All the possibilities, p.2
All The Possibilities, p.2Part #3 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
“Those aren’t ordinary things—well, maybe mayhem,” Shelby corrected as she took another sip from his glass. “I suppose I mean the endless red tape of bureaucracy. Do you know all the forms I have to fill out just to sell my pieces? Then someone has to read those forms, someone else has to file them, and someone else has to send out more when the time comes. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to let me sell a vase and make my living?”
“Difficult when you’re dealing with millions.” Alan forgot that he hadn’t wanted to debate as he idly toyed with the ring she wore on her pinky. “Not everyone would adhere to a fair profit balance, no one would pay taxes, and the small businessman would have no more protection than the consumer would.”
“It’s hard to believe filling out my social security number in triplicate accomplishes all that.” His touch moving in a half-friendly, half-seductive manner over her skin was distracting enough, but when he smiled—when he really smiled—Shelby decided he was the most irresistible male she’d ever encountered. Perhaps it was that touch of sobriety lurking around the edges of humor.
“There’s always a large overlap between bureaucracy and necessity.” He wondered—only for a moment—what in hell he was doing having this conversation with a woman who looked like a nineteenth-century waif and smelled like every man’s dream.
“The best thing about rules is the infinite variety of ways to break them.” Shelby gave a trickle of the laughter that had first attracted him. “I suppose that’s what keeps you in business.”
A voice drifted through the open window, brisk, cool, and authoritative. “Nadonley might have his finger on the pulse of American-Israeli relations, but he isn’t making many friends with his current policy.”
“And his frumpy, tourist-class travel look is wearing a bit thin.”
“Typical,” Shelby murmured, with the shadow of a frown in her eyes. “Clothes are as political as beliefs—probably more. Dark suits, white shirt, you’re a conservative. Loafers and a cashmere sweater, a liberal.”
He’d heard that slick arrogance toward his profession before—quiet or noisy depending on the occasion. Normally Alan ignored it. This time it irked him. “You tend to simplify, don’t you?”
“Only what I don’t have any patience with,” she acknowledged carelessly. “Politics’ve been an annoying by-product of society since before Moses debated with Ramses.”
The smile began to play around his mouth again. Shelby didn’t know him well enough yet to realize it was a challenging one. To think he’d nearly given in to the urge to stay home and spend a quiet evening with a book. “You don’t care for politicians.”
“It’s one of the few generalizations I’m prone to. They come in several flavors—stuffy, zealot, hungry, shaky. I’ve always found it frightening that a handful of men run this strange world. So …” With a shrug, she pushed aside her plate. “I make it a habit to pretend I really do have control over my own destiny.” She leaned closer again, enjoying the way the shadows of the willow played over his face. It was tempting to test the shape and feel of it with her fingers. “Would you like to go back in?”
“No.” Alan let his thumb trace lightly over her wrist. He felt the quick, almost surprised increase of her pulse. “I had no idea how bored I was in there until I came out here.”
Shelby’s smile was instant and brilliant. “The highest of compliments, glibly stated. You’re not Irish, are you?”
He shook his head, wondering just how that mobile, pixielike mouth was going to taste. “Scottish.”
“Good God, so am I.” The shadow crossed her eyes again as a trickle of anticipation ran along her skin. “I’m beginning to think it’s fate. I’ve never been comfortable with fate.”
“Controlling your own destiny?” Giving in to a rare impulse, he lifted her fingers to his lips.
“I prefer the driver’s seat,” she agreed, but she let her hand linger there, pleasing them both. “The Campbell practicality.”
This time it was Alan’s turn to laugh, long and with unbridled amusement. “To old feuds,” he said, lifting his glass to her. “Undoubtedly our ancestors slaughtered one another to the wailing of bagpipes. I’m of the clan MacGregor.”
Shelby grinned. “My grandfather would put me on bread and water for giving you the right time. A damn mad MacGregor.” Alan’s grin widened while hers slowly faded. “Alan MacGregor,” she said quietly. “Senator from Massachusetts.”
Shelby sighed as she rose. “A pity.”
