The winning hand, p.4
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       The Winning Hand, p.4

         Part #7 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “I’m almost pretty,” she said to her reflection, and smiled. “I really am. Oh, the earrings!” She whirled and dashed toward the bags, thinking the glitter against her face might just take her that final step.

  Then she saw the red message light blinking on her phone.

  No one knew where she was. How could anyone call her when no one knew? The press? Had the news gotten out already? No, no, she thought, clutching her hands together. Mac had promised not to give out her name. He’d promised.

  Still her pulse hammered in her throat as she picked up the phone and pushed the message button. She was informed she had two new voice mail messages. The first was from Mac’s assistant and had her releasing the breath she’d been holding. Mr. Blade would pick her up for dinner at seven-thirty. If that wasn’t suitable, she had only to call back and reschedule.

  “Seven-thirty is fine,” she whispered. “Seven-thirty is wonderful.”

  The last message was from Caine MacGregor, who identified himself as Mac’s uncle and invited her to call him back at her convenience.

  She hesitated over that. She found she didn’t want to face the practical business of it all. Somehow it seemed much more romantic when it all remained dreamlike and impossible. But she’d been raised to return phone calls promptly, so she pulled out the chair at the desk, sat, and dutifully made the long-distance call to Boston.

  When Darcy opened her door and found Mac holding a single white rose, she considered it another miracle. He was something out of one of the stories she’d secretly scribbled in notebooks for years. Tall, dark, elegantly masculine, heart-stoppingly handsome with just an edge of danger to keep it all from being too smooth.

  The miracle was that he was there, holding out a long-stemmed rosebud the color of a summer cloud, and smiling at her.

  But what popped out of her mouth was the single thought that had revolved in her muddled brain since her call to Boston.

  “Caine MacGregor is your uncle.”

  “Yes, he is.”

  “He was attorney general of the United States.”

  “Yes.” Gently Mac lifted Darcy’s hand and placed the rose stem in it. “He was.”

  “Alan MacGregor was president.”

  “You know, I heard that somewhere. Are you going to let me in?”

  “Oh. Yes. But your uncle, he was president,” she said again, slowly, as if she’d been misunderstood. “For eight years.”

  “You pass the history quiz.” Mac closed the door behind him and took a good long study of her. A warm hum of approval moved through his blood. “You look fabulous.”

  “I—really?” Distracted not only by the compliment, but the delivery, she glanced down. “I would never have chosen this,” she began, running a hand over the copper-hued skirt of a dress that was shorter, snugger and certainly more daring than anything in her previous wardrobe. “Myra at the boutique, the eveningwear boutique downstairs, picked it out. She said I belonged in jewel colors.”

  “Myra has an excellent eye.” And likely deserved a raise, he thought, making a circling motion with his finger. “Turn around.”

  “Turn—” Her laugh was both pleased and self-conscious as she executed a slow twirl.

  A big raise, Mac decided as the flippy little skirt danced around surprisingly delightful legs. “They’re not there.”

  “What?” Her hand fluttered to the dipping bodice, checking. “What isn’t there?”

  “Wings. I expected to see little fairy wings.”

  Flustered, she laughed again. “The way this day has gone, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them myself.”

  “Why don’t we have a drink before we go to dinner, and you can tell me how the day’s gone?”

  He walked to the bar to take a bottle of champagne out of the minifridge. She loved to watch him move. It was the animal grace she’d only read about, sleek and confident. And again, slightly dangerous. But to see it … She let out a little sigh. It was so much better than just imagining.

  “Charles cut my hair,” she began, thrilling to the celebratory sound of the cork popping.

  “Charles?”

  “In your salon?”

  “Ah, that Charles.” Mac selected two flutes from the glass shelves and poured. “The customers tremble, but always go back to Charles.”

  “I thought he was going to boot me out when he saw what I’d done.” She gave her short locks a tug. “But he took pity on me. Charles has definite opinions.”

  Mac skimmed his gaze over her hair, then down until his eyes met hers. “I’d say in your case he saw the wings.”

  “I’m only to pick up scissors to cut paper from now on.” Her eyes danced as she accepted the glass Mac offered. “Or pay the consequences. And, if I bite my nails, I’ll be punished. I was afraid to ask him how. Oh, this is wonderful,” she murmured after a sip. Closing her eyes, she sipped again. “Why would anyone drink anything else?”

