"Hi" Shelby stifled a yawn as she rounded the last bend in the stairs and caught sight of Serena. "Hi."
"It looks like you and I are the only ones not already involved with some disgustingly productive activity this morning. Had breakfast?"
"Uh-uh." Shelby dropped her hand to her stomach. "I'm starving."
"Good. We usually eat breakfast in a room off the kitchen, as all of us have different hours. Caine," Serena continued as they started down the hall, "is always up at the crack of dawn a habit I always wanted to strangle him for as a child. Alan and my parents are hardly better. Diana considers 8:00 A.M. late enough for anyone, and Justin runs on a clock I've yet to understand. Anyway, I've got this for an excuse now." She patted her well-rounded stomach.
Shelby grinned. "I don't use any."
"More power to you."
Serena swept into a sun-filled breakfast room that would have been considered large and formal by anything but Daniel MacGregor's standards. Rich royal-blue drapes were tied back from high windows with thick tassels. The carpet was Aubusson in faded blues and golds.
"I can't get over this place." Shelby wandered to a Chippendale server to study a collection of New England pewter.
"Neither can I," Serena said with a laugh. "How do you feel about waffles?" Shelby grinned over her shoulders. "I have very warm, friendly feelings about waffles."
"I knew I liked you," Serena said with a nod. "Be right back." She disappeared through a side door.
Alone, Shelby wandered, studying a muted French landscape, sniffing fresh flowers in a crystal basket. It would take her all weekend to see every room, she decided. And a lifetime to really appreciate everything in them. Yet she felt at home here, she realized while she stared out the window overlooking the south lawn. She was as comfortable with Alan's family as she was with her own. It should all be so simple for them to love, to marry, to have children … were only so simple for them.
Straightening, she turned to see Serena quietly studying her. "I've brought in some coffee," she said after a brief hesitation. She hadn't expected to see those candid gray eyes troubled. "The waffles'll be along in a minute."
"Thanks." Shelby took a seat at the table while Serena poured. "Alan tells me you run a casino in Atlantic City."
"Yes. Justin and I are partners there, and in several other hotels. The rest," she added as she lifted her cup, "he owns alone…
Shelby grinned, liking her. "You'll convince him he needs a partner in the others as well."
"One at a time. I've learned how to handle him rather well the last year or so especially since he lost the bet and had to marry me."
"You're going to have to clear that one up."
"He's a gambler. So am I. We settled on a flip of a coin." She smiled, remembering.
"Heads I win, tails you lose."
Laughing, Shelby set down her cup. "Your coin, I take it."
"You bet your life. Of course he knew, but in all this time, I've never let him see that quarter." In an unconscious gesture, she rested a hand on her stomach. "Keeps him on his toes."
"He's crazy about you," Shelby murmured. "You can see it in the way he looks at you when you walk into a room."
"We've been through a lot, Justin and I." She lapsed into silence a moment, thinking back over the first stormy months after they met, the love that grew despite them, and the fear of making that final commitment. "Caine and Diana too," she went on. "Justin and Diana had a difficult childhood. That made it hard for them to give themselves to a relationship.
Strange, I think I loved Justin almost from the start, though I didn't realize it. It was the same for Caine with Diana." She paused, with her warm, candid eyes on Shelby's.
"You MacGregors know your minds quickly."
"I wondered if Alan would ever love anyone, until I saw him with you." She reached across the table to touch Shelby's hand. "I was so glad when I saw you weren't the kind of woman I'd been afraid he'd fall for."
"What kind was that?" Shelby asked with a half-smile.
"Cool, smooth, a sleek blonde perhaps with soft hands and impeccably boring manners." Her eyes lit with humor. "Someone I couldn't bear to have coffee with in the morning."
Though Shelby laughed, she shook her head as she sipped again. "She sounds like someone very suited for Senator Alan MacGregor to me."
"Suited to the title," Serena countered, "not the man. And the man's my brother. He tends to be too serious at times, to work too hard to care too much. He needs someone to help him remember to relax and to laugh."
"I wish that were all he needed," Shelby said quietly. Seeing the trouble shadow Shelby's eyes again, Serena felt an instant flood of sympathy. With difficulty, she harnessed it, knowing sympathy too often led to interference.
"Shelby, I'm not prying well, maybe just a bit. I really just wanted you to know how I felt. I love Alan very much."
Shelby stared into her empty cup before lifting her gaze to Serena's. "So do I." Serena sat back, wishing she could say something wise. "It's never just that easy, is it?" Shelby shook her head again. "No, no, it's not."
