All the possibilities, p.5
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       All The Possibilities, p.5

         Part #3 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  The boy who had brought her both the strawberries and the pig stood in the doorway and grinned.

  “Thanks.” Too disoriented to remember her vow, Shelby reached out. He handed her the bound-together strings of two-dozen pink and yellow balloons. He was gone and Shelby was back inside before she woke up enough to realize what had happened. “Oh, no.” Looking up, she watched the balloons dance at the tops of their strings. Hanging by a ribbon at the end was a little white card.

  She wouldn’t even open it, she told herself. She knew who they were from anyway. Who else? No, she wasn’t going to open it. In fact, she was going to find a pin and pop every last balloon. What were they but a bunch of hot air? It was ridiculous. To prove a point, Shelby let the strings go so the balloons drifted up to the ceiling. If he thought he was going to win her over with silly presents and clever little notes … he was absolutely right, dammit.

  Shelby jumped up, swearing when she missed the strings by inches. Hauling over a chair, she climbed into it and grabbed the card.

  The yellow’s for sunshine, the pink’s for spring.

  Share them with me.

  Alan

  “You drive me crazy,” she muttered, standing in the chair with the balloons in one hand and the card in the other. How did he know, how could he know just the sort of thing that would get to her? Strawberries and pigs and balloons—it was hopeless. Shelby stared up at them, wishing she didn’t need to smile.

  It was time to be firm—very, very firm, she told herself as she stepped down. If she ignored it, he’d just send her something else. So, she’d call him and tell him—no, she’d demand that he stop. She’d say he was annoying—no, boring her. Boring was unforgivably insulting. Shelby twisted the balloon strings around her wrist as she reached for the phone. He’d given her his home number, which she’d refused to write down. Of course, she remembered every digit. As she pushed buttons Shelby worked herself into her haughtiest mood.

  “Hello.”

  Her mood deflated as if she’d been pricked with a pin. “Alan.”

  “Shelby.”

  She struggled not to be moved by the quiet, serious tone that should never have moved her. She liked men with a laugh in their voice. “Alan, this has to stop.”

  “Does it? It hasn’t even started.”

  “Alan—” She tried to remember her decision to be firm. “I mean it. You have to stop sending me things. You’re only wasting your time.”

  “I have a bit to spare,” he said mildly. “How was your week?”

  “Busy. Listen, I—”

  “I missed you.”

  The simple statement threw the rest of her lecture into oblivion. “Alan, don’t—”

  “Every day,” he continued. “Every night. Have you been to Boston, Shelby?”

  “Uh … yes,” she managed, busy fighting off the weakness creeping into her. Helplessly she stared up at the balloons. How could she fight something so insubstantial it floated?

  “I’d like to take you there in the fall, when it smells of damp leaves and smoke.”

  Shelby told herself her heart was not fluttering. “Alan, I didn’t call to talk about Boston. Now, to put it in very simple terms, I want you to stop calling me, I want you to stop dropping by, and—” Her voice began to rise in frustration as she pictured him listening with that patient, serious smile and calm eyes. “I want you to stop sending me balloons and pigs and everything! Is that clear?”

  “Perfectly. Spend the day with me.”

  Did the man never stop being patient? She couldn’t abide patient men. “For God’s sake, Alan!”

  “We’ll call it an experimental outing,” he suggested in the same even tone. “Not a date.”

  “No!” she said, barely choking back a laugh. Couldn’t abide it, she tried to remember. She preferred the flashy, the freewheeling. “No, no, no!”

  “Not bureaucratic enough.” His voice was so calm, so … so senatorial, she decided, she wanted to scream. But the scream bubbled perilously close to another laugh. “All right, let me think—a standard daytime expedition for furthering amiable relations between opposing clans.”

  “You’re trying to be charming again,” Shelby muttered.

  “Am I succeeding?”

  Some questions were best ignored. “I really don’t know how to be more succinct, Alan.”

  Was that part of the appeal? he wondered. The fact that the free-spirited Gypsy could turn into the regal duchess in the blink of an eye. He doubted she had any notion she was as much one as the other. “You have a wonderful speaking voice. What time will you be ready?”

  Shelby huffed and frowned and considered. “If I agree to spend some time with you today, will you stop sending me things?”

  Alan was silent for a long moment. “Are you going to take a politician’s word?”

  Now she had to laugh. “All right, you’ve boxed me in on that one.”

  “It’s a beautiful day, Shelby. I haven’t had a free Saturday in over a month. Come out with me.”

  She twined the phone cord around her finger. A refusal seemed so petty, so bad-natured. He was really asking her for very little, and—dammit—she wanted to see him. “All right, Alan, every rule needs to be bent a bit now and again to prove it’s really a rule after all.”

  “If you say so. Where would you like to go? There’s an exhibition of Flemish art at the National Gallery.”