  The pure sensual pleasure on her face had the hum in his blood quickening. A babe in the woods, he reminded himself. It seemed wiser all around to keep the bar between them. “What else did you do?”

  “Oh, the salon took forever. Charles kept finding other things he said were absolutely essential. I had a pedicure.” Humor danced into her eyes again. “I had no idea how wonderful it is to have your feet rubbed. Sheila put paraffin on my feet. Can you imagine? My hands, too. Feel.”

  He took the hand she held out, in all innocence. It was small and narrow, the skin as smooth as a child’s. He had to check the urge to nibble. “Very nice.”

  “Isn’t it?” Delighted with herself, Darcy smiled and stroked a finger over the back of her hand. “Charles said I have to have a full body loofah and some sort of mud bath, and … I can’t even remember. He wrote it all down and sent me to Alice at the spa. She makes the appointments. I have to be there at ten—after I work out in the health club, because he believes I’ve been neglecting my inner body, too. Charles is very strict. May I have some more?”

  “Sure.” A little war between amusement and baffled desire waged inside him as he poured more champagne.

  “This is a wonderful place. It has everything. Wonderful surprises around every corner. It’s like living in a castle.” Her eyes closed with pleasure as she drank. “I always wanted to. I’d be the princess under a spell. And the prince would scale the walls, tame the dragon—I always hated when they killed the dragon. They’re so magical and magnificent. Anyway, once the prince came, the spell would be broken, and everything in the castle would come to life. The colors and the sounds. There’d be music and dancing. And everyone would be so happy. Ever after.”

  She stopped, laughed at herself. “The champagne’s going to my head. This isn’t at all what I wanted to talk to you about. Your uncle—”

  “We’ll talk about it over dinner.” He slipped the flute from her hand and set it aside. He spotted the glittery little evening bag on a table and handed it to her.

  She slanted him a look as he led her to the elevator. “Can I have more champagne at dinner?”

  Now he had to laugh. “Darling, you can have whatever you want.”

  “Imagine that.” With a blissful sigh, she leaned against the smoked glass wall.

  He pushed the button for the circular restaurant on the top floor. She’d bought perfume, he thought, something woodsy and perfect for her. He decided the best place for his hands was in his pockets. “Did you try out the casino?”

  “No. There was so much else to do. I looked around a little, but I didn’t know where to begin.”

  “I think you began pretty well already.”

  She beamed up at him as the doors opened. “I did, didn’t I?”

  He led her through a small palm-decked foyer and into a candlelit dining room ringed by windows where silver gleamed against white linen.

  “Good evening, Mr. Blade. Madam.” The maître d’ made a slight bow and, with his shoe-black hair and round body, reminded Darcy of Tweedledee of Alice fame.

&nb
sp; Another rabbit hole, she thought as they were led to a curved banquette by the window. She never wanted to find her way out.

  “The lady enjoys champagne, Steven.”

  “Of course. Right away.”

  “It must be so exciting living here. It’s like a world to itself. You like it, don’t you?”

  “Very much. I was born with a pair of dice in one hand and a deck of cards in the other. My mother and father met over a blackjack table. She was working as a dealer on a cruise ship, and he wanted her the minute he saw her.”

  “A shipboard romance.” It made her sigh. “She was beautiful.”

  “Yes, she is beautiful.”

  “And he would have been dark and handsome, and maybe a little dangerous.”

  “More than a little. My mother likes to gamble.”

  “And they both won.” Her lips tipped up, deepening the dip in the center. “You have a big family.”

  “Unwieldy.”

  “Only children are always jealous of big, unwieldy families. You’re never lonely, I bet.”

  “No.” She had been, he thought. There was no doubt of it. “Loneliness isn’t an option.” He nodded approval to the label as the sommelier offered the bottle of champagne.

  Thrilled by the ritual, Darcy studied every step, the elegant spin of the white cloth, the subtle movement of the sommelier’s hands, the muffled pop of cork. At Mac’s signal, a small amount was poured into Darcy’s glass for tasting.

  “It’s wonderful. Like drinking gold.”

  That earned her a pleased smile from the sommelier, who finished pouring with a flourish before nestling the bottle in a silver bucket of ice.

  “Now.” Mac tapped his glass lightly against hers. “You talked with my uncle.”

