Playing the odds, p.7
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       Playing The Odds, p.7

         Part #1 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Exhausted,” the woman admitted. “But really, I—”

  “Don’t apologize.” Gently Justin brushed the sand from the child’s hand. “She’s beautiful.”

  Obviously pleased, the mother relaxed, then held out her hand to her daughter. “Thank you. Do you have children?”

  It took Serena a moment to realize they were being addressed as a couple. Before she could recover, Justin was already answering. “Not yet. I don’t suppose this one’s for sale.”

  Hefting Rosie on her hip, the young woman beamed down at him. “No, though there are times I’m tempted to rent her out. She’s a handful. Thanks again. Not everyone appreciates being attacked by a two-year-old tornado. Say good-bye, Rosie.”

  “’Bye!” Rosie waved a chubby hand over her mother’s shoulder before she made a valiant effort to scramble down again. Serena could hear high, delighted giggles as the mother and daughter moved across the beach.

  “Really, Justin.” Serena brushed away the sand Rosie had brought with her. “Why did you tell that woman we didn’t have any children yet?”

  “We don’t.”

  “You know very well what I mean,” she began.

  “Now who’s being practical?” Before Serena could retort, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his lips to her shoulder. Instead of resisting, she leaned back against him a moment, enjoying the closeness.

  “She was sweet.”

  “Most children are.” He pressed a kiss to her other shoulder. “They’ve no pretensions, no prejudices and very little fear. Soon her mother will teach her not to talk to strangers. Necessary, but rather sad.”

  Serena drew away so that she could turn around and look at him fully. “I wouldn’t have believed you’d give children a moment’s thought.”

  Justin started to tell her that the moment with the child that they had shared had awakened urges in him, a need for family he’d almost forgotten he had. A woman beside him, a child reaching up for a kiss. Then he brushed the thought away even as Serena brushed away sand. It was best to tread lightly on ground you didn’t know, he thought. “I started out that way myself,” he said at length.

  She noticed his hesitation, but found her own emotions strangely muddled. “Are you sure?” Smiling, she rested her hands on his shoulders.

  “Reasonably.”

  “I’m going to tell you something,” Serena said solemnly, leaning a bit closer.

  “Yes?”

  “I don’t think you’re pretty.”

  “Children have a clearer outlook than adults.”

  “You don’t even have a pretty nature,” she insisted, but found the urge to press her lips to his too difficult to resist.

  “Neither do you.” Running his hands up her back, Justin deepened the kiss. His lids had lowered as hers had, but neither closed. She felt something creep out of her while her bones were softening, something small and vital that was hers one moment and his the next. Serena yielded to him in a kiss that held more promise than passion.

  “I never intend to have one,” she murmured.

  “Thank God.” His hand tightened in her hair suddenly, briefly, though his mouth remained gentle on hers.

  Serena drew away. Something had changed. There was no clear explanation why, no idea what, but something had changed. There was a need to put things back on a solid footing until she had the time to decipher it. Her body felt soft and weak and alien.

  “We’d better go,” she managed. “I have some things to pick up in town before I’m due back at the ship.”

  “‘Time and tide wait for no man,’” he mused.

  “That’s about it.” Rising, she shook loose sand from her romper before she slipped it over her suit.

  “You won’t always have that excuse.” Justin stood beside her, halting the hands that worked the buttons.

  “No,” Serena agreed, then began to fasten the romper again. “But I have it now.”

  It took some artful driving through the traffic of Charlotte Amalie, then a dash of luck to find an empty parking place. The streets were jammed with cabs, people and small open-air busses with gaily patterned roofs. During this time both Justin and Serena were silent, occupied with their separate thoughts.

  What had happened, she wondered, during that brief, almost friendly kiss on the beach? Why had it left her feeling like jelly inside, apprehensive and somehow delighted? Perhaps it had something to do with how touched she’d been to see Justin with the little girl. It was difficult to imagine a man like him, a gambler with those parallel streaks of coolness and ruthlessness, being a sucker for a twenty-pound brunette with sticky, salty hands. She simply hadn’t given him credit for that quality of sweetness.

