All the possibilities, p.6
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       All The Possibilities, p.6
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         Part #3 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Actually you’re an easy man to be with, Alan, for a politician.” Easy? Shelby repeated to herself as she pressed the button to lower her window. Her blood was still throbbing from a meeting of eyes that had lasted less than ten seconds. If he was any easier, she’d be head over heels in love with him and headed for disaster. “I mean, you’re not really pompous.”

  He shot her a look, long and cool, that boosted her confidence. “No?” he murmured after a humming silence.

  “Hardly at all.” Shelby sent him a smile. “Why, I’d probably vote for you myself.”

  Alan paused at a red light, studying it thoughtfully before he turned to her. “Your insults aren’t as subtle today, Shelby.”

  “Insults?” She gave him a bland stare. “Odd, I thought it was more flattery. Isn’t a vote what it all comes down to? Votes, and that all-encompassing need to win.”

  The light stayed green for five full seconds before he cruised through it. “Be careful.”

  A nerve, she thought, hating herself more than a little. “You’re a little touchy. That’s all right.” She brushed at the thigh of her jeans. “I don’t mind a little oversensitivity.”

  “The subject of my sensitivity isn’t the issue, but you’re succeeding in being obnoxious.”

  “My, my, aren’t we all Capitol Hill all of a sudden.” Deliberately she looked at her watch as he pulled into the alleyway next to her building. “That was good timing. I’ll have a chance to take a bath and change before I go out.” Shelby leaned over to give him a careless kiss on the cheek before she slipped from the car. “Thanks, Alan. Ciao.”

  Despising herself, Shelby made it all the way to the top landing before he caught her arm. She fixed a mildly surprised expression on her face before she turned her head.

  “What the hell is this all about?” he demanded. There was enough pressure on her arm to make her turn fully around.

  “What the hell is all what about?”

  “Don’t play games, Shelby.”

  She sighed sharply, as if bored. “It was a nice afternoon, a … change of pace for both of us, I imagine.” She unlocked her apartment door.

  Alan tightened his grip fractionally to prevent her from slipping inside. Temper—he never, or rarely, gave in to it. It was a by-product of his heritage, the stock-in-trade of his family, but he’d always been the controlled one. The clearheaded one. He fought to remember it. “And?”

  “And?” Shelby repeated, lifting both brows. “There is no and, Alan. We spent a couple of hours at the zoo, had a few laughs. That certainly doesn’t mean I’m required to sleep with you.”

  She saw the anger, volatile and fierce, sweep into his eyes. A bit stunned at the strength of it, Shelby took an automatic step back. Her throat went dry instantly. Had that been sleeping in there the whole time? she wondered.

  “Do you think that’s all I want?” he asked in a deadly voice as he backed her into the door. “If I only wanted you in bed, you’d have been there.” His hand came up to circle her throat as she stared at the livid fury on his face.

  “There’s the matter of what I want,” she managed, surprised that her voice was thready and breathless. Was it fear? she asked herself swiftly. Or was it excitement?

  “The hell with what you want.”

  When he took a step closer, Shelby pressed back so the door gave way. She would have stumbled if he hadn’t been quick enough to grab her. Then they were just inside, with her body crushed close against his, her hands on his shoulders, for once indecisive.

  She tossed back her head, furious that her knees had liquefied with fear while her blood pumped hard and fast with pure desire. “Alan, you can’t—”

  “Can’t?” His hand was in her hair, dragging her head back farther. It poured into him fluidly—anger, resentment, passion. He’d never felt all at once. “I can. We both know I can now, and could have before.” And I should have, he told himself as fury and frustration took over. “You want me right now; I can see it.”

  She shook her head but couldn’t dislodge his hand. How could she have forgotten the panther so soon? “No, I don’t.”

  “Do you think you can take shots at what I do, at what I am, with impunity, Shelby?” The arm around her waist tightened so that she struggled not to gasp. “Do you think you can push me so far and not pay any price?”

  She swallowed, but her throat stayed dry. “You’re acting as though I’ve encouraged you when I’ve done precisely the opposite,” she told him in what almost succeeded in being a mildly annoyed tone. “Let me go, Alan.”

