All the possibilities, p.4
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       All The Possibilities, p.4

         Part #3 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  tactful. And, Alan added with a glimmer of a smile, she wouldn’t even have dinner with him.

  A challenge. She would be a challenge and he’d always enjoyed working his way through one. But that wasn’t why. A mystery. She was a mystery and he’d always liked solving them, step by step. But that wasn’t why. She had the verve of the very young, the skill of an artist and the flash of a rebel. She had passion that boiled rather than simmered and eyes as quiet as a foggy evening. She had a child’s mouth and a woman’s allure and a mind that would never adhere to the logical one-step-at-a-time structure of his own. The chemistry between them was almost absurdly wrong. And yet …

  And yet, at thirty-five, Alan suddenly believed there was such a phenomenon as love at first sight. So, he would wage his patience and tenacity against her flash and energy and see who won in the end. If indeed there could ever be a winner between oil and water.

  The phone rang beside him. Alan let it go until he remembered his secretary wasn’t in the outer office. Mildly annoyed, he pushed the blinking button and answered. “Senator MacGregor.”

  “Thanks.”

  His lips curved as he leaned back in his chair. “You’re welcome. How do they taste?”

  Shelby brought a berry to her mouth for a nibble. “Fantastic. My shop smells like a strawberry patch. Dammit, Alan,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “Strawberries are an unfair tactic. You’re supposed to fight with orchids or diamonds. I could have coped very nicely with a big tacky diamond or five-dozen African orchids.”

  He tapped the pen he’d been using on the stack of papers on his desk. “I’ll be certain not to give you either. When are you going to see me, Shelby?”

  She was silent for a moment, torn, tempted. Ridiculous, she thought, shaking her head. Just because he had a bit of whimsy under the political protocol was no reason to toss aside a lifelong belief. “Alan, it simply wouldn’t work. I’m saving us both a lot of trouble by saying no.”

  “You don’t strike me as the type to avoid trouble.”

  “Maybe not— I’m making an exception in your case. Years from now, when you have ten grandchildren and bursitis, you’ll thank me.”

  “Do I have to wait that long for you to have dinner with me?”

  She laughed, cursing him at the same time. “I really like you.” He heard another quick sound of frustration. “Dammit, Alan, don’t be charming anymore. We’ll both end up on thin ice. I just can’t take it breaking under me again.”

  He started to speak, then heard the signal—the buzzers and lights that warned of a quorum call. “Shelby, I have to go. We’re going to talk about this some more.”

  “No.” Her voice was firm now as she cursed herself for saying more than she had intended. “I hate repeating myself. It’s boring. Just consider that I’ve done you a favor. Goodbye, Alan.”

  She hung up, then slammed the lid closed on the strawberries. Oh, God, she asked herself, how had he managed to get to her so quickly?

  ***

  While she dressed for Myra’s dinner party, Shelby listened to an old Bogart film. She listened only because the television had lost its shaky grip on the horizontal hold two weeks before. Currently she was amused by the situation. It was like having a large, rather ostentatious radio that took a great deal more imagination than a full-color twenty-inch screen.

  While Bogey spoke in his weary, tough-guy voice, she slipped her narrow beaded vest over her frilled lace shirt.

  Shelby had shoved aside her uncertain mood of the afternoon. She had always believed if you simply refused to admit you were upset or to acknowledge depression, you wouldn’t be upset or depressed. In any case, she was sure that now that she had made herself crystal-clear and had refused Alan MacGregor for the third time, he would get the picture.

  If she regretted the fact that there would be no more baskets of strawberries or surprises, she told herself she didn’t. No one could make Shelby believe that something that she said was untrue was really more true than Shelby would admit to herself.

  She stepped into a pair of foolish evening shoes that had more heel than leather as she dropped a few essentials into her bag—keys, a well-used lipstick and a half roll of LifeSavers.