  It could also be the fact that where she’d once thought she might like him, Serena now knew she did. But cautiously, she added, as if to reassure herself. It would never be wise to completely drop caution in dealings with Justin. And now that she could admit she liked him and enjoyed his company, the cruise was almost over. During what was left of it, Serena would be kept so busy by her shifts and duties in the casino that she wouldn’t have a leisurely hour to spend with him, much less a leisurely day. For the rest of the trip they would be at sea, with the casino open sixteen hours a day.

  Of course there was still the option of accepting his job offer. Frowning slightly, Serena glanced out the window to see a table on the sidewalk near Gucci covered with hats made from palm leaves. For the past two days she had deliberately blocked the proposition out of her head—first from temper, then from the sensible notion that it would be better to consider it after there was some distance between them. Atlantic City would be an adventure. Working with Justin would be a risk. Perhaps one was the same as the other.

  Why did the sudden softening of her attitude worry him? Justin wondered. That had, after all, been one of his goals. He wanted her, just as he had wanted her the first moment he had seen her. Yet, the days of contact, arguments, laughter and passion had added some new aspect to what should have remained a basic need.

  It wasn’t as simple as it had once been to attribute his conflicting emotions to the machinations of her father. In truth, he hadn’t thought of her as Daniel MacGregor’s daughter in days. As he pulled into an empty space, Justin decided it might be wise to think of her that way again … at least for the moment.

  “More key chains that play Für Elise?” he asked as he switched off the ignition. Despite what he had just told himself, Justin drew her closer to taste her lips again.

  “I never repeat myself,” she retorted, but she didn’t move away.

  “Just this once,” he murmured, “make an exception.”

  On a low laugh she increased the pressure until they both forgot they were in a parked car in the middle of a crowded city. Tonight, she thought, as her fingers ran up his cheek on their journey to his hair. The time had come to stop pretending and take what she wanted.

  “Serena.” It was half sigh, half moan as he drew her away.

  “I know.” For a moment she rested her head against his shoulder. “We seem destined to find ourselves in public places.” She took a quick, audible breath and scooted out of the car. “Since we spent so long at the beach, I won’t have time for anything but the most disciplined shopping.” Justin walked around to her to take her hand. Serena smiled, then with a quick glance up and down the narrow, crowded street, she pointed. “I should be able to pick up a few souvenirs and the liquor I need in there.”

  Before she could reach her destination, the window display at Cartier’s stopped her. Her long sigh was part appreciation and part desire. “Why is it an intelligent woman can find herself coveting a bunch of shiny rocks?” she wondered aloud.

  “It’s natural, isn’t it?” Justin moved to stand beside her, letting his gaze roam over the sparkle of diamonds, the gleam of emeralds. “Most women are attracted to diamonds—most men, too.”

  “Pressurized carbon,” she mused, then sighed again. “Hunks of rock dug out of ca
ves. Centuries ago we used them as amulets to ward off evil spirits or bring good luck. The Phoenicians traveled to the Baltic countries of Europe for amber. Wars have been fought over them, countries exploited … and somehow that makes them more attractive.”

  “Don’t you ever indulge yourself?”

  Serena turned away from the window and smiled at him. “No, it gives me something to look forward to. I’ve promised myself that the next time I travel it’ll be strictly for relaxation. Then I’m going on a binge that may put a serious hole in my bank account. For now”—she gestured toward the next shop—“I need to pick up some more traditional sort of souvenirs for a few cousins and a case of Chivas Regal.”

  Justin walked into the store with her, where Serena immediately became caught up in a flurry of picking, choosing and buying. She generally disliked shopping, but once committed, did so with a vengeance. When Justin wandered off, she paid little attention, engrossed as she was in a selection of embroidered table linen.

