The winning hand, p.11
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       The Winning Hand, p.11

         Part #7 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  Darcy’s eyes were closed as she tried to visualize the scene before letting the words come. Now, finally, though danger shadowed every corner, her two main characters would come together. No longer would they resist this vital and primitive pull, no longer would needs that swam in the blood and slammed in the heart be denied. It was now. Had to be now.

  The room was cold and smelled of damp the blazing fire had yet to conquer. The blue haze of a winter moon slipped through the windows.

  He would touch her. How would he touch her? A brush of knuckles on her cheek? Her breath would catch, strangle in her throat, shudder through her lips. Would she feel the heat of his body as he drew her close? What would be the last thing running through her mind in those seconds just before his mouth lowered, took possession of hers?

  Insanity, Darcy thought. And she would welcome it.

  Keeping her eyes closed, Darcy let the words run through her mind and onto the page. The sudden shrill of the phone was so abrupt and out of place in her chilly cabin in the mountains, she snatched it up without thinking.

  “Yes, yes, hello?”

  “Darcy.” The voice was grave, undeniably irritated, and all too familiar.

  “Gerald.” The passion and promise of the scene vanished, replaced by nerves. “Ah, how are you?”

  “How would you expect me to be? You’ve caused me a great deal of trouble.”

  “I’m sorry.” The apology was automatic, making her wince the moment it was out of her mouth.

  “I can’t imagine what you were thinking of. We’ll discuss it. Give me your room number.”

  “My room number?” Nerves shot directly to panic. “Where are you?”

  “I’m in the lobby of this ridiculous place you chose to land in. It’s beyond inappropriate—which I should have expected given your recent behavior. But we’ll straighten it out shortly. Your room number, Darcy?”

  Her room? Her haven. No, no, she couldn’t let him invade her sanctuary. “I—I’ll come down,” she said quickly. “There’s a seating area near the waterfall. It’s on the left of the reception desk in the main lobby. Do you see it?”

  “I could hardly miss it, could I? Don’t dawdle.”

  “No, I’ll be right down.”

  She hung up, pushed away from the desk. Despair closed in and was resolutely fought back. He couldn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do, she reminded herself. He had no power here, no control. He had nothing that she didn’t give him.

  But the hand that picked up her purse wasn’t completely steady. Her legs wanted badly to shake as she walked to the elevator. She concentrated on keeping her knees from knocking together all the way down.

  The lobby was crowded with people, families of tourists who wandered through to toss coins into the pool at the base of the waterfall or to see the live-action show in the open-air amphitheater. Guests checked in, checked out. Others were lured by the ching of slots and headed for the casino.

  Gerald sat in one of the curved-back chairs near the bubbling pool. His dark suit was without a wrinkle, his hard, handsome face without a smile as he scanned the activity around him with a glint of derision in his dark eyes.

  He looked successful, Darcy thought. Removed from the chaotic whirl around him. Cold, she decided. It was his cold nature that had always frightened her.

  His head turned as she approached. Even as his eyes skimmed over her, registering both surprise and disapproval of her choice of pale green shorts and a peach blouse, he got to his feet.

  Manners, she thought. He’d always had excellent manners.

  “I assume you have an explanation for all of this.” He gestured to a chair.

  The gesture, she mused, was just one of the ways he took control. Sit, Darcy. And she’d always quietly obeyed.

  This time she stood.

  “I decided to relocate.”

  “Don’t be absurd.” He dismissed this with a wave of his hand before taking her arm and pulling her firmly into a chair. “Do you have any idea what embarrassment you’ve caused me? Sneaking out of town in the middle of the night—”

  “I didn’t sneak.” Of course she had, she thought.

  He merely arched a brow, adult to child. “You left without a word to anyone. You’ve been irresponsible, which again, I should have expected. Taking a trip like this without any planning. What did you expect to accomplish?”

  Escape, she thought. Adventure. Life. She linked her fingers together, laid them in her lap and tried to speak calmly. “I wasn’t taking a trip. I was leaving. There’s nothing for me in Trader’s Corners.”

  “It’s your home.”

  “Not anymore.”

  “Don’t be more foolish than necessary. Do you have any idea what sort of position you’ve put me in? I find my fiancée gone—”

  “I’m not your fiancée, Gerald. I broke our engagement some time ago.”

  His gaze never wavered. “And I’ve been more than patient, giving you time to come to your senses and calm your nerves. This is how you behave. Las Vegas, for pity’s sake.”