  “When I’m ready.”

  His mouth came down toward hers. Shelby sucked in her breath—whether in protest or anticipation, she wasn’t sure. But he stopped, just short of contact so she was trembling. All she could see in his eyes was fury, and her own reflection. Yes, she’d forgotten the panther, and that wicked, seething temper of the Brontë heroes he’d first reminded her of.

  “Do you think you’re what I want? What I can rationally, easily, say I want? You’re everything but what suits me. You flout everything that’s vital to my life.”

  That hurt. Though it was precisely what she’d set out to do, it hurt that he could say it. “I’m exactly what I am,” she tossed back. “Exactly what I want to be. Why don’t you leave me alone and go find one of those cool blondes who look so perfect in an Oscar de la Renta? They’re tailor-made for a senator’s companion. I don’t want any part of it.”

  “Maybe not.” The anger was building. He’d never felt anything build so quickly. “Maybe not. But tell me—” His grip tightened. “Tell me you don’t want me.”

  Her breath came quickly; short pants that couldn’t seem to fill her lungs. She wasn’t even aware that her fingers had dug into his shoulders or that her tongue, in a swift, nervous movement, darted out to moisten her lips. Shelby had always known there was a time and a place for lies.

  “I don’t want you.”

  But the denial ended on a moan of shivering excitement as his mouth captured hers. This wasn’t the patient, endless seduction of a kiss he’d first treated her to, but its antithesis. Hard, ruthless, his lips dominated hers as no one’s had ever done. As no man had ever dared. Then she was spinning, and groping for the guideposts that were no longer there.

  She could taste his anger and met it with a helpless passion that built too quickly to be controlled. She could feel his fury and met it with a fire that flamed too high to be banked. There was no sharp stab of regret. She was where she wanted to be. The fingers that gripped his shoulders urged him to demand more, and as he demanded, she took.

  Alan twisted her closer, forgetting the gentleness that had always been an innate part of his lovemaking. Her mouth was wild under his, greedy for possession. But this time he wasn’t content with it. His hand snaked under her shirt to find her.

  So slim, so soft, yet her heart pounded under his roaming palm with the strength of a marathon runner’s. She strained against him, moaning what might have been his name. Her taste was as wild and free as her scent, inciting the urgency to drum in him until it was a pounding. He could take her—on the floor or where they stood—in seconds or in an hour. Just knowing it sent an agony of desire rocketing through him. This was no yielding, but rather passion to passion, fire to fire. He’d never subdue her, but he could have her.

  And if he took her now, though she was willing, he risked having nothing when it was done. He risked making that careless, cutting remark of hers no less than the truth.

  On an oath uncharacteristically savage, Alan yanked her away. His eyes, when they met hers, were no less angry than they had been, and no less hard. The look held in silence but for the sound of unsteady breathing. Without a word, he turned and strode through the open door.

  Chapter 5

  She tried not to think about it. Shelby flipped through the magazine section of the Sunday paper with her feet propped up and her second cup of coffee still steaming and really tried not to think about it. Moshe sprawled a
cross the back of the sofa as if he were reading over her shoulder, his nose occasionally twitching from the scent of her coffee. Shelby sipped and skimmed an article on French cooking on a budget.

  She couldn’t help but think about it.

  It had been entirely her fault; she couldn’t deny it. Being rude and nasty wasn’t something she set out to do often, but she’d done a good job of it. Hurting someone else was something she usually did only in the blind heat of rage. But she couldn’t deny there’d been hurt as well as anger in Alan’s eyes. Even though her purpose had been self-preservation, Shelby was having a difficult time forgiving herself.

  Do you think you’re what I want?

  No. Shelby sat back, cupping her mug in both hands. No, she’d known right from the start that she hadn’t suited him, his image, any more than he’d suited hers. Yet she’d sensed something about him, and herself, that first evening on the Writes’ terrace. They’d seen too much in each other too quickly. Something had been nudging at the back of her mind even then. He could be the one. Silly fancies for a woman who’d never considered she’d wanted anyone to be the one, but she hadn’t been able to shake it off.

