The winning hand, p.7
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       The Winning Hand, p.7

         Part #7 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  casually, so intimately. Not in public or private. And realizing it made her unbearably sad.

  “Another round, ladies?” Even as he asked, Justin was signaling for a waitress.

  “Not for me. Thank you. I should go up. I thought I’d look for a new car tomorrow.”

  “Want company?”

  Darcy fumbled with her purse as she rose, and smiled hesitantly at Serena. “Yes, if you’d like.”

  “I’d love it. Just call my room when you decide what time you want to go. Someone will find me.”

  “All right. It was nice meeting both of you. Good night.”

  Justin waited until Darcy was out of earshot before lifting an eyebrow at his wife. “What’s going on in your head, Serena?”

  “All sorts of interesting thoughts.” She turned her head so that her lips brushed his.

  “Such as?”

  “Our firstborn nearly punched a cowboy for having a mild flirtation with our Kansas pixie.”

  “Another wine for my wife, Carol, and a draft for me,” he said to the waitress before shifting to face Serena. “You must be exaggerating. Duncan’s the one who likes to trade punches over pretty women, not Mac.”

  “I’m not exaggerating in the least. Fangs were bared, Blade,” she murmured. “And murder was in the air. I believe he’s seriously smitten.”

  “Smitten?” The word made him laugh, then his laughter faded into unexpected anxiety. “Define ‘seriously.’”

  “Justin.” She patted his cheek. “He’s nearly thirty. It has to happen sometime.”

  “She’s not his type.”

  “Exactly.” She felt her eyes sting and sniffled. “She’s nothing like his type. She’s perfect for him.” Resolutely she blinked back the tears. “Or I’ll find out if she’s perfect before long.”

  “Serena, you sound uncomfortably like your father.”

  “Don’t be absurd.” Sentimental tears dried up with the insult. “I have no intention of manipulating or scheming or plotting.” She tossed her head. “I’m simply going to …”


  “Discreetly,” she finished, and beamed at him. “You are very attractive.” She skimmed her fingers through the silver wings of his hair, lingered there. “Why don’t we take these drinks upstairs, up to bed, War Chief.”

  “You’re trying to distract me.”

  “Of course I am.” Her smile was slow, seductive and sure. “Is it working?”

  He took her hand to pull her to her feet. “It always has.” He kissed her fingers. “Always will.”

  Habitually, Mac slept from about three in the morning to nine, straddling shifts and ending his day after peak hours. Barring trouble, he could safely leave the full responsibility of the casino for that stretch of time to his shift and pit bosses and floor men. Morning hours routinely were dedicated to the massive paperwork the casino demanded—the banking, accounting, staff meetings, the hirings and firings.

  He’d taken over as casino manager of Comanche Vegas when he’d been twenty-four, and had set the tone. The surface was friendly, noisy, full of movement and action. But underneath, it was ruthlessly organized and the bottom line was profit.

  As he was one himself, he could spot a card counter across the blackjack pit after a five-minute study. He knew when to let them ride, or when to move them along. Employees were expected to be personable and honest. Those who met his standards were rewarded. Those who didn’t were fired.

  There were no second chances.

  His father had built The Comanche out of guts and grit, and had turned it into a polished, sharp-edged jewel in the desert. Mac’s responsibility was to keep the sheen high and he took his responsibilities seriously.

  “The first half of the year looks good.” Justin leaned back in his chair, removed the reading glasses he privately despised, then handed Mac back the computer-generated spreadsheet. “Up about five percent from last year.”

  “Six,” Mac said with a flash of grin. “And a quarter.”

  “You’ve got your mother’s head for math.”

  “I live for numbers. Where is Mom? I thought she’d want to sit in on this meeting.”

  “She’s off with Darcy.”

  Mac set down the personnel file he’d just picked up. “With Darcy.”

  “Shopping. Refreshing young woman.” Justin’s face was as bland as it would have been if he’d held three aces. “Makes it hard to regret handing her seven figures.”

  “Yeah.” Mac caught himself drumming his fingers on the file and stopped. “The press is pushing for a name. I’ve got half a dozen assistants fielding calls.”

  “Even without her name, the publicity’s humming. It can’t hurt business.”

  “The hotel manager reports an upswing in reservations in the last two days. Play on the machine she hit on is up thirty percent.”

