All the possibilities, p.7
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       All The Possibilities, p.7
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         Part #3 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  He glanced around the room—walls of books, meticulously filed and stacked, a pale-gray carpet that showed signs of wear but no dirt, the prim Victorian sofa in deep burgundy. The room was organized and neat—like his life. He was asking for a whirlwind. Alan had no interest in subduing it, just in experiencing it.

  When the doorbell rang, he glanced at his watch again. Myra was right on time.

  “Good morning, McGee.” Myra breezed in with a smile for Alan’s sturdy Scottish butler.

  “Good morning, Mrs. Ditmeyer.” McGee was six-two, solid as a brick wall, and closing in on seventy. He’d been Alan’s family butler for thirty years before leaving Hyannis Port for Georgetown at his own insistence. Mr. Alan would need him, he’d said in his gravel-edged burr. That, as far as McGee was concerned, had been that.

  “I don’t suppose you made any of those marvelous scones?”

  “With clotted cream,” McGee told her, coming as close as he ever did to cracking a smile.

  “Ah, McGee, I adore you. Alan …” Myra held out her hand as he came down the hall. “So sweet of you to let me bother you on a Sunday.”

  “It’s never a bother, Myra.” He kissed her cheek before leading her into the parlor.

  This room was done in quiet, masculine colors—ecrus and creams with an occasional touch of deep green. The furniture was mostly Chippendale, the carpet a faded Oriental. It was a calm, comfortable room with the surprise of a large oil painting depicting a storm-tossed landscape—all jagged mountains, boiling clouds, and threatening lightning—on the south wall. Myra had always considered it an interesting, and telling, addition.

  With a sigh, she sat in a high-back chair and slipped out of her shoes—skinny heels in the same shocking pink as her bag. “What a relief,” she murmured. “I simply can’t convince myself to buy the right size. What a price we pay for vanity.” Her toes wriggled comfortably. “I got the sweetest note from Rena,” she continued, rubbing one foot over the other to restore circulation as she smiled at Alan. “She wanted to know when Herbert and I are coming up to Atlantic City to lose money in her casino.”

  “I dropped a bit myself the last time I was up there.” Alan sat back knowing Myra would get to the point of her visit in her own time.

  “How’s Caine? What a naughty boy he always was,” she went on before Alan could answer. “Whoever thought he’d turn out to be a brilliant attorney?”

  “Life’s full of surprises,” Alan murmured. Caine had been the naughty boy and he the disciplined one. Why should he think of that now?

  “Oh, how true. Ah, here goes my diet. Thank God,” she announced as McGee entered with a tray. “I’ll pour, McGee, bless you.” Myra lifted the Meissen teapot, busying herself while Alan watched her with amusement. Whatever she was up to, she was going to enjoy her scones and tea first. “How I envy you your butler,” she told Alan as she handed him a cup. “Did you know I tried to steal him away from your parents twenty years ago?”

  “No, I didn’t.” Alan grinned. “But then McGee’s much too discreet to have mentioned it.”

  “And too loyal to succumb to my clever bribes. It was the first time I tasted one of these.” Myra bit into a scone and rolled her eyes. “Naturally I thought it was the cook’s doing and considered snatching her, but when I found out the scones were McGee’s … ah, well, my consolation is that if I’d succeeded, I’d be as big as an elephant. Which reminds me.” She dusted her fingers on a napkin. “I noticed you’ve taken an interest in elephants.”

  Alan lifted a brow as he sipped. So this was it. “I’m always interested in the opposing party,” he said mildly.

  “I’m not talking about political symbols,” Myra retorted archly. “Did you have a good time at the zoo?”

  “You’ve seen the paper.”

  “Of course. I must say the two of you looked very good together. I thought you would.” She took a self-satisfied sip of tea. “Was Shelby annoyed by the picture?”

  “I don’t know.” Alan’s brows lowered in puzzlement. He’d lived his life in the public eye too long to give it any more than a passing thought. “Should she be?”