  She wondered if she’d shaken Alan off. Certainly she’d deserved his fury and the icy temper in his eyes when he’d walked back through her doorway. She had the power to bring that out in him. It was frightening and somehow … yes, somehow seducing. But she could turn vicious with it; that was something else. The viciousness came again from self-preservation when she sensed his power over her was too strong. So, perhaps she’d also deserved, though it was no easier to live with today, the aching and the wanting he’d left her with.

  She circled her tongue over her lips, remembering. There were two sides of Alan MacGregor, she mused. The even-tempered and reasonable, and the hard and the ruthless. It only made him more appealing. More dangerous, she added grimly.

  Setting aside the mug, Shelby snapped the paper into place and tried to concentrate. After all, she’d pushed him away, just as she’d set out to do. There was no use feeling miserable about it. In almost the same breath, she tossed the paper aside and leapt up to pace. She wasn’t going to call and apologize. It would only complicate things.

  Still, if she made it clear it was a formal apology and nothing more … No, that wasn’t smart, she reminded herself with a shake of the head. Worse, it was weak and wishy-washy. She’d made her decision. Shelby had always prided herself on knowing her own mind and sticking to it.

  Her gaze alighted on the balloons jumbled on her kitchen table. They’d lost the power to hang high in the air, and lay comfortably now, like a reminder of a happy celebration. Her breath came out in a sigh. She should have popped them and tossed out the corpses. Shelby ran a finger down a squishy yellow sphere. It was too late now.

  If she called and absolutely refused to get involved in a conversation—just an apology and nothing more. Three minutes. Shelby gnawed on her lip and wondered if she could find her egg timer. Her conscience would be clear in a few polite sentences. What could happen in three minutes over the phone? She glanced down at the balloons again. A lot, she remembered. It had been a phone call that had started the whole mess the day before.

  Even as she stood, irresolute, someone knocked at the door. She glanced over quickly, anticipation shimmering. Before the knock could sound twice, she was jerking the door open.

  “I was just— Oh, hello, Mama.”

  “I’m sorry I’m not who you were hoping for.” Deborah gave Shelby a quick peck on the cheek before she strolled inside.

  “It’s better that you weren’t,” Shelby murmured as she closed the door. “Well, I’ll get you some coffee,” she said with a flash of a smile. “It’s not often you drop in on a Sunday morning.”

  “You can make it a half a cup if you’re expecting someone.”

  “I’m not.” Shelby’s tone was flat and final.

  Deborah pondered her daughter’s back a moment, speculating. With a rueful shake of her head, she wondered why she bothered. She hadn’t been able to outguess Shelby in over ten years. “If you’re not doing anything this afternoon, perhaps you’d like to go with me to see that new exhibit of Flemish art at the National Gallery.”

  Shelby swore ripely, then stuck her thumb knuckle into her mouth.

  “Oh, did you burn yourself. Let me—”

  “It’s nothing,” Shelby said too sharply and swore again. “I’m sorry,” she managed in a calmer voice. “I just spilled a little on me, that’s all. Sit down, Mama.” In an almost violent gesture, she swept the balloons off the table and onto the floor.

  “Well, that hasn’t changed,” Deborah observed mildly. “You still have your own way of tidying up.” She waited until Shelby sat across from her. “Is something wrong?”

  “Wrong?” Shelby nursed her thumb a moment longer. “No, why?”

  “You’re rarely jumpy.” Stirring her coffee, Deborah leveled one of her long, steady stares. “Have you seen the paper this morning?”

  “Of course.” Shelby folded her legs under her. “I wouldn’t miss Grant’s Sunday edition.”

  “No, I didn’t mean that.”

  Vaguely interested, Shelby lifted her brows. “I glanced at the front page and didn’t see anything I wanted to dip into too deeply first thing in the morning. Did I miss something?”

  “Apparently.” Without another word, Deborah rose and went over to the sofa. She ruffled through the disorder of Shelby’s paper until she found the section she wanted. There was a half smile on her lips as she walked over to drop the paper, faceup, in front of her daughter. Shelby looked down and said nothing.

