the straight black hair of his Comanche ancestors. His face was narrow, sculpted with high, sharp cheekbones and a long straight nose. The mouth was firm and full, and given to quick smiles.

  But he wasn’t smiling now. “Cicero? Blade. Where the hell is my talent?”

  Brooklyn jangled through the receiver as Cicero whined an answer. “She ain’t there yet? Hey, I’m telling you, the kid’s reliable. Something slowed her up, that’s all. She’ll be there, and she’ll knock you out, I guarantee.”

  “Pal, you guaranteed me she’d be here yesterday at noon. She’s got her first performance tonight. Don’t you keep in touch with your clients?”

  “Sure, sure, but Cat … well, she goes her own way. Worth every penny you’re paying her, though. More. You got her while she’s climbing. Give her another year, and—”

  “I don’t give a damn about next year, Cicero. I deal in the now. And right now I don’t see your client.”

  “She’ll get there. She’ll get there. Look, your brother liked her fine. She blew them away in Vegas.”

  “My brother’s a lot more tolerant than I am. You get her here—in one hour—or I start by suing your butt off for breach of contract. And then I’ll get nasty.”

  Duncan disconnected on the resulting sputters, slipped the phone back into his pocket and started across the docks toward the boat.

  His brother Mac had indeed approved of Cat Farrell, Duncan thought. And he trusted Mac’s judgment without question. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been so quick to take his grandfather’s additional glowing recommendation of her and hire her without an audition.

  She looked good, damned good, he thought, bringing the image of her photo to his mind. Sleek and sexy—and the demo tape Cicero had sent him proved she had a voice to match.

  But that wasn’t doing him any good if the bloody woman didn’t show.

  The teenager striding toward the gangplank caught his attention. Battered jeans, lopsided backpack, scarred tennis shoes. A zebra-print baseball cap was pulled low over her forehead and round-lensed dark glasses were perched on her nose. He let out a sigh. It was a pity, he thought, that kids didn’t have more of a sense of fashion.

  He lengthened his stride to cut her off before she could board.

  “Sorry, honey. You can’t go on there. No passengers until after three, and you’ll need your parents with you to get on.”

  She shifted, stood hip cocked, and tipped down the little sunglasses with one finger. He felt a quick jolt seeing the eyes behind them. They were a pure and piercing green, with a thin shimmer of gold circling the pupils.

  Put a few years on her, Duncan thought fleetingly, and the eyes alone would drop men to their knees. To his amusement those eyes skimmed up, down, then up again before latching on to his with a bold arrogance he couldn’t help but admire.

  “And who would you be?”

  It should be illegal for a female to have a voice like that before she turned twenty-one, Duncan decided. All that husky promise belonged in a ripe and experienced woman. “I’m Blade. She’s mine,” he said, with a jerk of his head toward the boat. “And you’re welcome to come back when you’re legal, darling.”

  Her lips curved with the same easy arrogance she carried in her eyes. “Want to card me, Blade? I’ve got my ID in here somewhere.” She reached around to pat her backpack. “But since we’re running a little behind, why don’t we skip it? I’m your headliner, sugar.”

  She stuck out her hand as his eyes narrowed. “Cat Farrell. And I was twenty-five last month.”

  He could see it now, he supposed. If he used his imagination. The eyes should have tipped him off. But there hadn’t been a dusting of freckles across her nose in the photo, and there had been a wild waterfall of deep red hair. He couldn’t see a trace of it now, and wondered how she’d managed to stuff it all up under the ugly cap she wore.

  “You’re late.”

  “Got hung up.” She flashed a smile. “I shouldn’t have let Cicero talk me into that gig in Bakersfield. Missed my flight, had to reroute. Pain in the butt. Listen, I’ve got a cab back there full of my stuff. You want to take care of that for me? I’ll go take a look at the setup.”

  “Hold it.” He took a firm grip on her arm before she could turn away. “Stay.” He had the satisfaction of seeing annoyance flicker in those remarkable eyes before he strode over to one of the crew and gave instructions for Cat’s luggage to be transferred on board.

  “We’ll take a look at the setup,” he told her, then took her arm again and walked her up the gangway. “And afterwards, we’ll have a short lesson on how to operate this new and amazing device called the telephone.”

  “Nobody told me how witty you were,” she said dryly. But because she wanted the job, badly, she bit back another sarcastic remark. “Look, I’m sorry. Sometimes you run into obstacles when you travel, and I ran into a few. I got here as soon as I could.”

