All the possibilities, p.10
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       All The Possibilities, p.10
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         Part #3 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  picture him as a boy, seeing beyond what other boys saw and storing it. “Why?”

  “If I weren’t modest, I’d confess that I was always a well-mannered, even-tempered child who never gave my parents a moment’s trouble.”

  “Liar,” she said easily. “How’d you get the broken nose?”

  The grin became rueful. “Rena punched me.”

  “Your sister broke your nose?” Shelby burst out with delighted and unsympathetic laughter. “The blackjack dealer, right? Oh, I love it!”

  Alan caught Shelby’s nose between two fingers and gave it a quick twist. “It was rather painful at the time.”

  “I imagine.” She kept right on laughing as he shifted to her side. “Did she make a habit of beating you up?”

  “She didn’t beat me up,” he corrected with some dignity. “She was trying to beat Caine up because he’d teased her about making calf’s eyes at one of his friends.”

  “Typical brotherly intimidation.”

  “In any event,” Alan put in mildly, “I went to drag her off him, she took another swing, missed him, and hit me. A full-power roundhouse, as I remember. That’s when,” he continued as Shelby gave another peal of laughter, “I decided against being a diplomat. It’s always the neutral party that gets punched in the face.”

  “I’m sure …” Shelby dropped her head on his shoulder. “I’m sure she was sorry.”

  “Initially. But as I recall, after I’d stopped bleeding and threatening to kill both her and Caine, her reaction was a great deal like yours.”

  “Insensitive.” Shelby ran apologetic kisses over his face. “Poor baby. Tell you what, I’ll do penance and see about fixing you breakfast.” With a quick burst of energy, she gave him a last kiss and bounded from the bed. “Come on, let’s see what’s in the kitchen.” Finding a robe that had been tossed over a chair, Shelby waited until Alan slipped into his slacks. “You can make the coffee,” she told him, “while I see if there’s anything edible in the fridge.”

  “Sounds promising,” Alan murmured.

  “Now, don’t get snotty before you know what might turn up,” she advised. They passed through the living room where the cat simply rolled over on the sofa and ignored them. “He’s still sulking,” Shelby stated with a sigh. “Now I’ll have to buy him chicken livers or something.” She stopped to pull the water dish out of Auntie Em’s cage. “He’s a moody creature, isn’t he?” she said to the bird. Auntie Em gave one impatient squawk, the extent of her vocabulary.

  “Sounds like she got up on the wrong side of the perch,” Alan commented.

  “Oh, no. She’s in a good mood if she says anything.”

  He gave Shelby an interested glance. “Did she?”

  For an answer, she handed him the water bowl. “Here, you can take care of this before you start the coffee.” Without waiting for an assent, she went through the kitchen to the side door to bring in the paper. Alan looked down at the container like a man who’d been handed a small damp-bottomed child. “It seems the president’s Mideast tour is still the top story,” she noted before she tossed the paper onto the counter. “Do you like to travel?”

  Recognizing the meaning behind the query, Alan switched off the water before he answered. “At times I enjoy it. At times it’s simply a necessity. It isn’t always possible to choose when and where I go.”

  Deliberately she shook off the mood. “I suppose not.” Shelby opened the refrigerator and stared inside until she heard him move away to see to the bird. Don’t think about it, she ordered herself fiercely. You’re not to think about it today.

  “Well,” she began brightly when Alan came back into the room. “What we have here is a quart of milk, a couple of leftover cartons of Chinese, a very small slice of goat cheese, half a pack of Fig Newtons, and an egg.”

  Alan came up to look over her shoulder. “One egg?”

  “All right, just wait a minute,” Shelby told him while she nibbled on her lower lip. “You have to consider the possibilities.”

  “We could consider the restaurant around the corner.”

  “The man has no vision,” Shelby muttered as she concentrated. “Let me see …” Moving aside, she rummaged through a cupboard. “Okay, I have … three, four, five slices of bread, if you count the heels. French toast.” She smiled triumphantly. “That’s two and a half pieces for each of us.”

