The winning hand, p.17
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       The Winning Hand, p.17

         Part #7 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “I’ve discovered I like a lot of space.”

  She’d put plants on the decks, he imagined. Cheerful pots full of lush green and delicate blossoms she’d baby. She’d want soft colors inside, cool and soothing, with the occasional flash to shake things up.

  It amazed him how clearly he could imagine it, and how easy it was to know her after so little time.

  He switched on the outside lights and watched them flood the blue water of the pool and the rippling sea of the desert beyond.

  It was stunning, powerful, and in its own way calm as the night sky. Maybe he’d lost sight of this, he mused, this other side of the world from where he’d chosen to live. And because of that, had refused to accept her place there.

  “This is what you want.”

  “Yes. This is what I want.”

  “The tower. You’ll write there.”

  She ached a little, because he would know. “Yes.”

  “We never celebrated.” He turned back. She was standing in the center of the empty room, her hands linked, her eyes shadowed. “My fault. I need you to know, Darcy, how happy I am for you, and how sorry I am I spoiled the moment.”

  Guilt, she thought. He was too kind a man not to feel it. “It doesn’t matter.”

  “It matters,” he corrected. “A great deal. I’d like to try to explain. I’d like you to try to see it from my viewpoint. You fell into my arms, literally, the first time I saw you. You were alone, lonely, a little desperate, completely vulnerable and impossibly appealing. I wanted you too much, too quickly. I’m good at resisting temptation, that’s why I’m good at what I do. But I couldn’t resist you.”

  “You didn’t seduce me, you didn’t force me. It was a mutual attraction.”

  “But it wasn’t an even hand.” He stepped toward her, relieved when she didn’t back away. “I took you because I wanted you, because I could, because I needed to, knowing you’d want and need more. Deserved more. But I didn’t intend to give it to you.”

  “It was a chance I took. You told me flat out, before we were lovers, you didn’t have marriage on your mind. I didn’t fall in bed with you blindly.”

  He paused a moment, surprised. “You gambled on me changing my mind?”

  “The odds might have been long that you’d fall in love with me, but they weren’t infinitesimal.” The edge had come back into her voice. “Your grandfather thinks I’m perfect for you. So does your mother.”

  He very nearly choked. “You talked to my mother?”

  “I love your mother,” she said passionately. “And I have a perfect right to have someone to talk to.”

  “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m getting off the track,” he said with a sigh. “The way I saw it, you needed a little time to settle, to explore the possibilities, to have some fun and indulge yourself. So you’d gamble a little, spend some money, take a few rides. Discover sex.”

  “So you were what, tutoring me? How much more insulting can you possibly be?”

  “I’m not trying to insult you. I’m trying to tell you what I believed, and that I was wrong.”

  “You haven’t begun to say you were wrong yet. Maybe you should get started.”

  “You’ve got a nasty streak.” He dipped his hands into his pockets. “I never noticed it before.”

  “I’ve been saving it up. So the little country mouse comes to the big city and the clever city mouse lets her taste a bit of sin, then shows her the door before she damns her soul to perdition? Is that close enough?”

  “A long, wide nasty streak. You were alone and afraid and over your head.”

  “And you tossed me a float.”

  “Shut up.” Patience straining, he gripped her arms. “Nobody ever gave you a choice. You said so yourself. No one gave you a chance. No one let you bloom. God, Darcy, you’ve done nothing but bloom since you got here, since you had that chance, that choice. How was I supposed to take that choice away from you? You’ve never been anywhere else. You’ve never been with anyone else. I wasn’t going to watch you living in a hotel, wandering through a casino, locking yourself to me because you didn’t know any better.”

  “And that’s your way of giving me a choice. Funny, that’s just the kind of choice people have been giving me all my life.”

  “I know. I’m sorry.”

  “So am I.” She lifted her hands to his arms and pushed until he released her. “Are we finished?”

  “No. Not yet.”

  “Oh, what’s the point of this?” She strode away from him, her sassy shoes clicking on the tiles. “Why do you want a tour of the place now? Do we pretend we’re pals? What are we doing here?”

  “I wanted to finish this here because it’s not my place. It’s yours.” He waited until she turned back. “The house always has the advantage.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “My father told me something tonight I’d never considered. He said wanting is easy, but loving is terrifying.” His eyes stayed locked on hers. “You terrify me, Darcy, right down to the bone.” He watched as she wrapped her arms tight around her body. “When I look at you, I’m scared senseless.”

  “Don’t do this. It’s not fair.”

  “I tried to be fair, and all I did was hurt you, and make myself miserable. I’m playing a new hand now, and when the house has the edge, I can’t afford to play fair. There’s no point in backing away,” he said when she did just that. “I’ll only keep coming after you. You brought this on yourself. I’d have let you go.”

  He caught her, ran his hands from her shoulders to her wrists then back again. “You’re trembling. Scared?” He touched his lips to the corner of hers. “That must mean you still love me.”

  Her breath was hot in her chest, tangling in her throat. “I won’t have you feeling sorry for me. I don’t—”

  The kiss was sudden and violent. Her heart slammed once, twice, hard against her ribs then began a wild and unsteady beat.

  “Is that what you think this is? This feels like pity to you?” He took her mouth again, diving deep. “Damn, this dress drives me crazy. I could have killed every man at that table tonight just for looking at you. I’ll have to buy you a dozen more like it.”

  “You’re not making sense. I don’t know what you’re saying.”

  “I love you.”

  This time her heart took one high, joyful leap. “You do?”

  “I love everything about you.” He lifted her hands, pressed them to his lips, then gently untangled her fingers. “And I’m asking you to buck the odds and give me another chance.”

  Her lips trembled, then curved. “I’m a big believer in another chance.”

  “I was counting on it.” This time he kissed her gently, easing her into his arms. “But you’re going to have to let me move in here.”

  “Here?” She was floating, drifting, close to dreaming. “You want to live here?”

  “Well, I figure this is where you’ll want to raise the kids.”

  “Kids?” Her dazzled eyes flew open again.

  “You want kids, don’t you?” He smiled when her head bobbed up and down. “I like big families—and coming from one, I’m a traditionalist. If we’re going to make kids together, you have to marry me.”

  “Mac.” It was all she could say, just his name. Nothing else would get through.

  “Willing to risk it, Darcy?” He lifted her hands again, pressed them to his heart. “Want to take a gamble on us?”

  His heart beat under her hands, and was no steadier than hers. “It so happens,” she said with a brilliant smile, “I’m on a hot streak.”

  He laughed, scooped her off her feet in one wide, dizzying circle. “So I’ve heard.”

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