  And damn Cicero, she thought, for not giving her more of a window of time to get from California to Missouri. Missing her flight had meant she’d had to settle for puddle jumpers and delays all the way across the country.

  She hadn’t slept except in snatches in the last twenty-four hours, hadn’t eaten except what she could grab and swallow in a few minutes. And now she had this cover of GQ razzing her for being a little late.

  But he was a Blade and he was a MacGregor. Between the two names was enough power to give her career the exposure and the boost she’d worked for for her entire life.

  It would be a good gig. The decks were spotless, she noted, the rails romantically reminiscent of balconies in the French Quarter she’d seen in pictures and movies. Glass gleamed. Obviously Duncan Blade ran a tight and tidy ship.

  He pushed open one of a set of double doors painted a glossy red, and gestured. Cat stepped in ahead of him, fisted her hands on her hips and scanned the room.

  Like the exterior of the boat, it radiated charm and tradition. Round tables were set close enough for coziness, but with enough room to keep elbows from bumping. The lights in the audience area were dripping chandeliers, and the carpet was that same vivid red.

  The bar in the far rear corner was fluidly curved. Stylish, Cat thought, with the added benefit of opening a traffic pattern. Stools gleamed with brass fittings, and the mirror behind the bar glittered.

  She walked toward the stage, approving of the polished parquet flooring, noting with a quick shiver of delight her picture on the bill poster set on an easel to the side, in front of a gorgeous Steinway.

  Hitting center stage, she turned, shut her eyes, drew breath. And belted out the first two bars of “Stormy Weather.”

  Still in the rear, Duncan had to fight to keep his mouth from dropping open. She had a voice that went straight to the gut and managed to fill the room without benefit of a mike.

  “You’ve got good acoustics in here,” she told him.

  He had to take a breath himself. “You’ve got good pipes in there.”

  She grinned. She knew exactly what she had. Her voice was all she’d ever had, and she intended to ride it to the top. “Thanks, sugar. My little claim to fame. I’ll need to run a sound check, a short rehearsal. You point me to my dressing room, my cabin and a sandwich, and I’ll get to work.”

  “You’ve got a performance in …” he glanced at his watch “… eight hours.”

  “I never miss a cue.” She slipped off her glasses, hooked the earpiece in the neck of her T-shirt. “I’ll do my job, Blade.”

  He intended to make sure of it. “Dressing room’s backstage, between the main lounge and the casino.”

  “Smart,” she said as he came toward her. “Get peo
ple buying drinks in here, then wandering out and dumping bucks at the tables. Suckers.”

  He arched a brow. “I take it you don’t drink or gamble.”

  “Not as a rule. Drinking dulls the brain and gambling—when the house holds the edge—means losing. I don’t like to lose.”

  “Neither do I.” He showed her through another swinging door, turned to the left down a short corridor. “This is yours.”

  Hers, she thought. It had only been a little more than a year since she’d had her first personal dressing room. It still gave her a secret thrill. No more days of sharing space with strippers or chorus dancers. No more fighting for a place at the mirror or pawing through a jungle of costumes for her own.

  Hers, she thought again, and studied the small, organized space.

  Lighted mirror, long counter, padded stool, clothes rack. And God bless America, a neat sofa. “A little cramped,” she said with a shrug, because she wanted to dance. “But I’ll manage. I could use some help getting my wardrobe in here.”

  “You’ll get it. But let’s give you the lay of the land first.”

  She went reluctantly. She’d have enjoyed sitting on that sofa, locking the door and just grinning for a while. Instead, she followed him out, through the casino with its tables of green baize, its colorful wheels and glittering slots.

  This, Cat imagined, was his stage. However casually he was dressed—and she imagined he thought of the tailored slacks and white silk shirt as casual—he was the perfect image of the traditional riverboat gambler.

  And she didn’t imagine he often walked away lighter in the pocket.

  “Two performances a night,” Duncan told her as they wound their way through and back out on deck into the brilliant sun. “Your days are pretty much your own, though we encourage staff to socialize and mingle with the passengers. You’ll take your meals belowdecks with the crew. Breakfast from six to eight, lunch eleven to one, dinner five to seven. I promise you won’t go hungry.”

  “That’s good to know. I’ve got a big appetite.”

  He glanced down at her. She was wand slim, though the photos had shown off some very attractive curves. Duncan knew and appreciated the engineering of female undergarments and what they could do to augment a figure.

  “You can use the health club, also belowdecks. You pay for your drinks, and since you don’t drink—as a rule—I shouldn’t have to tell you that you get drunk on board, you get one warning. Next time you’re off.”