  “Normally no; but then, Shelby’s prone to feel and do the unexpected. I’m not prying, Alan—yes, I am,” she corrected with an irresistible grin. “But only because I’ve known you both since you were children. I’m very fond of both you and Shelby.” Giving in to temptation with only a token struggle, she helped herself to another scone. “I was quite pleased when I saw the picture this morning.”

  Enjoying her healthy appetite as well as her irrepressible meddling, Alan smiled back at her. “Why?”

  “Actually …” Myra helped herself to a generous spoonful of cream. “I shouldn’t be. I was planning to get you two together myself. It’s really put my nose out of joint that you handled matters without me, even though I approve of the end result.”

  Knowing the way her mind worked, Alan leaned back against the sofa, resting one arm over the back. “An afternoon at the zoo doesn’t equal matrimony.”

  “Spoken like a true politician.” With a sigh of pure gastronomic pleasure, Myra sat back. “If I could only wrangle the recipe for these scones out of McGee …”

  Alan gave her a smile that was more amused than apologetic. “I don’t think so.”

  “Ah, well. I happened to be in Shelby’s shop when a basket of strawberries was delivered,” she added casually. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, dear?”

  “Strawberries?” Alan gave another noncommittal smile. “I’m quite fond of them myself.”

  “I’m much too clever to be conned,” Myra told him, shaking her finger. “And I know you entirely too well. A man like you doesn’t send baskets of strawberries or spend afternoons at the zoo unless he’s infatuated.”

  “I’m not infatuated with Shelby,” Alan corrected mildly as he sipped his tea. “I’m in love with her.”

  Myra’s planned retort came out as a huff of breath. “Well then,” she managed. “That was quicker than even I expected.”

  “It was instant,” Alan murmured, not quite as easy now that he’d made the statement.

  “Lovely.” Myra leaned forward to pat his knee. “I can’t think of anyone who deserves the shock of love at first sight more.”

  He had to laugh, though his mood was no longer light. “Shelby’s not having it.”

  “What do you mean she’s not?” Myra demanded with a frown.

  “Just that.” It still hurt, Alan discovered as he set down his tea. The memory of her words, that careless tone, still slashed him. “She isn’t even interested in seeing me.”

  “Poppycock.” Myra sniffed and set aside a half-eaten scone. “I was with her when she got those strawberries. And I know Shelby nearly as well as I know you.” She punctuated the statement with a quick jab at his knee. “It was the first time in my life I’d seen her look quite that way.”

  Alan stared into middle distance a moment, considering. “She’s a very stubborn woman,” he said thoughtfully. “She’s determined to avoid any sort of personal entanglement with me because of my profession.”

  “Ah, I see.” Myra nodded slowly as she began to tap a long red nail against the arm of the chair. “I should have known.”

  “She’s not indifferent,” Alan murmured, thinking aloud as he remembered the way her mouth had heated beneath his. “Just obstinate.”

  “Not obstinate,” Myra corrected, bringing him back. “Frightened. She was very close to her father.”

  “I gathered that, Myra, and I understand it must have been hard, very hard, to lose him the way she did, but I can’t see what it has to do with us.” His impatience was edging through, and his frustration. Alan rose, no longer able to sit still, and paced the room. “If her father had been an architect, would it make sense for her to write architects off?” He dragged a hand through his hair in a rare gesture of exasperation. “Dammit, Myra, it’s bloody ridiculous for her to shut me out because her father was a sen
ator.”

  “You’re being logical, Alan,” Myra said patiently. “Shelby rarely is—unless you consider that she uses her own brand of logic. She adored Robert Campbell, and I don’t use the word lightly.” She paused again, her sympathies aroused for both of them. “She was only eleven years old when he was shot and killed not twenty feet away from her.”

  Alan stopped pacing to slowly turn around. “She was there?”

  “Both her and Grant.” Myra set aside her cup, wishing her memory weren’t quite so clear. “It was a miracle that Deborah managed to keep the press from exploiting that angle. She used every contact she had.”