  “When her story gets out—and that pretty face is splashed over the national news—they’ll flood in here.”

  “I’m putting on three extra floor men, and I’d like to promote Janice Hawber to pit boss.”

  “You know your staff.” Justin took out a slim cigar. “We’ll likely get the ripple effect at other locations.” When Mac opened the file, Justin waved the cigar, spiraling smoke. “Let’s take a break here. Whatever happened to that long-legged brunette who liked baccarat and Brandy Alexanders?”

  “Pamela.” His father didn’t miss a trick, Mac thought. “I believe she’s playing baccarat and drinking Brandy Alexanders over at the Mirage these days.”

  “Too bad. She added a nice … shine to the tables.”

  “She was looking for a rich husband. I decided to fold before things got sticky.”

  “Hmm. Seeing anyone else?” At Mac’s lifted brow, Justin grinned. “Just trying to keep up with the tour, pal. Duncan changes dancing partners so often I just give them numbers.”

  “Duncan juggles women like apples,” Mac said, thinking of his brother. “I find one at a time’s less complicated. And no, I’m not dancing at the moment. You can report back to Grandpa that his eldest grandchild continues to be lax in his duty to continue the line.”

  Justin chuckled and puffed on his cigar. “You’d think four great-grandchildren would satisfy him for a while.”

  “Nothing will satisfy The MacGregor until every last one of us is married and clucking around a brood of kids.” Mac moved his shoulders restlessly. “At least he could nag one of the others for a bit. Pick on D.C.”

  “He does pick on D.C.” Justin grinned. “Alan tells me he picks at the boy until D.C. holes up in his garret, paints and swears he’ll die a bachelor just to spite Daniel. So then Daniel goes to work on Ian, who just smiles charmingly, agrees with everything Daniel says, and cheerfully ignores him.”

  “Maybe I’ll slip one of their names into our next conversation—strictly in the spirit of self-preservation—and shift his focus for a while.”

  The door burst open. “Speak of the devil,” Mac murmured as he got to his feet.

  The MacGregor stood in the doorway, grinning widely. His white hair flowed back from a broad and deeply seamed face offset by eyes that twinkled bright blue and a wild, snowy beard. His shoulders were as broad as the grille of a truck. And the hand that slapped Justin enthusiastically on the back was as big as a ham.

  “Give me one of those pitiful excuses for a cigar,” Daniel boomed, then caught Mac in a bear hug that could have toppled a rabid grizzly. “Pour me a Scotch, boy. Flying cross-country puts a thirst in a man.”

  “You had a Scotch on the plane.” Caine MacGregor strode into the room. “Charmed the flight attendant out of one when I wasn’t looking. If Mom finds out, she’ll scalp me.”

  “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt you.” Daniel plopped his bulk into a chair, sighed lustily and looked around with great pleasure. “Well now, how about that cigar?”

  Knowing the rules—and Anna MacGregor’s wrath—Justin turned to his brother-in-law. “Anna dump him on you?”

nbsp; “Ha!” Daniel thumped the cane he used as much for looks as for convenience.

  “He wouldn’t stay home. She sends her love and her sympathy. Good to see you.” Caine gave both Justin and Mac a hard hug. “Where’s Rena?”

  “Shopping,” Justin told him. “She should be back shortly.”

  “Give me a damn cigar.” Daniel glowered and thumped his cane again. “And where’s the lassie who skinned you for over a million? I want to meet her.”

  Mac turned to study his grandfather. Formidable, Darcy had said. It appeared she was going to find out firsthand just how formidable.

  Dazed and flushed, Darcy carted bags and boxes into her suite. Similarly burdened, Serena was right behind her.

  “Oh, that was fun.” With a sigh, Serena dumped everything on the floor and dropped into a chair. “My feet are killing me. Always a good sign of shopping success.”

  “I don’t even remember what I bought. I don’t know what came over me.”

  “I’m a terrible influence.”

  “You were wonderful.” It had been one of the most monumental days in Darcy’s life. Being propelled from store to store, having blouses and dresses tossed at her, modeling them in front of Serena’s assessing eyes. “You know everything about clothes.”

  “A lifetime love affair. Darcy, run up and put on that yellow sundress. I’m dying to see it on you again. Try it with the white sandals and the little gold hoop earrings.” She rose to nudge Darcy toward the stairs. “Indulge me, won’t you, honey? I’ll order us up a well-deserved cold drink.”