  He placed his hands neatly on his knees and leaned forward. “People are gossiping about you now. And that reflects poorly on me. You’ve been splashed all over the national news—some sort of three-day wonder.”

  “I won nearly two million dollars. That’s news.”

  “Gambling.” He sneered on the word, then leaned back again. “I’ll handle the press, of course. The interest will die down soon enough, and it’s a simple matter to put a positive spin on the incident, to play down the sordid.”

  “Sordid? I put money into a slot machine. I hit the jackpot. What’s sordid about it?”

  He spared her a weary glance. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand the underlying thrust of this, Darcy. Your innocence, at least, does you credit. We’ll arrange for the money to be transferred—”

  “No.” Her heart was beginning to pound in her throat.

  “You can hardly leave it in Nevada. My broker will invest it properly. We’ll see that you get a nice allowance from the interest.”

  An allowance, she thought, through the dull buzzing in her head. As if she were a child who could be indulged with carefully controlled spending money. “It’s already being invested. Mr. MacGregor, Daniel MacGregor, is handling it.”

  Shock reflected in his eyes as his hand shot out to grip hers. “My God, Darcy, you’re not telling me you’ve given over a million dollars to a stranger?”

  “He’s not a stranger. And actually, he has slightly under a million for now. There are taxes and living expenses to consider.”

  “How could you be so stupid?” His voice rose, making her cringe back from it, and the disgusted fury in his eyes. “Put it together—a simpleton could see it. MacGregor has a financial interest in this hotel. And now he has the money you took from this hotel.”

  “I’m not stupid,” Darcy said in a quiet voice. “And Daniel MacGregor isn’t a thief.”

  “My lawyer will draw up the necessary papers to transfer the funds—what there are left of them. We’ll have to work quickly.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ll have to call him at home. Inconvenient, but it can’t be helped. Go up and pack while I deal with this latest mess you’ve made. The sooner I get home, the sooner this can be mended.”

  “Did you come for the money or for me, Gerald?” She flexed her hand in his, then let it lie passively. She would never win in a physical altercation so she concentrated her efforts, and her anger, into the verbal. “It occurs to me that your pattern would have been to call and order me home once you knew where I was. You wouldn’t have bothered to rearrange your busy schedule and come in person. You wouldn’t have felt the need. You’d have been so sure I’d have tucked my tail between my legs and come back when you snapped your fingers.”

  “I don’t have time for this now, Darcy. Go pack, and change into something suitable for travel.”

  “I’m not going anywhere.”

  Fury had
his fingers biting into hers as he jerked her to her feet. “Do what you’re told. Now. I will not tolerate a public scene.”

  “Then leave, because you’re about to get one.”

  A hand dropped lightly onto her shoulder. She knew before he spoke that it was Mac. “Is there a problem here?”

  “No.” She didn’t look at him, couldn’t. “Gerald, this is Mac Blade. He runs The Comanche. Mac, Gerald was just leaving.”

  “Goodbye, Gerald,” Mac said in a mild tone that flashed just around the edges. “I believe the lady would like her hand back.”

  “Neither Darcy nor I require your interference.”

  Mac stepped forward until they were eye-to-eye. “I haven’t begun to interfere, but I’d be happy to.” His smile was lethal. “In fact, I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity.”

  “Don’t.” More angry than frightened now, Darcy pushed her way between them. “I’m perfectly capable of handling my own problems.”

  “Is this what you’ve been up to, Darcy?” Disgust laced Gerald’s voice as he stared down at her. “Letting yourself be seduced by this … person? Deluding yourself that he would want anything more from you than to cheat you out of the money you took from him, and some cheap sex on the side?”

  She felt the ripple behind her, sensed that Mac was braced to attack, and quickly swung her hands back to grip his arms. “Please, don’t. Please.” The muscles seemed to vibrate against her restraining fingers. “It won’t help. Please.”

  She ignored the interested onlookers who were busy pretending not to watch. Perhaps it helped, just a little, that her back was firmly pressed against the solid wall of Mac’s chest. But she knew she had to stand on her own now, or she’d never manage to do so.

  “Gerald, what I do, where I do it and with whom has nothing whatsoever to do with you. I apologize for ever agreeing to marry you. It was a mistake I tried to rectify, but you never wanted to hear me. Other than that, I have nothing to be sorry for.”