  Alan nodded. “All right, you take the heels.”

  “Picky.” Clucking her tongue, Shelby went back for the milk and the egg.

  “Discriminating,” he corrected, and left her to her creation while he made coffee.

  For a few moments, they worked in companionable silence: Alan measured out coffee and water; Shelby dumped what she thought might be the right amount of milk into a bowl. Alan watched her rummage through a cupboard, pushing aside an empty jar, a large plastic container without a lid, and a loose-leaf notebook. “So there’s where that is,” she was muttering until she came up with a frying pan. As she rose Shelby caught his eye and the gleam of amusement.

  “I don’t do a great deal of this.” Shelby put the pan on a burner and flicked on the flame.

  “I’d remind you of that restaurant around the corner except …” His gaze flicked over the robe that dipped deep at her breasts and skimmed her thighs. “You’d have to get dressed.”

  Shelby smiled, a slow invitation, but when he took a step toward her, she dunked bread into the batter. “Get a plate.”

  He reached into the cupboard she indicated, then drew two plates out before he came to stand behind her. Leaning over, he brushed his lips below her ear, pleased with the quick tremor of response.

  “The ones I burn,” Shelby warned, “are all yours.”

  He chuckled and set the plates beside the stove. “Got any powdered sugar?”

  “For what?” Catching her tongue between her teeth, Shelby flipped the bread over.

  “For that.” Alan opened three likely drawers before he located the flatware.

  Rubbing her nose with the back of her hand, she glanced over as the last piece began to simmer in the pan. “Don’t you use syrup?”

  “No.”

  With a careless shrug, she slipped the last slice of toast onto a plate. “Well, you do today. I probably have some in … the second cabinet to the left,” she decided. While he looked she meticulously divided one piece in half. Shelby had poured the coffee and brought the plates and cups to the table before he managed to locate the bottle.

  “It looks like we have about a tablespoon,” Alan decided as he tilted the bottle to its side.

  “That’s one and a half spoonfuls apiece.” Sitting, Shelby held out her hand for the bottle. After pouring carefully, she passed the syrup back to him. “I have a hard time remembering what I’m nearly out of,” she told him as she began to eat.

  He fought to squeeze out the last drops from the bottle. “You must have six boxes of cat food in that cupboard.”

  “Moshe gets cranky if I don’t keep a variety.”

  After tasting his breakfast, Alan found it better than he had expected. “I have a hard time understanding anyone as strong-willed as you being intimidated by a temperamental cat.”

  Shelby lifted her shoulders and continued to eat. “We all have our weaknesses. Besides, as roommates go, he’s perfect. He doesn’t listen in on my phone calls or borrow my clothes.”

  “Are those your prerequisites?”

  “They’re certainly in the top ten.”

  Watching her, Alan nodded. She’d plowed her way through the toast in record time. “If I promised to restrain myself from doing either of those things, would you marry me?”

  The cup she had lifted froze halfway to her lips. For the first time since he’d met her, Alan saw Shelby totally and completely stunned. She put the coffee down untasted, then stared at it while hundreds of thoughts raced through her head. Dominating them all was the simple and basic emotion of fear.

  “Shelby?”

  Quickly she s
hook her head. She rose, clattering the flatware onto her plate and scooping it up to take it to the sink. She didn’t speak—didn’t dare speak yet. What threatened to come out was yes, and she feared that most of all. There was a pressure in her chest, a weight, a pain. It reminded her to let out the breath she’d been holding. As she did Shelby leaned heavily against the sink and stared into the rain. When Alan’s hands came to her shoulders, she closed her eyes.

  Why hadn’t she been prepared? She knew that for a man like Alan love would lead to marriage. And marriage to children, she told herself as she tried to calm her nerves. If it wasn’t what she wanted as well, she wouldn’t feel this frenzied urge to say yes, and to say yes quickly. But it wasn’t as simple as love to marriage to children, not with Alan. There was the Senator in front of his name, and that wouldn’t be the highest title he’d attempt.