  “All right.” Halfway up, she turned and looked back. “I had the best time. I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to buy that sports car, though. It’s so impractical.”

  “We’ll worry about that later.” Humming to herself, Serena walked away to order some lemonade.

  The child was starved for attention, she thought. It was so easy to see, and so easy to read between the lines when Darcy spoke of her childhood. She doubted anyone had ever taken her on a whirlwind shopping spree, or giggled with her over foolish lingerie, or told her how pretty she looked in a yellow dress.

  It made Serena’s heart ache to remember how stunned Darcy had looked when she’d laughed and hugged her as they’d debated over earrings. And the wistful glance she’d sent the bright blue sports car before she’d given her attention to the sober and practical sedan she said was more suitable.

  As far as Serena could tell there had been far too much suitable in Darcy’s young life, and not nearly enough fun.

  That, she determined, was going to change.

  When the phone rang, Darcy called from upstairs. “Oh, can you—I’m not—”

  “I’ll get it.” Serena picked up the phone. “Ms. Wallace’s suite.” Her eyes gleamed, her smile spread as she listened to the voice. “Yes, indeed, we’re back.”

  Her mind calculated at a speed and in a direction that would have made Daniel puff out with pride. “Why don’t we do that here? I’m sure she’d be more comfortable. Yes, now’s fine. See you in a minute.”

  Humming again, Serena strolled to the base of the stairs. “Need any help?”

  “No. There are so many boxes. I just found the dress.”

  “Take your time. That was Justin on the phone. You don’t mind if we do a little business, do you?”


  “Good. I’ll order up more drinks.” Champagne, she decided, considering.

  Ten minutes later, Darcy took the first turn on the steps just as the elevator opened. She froze where she was, staggered by the rich mix of male voices, the sudden rush of energy that poured out of the elevator along with them.

  Then she could only see Mac.

  Serena watched the way her son’s eyes locked on Darcy’s, the way they darkened, held. And she was sure.

  “There’s my girl.” Daniel grabbed his daughter in a fierce hug. “You don’t call your mother enough,” he scolded her. “She pines.”

  “I’ve been spending a lot of time nagging my children.” She kissed him lavishly on both cheeks, then turned to embrace her brother. “How are you? How’s Diana? How’re the kids?”

  “Everyone’s fine. Diana’s tying up a case and couldn’t get away. She’ll be sorry she missed you.”

  “Well now.” Daniel leaned on his cane and studied the woman who’d frozen like a statue on the stairs. “You’re just a wee lass, aren’t you? Come on down, and let’s have a better look at you.”

  “He rarely bites.” Mac crossed to the base of the steps, held out a hand.

  Her legs were wobbly, and she knew her fingers weren’t steady so she pretended not to see his hand. But he took hers anyway, giving it a reassuring squeeze that clutched at her heart.

  “Darcy Wallace, The MacGregor.”

  She was afraid she wouldn’t find her voice. He looked so big, and so fierce with white brows knitted together over sharp blue eyes. “I’m happy to meet you, Mr. MacGregor.”

  The scowl stayed in place another moment, then transformed into a smile so wide and so bright she blinked. “Pretty as a sunbeam.” He gave her cheek a gentle pat with his huge hand. “Tiny as an elf.”

  Her lips curved up in response. “It’s only that you’re so big. If William of Scotland had had more like you, he would have won.”

  Daniel let out his bark of a laugh, and winked at her. “Now, there’s a lass. Come sit and talk to me.”

  “You can interrogate her later. I’m Caine MacGregor.”

  She shifted her gaze to the tall man with silver and gold hair and strong blue eyes. “Yes, I know. I’m so nervous.” She clutched her hands together. How many legends could one person meet in one day? “I studied about you in school. Everyone thought you’d run for president.”

  “I leave the politics to Alan. I’m just a lawyer. Your lawyer,” he added, taking her arm and leading her to a chair at the glossy conference table. “Want me to clear this rabble out while we consult?”

  “Oh, no, please.” She scanned the faces around her, lingered on Mac’s. “Everyone here has a part in this.”

  “All right. It’s straightforward enough.” He sat and opened his briefcase. “I’ve got your birth certificate, your social security card, a copy of the police report from the purse snatching last week. You’re unlikely to recover anything from that.”