  Shelby’s lips curved. “The zoo,” she said and waited for his reaction.

  “Fine,” Alan agreed without missing a beat. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

  With a sigh, Shelby decided he just wasn’t an easy man to shake. “Alan, I’m not dressed.”

  “I’ll be there in five.”

  On a burst of laughter, she slammed down the phone.

  ***

  “I like the snakes. They’re so slimily arrogant.”

  While Alan watched, Shelby pressed close to the glass to study a boa who looked more bored than disdainful. When she had suggested the zoo, he hadn’t been certain if she had done so because she wanted to go or had wanted to see how he would react. It didn’t take a great deal of thought to discern it had been a combination of both.

  A visit to the National Zoo on a sunny spring Saturday promised crowds and hordes of children. The Snake House was packed, echoing with squeals. Shelby didn’t seem to mind the elbow-to-elbow proposition as she maneuvered her way to a fat python.

  “Looks like our representative from Nebraska.”

  A giggle bubbled up in Shelby’s throat as she pictured the thick-necked, squinty-eyed congressman. Pleased with Alan’s observation, she twisted her head to grin at him. Another inch and their lips would have made contact. She could have backed away, even though it meant stepping on a few toes. She could have simply turned her head back to the python. Instead Shelby tilted her chin so that their eyes stayed in a direct line.

  What was there about him that made her want to tempt fate? she wondered. For surely that’s what she would be doing if she allowed the afternoon to amount to any more than a friendly outing. He wasn’t a man a woman could disentangle herself from easily, after she’d taken that last step. A man like him could quietly dominate and methodically absorb the people around him before they had any idea what was happening. For that reason alone she would have been wary of him, treating him with more caution than her other male companions. But she couldn’t forget who he was—an up-and-coming young senator whose future all but demanded a bid for the top office.

  No, to prevent pain on both sides, she’d keep it light. No matter how much she wanted him.

  “It’s crowded,” she murmured as her eyes laughed into his.

  “The longer we’re in here …” His thighs brushed against hers as a toddler wiggled up to the glass. “The fonder I am of snakes.”

  “Yeah, they get to me too. It’s the basic aura of evil that’s so appealing.” Her breasts pressed into his chest as people crowded in on all sides.

  “The o
riginal sin,” Alan murmured, easily catching her scent over the mingling aroma of humanity. “The serpent tempted Eve, and Eve tempted Adam.”

  “I’ve always thought Adam got off too lightly in that business,” Shelby commented. Her heartbeat was fast, and not altogether steady against his, but she didn’t back away. She was going to have to experience this before she understood how to prevent it. “Snakes and women took the real heat, and man came off as an innocent bystander.”

  “Or a creature who could rarely resist temptation in the form of a woman.”

  His voice had become entirely too soft. Considering it a strategic retreat, Shelby grabbed his hand and drew him away. “Let’s go outside and look at the elephants.”

  Shelby wound her way through the people, skirting around babies in strollers as she pulled Alan outside. He would’ve strolled. She would always race. In the sunshine, she pushed a pair of oversize tinted glasses on her nose without slacking pace.

  The aroma of animal drifted everywhere, pungent and primitive, on the breeze. You could hear them—the occasional roar, screech or bellow. She darted along the paths, stopping at a cage, leaning against a retaining wall, taking it all in as though it were her first time. Around them were families, couples old and young, and children with dripping ice cream cones. A babble of languages flowed from both in front and behind the cages.

  “There, he reminds me of you.” Shelby indicated a black panther stretched in a path of sunlight, calmly watching the river of people who passed by.

  “Is that so?” Alan studied the cat. “Indolent? Subdued?”

  Shelby let out her smoke-edged laugh. “Oh, no, Senator. Patient, brooding. And arrogant enough to believe this confinement is nothing he can’t work with.” Turning, she leaned back against the barrier to consider Alan as she had considered the panther. “He’s taken stock of the situation, and decided he can pretty much have his own way as things are. I wonder …” Her brows drew together in concentration. “I wonder just what he’d do if he were really crossed. He doesn’t appear to have a temper. Cats usually don’t until they’re pushed too far just that one time, and then—they’re deadly.”

  Alan gave her an odd smile before he took her hand to draw her toward the path again. “He normally sees that he’s not often crossed.”

  Shelby tossed her head and met the smile with a bland look. “Let’s go look at the monkeys. It always makes me think I’m sitting in the Senate Gallery.”

  “Nasty,” he commented and tugged on her hair.

  “I know. I couldn’t help it.” Briefly she rested her head on his shoulder as they walked. “I’m often not a nice person. Grant and I both seem to have inherited a streak of sarcasm—or maybe it’s cynicism. Probably from my grandfather on my father’s side. He’s like one of those grizzlies we looked at. Prowling, pacing, bad-tempered.”

