The macgregor groom, p.1
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       The MacGregor Groom, p.1
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         Part #8 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  From the Private Memoirs

  of

  Daniel Duncan MacGregor

  At my stage of life, the years pass quickly, with season rushing into season. Every moment should be savored and lived to the fullest.

  Of course, I felt the same way when I was thirty!

  Now, in the last handful of years, I’ve watched four of my beloved grandchildren find love, marry and start families. Laura, then Gwen; Julia, then Mac. Happiness beams out of their eyes; contentment shines in their voices. Each has built a home and a life with the mate of their heart.

  So why, I ask you, did it take them so damn long?

  Hah! If it hadn’t been for me they’d still be foundering around, and there wouldn’t be a single great-grandchild for Anna to cuddle and spoil, would there? But do I ask for gratitude? No, indeed. As long as I’m head of this family I’ll do my duty without the need for thank-yous. It’s my duty, and my pleasure, to see that my chicks are comfortably—and properly—roosted.

  It would seem, with all this marital bliss going on, that the other grandchildren would get the hint and follow the fine example of their siblings and cousins. But no, no, the MacGregors are a stubborn and independent lot. And God bless them for it.

  Thankfully, I’m still around to see that things get done. I saw three of my girls to the altar and gave my first grandson his nudge. Some say it’s interference. Bah. I say it’s wisdom. I’ve decided it’s time to apply a little wisdom to my namesake, Daniel Campbell MacGregor.

  Now he’s a fine boy—sharp as a whiplash, if a mite temperamental. Handsome, too. Looks a bit like I did at his age, so he doesn’t lack for female companionship. That’s part of the problem, as I see it. Too much quantity and not enough quality.

  We’ve found a way to fix that.

  D.C.’s an artist, which he comes by naturally enough. Though for the life of me I don’t understand half the things he paints, he’s made a fine success out of his work. Now what the boy needs is a woman to share that success, his life, and give him children to center it.

  Not just any woman, mind. A woman with backbone, a woman with brains and ambitions—and breeding. The woman I picked out for him while they were both still children. I’ve been patient, bided my time. I know my boy and just how to handle him.

  A bit perverse is my D.C. The type of man who too often goes left if you tell him he’d be better off turning right. Comes, I suppose, from the eight years of childhood when his father was president and there were so many rules that had to be obeyed.

  Well now, with a little help from an old and dear friend, we’ll get young Daniel Campbell turned in the right direction—and let him think he did it all by himself.

  A wise man doesn’t need thanks—just results.

  Part One

  D.C.

  Chapter 1

  The light poured through the tall windows and splashed on the violent slashes of sapphire and ruby. It washed over the man who stood before the canvas like a warrior at battle, wielding a paintbrush like a claymore.

  He had the face of a warrior—tough, intense, with knife-edged cheekbones adding hollows, a mouth that was full but firmed in concentration. Eyes brilliant blue and icy cold beneath knitted brows the color of old mahogany.

  His hair waved over his ears, curled over the collar of the splattered denim shirt he wore in lieu of a smock. He’d rolled the sleeves up, and the well-toned muscles of his arms rippled as he slashed the brush on canvas.

  He was built like a warrior—broad of shoulder, narrow of hip and long of leg. His feet were bare, his wide and clever hands smeared with paint.

  In his mind he saw explosions of emotion—passion and lust, greed and hunger. And all of this he fought onto the canvas while mean-edged rock pumped out of the stereo and thumped against the air.

  Painting was a war to him—one he was determined to win, battle after battle. When the mood was on him he would work until his arms ached and his fingers cramped. When his mood was otherwise, he could and did ignore his canvases for days, even weeks.

  There were those who said D.C. MacGregor lacked discipline. To those, he said who the devil wanted it?

  As he clamped the brush between his teeth, switched to a palette knife to smear on a bold emerald, his eyes glittered in triumph.

  He had it now. The hours of waging this battle were nearly done. A thin line of sweat slid down the center of his back. The sun beating through the windows was fierce now, and the studio was viciously hot because he’d forgotten to turn on the air-conditioning or open a window to the warm spring air.

  He’d forgotten to eat as well, or check his mail, answer the phone or so much as glance out any of the wonderfully tall windows in his apartment. The energy swirled through him, as potent, as primitive as John Mellencamp’s edgy, streetwise vocals blasting through the room.

  When D.C. stepped back, the brush still clenched like a pirate’s blade in his teeth, the palette knife like a dagger in his hand, that firm, somewhat forbidding mouth curved.