  He took stairs leading down, and turned into another corridor. “Passenger cabins. We can hold a hundred twenty full bookings and another hundred fifty day stops when we’re in port.” He stopped by a door, opened it. “First class-cabin,” he explained, and let her wander in.

  “Well, well.” It was more spacious than she’d imagined, with a generous bed, plush seating area. The furnishings looked antique—genuine stuff, she imagined. The flowers were fresh, and a neat balcony curved out behind a pair of French doors and offered a view of the river. “Must cost a bundle.”

  “You get what you pay for. People come here to relax, to be entertained, and we give them their money’s worth.”

  “I bet you do.” One day, she thought, one fine day she’d stay in a room like this. And when she did, she’d stretch out on the bed naked as a baby and laugh until her ribs cracked.

  And she’d forget all the two-bit motels, the cramped rooms and fleabag hotels that had come before.

  “Well, sugar, since I don’t think employees get such jazzy digs, where’s mine?”

  “Down one level.” He stepped back, but as she passed through the door, their shoulders bumped.

  He even smelled rich, she thought with mild irritation. She imagined she smelled just the way she felt. Like tired rags. If she didn’t get that sandwich soon, she was going to pitch forward on her face and humiliate herself.

  Been hungry before, she thought as she once again followed Duncan down a flight of steps. Just think about something else. Anything else.

  Like what a very fine butt Blade has. Definitely first-class all the way. Her quick snort of laughter had him glancing back.


  “Nothing. Since I keep ending up behind you, I’m just enjoying the view.”

  His left eyebrow winged up—a skill she’d always admired. Then, like lightning, his grin flashed. Whoa, Cat thought, secret weapon. Very effective.

  “Next time we’ll switch places,” he said easily, then opened a door. “This is yours.”

  It was less than half the size of the cabin he’d just shown her, and the tiny window afforded light but little else. Still, it delighted her to see the space, the single narrow bed, the spotless floor. Her trunk sat there, filling most of the room.

  “We’ll have that stowed for you when you unpack. It won’t seem as crowded.”

  “It’s fine.” More than fine, she thought. It smelled clean. There would be no drunks hollering at each other in the next room, no need to shove a chair under the doorknob so she could sleep with both eyes shut.

  She glanced into the tiny bathroom and found no problem with the doll-size sink or the skinny shower stall. Everything there, no matter how small, gleamed from fresh scrubbing.

  For the next six weeks, she thought, it was all hers.

  “I’ll manage okay. Now about that sandwich?”

  “I’ll have something sent down.” He was already an hour behind schedule. “Take an hour, get yourself settled. I’ll arrange for your sound check. We’ll keep the main lounge closed until four. That’s all the time I can give you to rehearse, so be on time.”

  “I’ll be there, sugar.” She walked to the opened door, leaned on it in a silent invitation for him to leave. “And I’ll need some bottled water—no bubbles, no flavors, just straight mineral water.”

  He cocked that brow again. “Anything else?”

  “Well.” Her lips curved slowly as she skimmed a finger down the front of his shirt. “Time will tell. Thanks for the tour.”

  If she wanted to play, he mused, he was good at games. He flicked a finger under her chin, leaned down just close enough to see her eyes sharpen. “Sweetheart, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

  He strolled away, grinning.

  Chapter 12

  He loved the night best. And the approach of it. July meant long, steamy days with sun blasting off the wide, dark waters of the Mississippi. And it meant hot nights with teasing breezes.

  It meant action.

  The passengers had boarded, and the cast-off party had set the tone for a fantasy period of enjoyment, of pleasure, of reliving those adventurous times when stern-wheel boats ruled the river.

  He’d done his meet-and-greet, gauging faces, from the blissful honeymooners to the sharp-eyed hopefuls who dreamed of beating the odds. As twilight approached, Duncan felt that canny little thrill of beginnings.

  A large chunk of his life had been spent in hotels, stationary buildings in cities and resorts. He’d been content, and he’d learned the family business, discovered a knack for it. But he’d also discovered that he preferred freedom of movement, change and the unexpected.

  His mother often laughed and said he’d been born a century too late. He’d been born to ride the river.

  He rode it now as the Comanche Princess glided south, cruising lazily through the water and leaving the restrictions of land behind. He could have piloted the grand boat himself—another thing he’d learned. He wasn’t a man to put control in other hands without knowing how to take it back if it became necessary.

  But he’d handpicked his captain himself, and his crew. Now he could enjoy the moment, satisfied that what was his ran well.