  He felt a flash of empathy, so stunning and sharp it left him dazed. “Oh, God, I can’t even imagine how horrible it must have been for her.”

  “She didn’t speak—not a word—for days. I spent a lot of time with her as Deborah was trying to cope with her own grief, the children’s, the press.” She shook her head, remembering Deborah’s quietly desperate attempts to reach her daughter, and Shelby’s mute withdrawal. “It was a dreadful time, Alan. Political assassinations add public scope to our private grief.”

  A long, weary sigh escaped—a sound she rarely gave in to. “Shelby didn’t break down until the day after the funeral. She mourned like—like an animal,” Myra said. “Raw, wild grief that lasted as long as her silence had. Then she snapped out of it, maybe too well.”

  He wasn’t certain he wanted to hear more, picturing the child that was the woman he loved shattered, lost, and groping. He’d have been in his second year at Harvard then, secure in his world, within easy reach of his family. Even at thirty-five, he’d never suffered any devastating loss. His father—Alan tried to imagine the sudden violent loss of the robust and vital Daniel MacGregor. It was too searing a pain to be felt. He stared out the window at spring-green leaves and fresh blossoms.

  “What did she do?”

  “She lived—using every drop of that surplus energy she’s always had. Once when she was sixteen,” Myra remembered, “Shelby told me that life was a game called Who Knows? and that she was going to give everything a try before it played a trick on her.”

  “That sounds like her,” Alan murmured.

  “Yes, and all in all she’s the most well-adjusted creature I know. Content with her own flaws—perhaps proud of a few of them. But Shelby’s a vortex of emotion. The more she uses, the more she has. Perhaps she’s never really stopped grieving.”

  “She can’t dictate her emotions,” Alan said with fresh frustration as Myra’s words ate at him. “No matter how much her father’s death affected her.”

  “No, but Shelby would think she could.”

  “She thinks too damn much,” he muttered.

  “No, she feels too damn much. She won’t be an easy woman to love, or to live with.”

  Alan forced himself to sit again. “I stopped wanting an easy woman when I met Shelby.” Things were a bit clearer now and therefore more easily solved. Specific, tangible problems were his specialty. He began to play back Shelby’s words to him of the afternoon before—the biting carelessness. He remembered, as he forced himself to be calm, that quick flicker of regret he’d seen in her eyes. “She gave me my walking papers yesterday,” he said softly.

  Myra set down her tea with a snap. “What nonsense. The girl needs—” She interrupted herself with another huff. “If you’re that easily discouraged, I don’t know why I bother. Young people expect everything to be handed to them on a platter, I suppose. The first stumbling block, and it’s all over. Your father,” she continued, heating up, “could find a way to bulldoze through anything. And your mother, whom I’ve always thought you took after, simply eased her way through any problem without creating a ripple. A fine president you’ll make,” she finished grumpily. “I’m going to reconsider voting for you.”

  “I’m not running for president,” Alan said as soberly as his grin would allow.

  “Yet.”

  “Yet,” he agreed. “And I’m going to marry Shelby.”

  “Oh.” Deflated, Myra sat back again. “Perhaps I’ll vote for you after all. When?”

  Staring at the ceiling, Alan considered, calculating, turning over angles. “I’ve always liked Hyannis Port in the fall,” he mused. Shifting his gaze, he gave Myra his slow, serious smile. “Shelby should enjoy getting married in a drafty castle, don’t you think?”

  Chapter 6

  A week was only seven days. Shelby made it through almost six of them by pretending she wasn’t going crazy. By midafternoon on Friday, she was running low on excuses for her bad temper and absentmindedness.

  She wasn’t sleeping well; that’s why she was listless. She wasn’t sleeping well because she’d been so busy—at the shop and with a round of social engagements. Shelby hadn’t turned down any invitation that had come her way all week. Because she was listless, or overtired or whatever, she was forgetting things—like eating. Because she had thrown her system off schedule, she was cranky. And because she was cranky, she didn’t have any appetite.