  “Are you staying in tonight, Moshe?” she asked as she passed by the cat who lounged on her bed. When he only opened his eye in acknowledgment, she breezed out of the room. “Okay, don’t wait up.” Shelby dropped her purse on top of the box that held Myra’s lamp and prepared to lift both when someone knocked on the door. “You expecting someone?” she asked Auntie Em. The bird merely fluttered her wings, unconcerned. Hefting the box, Shelby went to answer.

  Pleasure. She had to acknowledge it as well as annoyance when she saw Alan. “Another neighborly visit?” she asked, planting herself in the doorway. She skimmed a glance down the silk tie and trim, dark suit. “You don’t look dressed for strolling.”

  The sarcasm didn’t concern him—he’d seen that quick flash of unguarded pleasure. “As a public servant, I feel an obligation to conserve our natural resources and protect the environment.” Reaching over, he clipped a tiny sprig of sweet pea into her hair. “I’m going to give you a lift to the Ditmeyers’. You might say we’re carpooling.”

  Shelby could smell the fragrance that drifted from just above her right ear. She had an urge to put her hand up and feel the small blossoms. Since when, she demanded of herself, had she been so vulnerable to charm? “You’re going to Myra’s little … get-together?”

  “Yes. Are you ready?”

  Shelby narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out how Myra could have learned the name of the strawberry sender. “When did she ask you?”

  “Hmm?” He was distracted by the way the thin lace rose at her neck. “Last week—at the Writes’.”

  Some of her suspicions eased. Perhaps it was just coincidence after all. “Well, I appreciate the offer, Senator, but I’ll drive myself. See you over the canapés.”

  “Then I’ll ride with you,” he said amiably. “We don’t want to put any more carbon monoxide in the air than necessary. Shall I put that in the car for you?”

  Shelby took a firmer grip on the box as her hold in other areas started to slip. It was that damn serious smile and those thoughtful eyes, she decided. They made a woman feel as though she were the only one he’d ever looked at in quite that way.

  “Alan,” she began, a bit amused by his persistence. “What is this?”

  “This …” He leaned over and captured her mouth with his, lingering until her fingers threatened to dig holes in the stiff cardboard she held. “Is what our ancestors would have called a siege,” he finished softly. “And MacGregors are notoriously successful at laying siege.”

  Her breath shuddered out to merge with his. “You don’t do badly at hand-to-hand combat either.” He chuckled and would have kissed her again if she hadn’t managed to step back. “All right.” Shelby thrust the box into his arms, considering it a strategic move. “We’ll carpool. I don’t want to be condemned as an air-polluter. You drive,” she decided with a sudden mood-switching grin. “Then I can have an extra glass of wine at dinner.”

  “You left your TV on,” Alan commented as he stepped aside to let her pass.

  “That’s all right. It’s broken anyway.” Shelby clattered down the steps, heedless of her fragile heels and the steep drop. The sun had nearly set, sending wild streaks of red into a darkening, sober sky. Shelby laughed, turning back to Alan when she reached the narrow alleyway. “Carpool, my foot. But it’s still not a date, MacGregor. What we’ll call this is a … a civilized transit agreement. That sounds bureaucratic enough. I like your car,” she added, patting the hood of his Mercedes. “Very sedate.”

  Alan opened the trunk and set the box inside. He glanced back up at Shelby as he closed it. “You have an interesting way of insulting someone.”

  She laughed that free smoke-edged laugh as she went to him. “Dammit, Alan, I like you.” Throwing her arms around his neck, she gave him a
friendly hug that sent jolts of need careening through him. “I really like you,” she added, tilting back her head with a smile that lit her whole face with a sense of fun. “I could probably have said that to a dozen other men who’d never have realized I was insulting them.”

  “So.” His hands settled at her hips. “I get points for perception.”

  “And a few other things.” When her gaze slipped to his mouth, she felt the strength of longing weaken all the memories and all the vows. “I’m going to hate myself for this,” she murmured. “But I want to kiss you again. Here, while the light’s fading.” Her eyes came back to his, still smiling, but darkened with an anticipation he knew had nothing to do with surrender. “I’ve always thought you could do mad things at dusk without any consequences.”