  There was a well-framed, very clear picture of her and Alan as they stood on the bridge overlooking the swans. Shelby remembered the moment: she had leaned back against him, resting her head between his shoulder and jaw. The photograph had captured that instant and a look of quiet contentment on her face that she wasn’t certain had ever been there before.

  The column beneath it was brief, giving her name and age, a mention of her father, and a quick plug for her shop. It also touched on Alan’s campaign on housing for the homeless before it drifted into speculation on their relationship. There was nothing offensive in the short, chatty little slice of Washington gossip. She was surprised by a sharp stab of resentment as she scanned the story.

  She’d been right, Shelby told herself as her gaze skimmed back to the picture. The eighth of a page proved that she’d been right from the beginning. Politics, in all its aspects, would always be between them. They’d had their afternoon as ordinary people, but it hadn’t lasted. It never would.

  Deliberately Shelby pushed the paper aside before she picked up her coffee. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had quite a crowd on Monday morning thanks to this. I had a woman drive down from Baltimore last winter after she’d seen a picture of me with Myra’s nephew.” She made herself sip, aware that she was dangerously close to rambling. “It’s a good thing I went on a binge last week and stocked the back room. Do you want a doughnut to go with that coffee? I think I might have one somewhere.”

  “Shelby.” Deborah laid both her hands on her daughter’s before Shelby could rise. The half smile had been replaced by a look of concern. “I’ve never known you to mind this kind of publicity. That’s Grant’s phobia, not yours.”

  “Why should I mind?” Shelby countered, struggling to keep her fingers from curling into fists. “If anything, it should bring me a few sales. Some enterprising tourist recognized Alan and cashed in, that’s all. It’s harmless.”

  “Yes.” With a slow nod, Deborah soothed the agitated hands beneath hers. “It is.”

  “No, it’s not!” Shelby retorted with sudden passion. “It’s not harmless, none of it.” She sprang up from the table to whirl around the room as Deborah had seen her do countless times before. “I can’t cope with it. I won’t cope with it.” She kicked at a sneaker that got in her way. “Why the hell couldn’t he be a nuclear physicist or own bowli
ng alleys? Why does he have to look at me as if he’s known me all my life and doesn’t mind all the flaws? I don’t want him to pull at me this way. I won’t have it!” On a final burst of rage, she swooped the scattered sections of the paper from the sofa to the floor.

  “It doesn’t matter.” Shelby stopped, dragging a hand through her hair as she leveled her breathing. “It doesn’t matter,” she repeated. “I’ve made up my mind in any case, so …” Shaking her head, she walked back to the stove to fetch the coffeepot. “Shall I heat that up for you?”

  Too used to Shelby to be confused by the outburst, Deborah nodded. “Just a touch. What have you made up your mind about, Shelby?”

  “That I’m not going to get involved with him.” After replacing the pot, Shelby came back to sit down. “Why don’t we have lunch in the Gallery cafeteria?”

  “All right.” Deborah sipped her coffee. “Did you have a good time at the zoo?”

  Shelby shrugged and stared into her mug. “It was a nice day.” She brought the mug to her lips, then set it aside without drinking.

  Deborah glanced down at the picture again. When was the last time she’d seen Shelby look serene? Had she ever? Oh, perhaps, she mused with a quick, almost forgotten pang, when a little girl had sat with her father sharing some private thought. Deborah held back a sigh and feigned an interest in her coffee.

  “I suppose you’ve made your position clear to Senator MacGregor.”

  “I told Alan right from the start that I wouldn’t even date him.”

  “You came with him to the Ditmeyers’ last week.”

  “That was different.” She toyed restlessly with the edges of the paper. “And yesterday was just a lapse.”

  “He’s not your father, Shelby.”

  Gray eyes lifted, so unexpectedly tormented that Deborah reached for her hand again. “He’s so much like him,” Shelby whispered. “It’s frightening. The tranquillity, the dedication, that spark that tells you he’s going to reach for the top and probably get it, unless …” She broke off and shut her eyes. Unless some maniac with an obscure cause and a gun stopped him. “Oh, God, I think I’m falling in love with him, and I want to run.”