  “Shelby.” His voice was still gentle, though she thought she could feel tiny pulses of impatience and frustration in the fingers that moved on her shoulders. “I love you. You’re the only woman I’ve ever wanted to spend my life with. I need mornings like this—waking with you.”

  “So do I.”

  He turned her to face him. The intensity was back in his eyes, that dark seriousness that had first attracted her to him. He scanned her face, slowly, thoroughly. “Then, marry me.”

  “You make it sound so simple—”

  “No,” he interrupted. “Not simple. Necessary, vital, but not simple.”

  “Don’t ask me now.” Shelby wrapped her arms around him and held him close. “Please don’t. We’re together, and I love you. Let that be enough for now.”

  He wanted to press. Instinct told him he had only to demand an answer to hear the one he needed. And yet … He’d seen vulnerability when he’d looked into her face. He’d seen a plea in her eyes—two things rare in Shelby Campbell. Two things that made it impossible for him to demand anything.

  “I’ll want you just as much tomorrow,” he murmured, stroking her hair. “And a year from tomorrow. I can promise to wait to ask you again, Shelby, but I can’t promise to wait until you’re ready to answer.”

  “You don’t have to promise.” Tilting back her head, she put a hand on either side of his face. “You don’t have to give me any promises. For now, let’s just enjoy what we have—a rainy weekend with each other. We don’t need to think about tomorrows, Alan, when we have so much today. Questions are for later.” When she pressed her mouth to his, Shelby felt a wave of love so intense, it brought shivers of fear to her skin. “Come back to bed. Make love with me again. When you do, there’s nothing and no one but you and me.”

  He felt her desperation, though he didn’t fully understand it. Without a word, Alan picked her up and carried her back to bed.

  ***

  “I can still send my regrets,” Alan stated as he pulled the car up in front of his house.

  “Alan, I don’t mind going, really.” Shelby leaned over to give him a quick kiss before she slid out of the car. The rain had slowed to a drizzling evening mist that dampened the shoulders of her short velvet jacket. “Besides, these dinner dances can be fun—even when they’re disguised political functions.”

  Alan joined her on the sidewalk to tilt her chin for another kiss. “I believe you’d go anywhere as long as food was on the bill.”

  “It is an incentive all its own.” Hooking an arm through his, Shelby started up the walk. “And I also get the opportunity of poking around your house while you’re changing.”

  “You might find it a bit … sedate for your tastes.”

  With a smoky laugh, Shelby bit his ear. “You’re not.”

  “I think,” Alan considered as he opened the front door, “we’d have a more stimulating evening at home.”

  “I could be persuaded.” After stepping inside, Shelby turned to wind her arms around his neck. “If you’d like to make the effort.”

  Before Alan could oblige, he heard a stiff little cough. McGee stood near the parlor doors, sturdy as a tree. His long lined face was expressionless. Over the distance of six feet, Alan felt the waves of disapproval. He nearly sighed. McGee could still stand like the perfectly mannered servant and throw off vibrations like a stern uncle. Since he’d been sixteen, Alan had had to deal with that dignified disapproval whenever he’d come home late or not in the most sober of conditions.

  “You had several calls, Senator.”

  Alan’s mouth nearly twitched before he controlled it. The senator was reserved for use in the presence of company. “Anything urgent, McGee?”

  “Nothing urgent, Senator,” he replied, rolling the r for emphasis and delighting Shelby.

  “I’ll see to them later, then. Shelby, this is McGee. He’s been with my family since I was a boy.”

  “Hello, McGee.” With no self-consciousness, Shelby released Alan to walk to his servant and offer her hand. “Are you a Highlander?”

  “Ma’am. From Perthshire.”