  “That’s it,” he murmured. He put the brush in a jar of solution, began to absently clean the knife as he studied his work. “Need,” he decided. He would call it simply Need.

  For the first time in hours he realized the room was stuffy, the clashing and familiar scents of turpentine and paint thick in the air. He crossed the unpolished hardwood floor and shoved open one of the tall windows, took a deep gulp of fresh air.

  It had been the windows, and this view of the C & O Canal, that had sold him on this apartment when he’d decided to come back to Washington. He’d grown up here, with eight years of his life spent in the White House as first son.

  For a space of time he’d lived and worked in New York, and enjoyed it. He’d also lived and worked in San Francisco, and enjoyed that as well. But all through his restless twenties something had tugged at him. He’d finally given in to it.

  This was home.

  He stood by the window with his hands shoved in the back pockets of ragged jeans. The cherry blossoms were in full, glorious bloom; the canal sparkled in the afternoon light. Joggers plugged away along the towpath.

  D.C. wondered idly what day it was.

  Then, realizing he was starving to death, he left the music blaring and headed to the kitchen.

  The penthouse was two levels, with the top designed for a master bedroom suite. D.C. had made it his studio and slept on a mattress tossed on the floor in the spare room. He hadn’t gotten around to dealing with bed frames.

  Most of his clothes were still in the packing boxes they’d been shipped in nearly two months before. He figured they worked efficiently enough as dressers until he found time to buy the real thing.

  The main floor had a spacious living area ringed by more windows, still undraped. In it, there was a single sofa—the tags still on—a glorious Duncan Phyfe table with a half inch of dust coating its surface, and a floor lamp with a dented metal shade. The random-width pine floor was bare and desperately needed vacuuming.

  The dining alcove off the kitchen was empty, the kitchen itself in shambles. What dishes and pots weren’t heaped in the sink were still in boxes. He went directly to the refrigerator and was bitterly surprised to find it empty but for three beers, a bottle of white wine and two eggs.

  He could have sworn he’d gone shopping.

  Rummaging through the cupboards, he came up with a few slices of very moldy bread, a bag of coffee, six boxes of cornflakes and a single can of soup.

  Resigned, he ripped open a box of cereal and ate a handful while debating which he wanted more, coffee or a shower. He’d just decided to make the coffee and take it with him into the shower when the phone rang.

  He noted without much interest that his message light was blin
king, and, munching dry cereal, he answered.

  “Hello.”

  “There’s my boy.”

  And those ice blue eyes went warm, that hard mouth went soft. D.C. leaned against the counter and grinned. “Hey, Grandpa, what are you up to?”

  “Some would say no good.” Daniel’s voice boomed out. “Don’t you return your messages? I’ve talked to your bloody machine half a dozen times in the last few days. Your grandmother wanted to fly down to make sure you weren’t dead in your bed.”

  D.C. only lifted a brow. It was well known that Daniel used his serene wife whenever he wanted to nag the children.

  “I’ve been working.”

  “Good. That’s good, but you can take a breath now and then, can’t you?”

  “I’m taking one now.”

  “I’ve a favor to ask you, D.C. I don’t like to do it.” Daniel let out a heavy sigh and had his grandson’s brow knitting.

  “What do you need?”

  “You won’t like it—God knows I can’t blame you. But I’m in a bit of a fix. Your aunt Myra—”

  “Is she all right?” D.C. straightened from the counter. Myra Dittmeyer was his grandmother’s oldest and dearest friend, his own godmother and an honorary member of the Clan MacGregor. D.C. adored her, and remembered guiltily that he hadn’t been to see her since he returned to Washington six weeks before.

  “Oh, she’s fit and fine, boy. Don’t you worry about that. The woman’s just as feisty as ever. But, well, she has another godchild. I doubt you remember the girl. You’d have met her a time or two when you were a lad. Layna Drake?”

  Concentrating, D.C. got a vague image of a spindly little girl with hair like dandelion fluff. “What about her?”

  “She’s back in Washington. You know Drake’s—the department stores. That’s her family. She’s working in their flagship store there now, and Myra … Well, I’m just going to say it straight out. There’s a charity ball tomorrow night, and Myra’s fussing because the girl doesn’t have an escort. She’s been at me to ask you—”

  “Damn it, Grandpa.”

  “I know, I know.” Daniel used his most long-suffering sigh. “Women, boy—what else can I say? They’ll peck away at us like ducks until we just give in. I told her I would ask you. It would be a big favor to me if you’d see your way clear for this one night.”