  Shelby had managed this circular sort of justification for days without once bringing the reason back to Alan. Several times she told herself she hadn’t thought of him at all. Not once. As it happened, Shelby began to tell herself several times a day that she hadn’t thought of him. Once she was so pleased with herself for not giving him a thought, she smashed a delft-blue flowerpot against her workroom wall.

  This was so blatantly out of character that Shelby was forced to resort to her circular route of rationale all over again.

  She worked when she could—late at night when she couldn’t bear to lie awake in bed, early in the morning for the same reason. When she went out, she was almost desperately bright and cheerful so that a few of her closer friends began to watch her with some concern. Filling her time became of paramount importance. Then she would forget that she’d made arrangements to meet friends for dinner and bury herself in her workroom.

  It could be the weather, Shelby mused as she sat behind the counter with her chin on her hand. The radio gave her music and welcome noise, with regular announcements that the rain would end by Sunday. To Shelby, Sunday was light-years away.

  Rain depressed a lot of people, and just because it had never depressed her before didn’t mean it wasn’t doing so this time. Two solid days of streaming, soaking rain could make anyone grumpy. Brooding, Shelby watched through the shop window as it continued to fall.

  Rain wasn’t good for business, she decided. She’d had a little more than a trickle of customers that day and the day before. Normally she would have closed up shop with a philosophical shrug and found something else to do. But she stayed, frowning, as gloomy as the rain.

  Maybe she’d just go away for the weekend, she thought. Hop on a plane and shoot up to Maine and surprise Grant. Oh, he’d be furious, Shelby thought with the first real smile she’d managed in days. He’d give her hell for dropping in unannounced. Then they’d have such a good time badgering each other. No one made bickering as much fun as Grant.

  Grant saw too much, Shelby remembered with a sigh. He’d know something was wrong, and though he was fierce about his own privacy, he’d pick at her until she told him everything. She could tell her mother—at least part of it—but she couldn’t tell Grant. Maybe because he understood too well.

  So … Shelby gave another long sigh and considered her options. She could stay in Georgetown and be miserable over the weekend or she could leave. It might be fun to just toss a few things in the car and drive until she left the rain behind. Skyline Drive in Virginia or the beach at Nags Head. A change of scene, she decided abruptly. Any scene at all.

  Impulsively Shelby jumped up and prepared to turn over the Closed sign. The door opened, letting in a whoosh of chilled air and a scattering of rain. A woman in a yellow slicker and boots closed the door with a slam.

  “Miserable weather,” she said cheerfully.

  “The worst.” Shelby pushed the impatience back. Ten minutes before
she’d considered standing on one foot and juggling to attract a customer. “Is there something in particular I can show you?”

  “I’ll just poke around.”

  Oh, sure, Shelby thought, pinning on an amiable smile. I could be halfway to sunshine by the time she finishes poking. Shelby considered telling the woman she had ten minutes. “Take your time,” she said instead.

  “I found out about your shop from a neighbor.” The woman stopped to study a fat speckled pot suitable for a patio or terrace. “She’d bought a coffee set I admired. A very pale blue with pansies dashed over it.”

  “Yes, I remember it.” Shelby managed to keep the friendly smile in place as she watched the woman’s back. “I don’t do duplicates, but if you’re interested in coffee sets, I have one along similar lines.” Scanning the shop, she tried to remember where she’d set it.

  “Actually it wasn’t the specific set as much as the workmanship that caught my eye. She told me you make all your stock yourself.”

  “That’s right.” Shelby forced herself not to fidget and concentrated on the woman. Attractive, mid-thirties, friendly. The sleek brunette hair had a subtle and sophisticated frosting of wheat-toned blond. Shelby wished the woman would go back to wherever she came from, then was immediately furious with herself. “I have my wheel in the back room,” she went on, making more of an effort. “I do all the firing and glazing there as well.”

  The customer crouched down beside a standing urn, studying it meticulously. “Do you ever use molds?”

  “Once in a while, for something like that bull there, or the gnome, but I prefer the wheel.”