  With the souvenirs purchased and wrapped, Serena went to the counter where bottles of liquor, liqueurs and wines were displayed in profusion. A quick glance at her watch showed her she had nearly two hours before she was due on board. “A case of Chivas, twelve year.”

  “Two.”

  At Justin’s voice, Serena turned her head. “Oh, I thought I’d lost you.”

  “Did you find what you wanted?”

  “And more,” she admitted with a grimace. “I’m going to hate myself when it comes time to pack.” The clerk slid the two boxes of Scotch onto the counter. “I’d like mine delivered to the Celebration.” Drawing out her credit card, she waited for the clerk to fill out the form.

  “And mine,” Justin added, counting out bills.

  Serena pondered his case of Scotch while he relayed the necessary information. Strange, she mused, she hadn’t thought him the kind of drinker to buy Scotch by the case. He never drank when he gambled. It had been one of the first things she’d noticed. Throughout the cruise, she’d seen him with a drink in his hand only once, during the picnic at Nassau. She decided perhaps he bought it in lieu of souvenirs, but it seemed odd he’d buy so much of one brand. After signing her name to the credit slip, Serena stuffed the receipt into her bag.

  “I suppose that’s it.” Slipping her hand into his, she walked toward the exit. “Odd that we both bought the same brand of Scotch.”

  “Not when you consider we bought it for the same person,” he returned mildly.

  With a puzzled smile, Serena looked up at him. “The same person?”

  “Your father doesn’t drink any other brand.”

  “How do you …” Confused, she shook her head.

  “Why would you buy my father a case of Scotch?”

  “He asked me to.” He guided her by a clutch of teenagers.

  “Asked you to?” Hampered by another crowd of shoppers, Serena had to wait until she’d plowed her way through. “What do you mean he asked you to?”

  “I’ve never known Daniel to do anything without a catch.” Justin took her arm to guide her across the street as she was looking at him and not the cars. “A case of Scotch seemed reasonable at the time.”

  Daniel? Serena thought, noting the easy use of her father’s name. For a moment her mind concentrated on that small point until unanswered and uncomfortable questions began to leak through. Disregarding the flow of pedestrian traffic, she stopped dead in the center of the sidewalk.

  “Justin, you’d better tell me exactly what you’re talking about.”

  “I’m talking about buying your father a case of Scotch for his thoughtfulness in booking my passage on the Celebration.”

  “You’ve got something mixed up. My father isn’t a travel agent.”

  He laughed just as uproariously as he had the day he’d learned her last name. “No, Daniel’s many things, but he’s not a travel agent. Why don’t we go down here and sit.”

  “I don’t want to sit.” She gave her arm a jerk as he led her to one of the cool courtyards. “I want to know why the hell my father would have anything to do with arranging your vacation.”

  “I think he had my life in mind, actually.” Finding an empty table, Justin gave her a nudge into a chair. “And yours,” he added as he sat.

  She could smell the freshly made delicacies from the bakery across from them, hear the chatter from the little bookstore next door. Because she suddenly wanted to punch something, Serena folded her hands on the table. “What the hell are you talking about?”

  “I met your father about ten years ago.” Calmly, Justin drew out a cigar and lit it. Serena was reacting precisely the way he had expected. The predictability eased the tension he’d been fighting since that moment on the beach when he’d felt something slipping away from him. “I came to Hyannis Port with a business proposition,” Justin began. “We played some poker and have been doing business off and on ever since. You’ve quite an interesting family.” Serena made no comment, but her fingers clenched tighter.

  “I’ve grown quite fond of them over the years,” he continued blandly. “You always seemed to be in school when I visited, but I heard quite a bit about … Rena. Alan admires your mind, Caine your right cross.” Though her eyes smoldered, Justin couldn’t prevent a small smile from curving his lips. “Your father nearly erected a monument when you graduated from Smith two years ahead of schedule.”