  “If you and Aunt Myra are trying to set me up—”

  Daniel interrupted with a hearty laugh that had D.C. frowning. “Not this time, boy. This girl isn’t for you, take my word. She’s pretty enough, and well mannered, but she’d never do for you. Too cool, to my way of thinking, and a bit of the nose-in-the-air sort. No, no, I wouldn’t like to see you looking in that direction. And if you can’t spare the evening, I’ll just tell Myra I reached you too late and you already had plans.”

  “Tomorrow night?” D.C. scooped his fingers through his hair. He hated charity functions. “Is it black tie?”

  “I’m afraid so.” At the muttered oath in response, Daniel made sympathetic noises. “Tell you what, I’ll just call Myra back and tell her you can’t make it. No use wasting your evening with a girl who’s likely to bore you to tears, is there? I doubt the two of you have a single thing in common. Better you start looking for a wife. It’s time you were married and settled, Daniel Campbell. Past time. Your grandmother worries you’ll end up starving in your studio, a lonely old man without a single chick or child. I’ve got another girl in mind. She’s—”

  “I’ll do it,” D.C. interrupted, purely in reflex. If Daniel didn’t think much of Myra’s goddaughter, it meant he wouldn’t be on the phone constantly asking for relationship updates. Perhaps after this favor, his grandfather might ease off his relentless dynasty building—and though D.C. didn’t hold out much hope for that outcome, it was worth a try. “What time tomorrow, and where do I pick what’s-her-name up?”

  “Oh, bless you. I owe you for this one. The affair’s at eight, at the Shoreham Hotel. Layna’s taken over her parents’ town house on O Street.” Examining his nails, Daniel rattled off the address. “I appreciate you getting me out of this little fix, D.C.”

  D.C. shrugged, upending the cereal box into his mouth as he traded family gossip with Daniel. And he wondered fleetingly where the hell he might have packed his tux.

  * * *

  “Oh, Aunt Myra, really.” Layna Drake stood in her underwear, a waterfall of white silk over her arm and a mortified expression on her face. “A blind date?”

  “Not really, sweetheart.” Myra smiled. “You’ve met before—when you were children. I know it’s an imposition, but Daniel rarely asks me for anything. It’s just one evening, and you were going anyway.”

  “I was going with you.”

  “I’ll still be there. He’s a very nice young man, darling. A bit prickly, but still very nice.” She beamed. “Of course, all my godchildren are wonderful people.”

  Myra continued to smile as she sat and studied her goddaughter. Myra was a small woman with hair as white and soft as snow. And with a mind as sharp and quick as a switchblade. When the moment called for it—as it did now—she could adopt a fragile and helpless air. The aged Widow Dittmeyer, she thought with an inner chuckle.

  “Daniel worries about him,” she continued. “And so do I. The man keeps too much to himself. But honestly, who would have thought when I was just casually mentioning tonight’s affair and how you’d come back to Washington, that Daniel would get this idea in his head? I was just …” Myra fluttered her hands helplessly. “I didn’t know how to say no. I realize what an imposition it is.”

  Because her adored godmother suddenly looked so unhappy, Layna relented. “It doesn’t matter. As you said, I’m going anyway.” Gracefully, she stepped into her gown. “Are we meeting him there?”

  “Ah …” Gauging the timing, Myra rose. “Actually, he’ll be here shortly to pick you up. I’ll meet you there. Goodness, look at the time. My driver must be wondering what happened to me.”

  “But—”

  “I’ll see you in an hour or so, darling,” Myra called out, moving with surprising speed for a woman of her age. “You look gorgeous,” she said once she was safely halfway down the stairs.

  Layna stood in the unzipped column of white silk and heaved out a breath. Typical, she thought. It was just typical. Her godmother was forever shoving men into her path. Which left her with the sometimes irritating job of having to push them out again.

  Marriage was something she’d firmly crossed off her life plan. After growing up in a house where manners took precedence over love, and casual affairs were politely ignored, Layna had no intention of finding herself in the same sort of relationship.

  Men were fine as decoration, as long as she ran the show. And at the moment, her career was much more important than having someone to dine with on Saturday night.

  She intended to continue her steady climb up the family’s corporate ladder at Drake’s. In ten years, according to her calculations, she would take over as CEO.

  It was another show she intended to run.