  “Yes. I didn’t realize, not until I’d made the call. Then I did—Caine MacGregor, Boston. I know I started to stutter.” She winced. “He was very patient with me.” A laugh bubbled up and was partially swallowed. “The former attorney general of the United States is my lawyer. It’s so odd. He said he would take care of things—my birth certificate, the red tape. He didn’t seem to think it would take very long.”

  “MacGregors have a way of moving things along.”

  “I’ve read so much about your family.” Darcy accepted the leather-bound menu absently. “Your grandfather’s a legend.”

  “He loves hearing that. What he is, is a character. You’d like him.”

  “Really? What kind of a character?”

  How did one describe Daniel MacGregor? Mac wondered. “An outrageous one. Big, loud, bold. A Scotsman who built an empire on grit and sweat and shrewdness. He sneaks cigars—or my grandmother lets him believe he’s sneaking them. He’ll skin you at poker. Nobody bluffs better. He has an amazing heart, strong and soft. For him, family comes first and last and always.”

  “You love him.”

  “Very much.” Because he thought she’d enjoy it, he told her of how a young, brash Daniel had come to Boston looking for a wife, had set his eyes on Anna Whitfield and, tumbling into love, had wooed and won her.

  “She must have been terribly brave, becoming a doctor. There were so many obstacles for a woman.”

  “She’s amazing.”

  “And you have brothers? Sisters?”

  “One brother, two sisters, assorted cousins, nephews, nieces. When we get together it’s … an asylum,” he decided, making her laugh.

  “And you wouldn’t change it for the world.”

  “No, I wouldn’t.”

  She opened her menu. “I always wondered what it would be like to— Oh my. Look at all this. How does anyone decide what to order?”

  “What do you like?”

  She looked up, gold eyes sparkling. “Everything.”

  She sampled all she could manage. Tureen of duck, wild greens, little salmon puffs topped with caviar. Unable to resist, Mac scooped up some of his own stuffed lobster and held the fork to her lips. Her eyes closed, a quiet moan rippled in her throat, her lips rubbed gently together. And his blood flashed hot.

  He’d never known a woman so open to sensual pleasure, or so obviously new to it. She’d be a treasure in bed, absorbing, lingering over every touch, every taste, every movement.

  He could imagine it clearly—much too clearly—the little sighs and murmurs, the awakenings.

  She gave one of those little sighs now as her long lids opened slowly over dreamy eyes. “It’s wonderful. Everything’s wonderful.”

  It was all flowing through her, mind and body, soft lights, strong flavors, the froth of wine and the look of him. She found herself leaning forward. “You’re so attractive. You have such a strong face. I love looking at it.”

  From another woman it would have been an invitation. From her, Mac reminded himself, it was a combination of wine and naiveté. “Where do you come from?”

  “Kansas.” She smiled. “That’s not what you meant, is it? I have no finesse,” she confessed. “And when I relax, I tend to say things that pop into my head. I’m usually nervous around men. I never know what to say.”

  He arched a brow. “Obviously I don’t make you nervous. That’s my ego you hear thudding at your feet.”

  She chuckled, shaking her head. “Women are always going to fantasize about men like you. But you don’t make me nervous, because I know you don’t think of me that way.”

  “Don’t I?”

  “Men don’t.” She gestured with her glass before sipping. “Men aren’t quickly attracted to women who aren’t particularly physically appealing. Willowy blondes,” she continued, eyeing his plate and wondering how to ask for another bite. “Sultry brunettes, glamorous redheads. Attention focuses on them, it’s only natural. And strongly attractive men are drawn to strongly attractive women. At least initially.”

  “You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

  “I like to watch people, and how they circle toward each other.”

  “Maybe you haven’t looked closely enough. I find you very appealing, physically.” He watched her blink in surprise as he slid a little closer. “Fresh,” he murmured, giving in to the urge to cup a hand at the back of her slender neck. “And lovely.”

  He saw her gaze flit down to his mouth and return, startled, to his eyes. He heard the little rush of breath shudder through her lips. It was tempting, very tempting, to close the slight distance, to complete the circle she’d spoken of. But she trembled under his hand, a trapped bird not entirely sure of her wings.

  “There,” he said quietly. “That shut you up. Nervous now?”