  “And you’re crazy about him.”

  “Yeah. I’ll buy you some popcorn.” In a swift change of mood, she motioned toward a vendor. “You can’t wander around the zoo all day without popcorn. That’s second only to sitting through a double feature without some. The big one,” she told the vendor as she dug a bill from the back pocket of her jeans. Shelby cradled the bucket in one arm as she stuffed the change back in her pocket. “Alan …” Changing her mind, Shelby shook her head and began to walk again.

  “What?” Casually Alan reached across her for some popcorn.

  “I was going to make a confession. Then I remembered I don’t make them very well. We still need to see the monkeys.”

  “You don’t really think I’m going to let a provocative statement like that slip by, do you?”

  “Well … I thought the best way to discourage you was to agree to go out with you—to someplace like this, which I thought would bore you to distraction—then be as obnoxious as possible.”

  “Have you been obnoxious?” His tone was mild and entirely too serious. “I thought you’ve been behaving very naturally.”

  “Ouch.” Shelby rubbed at the figurative wound under her heart. “In any case, I get the distinct impression that I haven’t discouraged you at all.”

  “Really?” Reaching for more popcorn, he leaned close and spoke gently in her ear. “How did you come by that?”

  “Oh—” She cleared her throat. “Just a hunch.”

  He found that tiny show of nerves very rewarding. Yes, the puzzle was coming together, piece by careful piece. It was the way he’d always structured his life. “Odd. And not once since we’ve been here have I mentioned that I’d like to find a small, dim room and make love to you, over and over.”

  Warily Shelby slid her eyes to his. “I’d just as soon you didn’t.”

  “All right.” Alan slipped an arm around her waist. “I won’t mention it while we’re here.”

  A smile tugged at her mouth, but she shook her head. “It’s not going to come to that, Alan. It can’t.”

  “We have a fundamental disagreement.” He paused on a bridge. Beneath them, swans floated haughtily. “Because to my way of thinking it has to.”

  “You don’t understand me.” Shelby turned away to watch the birds on the water because his eyes were tripping some tiny little release she hadn’t even been aware was inside her. “Once I’ve made up my mind, I’m rock hard.”

  “We’ve more than ancestry in common.” He watched the sunlight add more heat to the flames of her hair. Touching it lightly, fingertips only, Alan wondered how it would look after they’d made love. Wild strands of fire. “I wanted you from the minute I saw you, Shelby. I want you more with every minute that passes.”

  She turned her head at that, surprised and unwillingly excited. It hadn’t been an empty phrase or cliché. Alan MacGregor said precisely what he meant.

  “And when I want something that immediately and that badly,” he murmured while his fingertips strayed to her jawline, “I don’t walk away from it.”

  Her lips parted as his thumb brushed over them. She couldn’t prevent it, or the lightning-flash thrill of desire. “So—” Striving to be casual, Shelby dug out some more popcorn before she set the bucket on a bench. “You put your energies into convincing me that I want you.”

  He smiled. Slowly, irresistibly, he circled her neck with his fingers. “I don’t have to convince you of that. What I have to convince you of,” he began as he drew her closer, “is that the stand you’re taking is unproductive, self-defeating, and hopeless.”

  She found herself weakening, wanting to be convinced. His lips hovered just above hers. Yet he was careful; even focused on her own vulnerabilities. She understood that. He’d always be circumspect in public. She’d always be careless. It annoyed her. It intrigued her too.

  His eyes, so serious, so calm, seemed to cut through every logical defense she could—or would—have thrown between them. Before she could make a move toward or away, something tugged impatiently at her T-shirt.

  Confused, Shelby glanced down and saw a small Asian boy of around eight staring up at her. He began a rapid, musical spiel, complete with gestures and eye-rolling. Shelby understood the frustration if not the content.

  “Slow down,” she ordered, grinning as she slipped from Alan’s hold to crouch in front of him. Her first thought was that he’d lost his parents. His eyes were dark and beautiful, but they were annoyed rather than frightened. Again he went off into a peal of what she suspected was Korean, then with a very adult sigh, he held up two nickels, indicating the bird feed dispenser behind him.

  Ten cents, Shelby realized on a chuckle. He had the right amount but didn’t understand the coinage. Before she could reach in her pocket, Alan held out a dime. Solemnly he went through a few simple gestures, showing that the two nickels put together made one dime. He saw the boy’s eyes brighten with understanding before he plucked the dime out of Alan’s hand and offered the two nickels. Alan’s initial inclination to refuse the money altered quickly with a scan of the boy’s face. Instead he accepted them, giving a slight bow. The boy gave another qu
ick burst of Korean, returned Alan’s bow, then dashed back to the dispenser.