  Tightening her arms around his neck, Shelby pressed her mouth to his.

  He was careful, very careful not to give in to the urgent desire to drag her closer. This time he’d let her lead him, and in doing so, lead herself where he wanted them both to go.

  The light was softly dying. There was an impatient honking from the street on the other side of the shop. Through the window of the apartment across the alley came the rich tang of spaghetti sauce and the bluesy sounds of an old Gershwin record. Straining closer, Shelby felt the fast, even beat of Alan’s heart against her own.

  His taste was the same quietly debilitating flavor as she remembered. Shelby could hardly believe she’d lived for so long without knowing that one particular taste. It seemed less possible she’d be able to live without it now. Or the feel of those strong steady arms around her—the firm body that transmitted safety and danger to her at the same time.

  He’d know how to protect her if something threatened. He knew how to take her to the brink of an abyss she’d so cleverly avoided. And Shelby was too aware that he could take her over the edge.

  But his mouth was so tempting, his taste so enticing. And dusk was still holding back the night sky. She gave herself to it longer than she should have—and not as long as she wanted to.

  “Alan …” He felt his name form against his lips before she drew away. Their gaze held a moment while his arms and hers kept their bodies pressed close. There was strength in his face—a face she could trust. But there was so much between them. “We’d better go,” Shelby murmured. “It’s nearly dark.”

  ***

  The Ditmeyers’ home was lit though there was still color in the western sky. Shelby could just see the riot of phlox in the rock garden as she stepped from the car. Her mother was already there, Shelby discovered when she caught a glimpse of the diplomatic plates on the Lincoln in the drive.

  “You know Ambassador Dilleneau?” Shelby offered her hand to Alan as they stepped onto the walk.

  “Slightly.”

  “He’s in love with my mother.” She brushed her bangs out of her eyes as she turned to him. “Men are, typically, but I think she has a soft spot for him.”

  “That amuses you?” Watching her, Alan pressed the doorbell.

  “A little,” she admitted. “It’s rather sweet. She blushes,” Shelby added with a quick laugh. “It’s a very odd feeling for a daughter to see her mother blush over a man.”

  “You wouldn’t?” Alan skimmed a thumb over her cheekbone. Shelby forgot her mother altogether.

  “Wouldn’t what?”

  “Blush,” he said softly, tracing her jawline. “Over a man.”

  “Once—I was twelve and he was thirty-two.” She had to talk—just keep talking to remember who she was. “He, uh, came to fix the water heater.”

  “How’d he make you blush?”

  “He grinned at me. He had a chipped tooth I thought was really sexy.”

  On a quick ripple of laughter, Alan kissed her just as Myra opened the door.

  “Well, well.” She didn’t bother to disguise a self-satisfied smile. “Good evening. I see you two have met.”

  “What makes you think that?” Shelby countered breezily as she stepped inside.

  Myra glanced from one to the other. “Do I smell strawberries?” she asked sweetly.

  “Your lamp.” Shelby gave her a bland look and indicated the box Alan carried. “Where would you like it?”

  “Oh, just set it down there, Alan. It’s so nice to have just a few friends in,” Myra continued as she tucked an arm through each of theirs. “Gossip is so much more intimate that way. Herbert, pour two more of those marvelous aperitifs—you must try it,” she added to both Shelby and Alan. “I’ve just discovered this marvelous little blackberry liqueur.”

  “Herbert.” Shelby walked over to the Justice and gave him a smacking kiss. “You’ve been out sailing again.” She grinned at his sunburned nose. “When are we going to the beach to windsurf?”

  “The child almost makes me believe I could do it,” he commented as he gave her a squeeze. “Good to see you, Alan.” His face folded into comfortable grandfatherly lines that made people forget he was one of the top judiciary figures in the country. “I think you know everyone. I’ll just get those drinks.”

  “Hello, Mama.” Shelby bent to kiss her mother’s cheek when the emerald clusters on Deborah’s ears caught her eye. “I haven’t seen these before—I’d have borrowed them immediately.”