Alan didn’t relinquish her hand, but stood so that their bodies were close enough to brush, close enough to transmit the instant, complicated attraction. “Why is that?”
“I might have risked my grandfather’s fury …” Shelby gave his face another quick study, intrigued by the unsteady rate of her own heart. “Yes, I believe I would have—but I don’t date politicians.”
“Really?” Alan’s gaze lowered to her mouth then came back to hers. He hadn’t asked her for one. He understood, and didn’t entirely approve, that she was the kind of woman who’d do her own asking when it suited her. “Is that one of Shelby’s rules?”
“Yes, one of the few.”
Her mouth was tempting—small, unpainted, and faintly curved as if she considered the entire thing a joke on both of them. Yes, her mouth was tempting, but the amusement in her eyes was a challenge. Instead of doing the obvious, Alan brought her hand up and pressed his lips to her wrist, watching her. He felt the quick jerk and scramble of her pulse, saw the wariness touched with heat flicker in her eyes. “The best thing about rules,” Alan quoted softly, “is the infinite variety of ways to break them.”
“Hoist with my own petard,” she murmured as she drew her hand away. It was ridiculous, Shelby told herself, to be unsteady over an old-fashioned romantic gesture. But there was a look in those dark brown eyes that told her he’d done it as much for that purpose as to please himself.
“Well, Senator,” she began with a firmer voice, “it’s been nice. It’s time I put in another appearance inside.”
Alan let her get almost to the doors before he spoke. “I’ll see you again, Shelby.”
She stopped to glance over her shoulder. “It’s a possibility.”
“A certainty,” he corrected.
She narrowed her eyes a moment. He stood near the glass table with the moon at his back—tall, dark, and built for action. His face was very calm, his stance relaxed, yet she had the feeling if she thumbed her nose at him, he could be on her before she’d drawn a breath. That alone nearly tempted her to try it. Shelby gave her head a little toss to send the bangs shifting on her forehead. The half smile he was giving her was infuriating, especially since it made her want to return it. Without a word, she opened the doors and slipped inside.
That, she told herself, would be the end of that. She very nearly believed it.
Shelby had hired a part-time shop assistant almost two years before so she’d be free to take an hour or a day off when it suited her mood, or to spend several days at a time if it struck her, with her craft. She’d found her answer in Kyle, a struggling poet whose hours were flexible and whose temperament suited hers. He worked for Shelby regularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and for sporadic hours whenever she called him. In return, Shelby paid him well and listened to his poetry. The first nourished his body, the second his soul.
Shelby invariably set aside Saturdays to toss or to turn clay, though she would have been amused if anyone had termed her disciplined: she still thought she worked then because she chose to, not because she’d fallen into a routine. Nor did she fully realize just how much those quiet Saturdays at her wheel centered her life.
Her workroom was at the rear of the shop. There were sturdy shelves lining two walls, crowded with projects that had been fired to biscuit or were waiting for their turn in the kiln. There were rows and rows of glazes—her palette of color—no less important to her than to any artist. There were tool
Because the vents were open and the room itself wasn’t large, the high temperature of the kiln kept the room sultry. Shelby worked at her wheel in a T-shirt and cutoffs with a white-bibbed apron designed to protect her from most of the splatters.
There were two windows, both opening out on the alley, so she heard little of the weekend street noises. She used the radio for company, and with her hair pulled back by a leather thong, bent over the wheel with the last clay ball she intended to throw that day.
Perhaps she liked this part of her craft the best—taking a lump of clay and forming it into whatever her skill and imagination produced. It might be a vase or a bowl, squat or slender, ridged or smooth. It might be an urn that would have to wait for her to add the handles, or a pot that would one day hold jasmine tea or spiced coffee. Possibilities. Shelby never ceased to be fascinated by them.
The glazing, the adding of color and design, appealed to a different part of her nature. That was finishing work—creative certainly, and taxing. She could be lavish or frugal with color as she chose, using careful detail or bold splashes. Working the clay was more primitive, and therefore more challenging.