  Another man, Shelby thought as she watched the child hurl the feed to the swans, would have insisted on being magnanimous—if for no other reason than to impress the woman he was with. But Alan had understood that children have pride. He’d made the exchange of two nickels for a dime into a man-to-man business transaction instead of an adult-to-child bit of whimsy. And all without a word.

  Leaning on the rail, she watched the swans race after feed, bending those slender necks, then gobbling greedily. Now and again one would honk and peck at another who edged into its territory. Alan’s hands rested on the rail on either side of her. Forgetting everything but the moment, Shelby leaned back against him, letting her head find that comfortably intimate spot between his jaw and shoulder.

  “It’s a beautiful afternoon,” she murmured.

  Alan laid his hands over hers where they rested lightly. “The last time I was at the zoo, I was around twelve. My father had made one of his rare business trips to New York and insisted we go en masse.” He brushed his cheek against her hair, enjoying the soft, intimate feel of it. “I felt obliged to pretend I was too old to enjoy looking at lions and tigers, yet my father had the best time of all. It’s strange, that little patch of adulthood we go through when we’re very young.”

  “Mine lasted about six months,” Shelby remembered. His, she knew, would never have completely dissipated. “That’s about how long I called my mother by her first name.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Thirteen. ‘Deborah,’ I would say in the cultured tones I was affecting at the time, ‘I believe I’m quite old enough to have blond streaks in my hair.’ She’d say something about our discussing it very soon. Then she’d go on about how proud she was that I was mature enough to make adult decisions—how relieved she was that I wasn’t spoiled or frivolous like so many girls my age.”

  “And naturally you basked in that and forgot the streaks.”

  “Naturally.” With a laugh, Shelby hooked her arm through his and began to walk again. “I don’t think I appreciated just how clever she was until I was over twenty. Grant and I weren’t easy children.”

  “Is he like you?”

  “Grant? Like me?” Shelby pondered it a moment. “In some ways, but he’s a loner. I’ve never been. When Grant’s with people, he observes—absorbs, really. He tucks them all away and takes them out again as he chooses. He can do without them for weeks or months at a time. I can’t.”

  “No, but you still take them out again as you choose. And I don’t think you’ve ever let anyone—any man at any rate,” he corrected, tilting his head to study her profile, “get too close.”

  Shelby flirted with an angry retort and decided on a subtler one. “That sounds like your ego talking,” she said mildly. “Just because I turned you down.”

  “Put me off,” Alan countered as he brought her hand to his lips. “One might point out that you are here, and so am I.”

  “Mmm.” Shelby glanced around at the flood of people as a wailing baby was carried past by a frustrated parent. “And in such intimate surroundings too.”

  “We’re both used to crowds.”

  On an impulse of mischief, she stopped in the center of the path to twine her arms around his neck. “In a manner of speaking, Senator.”

  She expected him to laugh and pull her along again or perhaps to give an exasperated shake of his head before he disentangled himself. What she didn’t expect was for him to hold her there, his lips close, hinting of promise. His eyes were level with hers, telling her very clearly where the promise would lead. There was a threat of passion, a promise of intimacy. No, she hadn’t expected him to turn her own ploy against her so successfully. Perhaps for a moment Shelby had forgotten he was a man of fundamental strategies.

  Against his, her heart began to thud lightly. Though the moment was brief, it touched her in every way—heart and mind and body. She couldn’t hold back the regret for what she felt could never be—but she hadn’t known it would be so sharp. When she drew away, it echoed in her voice and mirrored in her eyes.

  “I think we’d better head back.”

  He ached and nearly swore from the frustration of it. “It’s too damn late for that,” he muttered as he steered her in the direction of the parking lot.

  Shelby lifted a brow at the tone. Annoyance—it was the first time she’d heard it from him. She thought she’d caught a flicker or two in his eyes before, but it had been so quickly banked she couldn’t be sure. Well then, she mused, perhaps that was the key. She would annoy him enough that he would go away.

  Her skin was still warm—too warm and too tender. At the rate she was weakening, she would find herself involved with him whether she wanted it or not. Perhaps the real problem was she already was involved. The fact that they weren’t lovers didn’t stop him from drawing on her thoughts and her feelings. A successful break was going to hurt, but it would hurt less if it was quick and soon.

  So, she would have to get under his skin. Shelby gave a smile that was more of a grimace as she stepped into his car. If there was one thing she could do well when she put her mind to it, it was to get under someone’s skin.

  “Well, that was fun,” she said lightly as he maneuvered out of the lot. “I’m really glad you talked me into going out. My day was a blank page until seven.”

  That long, quiet moment lingered in his mind even as it lingered in Shelby’s. Alan shifted, hoping to ease the thudding in the pit of his stomach. “Always happy to help someone fill in a few empty spaces.” Alan controlled the speed of the car through force of will. Holding her hadn’t soothed him but rather had only served to remind him how much time had passed since he had last held her.

 
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