  “Anton gave them to me.” A delicate color seeped into her cheeks. “In—appreciation for that party I hostessed for him.”

  “I see.” Shelby’s gaze shifted to the trim Frenchman beside her mother. “You have exquisite taste, Ambassador,” she told him as she offered her hand.

  His eyes twinkled as he brought it to his lips—a trait that made up for the ears as far as Shelby was concerned. “You look lovely as always, Shelby. Senator, a pleasure to see you in such a relaxed atmosphere.”

  “Senator MacGregor.” Deborah smiled up at him. “I didn’t realize you and Shelby were acquainted.”

  “We’re working on disrupting an old family tradition.” He accepted the glass the Justice offered.

  “He means feud,” Shelby explained at her mother’s blank look. She sipped the liqueur, approved it, then sat on the arm of Myra’s chair.

  “Oh … Oh,” Deborah repeated as she remembered. “The Campbells and the MacGregors were blood enemies in Scotland—though I can’t quite remember why.”

  “They stole our land,” Alan put in mildly.

  “That’s what you say.” Shelby shot him a look as she sipped again. “We acquired MacGregor land through a royal decree. They weren’t good sports about it.”

  Alan gave her a thoughtful smile. “I’d be interested to hear you debate that issue with my father.”

  “What a match,” Myra said, brightening at the thought. “Herbert, can you just see our Shelby nose-to-nose with Daniel? All that red hair and stubbornness. You really should arrange it, Alan.”

  “I’ve been giving it some thought.”

  “Have you?” Shelby’s brows lifted to disappear completely under her frizz of bangs.

  “Quite a bit of thought,” he said in the same even tone.

  “I’ve been to that wonderful anachronism in Hyannis Port.” Myra gave Shelby a brief pat on the thigh. “It’s right up your alley, dear. She’s so fond of the—well, let’s say unique, shall we?”

  “Yes.” Deborah sent Shelby a fond smile. “I could never figure out why. But then, both of my children have always been a mystery. Perhaps it’s because they’re so bright and clever and restless. I’m always hoping they’ll settle down.” This time she beamed the smile at Alan. “You’re not married either, are you, Senator?”

  “If you’d like,” Shelby said as she studied the color of her liqueur through the crystal, “I could just step out while you discuss the terms of the dowry.”

  “Shelby, really,” Deborah murmured over the sound of the Justice’s chuckle.

  “It’s so difficult for parents to see their children as capable adults,” the ambassador commented in his light, soothing voice. “For myself, I have two daughters with children of
their own. Still, I worry. How are your children, Myra? You have a new grandson, don’t you?”

  Nothing could have been better calculated to change the subject. Shelby sent him a faint admiring nod and watched his eyes twinkle as Myra began an enthusiastic description of her grandson’s first tooth.

  He’d suit her, Shelby decided, watching her mother from under her lashes. She was the type of woman who never felt quite whole without a man. And she’d been shaped and polished into a political wife years before. The gloss was still there. Elegant manners, elegant style, elegant patience. Shelby gave a little sigh she didn’t even hear. How could she and her mother look so much alike and be so very different? Elegance had always seemed a silk-lined cage to Shelby—and a cage equaled restrictions no matter how it was formed. She still remembered too many of them.

  The bodyguards—discreet, but always there. The carefully screened parties, the sophisticated alarm systems, the intrusion of the press. The security hadn’t saved her father, though a photographer had gotten an award-winning picture of the gunman—seconds too late to do any good.

  Shelby knew what was behind the elegance; the state dinners, the speeches, the galas. There were a hundred tiny fears, a millennium of doubts. The memory of too many political assassinations and assassination attempts in hardly more than twenty years.

  No, her mother was made for the life. Patient, with a rod of steel beneath the fragile skin. Shelby wouldn’t choose it, nor would she let it choose her. She’d love no one who could leave her again so horribly.

  Letting the conversation flow around her, Shelby tilted back her glass. Her eyes met Alan’s. It was there—that quietly brooding patience that promised to last a lifetime. She could almost feel him calmly peeling off layer after layer of whatever bits and pieces made up her personality to get to the tiny core she kept private.