  Serena repressed the urge to swear, repressed the urge to scream. The man had been privy to her life for a decade without her knowledge or consent. “You’ve known,” she began in a low, furious voice. “You’ve known who I am all this time, and you’ve said nothing. Playing games when you only had to explain—”

  “Wait a minute.” As she started to rise, he took her arm in a forceful grip. “I didn’t know the blackjack dealer named Serena was Daniel’s Rena MacGregor, the paragon I’ve heard about for the last ten years.”

  She flushed, both in fury and embarrassment. Most of her life she had found her father’s bragging as amusing as it was endearing. Now it served as a cold, hard slap in the face. “I don’t know what your game is—”

  “Daniel’s game,” Justin interrupted again. “It wasn’t until that day on the beach when you were shouting at me about MacGregors not being pushed around that I realized who you were and why Daniel had been so persuasive about my taking this trip.”

  Because she could remember the expression of utter shock on his face, Serena relaxed fractionally. “He sent you the tickets and didn’t mention the fact that I worked on the Celebration?”

  “What do you think?” Justin countered, tapping his cigar in a plastic ashtray as he watched her. “When I found out your full name, I realized I’d been maneuvered by an expert.” He grinned, amused all over again. “I’ll admit it gave me a moment or two of discomfort.”

  “Discomfort,” Serena repeated, unamused. Her brief telephone conversation with her father played back in her head. He’d been pumping her, she realized, wondering if his little scheme had borne fruit. “I’m going to murder him,” she said quietly. Her eyes, dark with barely controlled fury, came back to Justin’s. “As soon as I’m done with you.” She gave herself a moment because the need to scream was building again. “You could’ve told me days ago.”

  “Could have,” Justin agreed. “But as I figured your reaction would be essentially what it is, I chose not to.”

  “You chose,” she said between her teeth. “My father chose. Oh, what marvelous egomaniacs you men are! Perhaps it didn’t occur to you that I was on the chessboard, too.” Anger flooded her face. “Did you think you’d get me into bed to pay him back for those moments of discomfort?”

  “You know better than that.” Justin spoke so mildly, Serena had to bite back a new retort. “For some reason I had a difficult time remembering whose daughter you were every time I put my hands on you.”

  “I’ll tell you what I know,” she said in the same dangerously low voice. “The two of you deserve each other. You’re
both arrogant, pompous, overbearing fools. What right do you have to intrude on my life this way?”

  “Your father instigated the intrusion,” Justin told her evenly. “The rest was strictly personal. If you want to murder the old devil, it’s your business, but don’t stick your claws into me.”

  “I don’t need your permission to murder him!” she tossed back, her voice rising enough to cause a few heads to turn.

  “I think I just said that.”

  She sprang up, casting about futilely for something to throw at him. Since it was physically impossible for her to lift him and heave him bodily through the plate glass window of the bookstore, she only smoldered. “I’m afraid I lack your sense of humor,” she managed after a moment. “I happen to think what my father did was insulting and demeaning.” With as much dignity as she had left, Serena reached for her bags. “I’d appreciate it if you’d stay out of my way during the rest of the trip. I’m afraid I’d find it extremely difficult to restrain myself from throwing you overboard.”

  “All right. If,” Justin added before she could speak again, “you promise to let me know in two weeks about the position in Atlantic City.” Even as her eyes widened and her mouth flew open to pour out abuse, he held up a hand. “Oh, no. Deal’s off if you give me your answer now. Two weeks.”

  Stiffly, she nodded. “You’ll get the same answer then, but I can postpone it. Good-bye, Justin.”

  “Serena.” Smoldering, she turned back to glare at him. “Give Daniel my best before you murder him.”

  Chapter 6

  The first thing Serena noticed during the drive from the airport was the trees. It had been some time since she’d seen oak and maple and pine touched with fall. It was barely September, but the feel of autumn was in the air, with all its strength and color. Even while she appreciated it, she seethed.