  He passed through the casino with a winking nod to his casino manager. Gloria Beene had a sharp eye, a nimble brain and a dreamy Southern accent that disguised her ruthless efficiency.

  And she filled out her trim tuxedo just fine.

  Duncan had stolen her from Savannah, hiked her salary and had considered pursuing a
more … personal relationship. Until both of them discovered they’d begun to think of each other more as family than lovers.

  “Nice crowd tonight,” Gloria commented. “Heavy on the slots.”

  “The cruise packages like to play their complimentary tokens in the machines—to start. We’ve got two honeymoon couples. You’ll spot them. If they breeze in, see they get a free bottle of house champagne.”

  “Will do.”

  “I’m going to check out the new talent next door, but I’ll be round and about for the next few hours.”

  He wandered through, appreciating the music of the slots, the ruffle of cards, the clink of dice. Circling, he finished his early evening sweep, then stepped through to head for the main lounge.

  He stopped, checked his watch, then frowned at Cat’s dressing room door. He hadn’t heard a peep out of her since he’d left her hours before. And her track record didn’t inspire him to trust she’d be ready on time.

  He gave a quick, one knuckle rap on the door. “Five minutes, Miss Farrell.”

  “Got it. Shoot. Give me a hand, will you?”

  Duncan pushed open the door—and discovered exactly how it must feel to take two barrels of a shotgun straight to the gut.

  She stood in the center of the room in what he supposed some generous soul might call a dress. What there was of it was the same vibrant green as her eyes. It left her shoulders bare in a kind of frame for a waterfall of smoky red hair.

  Baggy, ragged jeans hadn’t warned him that she had silky legs that must end somewhere in the vicinity of her ears. But the short, tight skirt and mile-high heels showed them off to marvelous advantage.

  “Well,” he murmured. “Don’t you clean up nice.”

  Cat stopped tugging on the zipper and turned to give him a delicious view of bare back. “You bought the package, sugar, now help me tie the bow. This damn thing’s stuck.”

  “Let’s see what we can do about that.” He stepped toward her, noting that with those glamorous eyes expertly highlighted, that mouth slickly painted, she no longer looked like a teenager.

  And she smelled exotic, stunningly sexual.

  What was a man to do, Duncan asked himself, but enjoy the moment?

  “Sometimes you have to go down—” his knuckles skimmed over her skin as he slid the zipper low “—before you go up.”

  She didn’t shiver, and was more surprised than annoyed that for one slippery moment, she wanted to. Reminding herself she knew just how to handle his type, she turned her head and shot him a sultry smile. “Oh, I’ve been down, and I like up a lot better.”

  “Maybe you’ve never been down in just the right place.” Unable to resist, he trailed a fingertip along her spine. “Nice back, Farrell.”

  “Thanks.” Oh yeah, she wanted to shiver. Damn it. “Nice face, Blade. Now you want to get me into this dress before I miss my cue? My boss gets bitchy if I’m late.”

  “I’ll have to put in a good word for you.” It amazed him just how much he wanted to peel the dress away, to discover what other miracles had been hidden under the dumpy street-urchin clothes she’d traveled in.

  He was close enough, focused enough to see the awareness of that in her eyes. And unless his ego was skewing his vision, a glint of curiosity.

  She kept her gaze level, though the skim of those fingertips on her back made her want to turn and find out just how clever they could be.

  “It would be a mistake,” she said evenly.

  “Yeah.” With some regret, he slid the zipper smoothly into place. “It would.” He stepped back, took a good, long survey. “Looks like it might be worth it, from where I’m standing.” But he turned and opened the door. “Break a leg.”

  “I always try to break both.” She started by him, then followed impulse and stopped with their bodies close and framed in the doorway. Very slowly she trailed a finger over his mouth, then smiled. “Too damn bad.”

  She walked away, counting her heartbeats, stopping behind the turn of the stage. Waiting. Instead of blocking out those low, liquid pulls the encounter with Duncan had caused, she used them, focused on them.

  When the stage went black, she moved onto it, hit her center mark. Counting, still counting. And closing her eyes, began to sing, a cappella in the dark.

  She started soft and dreamy, just her alone, her voice stroking the words, her heart breaking on them. Then the music slipped in to join her. The key light winked on, spotlighting her face, holding, holding, then spreading to cover her as her voice built.

  Seduction, Duncan thought as he watched her. Her voice might have been wistful, achingly sad as she sang of wanting someone to watch over her, but it was all seduction.

  And the audience was caught in it.

  He imagined the women would weep and the men would want.

  God, she could make a man want.

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