  Deborah tightened her grip. “Where?”

  “Anywhere.” Taking a long, steadying breath, Shelby opened her eyes. “I don’t want to fall in love with him for dozens of reasons. We’re nothing alike, he and I.”

  For the first time since she had handed Shelby the paper, Deborah smiled. “Should you be?”

  “Don’t confuse me when I’m trying to be logical.” Settling a bit, Shelby smiled back. “Mama, I’d drive the man crazy in a week. I could never ask him to acclimate to my sort of life. I’d never be able to acclimate to his. You only need to talk with him for a few minutes to see that he has an ordered mind, the kind that works like a superior chess game. He’d be accustomed to having his meals at certain times, knowing precisely what shirts he’d sent to be laundered.”

  “Darling, even you must realize how foolish that sounds.”

  “By itself, maybe it would.” Her gaze drifted to the balloons that lay on the floor. “But when you add in everything else.”

  “By everything else, you meant the fact that he’s a politician. Shelby …” Deborah waited until her daughter’s eyes met hers. “You can’t special-order the kind of man you fall in love with.”

  “I’m not going to fall in love with him.” Her face settled into stubborn lines. “I like my life just as it is. No one’s going to make me change it before I’m ready. Come on.” She was up and moving again. “We’ll go look at your Flemish art, then I’ll treat you to lunch.”

  Deborah watched as Shelby dashed around the apartment looking for shoes. No, she didn’t wish her daughter pain, Deborah thought again, but she knew it was coming. Shelby would have to deal with it.

  ***

  Alan sat behind the huge antique desk in his study with the window open at his back. He could just smell the lilacs blooming on the bush in the little patch of yard outside. He remembered there had been the scent of lilacs the first evening he’d met Shelby. But he wouldn’t think of her now.

  Spread out on his desk were responses and information on the volunteer shelters he was campaigning for. He had a meeting with the mayor of Washington the following day and could only hope it went as well as his discussion with the mayor of Boston had. He had the facts—his staff had been working on compiling the information he needed for weeks. He had the pictures in front of him. Alan lifted one of two men sharing the tatters of a blanket in a doorway near 14th and Belmont. It wasn’t just sad, it was inexcusable. Shelter was the first basic need.

  It was one thing to concentrate on the causes—unemployment, recession, the bugs in the welfare system—and another to watch people live without the most elemental needs met while the wheels of social reform slowly turned. His idea was to provide the needs—shelter, food, clothing—in return for labor and time. No free rides, no sting of charity.

  But he needed funds—and just as important—he needed volunteers. He’d put things in motion in Boston after a long, at times frustrating, battle, but it was too soon to show substantial results. He was going to have to depend on the information compiled by his staff and his own powers of persuasion. If he could add the mayor’s influence, Alan thought he might just be able to wrangle the federal funds he wanted. Eventually.

  Stacking the papers, Alan slipped them inside his briefcase. There was nothing more he could do until the following day. And he was expecting a visitor—he checked his watch—in ten minutes. Alan leaned back in the comfortably worn leather chair and allowed his mind to empty.

  He’d always been able to relax in this room. The paneling was dark and gleaming, the ceiling high. In the winter, he kept a low fire going in the rosy marble fireplace. Lining the mantel were pictures in the odd-shaped antique frames he collected. His family—from tintypes of his great-grandparents who’d never stepped off Scottish soil, to snapshots of his brother and sister. He’d be adding one of his niece or nephew when his sister, Rena, had the baby.

  Alan glanced up at the picture of an elegant fair-haired woman with laughing eyes and a stubborn mouth. Strange how many shades hair came in, he mused. Rena’s hair was nothing like Shelby’s. Shelby’s was all undisciplined curls of fire and flame.

  Undisciplined. The word suited her—and attracted him despite his better judgment. Handling her would be a lifelong challenge. Having her would be a constant surprise. Strange that a man who’d always preferred the well-ordered and logical would now know his life wouldn’t be complete without disruption.

 
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