With bare hands she would mold and nudge and coax a formless ball of clay to her own will. Shelby realized people often did that to one another, and to their children in particular. She didn’t like the idea and focused that aspect of her ego on the clay: she would mold, flatten, and remold until it suited her. She preferred people to be less malleable; molds were for the inanimate. Anyone who fit into one too neatly was already half dead.
She’d worked the air bubbles out of the clay. It was damp and fresh, carefully mixed to give her the right consistency. She added the grog, coarsely ground bits of broken pottery, to increase the stiffness and was ready to begin. The moistened bat was waiting. Using both hands, Shelby pressed the clay down as the wheel began to turn. She held the soft, cool earth firmly in cupped hands until it ran true on the wheel, allowing herself to feel the shape she wanted to create.
Absorbed, she worked with the radio murmuring unheard behind her. The wheel hummed. The clay spun, succumbing to the pressure of her hands, yielding to the unrelenting demands of her imagination. She formed a thick-walled ring, pressing her thumb in the center of the ball, then slowly, very slowly, pulled it upward between her thumb and fingers to form a cylinder. She could flatten it into a plate now, open it into a bowl, perhaps close it into a sphere, according to her own pleasure.
She was both in control and driven. Her hands dominated the clay as surely as her creativity dominated her. She felt the need for something symmetrical, poised. In the back of her mind was a strong image of masculinity—something with clean, polished lines and understated elegance. She began to open the clay, her hands deft and sure, slick now with the reddish-brown material. A bowl became her objective, deep with a wide ridge, along the lines of a Roman krater, handleless. The rotation and the pressure of her hands forced the clay wall up. The shape was no longer only in her mind as she molded the clay inside and out.
With skilled hands and an experienced eye, she molded the shape into proportion, tapering it out for the stem of the base, then flattening. The time and patience she applied here she took for granted, and spared for few other aspects of her life. Only the energy touched all of her.
Shelby could already envision it finished in a dark jade green with hints, but only hints, of something softer beneath the surface of the glaze. No decoration, no fluting or scrolled edges—the bowl would be judged on its shape and strength alone.
When the shape was complete, she resisted the urge to fuss. Too much care was as dangerous as too little. Turning off the wheel, Shelby gave the bowl one long critical study before taking it to the shelf she reserved for drying. The next day, when it was leather-hard, she’d put it back on the wheel and use her tools to refine it, shaving off any unwanted clay. Yes, jade green, she decided. And with careful inglazing, she could produce those hints of softness under the rich, bold tone.
Absently she arched her back, working out the tiny, nagging kinks she hadn’t noticed while the wheel was on. A hot bath, Shelby decided, before she went out to join some friends in that new little club on M Street. With a sigh that was as much from satisfaction as weariness, she turned. Then gasped.
“That was quite an education.” Alan slipped his hands out of his pockets and crossed to her. “Do you know what shape you’re after when you start, or does it come as you’re working?”
Shelby blew her bangs out of her eyes before she answered. She wouldn’t do the expected and ask him what he was doing there, or how he’d gotten in. “It depends.”
She lifted a brow, vaguely surprised to see him in jeans and a sweatshirt. The man she had met the night before had seemed too polished for such casual clothes, especially for denim white at the stress points from wear. The tennis shoes were expensive, but they weren’t new. Neither was the gold watch at the end of a subtly muscled arm. Wealth suited him, and yet he didn’t seem the sort of man who’d be careless with it. He’d know his own bank balance—something Shelby couldn’t claim to—what stocks he owned and their market value.
Alan didn’t fidget during the survey. He’d grown too used to being in the public eye to be concerned with any sort of dissection. And, he thought she was entitled to her turn as he’d done little else but stare at her for the last thirty minutes.
“I suppose I should say I’m surprised to see you here, Senator, since I am.” A hint of amusement touched her mouth. “And since I imagine you intended for me to be.”
In acknowledgment, he inclined his head. “You work hard,” he commented, glancing down at her clay-coated hands. “I’ve always thought artists must burn up as much energy as athletes when the adrenaline’s flowing. I like your shop.”