  If it hadn’t been indoctrinated into her to finish a job once it was started, she would have caught the first plane out of St. Thomas after Justin’s revelation. Instead, she’d gone about her duties with an outward smile and inward rage. Rather than cooling off during the interim, Serena had grown more angry and frustrated, and felt more misused. Perhaps because Justin had kept his part of the bargain and steered clear of her for the remainder of the cruise, all of Serena’s temper was fully focused on one man: Daniel MacGregor.

  “Oh, you’re going to be sorry,” she muttered, causing the cabbie to glance quickly in his rearview mirror.

  Nice-looking lady, he mused. Mad as a hornet. He began the gentle ride along Nantucket Sound in discreet silence.

  The first view of the house had the effect of distracting Serena from plans of revenge. The gray stone glistened with minute pieces of mica in the late afternoon sun. It had been built to Daniel’s fancy and, with its twin towers, as nearly resembled a castle as he could manage. There were large stone balconies, roughly carved, and tall mullioned windows. A lush bed of flowers flowed in a semicircle around the front—in place, Serena had always thought, of the moat he would have preferred.

  From the main structure two lower stone buildings spread out. One was a ten-car garage, which with Alan and Caine away would be only half full. The other held a heated pool. Daniel might prefer a primitive style of architecture, but he appreciated comfort.

  The cab pulled up in front of the granite steps, interrupting Serena’s survey of the home she’d grown up in. Leaving the two suitcases and Scotch to the cab driver, she gathered together the sundry packages from her shopping sprees and started up the steps.

  Following an old habit, she looked at the massive oak door, where the MacGregor crest was carved into a brass knocker. Under the crowned lion’s head was the Gaelic motto, which translated to “Royal Is My Race.” As always, when reading it, she smiled. Her father had insisted they learn to say it in Gaelic, if they learned nothing else.

  “Just set them there, thank you.” Still smiling, Serena paid off the driver, then turned to thud her family crest against the door. It would reverberate through the house, she thought, like the sound of approaching cannon.

  The door was swung open on its well-oiled hinges by a tiny scrap of a woman with iron-gray hair and pointed features. Her mouth fell open, accentuating the sharp chin. “Miss Rena!”

  “Lily.” Serena embraced the small, bony woman with all the exuberance of youth. In addition to her duties as housekeeper, Lily had been surrogate mother whenever Anna had been busy at the hospital. She had handled the three unruly children expertly, patching wounds and allowing squabbles to run their course. “Did you miss me?” Serena demanded, giving Lily a final squeeze before she drew the older woman away.

  “Hardly noticed you were gone.” Lily gave her a welcoming smile. “Where’s your tan?”

  “In my imagination.”

  “Lily, wasn’t that the door?” Holding a piece of needlepoint in one hand, Anna MacGregor poked her head out of a doorway down the long hall. “Rena!” She came forward, her arms outstretched. Serena raced into them.

  Anna was soft and strong. Both qualities flowed through Serena, along with a hundred memories. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of apple blossoms her mother had worn as long as she could remember.

  “Welcome home, darling. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

  “I caught an earlier plane.” Serena pulled back, tilting her head so that she could study her mother’s face. The skin was still creamy, with only a few fine lines betraying her age. There was a youthful softness about Anna’s face that Serena thought she would never lose. Her eyes were calm, reflecting the nature that had refused to change through years of operating rooms and death. Her hair waved gently, a rich brown dashed with gray. “Mom.” Serena pressed her cheek against her mother’s again. “How do you stay so beautiful?”

  “Your father insists on it.”

  Laughing, Serena pulled away, grasping one of her mother’s strong, skilled hands. “It’s good to be home.”

  “You look wonderful, Rena.” Anna studied her with an easy mixture of maternal pride and professionalism. “Nothing better than moist sea air for the complexion. Lily, please tell Cook that Miss Rena’s home; we’ll have our welcome-home dinner a day early. I want you to tell me all about your travels,” she continued,
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