  “You know, you have a marvelous talent—and quite a supply of energy.” Rising, the woman ran a fingertip down the spout of a coffeepot. “I can imagine how much time and patience it takes to produce all this, over and above the skill.”

  “Thank you. I suppose when you enjoy something, you don’t think about the time it takes.”

  “Mmm, I know. I’m a decorator.” Walking over, she handed Shelby a business card. Maureen Francis, Interior Design. “I’m doing my own apartment at the moment, and I have to have that pot, that urn, and that vase.” She pointed to each of her choices before turning back to Shelby. “Can I give you a deposit and have you hold them for me until Monday? I don’t want to cart them around in the rain.”

  “Of course. I’ll have them packed up for you when you’re ready for them.”

  “Terrific.” Maureen pulled a checkbook out of the leather hobo bag she carried. “You know, I have a feeling we’re going to be doing quite a bit of business. I’ve only been in D.C. about a month, but I do have a couple of interesting jobs coming up.” She glanced up with another smile before she continued to write out the check. “I like to use handcrafted pieces in my work. There’s nothing worse than a room that shrieks of professional decorator.”

  The statement, from someone who made her living at it, intrigued Shelby. She forgot her inclination to rush Maureen out the door. “Where are you from?”

  “Chicago. I worked for a large firm there—ten years.” She ripped off the check and handed it to Shelby. “I got the itch to strike out on my own.”

  Nodding, Shelby finished making out her receipt. “Are you any good?”

  Maureen blinked at the blunt question, then grinned. “I’m very good.”

  Shelby studied her face a moment—candid eyes, a touch of humor. Going, as always, on impulse, she scrawled a name and address on the back of the receipt. “Myra Ditmeyer,” Shelby told her. “If anyone who’s anyone in the area is toying with redecorating, she’ll know. Tell her I gave you her name.”

  A bit stunned, Maureen stared down at the receipt. She’d been in D.C. long enough to know of Myra Ditmeyer. “Thanks.”

  “Myra’ll expect your life history in lieu of a percentage, but—” Shelby broke off as the door to the shop opened again. She had the unexpected, and for her, unique experience of going completely blank.

  Alan closed the door, then calmly stripped out of his wet coat before he crossed to her. Giving Maureen a friendly nod, he cupped Shelby’s chin, leaned over the counter, and kissed her. “I brought you a present.”

  “No!” The quick panic in her voice infuriated her. After shoving at his hand, she stepped back. “Go away.”

  Alan leaned on the counter as he turned to Maureen. “Is that any way to act when someone brings you a present?”

  “Well, I …” Maureen looked from Shelby to Alan before she gave a noncommittal shrug.

  “Of course it isn’t,” he went on as if she’d agreed. He drew a box out of his coat pocket and set it on the counter.

  “I’m not going to open it.” Shelby looked down at the box only because it prevented her from looking at Alan. She wouldn’t risk having her mind swept clean again so soon. “And I’m closed.”

  “Not for fifteen minutes. Shelby’s often rude,” he told Maureen. “Would you like to see what I brought her?”

  Torn between a desire to run for cover and creeping curiosity, Maureen hesitated a moment too long. Alan plucked off the cover of the box and pulled out a small piece of colored glass in the shape of a rainbow. Shelby’s hand was halfway to it before she stopped herself.

  “Dammit, Alan.” How could he have known how badly she’d needed to see a rainbow?

  “That’s her traditional response,” he told Maureen. “It means she likes it.”

  “I told you to stop sending me things.”

  “I didn’t send it,” he pointed out as he dropped the rainbow in her hand. “I brought it.”

  “I don’t want it,” she said heatedly, but her fingers curled around it. “If you weren’t a thick-skinned, bone-headed MacGregor, you’d leave me alone.”

  “Fortunately for both of us, we share some of the same traits.” He had her hand in his before she could prevent it. “Your pulse is racing again, Shelby.”

  Maureen cleared her throat. “Well, I think I’ll just be running along.” She
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