  She drew a fresh, steadying breath while she watched his jaw clench. He wanted to hit her, she realized, and found she wasn’t surprised. If she hadn’t found the courage to run, he would have ended up using fists as well as words. Sooner or later, intimidation wouldn’t have been enough.

  The certainty of that gave her the will to finish it. “You maneuvered and manipulated me, because you could. And that’s why you wanted to marry me—at first anyway. After that, you insisted on it because you couldn’t and wouldn’t accept some little no one refusing you—and having to explain a broken engagement to the neighbors.”

  His face had gone stone cold. “I’m not going to stand here while you air our personal business in public.”

  “You’re free to leave anytime. You came here because I’m suddenly some little no one with a great deal of money. That ups the stakes—and so does the press. I’m sure a few enterprising reporters have made their way to Trader’s Corners, and it wouldn’t take much for any of them to dig up that we’d once been engaged. Embarrassing for you, but it can’t be helped.

  “I’m telling you now, as clearly as I know how, that you’ll never get your hands on me or my money. That I’m never coming back. I live here now, and I like it. I don’t like you, and I realize I never have.”

  He stepped back from her abruptly. “I can see now that you’re not the person I believed you to be.”

  “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. Cut your losses, Gerald,” she said quietly. “And go home.”

  He angled his head, studying both her and Mac with equal disdain. “As far as I can see, the two of you are well suited to each other, and this place. If you mention my name in the media, I’ll be forced to take legal action.”

  “Don’t worry,” Darcy murmured as he strode away. “I seem to have forgotten your name already.”

  “Well done.” Unable to resist, Mac lowered his head and pressed a kiss to the top of hers.

  She only closed her eyes. “However it was done, it’s over. Thanks for offering to help.”

  “You didn’t appear to need it.” But she was starting to tremble now. “Let me take you upstairs.”

  “I know the way.”

  “Darcy.” He turned her around, leaving his hands on her shoulders. “You wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of breaking his face. You owe me.”

  She drummed up something that passed for a smile. “All right. I always pay my debts.”

  He kept an arm around her shoulders as he walked her to the elevator. Instinctively he rubbed a hand up and down her arm to ease the trembling. “Did you get my flowers?”

  “Yes, they’re very nice.” Her voice went prim, pleasing him. “Thank you.”

  He used his passkey to access her floor. “My mother tells me you’ve been working.”

  “That’s right.”

  “So … the reason you haven’t answered my calls—or let me into your room—is because you’ve been busy writing. Not because you hold a grudge.”

  She shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t hold grudges. Usually.”

  “But you’re making an exception for me.”

  “I suppose.”

  “Okay. You’ve got two choices. You can forgive me for being … I believe ‘arrogant’ and ‘insulting’ was the way you put it, or I’m going to be forced to go after Gerald and pound my frustrations out on him.”

  “You wouldn’t do that.”

  “Oh yes.” He smiled darkly. “I would.”

  She stared at him even after the elevator doors slid open. “You would,” she realized with something between shock and horrified delight. “It wouldn’t solve anything.”

  “But I’d enjoy it so much. So are you going to invite me inside, or do I go find him?”

  She jerked a shoulder and tried not to be pleased. “Come in. I’m probably too distracted to work anyway.”

  “Thanks.” He glanced toward her desk. “How’s it going?”

  “Very well.”

  “My mother said you let her read a couple pages.”

  “She made it hard to say no. Would you like a drink? Some coffee?”

  “Nothing right now. Are you going to let me read some of your book?”

  “When it’s published you can read the whole thing.”

  He shifted his gaze from the desk to her face. Her color was back, which relieved him. She’d looked much too pale, and much too fragile, downstairs. “I can make it hard to say no, too. It runs in the family. But you’re a little shaky at the moment, so I’ll wait.”

  “It’s just a reaction.” She cupped her elbows in her palms. “I was afraid when he called.”

  “But you went down and met him.”

  “It had to be done.”

  “You could have called me. You didn’t have to do it alone.”

  “Yes, I did. I had to know I could. It seems foolish now to realize I’d ever been intimidated by him. He’s so pathetic, really.” She hadn’t understood that before, she thought now. Hadn’t seen the sorry man under the bully. “Still, if I hadn’t been, I might not be here. I might not have met you. I have to be grateful for that.”

  She clasped her hands together. “I appreciate you not hitting him after he insulted you that way.”