  She stared down at the papers he handed her. “It doesn’t matter. You got all of this so quickly.”

  “Connections,” he said with a wolfish grin. “I have copies of your last two years’ tax returns. There are some forms for you to fill out and sign. A number of them.”

  “All right.” She tried not to gape at the stack he began to produce. “Where do I start?”

  “I’ll explain them as we go along.” He glanced up, wiggling his brows at his family. “Haven’t you all got something better to do?”

  “No.” Daniel took a chair for himself. “Can’t a man get a drink around here while all this legal mumbo jumbo’s going on?”

  “I ordered drinks.” To distract him, Serena sat on the arm of his chair and began to tell him about her grandchild’s latest accomplishments.

  Listening carefully, Darcy filled out each form. She hesitated over the address, then wrote in the name of the hotel. When Caine didn’t correct her, she relaxed a little and continued to note down the required information.

  “Your identification’s in order,” Caine told her. “You’ll be able to reapply for a driver’s license, credit cards, that sort of thing. You didn’t indicate a bank.”

  “A bank?”

  “The transfer of funds will be done electronically, from account to account. The oversize check Mac will present you with is just for publicity. Photo op, and positive publicity for The Comanche. The actual business is accomplished quickly and efficiently by transferring the amount of your winnings from The Comanche’s account to yours. Do you want the money sent to your bank in Kansas?”

  “No.” She refused swiftly, then fell into

  “Where do you want it sent, Darcy?” Caine asked gently.

  “I don’t know. Maybe it could just stay in the same bank. Here?”

  “That’s not a problem. You’re aware that the IRS gets the first bite.”

  She nodded, signing her name to the last form. Under her lashes, she watched Mac go to the door to let in the room-service waiter.

  Mac wore black trousers and a white shirt. Both looked soft, almost fluid, and she wondered about the texture, wished she could run her fingertips over them. Over him.

  “You’re going to need financial advice.”

  “What?” Flushing, berating herself for not paying attention, she looked over at Caine. “I’m sorry.”

  “Tomorrow morning, you’re going to have a great deal of money. You’ll need a financial advisor.”

  “You can’t do that?”

  “I can give you some basic and initial guidance. After that, you’re going to want someone who specializes. I can give you some names.”

  “I’d appreciate it.”

  “That’s pretty much it.” He leaned back. “We’ll open you an account, the money will be transferred. And you’re set.”

  “Just like that?”

  “Just like that.”

  “Oh.” She pressed a hand to her suddenly jittery stomach. “God.” Once again she searched out Mac’s face, hoping he’d tell her what to do, what to say. But he only watched her, his eyes steady and unreadable.

  With an impatient huff for her son, Serena rose. “I’d say this calls for a celebration. Mac, darling, open the champagne. Darcy, you get the first glass.”

  “It’s so nice of you, all of you, but—” She jolted when the cork popped.

  “I’ve never lost a million to anyone more appealing.” Justin took the glass from his son and carried it to Darcy. “Enjoy it.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek.

  Warmth spread in her stomach, pressure weighed on her chest. “Thank you.”

  “Congratulations.” Caine took her hand, covered it with both of his.

  Then everyone was lifting glasses, and talking. She was hugged, kissed by everyone, with the notable exception of Mac. He only lifted a hand to her cheek, skimmed a finger down it.

  There was laughing, and arguments over the time and place for a family dinner, which, she realized with shock, included her. Serena draped an arm casually around her shoulder while telling Caine he was an idiot if he thought she’d settle for pizza for such an occasion.

  Emotions were clawing at her, rising up to squeeze her heart, to close her throat and burn her eyes. She heard her own breath begin to hitch and clamped down hard.

  “Excuse me.” She managed to mumble it before turning quickly for the stairs. Horribly aware the laughter had stopped, she rushed up, closed herself in the bathroom. She held on, carefully turning the water on full in the sink so the sound would cover her sobs.

  She sat on the floor, curled up into herself and wept like a baby.

  Chapter 6

  The suite was quiet when Darcy came out again. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or mortified to realize they’d left her alone. She would have to fumble her way through apologies and explanations, she told herself. But for now she could settle her nerves and emotions.

  She glanced around the bedroom, scanning the shopping bags, the boxes. The right thing to do, she told herself, was to put everything away, to tidy up, to put at least this part of her life in order.

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