  She could only move her head in short, rapid nods. She could all but feel his mouth on hers. It would be firm and hot and so clever. The fingers at the back of her neck had stroked some wild nerve to life. She could feel it careen through her, bumping her pulse to light speed.

  The dawning awareness in her eyes, the flicker of panic behind it had his fingers tightening briefly on her nape. “You shouldn’t dare a gambler, Darcy.” He gave her neck what he hoped was a friendly squeeze before easing back. “Dessert?”

  “Dessert?”

  “Would you like some?”

  “I don’t think I could.” Not with her stomach muscles in knots and her fingers too unsteady to hold a fork.

  He smiled slowly. “Want to try your luck?” When she swallowed, he added, “At the tables.”

  “Oh. Yes. I think I would.”

  “What should I play?” she asked him when they walked into the noise and lights of the casino.

  “Lady’s choice.”

  “Well.” She bit her lip, tried to keep her mind off the fact that he had his hand at the small of her back. It did no good to tell herself she had no business thinking of him that way. “Maybe blackjack. It’s just adding up numbers, really.”

  He ran his tongue around his teeth. “That’s part of it. Five-dollar table,” he decided. “Until you get your rhythm.” He led her toward a vacant chair in front of a dealer he knew to be both patient and personable with novice
s. “How much do you want to start with.”

  “Twenty?”

  “Twenty thousand’s a little steep for a beginner.”

  Her mouth dropped open, then curved on a laugh. “I meant dollars. Twenty dollars.”

  “Dollars,” Mac said weakly. “Fine—if you think you can stand the excitement.”

  When he reached for his wallet, she shook her head. “No, I have it.” She pulled a twenty out of her bag. “It feels more like mine this way.”

  “It is yours,” he reminded her. “And at twenty, not a hell of a lot’s going to be mine again.”

  “I might win.” She slid onto a stool beside a portly man in a checked jacket. “Are you winning?” she asked him.

  He tipped a beer to his lips and winked at her. “I’m up about fifty, but this guy.” He gestured toward the dealer. “He’s tough.”

  “You keep coming back to my table, Mr. Renoke,” the dealer said cheerfully. “Must be my good looks.”

  Renoke snorted, then tapped his cards. “Give me a little one, pal.”

  The dealer turned up a four. “Your wish, my command.”

  “There you go.” Renoke waved a finger over the cards to indicate he’d hold with nineteen. When the dealer held on eighteen, Renoke patted Darcy’s shoulder. “Looks like you brought me some fresh luck.”

  “I hope so. I’d like to play,” she added.

  “Changing twenty,” the dealer announced and shoved the bill into a slot with a clear plastic box. Darcy neatly stacked her four five-dollar chips. “Bets?”

  “Put a chip on the outline there,” Mac instructed.

  The cards moved quickly, slipping out of the shoe and snapping lightly on felt. She was dealt a six and an eight, with the dealer showing ten.

  “What do I do now?”

  “Take a hit.”

  She tilted her head, looked up at Mac. “But I’m beating him, and a ten would put me over, wouldn’t it?”

  “Odds are his down card is over two. Play the odds.”

  “Oh. I’ll take a hit.” She pulled a ten, then frowned. “I lost.”

  “But you lost correctly,” the dealer told her with a grin.

  She lost correctly twice more and, with brows knit in concentration, slid her last chip into place. And hit blackjack. “I didn’t even have to do anything.” She wiggled more comfortably on the stool and sent Mac an apologetic look. “I think I’ll play incorrectly for a while, just to see what happens.”

  “It’s your game.”

  With some surprise, he watched her play against all logic and build her little stack of chips up to ten, dwindle them down to three, then build them back up again. She chatted with Renoke, learned about his two sons in college and neatly stacked her chips.

  A twenty-dollar stake, he mused, and she was up to two hundred. The woman was a marvel.

  He caught the eye of a dealer at another table, a subtle signal of trouble on the brew. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured to Darcy, giving her shoulder a light squeeze.

  It wasn’t hard to spot where the trouble was centered. The man in the first chair was down to three hundred-dollar chips. Mac judged him to be roughly forty, a little worse for liquor, and a poor loser.

  “Look, you can’t deal cleaner than that, you ought to be fired.” The man jabbed a finger at the dealer while other players eased out of their chairs and looked for calmer water. “I can’t win more than one hand out of ten. And that
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