“Thanks.” Because the compliment had been simple and genuine, Shelby smiled fully. “Did you come in to browse?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Alan resisted the urge to skim a glance over her legs again. They were much, much longer than he had imagined. “It seems I hit closing time. Your assistant said to tell you he’d lock up.”
“Oh.” Shelby looked over at the windows as if to gauge the time. She never wore a watch when she worked. Using her shoulder, she rubbed at an itch on her cheek. The T-shirt shifted over small, firm breasts. “Well, one of the benefits of owning the place is to open or close when I choose. You can go out and take a look around while I wash up if you’d like.”
“Actually …” He gathered the short, tumbling ponytail into his hand as if testing its weight. “I was thinking more of dinner together. You haven’t eaten.”
“No, I haven’t,” Shelby answered, though it hadn’t been a question. “But I’m not going out to dinner with you, Senator. Can I interest you in an Oriental-style crock or a bud vase?”
Alan took a step closer, enjoying her absolute confidence and the idea that he’d be able to shake it. After all, that’s why he’d come, wasn’t it? he reminded himself. To toss back a few of those clever little potshots she’d taken at his profession, and therefore at him. “We could eat in,” he suggested, letting his hand slip from her hair to the back of her neck. “I’m not picky.”
“Alan.” Shelby gave an exaggerated sigh and pretended there weren’t any pulses of pleasure shooting down her spine from the point where his fingers rubbed. “In your profession, you understand policies. Foreign policies, budget policies, defense policies.” Unable to resist, she stretched a little under his hand. All the twinges in her muscles had vanished. “I told you mine last night.”
“Mmm-hmm.” How slender her neck was, he thought. And the skin there was soft enough to give him a hint how she would feel under that apron and T-shirt.
“Well then, there shouldn’t be a problem.” He must do so
With the slightest pressure, he inched Shelby toward him. “It’s standard procedure to review policies from time to time.”
“When I do, I’ll—” To stop her own forward progress, Shelby pushed a hand against his chest. Both of them remembered the state of her hands at the same time and looked down. Her gurgle of laughter had his eyes lifting back to hers. “You had it coming,” she told him, smiling. Her eyes lightened as humor replaced the prickles of tension. His shirt had a fairly clear imprint of her hand, dead center. “This,” she said, studying the stain, “might just be the next rage. We should patent it quick. Got any connections?”
“A few.” He looked down at his shirt, then back into her face. He didn’t mind a bit of dirt when the job called for it. “It’d be an awful lot of paperwork.”
“You’re right. And since I refuse to fill out any more forms than I already have to, we’d better forget it.” Turning away, she began to scrub her hands and arms in a large double sink. “Here, strip that off,” she told him as she let the water continue to run. “You’d better get the clay out.” Without waiting for an answer, Shelby grabbed a towel and, drying her hands, went to check her kiln.
He wondered, because of the ease of her order, if she made a habit of entertaining half-naked men in her shop. “Did you make everything in the shop?” Alan scanned the shelves after he tugged the shirt over his head. “Everything in here?”
“How did you get started?”
“Probably with the modeling clay my governess gave me to keep me out of trouble. I still got into trouble,” she added as she checked the vents. “But I really liked poking at the clay. I never had the same feeling for wood or stone.” She bent to make an adjustment. Alan turned his head in time to see the denim strain dangerously across her hips. Desire thudded with unexpected force in the pit of his stomach. “How’s the shirt?”
Distracted, Alan looked back to where water pounded against cotton. It surprised him that his heartbeat wasn’t quite steady. He was going to have to do something about this, he decided. Quite a bit of thinking and reassessing—tomorrow. “It’s fine.” After switching off the tap, he squeezed the excess water out of the material. “Walking home’s going to be … interesting half dressed,” Alan mused as he dropped the shirt over the lip of the sink.
Shelby shot a look over her shoulder, but the retort she had in mind slipped away from her. He was lean enough that she could have counted his ribs, but there was a sense of power and endurance in the breadth of his chest and shoulders, the streamlined waist. His body made her forget any other man she’d ever seen.