  Her smile would have charmed the bark off any tree, even such a gnarled one. “My grandfather came from Dalmally. Do you know it?”

  “Aye.” Alan watched the faded eyes warm. “It’s country worth seeing twice.”

  “I thought so myself, though I haven’t been since I was seven. It’s the mountains I remember most. Do you go back often?”

  “Every spring to see the heather blooming. There’s nothing like walking in the heather in June.”

  It was the longest and, Alan mused, the most romantic statement he had ever heard McGee make in the presence of anyone who wasn’t family. Yet it didn’t surprise him. “McGee, if you’ll make some tea, I’ll go up and change. Perhaps you could serve Ms. Campbell in the parlor.”

  “Campbell?” McGee’s habitual stone face cracked with surprise as he stared from Alan to Shelby. “Campbell …” Briefly, very briefly, Shelby thought she caught a look of unholy glee in his eyes. “There’s going t’be a ruckus,” he murmured before turning on his heel to stride toward the kitchen.

  “Not everyone would have gotten that much out of him,” Alan commented as he steered Shelby into the parlor.

  “Was that a lot?”

  “My love, for McGee, that was an oratory.”

  “Hmm, well, I liked him,” Shelby decided as she wandered through the room. “Especially the way he scolded you, without saying a word, for staying out all night.”

  Slipping her hands into the deep pockets of her slim skirt, she studied the seascape on the wall. The room was ordered, calm, with subtle touches of turbulence. It suited the man, she mused. Shelby remembered the jade krater she’d made the day after she’d met him. He’d have to have it for this room, she reflected. Strange that she should have made something then that fit so perfectly into his world. Why couldn’t she?

  Forcing the thought back, she turned around to smile at him. “I like how you live.”

  The simple statement surprised him. Simple statements weren’t the norm for Shelby. He’d expected some lighthearted comment with a slick double edge. Going to her, Alan ran his hands up the arms of her jacket, still damp from the drizzle. “I like seeing you here.”

  She wanted to cling to him then, right then, desperately. If only he could tell her everything would always be as it was at that moment—that nothing would change or interfere … Instead she touched a palm to his cheek and kept her voice light. “You’d better go up and change, Senator. The sooner we get there”—now she grinned—“the sooner we can get away.”

  He pressed her palm to his lips. “I like your thought process. I won’t be long.”

  Alone, Shelby closed her eyes and gave in to the panic. What was she going to do? How could she love him, need him, like this when her head was screaming with warnings. Don’t. Be careful. Remember.

  There were a dozen solid, viable reasons why they didn’t belong together. She could list them all … when he wasn’t looking at her. She didn’t even need that shivery misty fear that she kept trapped in the back of her mind.

&nbs
p; She looked at the room again, closely. There was a basic order here, a style she admired, the understated wealth she understood. Fastidiousness without fussiness. But it wasn’t her style. Shelby lived in chaos not because she was too lazy or too indifferent to order her life, but because she chose chaos.

  There was an innate goodness in Alan she wasn’t sure she had. A tolerance she was sure she didn’t. Alan ran on facts or theories that had been well thought out. She ran on imagination and possibilities. It was crazy, Shelby told herself as she dragged a hand through her hair. How could two people with so little common ground love each other so much?

  She should have run, she told herself. She should have run fast and far the first minute she set eyes on him. With a half laugh, Shelby paced to the other end of the room. It would have done her no good. She could have fled like a crazed rabbit. Alan would have tracked her, calmly, unhurriedly. When she had collapsed, out of breath, he would just simply have been there waiting for her.

  “Your tea, Miss Campbell.”

  Shelby turned to see McGee enter with a porcelain tea service she simply had to touch. “Oh, Meissen—red stoneware.” She lifted the delicately painted, marbleized cup. “Johann Böttger, early 1700s … Wonderful.” Shelby studied the cup as any art student studies the work of a master. She’d always felt museums had the right to preserve some irreplaceables behind glass while the rest should be handled, touched, and used. “He never reached his lifelong aim,” she murmured, “to achieve that Oriental perfection of color decoration—but what marvelous things he produced trying.”