  His eyes stayed on her face. “I wouldn’t have hit him for me.”

  New emotions swam into her eyes. “I knew, when you came, it would be all right. That I would be all right. And I wasn’t afraid anymore. He thought that we’ve been … I was glad he did, because I’d never let him touch me. And he thinks you have.”

  He knew it was a mistake to cross to her. The odds were weighted wrong for both of them. “He’ll stew about that for a long time. It’s almost as good as beating him senseless.”

  The warmth spreading in her chest was nearly painful. “I’m glad you were there.”

  “So am I. Are we friends again?”

  His knuckles brushed her cheek, made her breath catch, strangle in her throat and shudder through her lips. “Is that what you wa
nt to be?”

  Her eyes were wide and dark. Her lips parted, full of anticipation, invitation. And irresistible. “Not entirely,” he murmured and lowered his mouth to hers.

  She knew now what thoughts scrambled through the brain in those last seconds before the mating of lips. Wild and desperate images so bold and tangled they had no name. She stretched up to her toes, her body pressing into his, her hands streaking up his chest to grip his shoulders as she let herself tumble into those shockingly bright colors and shapes.

  Her mouth was so eager, so soft and warm and giving. He wanted more of it. Her body was so slight, so pliant, so ready. He wanted all of it. The need was huge, raw as a groan, and forced him to fight for control.

  “Darcy—” He started to ease her away, swore that he would, but her arms wound around his neck.

  “Please.” Her voice was husky, a tremble of urgency. “Oh, please. Touch me.”

  The whispered request was as seductive as a rustle of black silk. Desire swarmed through him, roaring in his head, throbbing in his loins. “Touching won’t be enough.”

  “You can have enough.” She could drown in need, she thought frantically. Already she was going under. “Make love with me.” Her voice sounded desperate and very far away as her lips raced over his face, melted onto his. “Take me to bed.”

  It was as much demand as offer. Everything inside him responded to both. “I want you.” He tore his mouth from hers to press it to her throat. “It’s insane how much I want you.”

  “I don’t want to be sane. I don’t want you to be. Just once—be with me.”

  He let the wheel spin. He swept her up in his arms and watched her eyes turn gold with awareness. The fact that she weighed little more than a child terrified him. “I won’t hurt you.”

  “I don’t care.”

  But he did. He nuzzled a sigh from her as he carried her to the stairs and started up. “The first time I brought you up here, I wondered about you. Who is she? Where does she come from?” He laid her on the bed, stroked his fingers down the column of her throat. “What am I going to do with her? I still haven’t figured it out.”

  “When I woke up and saw you, I thought I was dreaming.” She lifted a hand to his cheek. “Part of me still does.”

  He turned his head to press his lips into the cup of her palm. “I’ll stop if you ask me.” He took her mouth again, going deep, sinking in. “For God’s sake, don’t ask me.”

  How could she? Why would she, when nerves and pleasure and needs were dancing just under her skin? The spread was slick under her back, and his hands were already stroking small, separate fires into life over her body. His mouth drew and drew and drew from hers as if she contained some life force he craved.

  Craved.

  No one had ever made her feel wanted like this.

  His fingers trailed over her as though he found her delicate, special. And when his hand closed over her breast, molded it, her mind emptied.

  She was unbearably responsive, her body arching, giving, inviting him to do as he wished. Gently, he ordered himself, go gently here. He blurred her mind, and his, with kisses as he opened her blouse and began to explore warm, smooth flesh.

  Her trembles aroused him, almost brutally. Every quiver of her muscles was a miracle to be exploited, then savored. For he found he could savor the texture of that skin curving subtly above the cup of her bra, the flavor of her throat where the pulse beat so hard and fast.

  He drew her up, nibbling tortuously at her mouth as he slipped her blouse aside.

  Hesitantly she reached for the buttons of his shirt. She wanted to touch him, to see. To know. A sound of dizzy delight escaped her when she saw her white hands against the dusky gold of his chest.

  So strong, she thought, fascinated by the ridge of muscles under her fingertips. So hard and strong and male. Thrilled, she leaned forward to press her lips to his shoulder, to absorb the taste.

  He felt something like a growl working through him and pushed down a sudden, violent need to devour. Instead he took her face in his hands, watching her, drinking her in even as his mouth took hers again. Watching still, for those flickers of surprise and pleasure in her eyes, as he slipped her bra aside, as he
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