  You bastard. She nearly said it out loud. Certainly it reflected in her eyes for he smiled at her in simple acknowledgment. The siege was definitely under way. She only hoped she had enough provisions to outlast him.

  Chapter 4

  Shelby put in a very full week, dominated by the creative overload she experienced every few months. Kyle managed the shop for three days running while she closeted herself in her workroom, to sit for hours at the wheel or with her glazes. If she started at 7:00 A.M., Shelby still had enough juice to toss clay until late into the night. She knew herself well enough to understand and to accept that this sort of mood struck her when she was having trouble blocking out something that worried her.

  When she worked, she would focus both mind and emotion on the project in her hands, and in that way, whatever problem she had simply ceased to be a problem for that amount of time. Normally when she’d run out of steam, she’d come up with a solution. Not this time.

  The impetus that had driven her most of the week dried up late Friday night. Alan was still lodged in her mind. He shouldn’t have been. Shelby could tell herself that as impatiently as she liked, but it didn’t change the fact that he was as firmly in her thoughts as he had been when they’d last been together.

  It hadn’t mattered that she’d managed to keep the rest of the evening at the Ditmeyers’ casual. Alan had still stopped her in her tracks with one of those slow, devastating kisses at her side door. He hadn’t insisted on coming in. Shelby might have been grateful for that if she hadn’t suspected it was just part of his planned siege. Confuse the enemy, assail her with doubts, leave her with her nerve ends tingling. Very clever strategy.

  He’d been in Boston for several days—Shelby knew because he’d called to tell her he was going, though she’d given him no encouragement. She told herself it was a respite. If he was a few hundred miles away, he couldn’t be popping up on her doorstep unexpectedly. She told herself when and if he popped up again, she’d keep the door locked. She wanted badly to believe she could.

  Then halfway through the week the pig had come—a big lavender stuffed pig with a foolish grin and velvet ears. Shelby had tried to toss it into a closet and forget it. He seemed to know that the way to get to her was through her sense of the ridiculous. She hadn’t thought he had one—he shouldn’t have, but there it was. What was a man who had such stuffy, straight-line views on rules and order doing buying stuffed animals anyway? She’d nearly softened. It was nice to know he was capable of such a gesture, particularly since it was so out of character. It was nice to know that she was the one who brought out that side of him. But … there was no way Alan was going to weaken her resolve with a silly toy that was meant for children or softheaded women.

  She called it MacGregor and kept it on her bed—a joke on both of them, she thought. The pig was the only MacGregor she was going to sleep with.

  But she dreamed of him. At night, in her big brass bed, no matter how hard she had worked, no matter how many friends she had been with, it always came back to Alan. Once she imagined there were a dozen of him, surrounding her town house. She couldn’t go out without being captured; she couldn’t stay in without going mad. She woke cursing him and his sieges and her own fertile imagination.

  By the end of the week, Shelby promised herself she wouldn’t accept any more deliveries and would simply hang up when she heard Alan’s voice on the phone. If reason and patience hadn’t gotten through to him, downright rudeness would. Even a MacGregor had to have some common sense.

  Because of the schedule she’d put herself on the week before, Shelby had given Kyle the keys to the shop with instructions that he open up at ten on Saturday. She was sleeping in. There wasn’t any need to go into her workroom, even if some of the creative juices had still been flowing. In the past few days, she had accumulated enough inventory to last for weeks. Now she would put as much thought and energy into being lazy as she had put into slaving.

  Shelby heard the knock on the door, and shifting under the sheets, considered ignoring it. Still half-asleep, she tumbled out of bed. It simply wasn’t in her makeup to let a ringing phone or a knock go unanswered. Because she tripped over the robe she’d thrown on the floor the night before, Shelby remembered to tug it on as she walked from the room. With her eyes narrowed protectively against the sunlight, she opened the door.

  “ ’Morning, Miss Campbell. Another delivery.”

 
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