  Catching the butler’s eye, Shelby realized she was being weighed as a possible gold digger. Amused, she set the cup back on the tray. “Sorry, McGee, I get carried away. I’ve an affection for clay.”

  “Clay, miss?”

  She tapped a finger against the cup. “It all starts out that way. Just a lump of different sorts of dirt.”

  “Yes, miss.” He decided it would be undignified to pursue the matter. “Perhaps you’d care to sit on the sofa.”

  Shelby obliged him, then watched as he carefully arranged the service on the table in front of her. “McGee … has Alan always been so quietly unbeatable?”

  “Yes, miss,” he answered without thinking. The phrase had been so perfectly apt.

  “I was afraid so,” Shelby murmured.

  “I beg your pardon, miss?”

  “What?” Distracted, Shelby glanced up, then shook her head. “Nothing, nothing at all. Thank you, McGee.”

  Shelby sipped, wondering why she had bothered to ask when she had known the answer. Alan would always win in whatever aspect of his life he concentrated on. For a moment, she stared into the pale gold tea. That was exactly what she most feared.

  “What’s the current price for a thought in these days of inflation?” Alan wondered aloud as he paused in the doorway. She’d looked so beautiful, he reflected. So distant. Then she glanced up with a smile that enhanced the first and erased the second.

  “That was quick,” Shelby complimented him, and avoided the question with equal ease. “I’m afraid I admired your tea set a bit too strongly and made your butler nervous. He might be wondering if I’ll slip the saucer into my bag.” Setting down the cup, she rose. “Are you ready to go be charming and distinguished? You look as though you would be.”

  Alan lifted a brow. “I have a feeling distinguished comes perilously close to sedate in your book.”

  “No, you’ve lots of room yet,” she told him as she breezed into the hall. “I’ll give you a jab if you start teetering toward sedate.”

  Alan stopped her in the hall by slipping his arms around her waist. “I haven’t done this in one hour and twenty-three minutes.” His mouth covered hers, slowly, confidently. As her lips parted and offered, he took, taking the kiss just to the border, but no further, of madness. “I love you.” He caught her bottom lip between his teeth, then released her mouth only to change the angle and deepen the kiss. He felt her heartbeat sprint against his, felt that long, lazy melting of her bones he knew happened just before she went from pliant to avid. “Tonight, no matter who you dance with, think of me.”

  Breathless, she looked up. In his eyes, she saw that banked, brooding passion she could never resist. He’d overwhelm her if she let him; absorb her. He had the power. Shelby tilted her head so her lips stayed within a whisper of his. “Tonight,” she said huskily, “no matter who you dance with, you’ll want me.” Her arms stayed around him when she rested her head on his shoulder. “And I’ll know.”

  Just then she caught a glimpse of them in the long beveled mirror framed on the wall. Alan, sleek and sophisticated, was as conventional in black tie as she was unorthodox in the snug velvet jacket and narrow rose-hued skirt she’d found in a shop that specialized in cast-off heirlooms. “Alan.” Shelby nudged him around until he faced the mirror with her. “What do you see?”

  With his arm around her waist, he studied their reflections. The top of her head came to the base of his jaw. He wondered what other redhead could have not only worn that shade of rose, but looked so stunning in it. She might have stepped out of that antique looking glass in the century in which it had been fashioned. But there was no cameo at her neck. Instead there was a thick twisted gold chain that probably came from a narrow little Georgetown shop. Her hair curled riotously, untamedly, around her pale angled face. The faint shadow of trouble in her eyes made her look more like the waif he’d first compared her to.

  “I see two people in love,” he said with his gaze fixed on hers in the glass. “Two very different people who look extraordinarily well together.”

  Shelby leaned her head on his shoulder again, unsure if she was glad or
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