  Drake’s wasn’t just a department store, it was an institution. Being single, and remaining that way, ensured she could devote all her time and energies to maintaining its reputation and its style.

  She wasn’t her mother, Layna thought with a faint frown marring her brow, who thought of Drake’s as her personal closet. Or her father, who had always been more concerned with bottom-line profits than innovations or traditions. She was, Layna thought, herself.

  And to her, Drake’s was both a responsibility and a joy. It was, she supposed, her true family.

  Some, she mused, might find that sad. But she found it comforting.

  With a quick move, she zipped the dress. Part of her responsibilities to Drake’s was to mingle, to attend social functions. To her, it was simply a matter of changing gears, from one kind of work to another. The after-hours work called on training she’d received throughout her childhood and was second nature to her
now.

  And the “job” often meant being linked with the proper escort.

  At least this time her aunt Myra didn’t appear to have any real interest in making a match. It would just be a matter of making small talk with a virtual stranger for an evening. And God knew she was an expert at such matters.

  She turned and picked up the pearl-and-diamond drops she’d already set out on her dresser. The room reflected her taste—simple elegance with a dash of flash. The antique headboard of carved cherry, the highly polished surfaces of lovingly tended occasional tables topped with vases of fresh flowers or carefully chosen accessories.

  Her home now, she thought with quiet pride. She’d made it her own.

  There was a cozy seating area in front of a small marble fireplace and a dainty ladies’ vanity displaying a collection of boldly colored perfume bottles.

  She selected her scent, absently dabbing it on while she allowed herself to wish, just for a moment, that she could spend the evening quietly at home. She’d put in a ten-hour day at Drake’s. Her feet hurt, her brain was tired and her stomach was empty.

  Pushing all that aside, she turned to the cheval glass to check the line and fit of her gown. It was cut straight at the bodice and flowed without fuss to the ankles, leaving her shoulders bare. She added the short jacket, slipped into her shoes and checked the contents of her evening bag.

  When the doorbell rang she only sighed once. At least he was prompt.

  She remembered D.C. vaguely from childhood. She’d been much too nervous and impressed from meeting the president to notice much else. But she’d heard of him off and on over the years.

  An artist, she reminded herself as she started downstairs. Of the modern school, which she didn’t pretend to understand. Layna preferred the classics in all things. Had there been some scandal about him and a ballet dancer a few years back? Or had it been an actress?

  Ah well, she thought. She supposed the son of a former president would make news over trivialities. And being the grandson of Daniel MacGregor would only intensify the spotlight. Layna was much happier working backstage herself.

  And obviously the man couldn’t be such a hit with the ladies if he couldn’t even get his own date on a Saturday night.

  Putting on her company smile, she opened the door. Only years of education by Swiss nuns, and the discipline they’d instilled, kept her mouth from dropping open.

  This man—this very dangerous-looking man in black tie, with hair the color of her prized dining-room table and eyes so blue they burned—needed his grandfather to find him a date?

  “Layna Drake?” He had to have the wrong house, was all D.C. could think. This shimmering willow stem in white silk was nothing like the spindly little girl he remembered. Rather than dandelion fluff, her hair was spun gold curved sleekly around a face that might have been carved from ivory. Her eyes were a soft and misty green.

  She recovered, her how-do-you-do smile never faltering as she offered a hand. “Yes. Daniel MacGregor?”

  “D.C. Daniel’s my grandfather.”

  “D.C. then.” Normally she would have invited him in, played hostess for a short time and given them both an opportunity to get somewhat comfortable with each other. But there was something not quite safe about him, she decided. He was too big, too male, and those eyes were far too bold. “Well.” Deliberately she stepped out and closed the door behind her. “Shall we go?”

  “Sure.” Cool, his grandfather had said, and D.C. decided the old man had hit the mark. Definitely an ice princess for all her glamorous looks. It was going to be a very long evening.

  Layna took one look at the ancient and tiny sports car at the curb and wondered how the hell she was supposed to fold herself into it wearing this gown.

  Aunt Myra, she thought, what have you gotten me into?

  Chapter 2

  She felt as if she were locked inside a mechanical shoe box with a giant. The man had to be six-four if he was an inch. But he seemed perfectly content to drive the toy car—at high rates of speed—through the swirling Washington traffic.

  Layna clamped a hand on the padded handle of her door, checked the fit of her seat belt and prayed she wouldn’t be crushed like a bug on the windshield before the evening even started.

  Small talk, she decided, would keep her mind off that particular image.

 
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