It had been he, she realized all at once, whom she’d been thinking of when she’d thrown the clay into that clean-lined bowl.
Shelby let the first flow of arousal rush through her because it was as sweet as it was sharp. Then she tensed against it, rendering it a distant throb she could control.
“You’re in excellent shape,” she commented lightly. “You should be able to make it to P Street in under three minutes at a steady jog.”
“Shelby, that’s downright unfriendly.”
“I thought it was more rude,” she corrected as she struggled against a grin. “I suppose I could be a nice guy and throw it in the dryer for you.”
“It was your clay.”
“It was your move,” she reminded him, but snatched up the damp shirt. “Okay, come on upstairs.” With one hand, she tugged off her work apron, tossing it aside as she breezed through the doorway. “I suppose you’re entitled to one drink on the house.”
“You’re all heart,” Alan murmured as he followed her up the stairs.
“My reputation for generosity precedes me.” Shelby pushed open the door. “If you want Scotch, it’s over there.” Motioning in a vague gesture, she headed in the opposite direction. “If you’d rather have coffee, the kitchen’s straight ahead—there’s a percolator on the counter and a half-pound in the cabinet next to the window.” With this, she disappeared with his shirt into an adjoining room.
Alan glanced around. The interest he’d felt for the woman was only increased now by her living quarters. It was a hodgepodge of colors that should have clashed but didn’t. Bold greens, vivid blues, and the occasional slash of scarlet. Bohemian. Perhaps flamboyant was a better description. Either adjective fit, just as either fit the woman who lived there. Just as neither fit his lifestyle or his taste.
There were chunky striped pillows crowded on a long armless sofa. A huge standing urn, deep blue with wild oversize poppies splashed over the surface, held a leafy Roosevelt fern. The rug was a zigzag of color over bare wood.
A wall hanging dominated one side of the room, of a geometric design that gave Alan the impression of a forest fire. A pair of impossibly high Italian heels lay drunkenly next to an ornately carved chair. A mint green ceramic hippopotamus of about three feet in length sat on the other side.
It wasn’t a room for quiet contemplation and lazy evenings, but a room of action, energy, and demand.
Alan turned toward the direction Shelby had indicated, then stopped short when he saw the cat. Moshe lay stretched on the arm of a chair, watching him suspiciously out of his good eye. The cat didn’t move a whisker, so for a moment Alan took him to be as inanimate as the hippo. The patch should have looked ridiculous, but like the colors in the room, it simply suited.
Above the cat hung an octagon cage. Inside it was a rather drab-looking parrot. Like Moshe, the bird watched Alan with what seemed to be a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. With a shake of his head for his own fantasies, Alan walked up to them.
“Fix you a drink?” he murmured to the cat, then with an expert’s touch he scratched under Moshe’s chin. The cat’s eyes narrowed with pleasure.
“Well, that shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes,” Shelby announced as she came back in. She could hear her cat purring from ten feet away. “So, you’ve met my roommates.”
“Apparently. Why the patch?”
“Moshe Dayan lost his eye in the war. Doesn’t like to talk about it.” Because her tone seemed too careless for deliberate humor, Alan sent her a searching look she didn’t notice as she crossed to the liquor cabinet. “I don’t smell any coffee—did you decide on Scotch?”
“I suppose. Does the bird talk?”
“Hasn’t said a word in two years.” Shelby splashed liquor into glasses. “That’s when Moshe came to live with us. Auntie Em’s an expert on holding grudges—he only knocked over her cage once.”
“You remember—there’s no place like home. Follow the yellow brick road. I’ve always thought Dorothy’s Aunt Em was the quintessential comfortable aunt. Here you go.” Walking to him, Shelby offered the glass.
“Thanks.” Her choice of names for her pets reminded him that Shelby wasn’t altogether the type of woman he thought he’d always understood. “How long have you lived here?”
“Mmm, about three years.” Shelby dropped onto the couch, drew up her legs,
All The Possibilities by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 3.7 out of 5 / Based on41 votes