"So, you decided to get up after all." Alan broke the silence as he came through the doorway. Though he noticed something pass between Shelby and his sister, he didn't comment.
"It's barely ten," Shelby stated, tilting back her head for the kiss. "Have you eaten?"
"Hours ago. Any more coffee?"
"Plenty," Serena told him. "Just get a cup from the buffet. Have you seen Justin?"
"Upstairs with Dad."
"Ah, plotting some new brilliant financial scheme."
"Stud poker," Alan corrected as he poured coffee. "Dad's down about five hundred."
"Down about three."
Serena tried to look disapproving and failed. "I don't know what to do about Justin continuing to fleece my family. How much did you lose?"
Alan shrugged and sipped. "About one seventy-five." Catching Shelby's eye, he grinned.
"I only play with Justin for diplomatic reasons." As she continued to stare he leaned back against the buffet. "And, dammit, one day I'm going to beat him."
"I don't believe gambling's legal in this state," Shelby mused, glancing over as the waffles were brought in. "I imagine the fine's rather hefty." Ignoring her, Alan eyed her plate. "Are you going to eat all those?"
"Yes." Shelby picked up the syrup and used it generously. "Since men's-only clubs are archaic, chauvinistic, and unconstitutional, I suppose I could sit in on a game." Alan watched the waffles disappear. "None of us has ever considered money has a gender." He twirled one of her curls around his finger. "Are you prepared to lose?" Shelby smiled as she slipped the fork between her lips. "I don't make a habit of it."
"I believe I'll watch for a bit," Serena considered. "Where are Mom and Diana?"
"In the gardens," Alan told her. "Diana wanted a few tips for the house she and Caine just bought."
"That should give us an hour or two," Serena said with a nod as she rose.
"Doesn't your mother approve of cards?"
"My father's cigars," Serena corrected as they left the room. "He hides them from her or she lets him think he does."
Remembering Anna's calmly, observant eyes, Shelby decided it was probably the latter. Anna, like Alan, would miss little.
As they started up the tower steps Daniel's voice boomed down to them. "Damn your eyes, Justin Blade; you've the luck of the devil."
"Sore losers, those MacGregors," Shelby sighed, sliding her gaze to Alan's.
"We'll see if the Campbells can do any better. New blood," Alan announced from the doorway.
Smoke hung in the air, the rich, fragrant sting of expensive tobacco. They were using Daniel's huge old desk as a table, with chairs pulled up to it. The three men looked over as Shelby and Serena walked in.
"I don't like taking my wife's money," Justin commented, sending her a grin as he clamped a cigar between his teeth.
"You won't have the opportunity of trying." Serena lowered herself to the arm of his chair with a quiet sigh. "Shelby'd like a game or two."
"A Campbell!" Daniel rubbed his hands together. "Aye then, we'll see how the wind blows now. Have a chair, lass. Three raise, ten-dollar limit, jacks or better to open."
"If you think you're going to make up your losses on me, MacGregor," Shelby said mildly as she took her seat, "you're mistaken."
Daniel made a sound of appreciation. "Deal the cards, boy," he ordered Caine. "Deal the cards."
It took less than ten minutes for Shelby to discover that Justin Blade was the best she'd ever come across. And she'd sat at her share of tables elegant and not so elegant.
Daniel played defiantly, Caine with a combination of impulse and skill, but Justin simply played. And won. Because she knew she was up against a more clever gambler than she, Shelby fell back on what she considered her best asset. Blind luck. Standing idly behind her, Alan watched her discard two hearts, choosing to draw for an inside straight. With a shake of his head, he walked over to the table in the corner to pour himself yet another cup of coffee.
He liked the way she looked, nearly elbow-to-elbow with his father, their fiery heads bent a bit as they studied their cards. It was strange how easily she had slipped into his life, making a quiet splash that promised endless, fascinating ripples. She fit here, in the odd tower room, playing poker with smoke clogging the air and coffee growing cold and bitter in the cups. And she would fit in an elegant Washington function in a room that shone with light and glitter, sipping champagne from a tulip glass. She fit in his arms at night the way no woman ever had, or would, fit again. Alan needed her in his life as much as he needed food, water, and air.
"A pair of aces," Daniel said with a fierce look in his eye. Justin set his cards down quietly and faceup. "Two pair. Jacks and sevens." He sat back as Caine swore in disgust.
"You son of " In frustration, Daniel broke off, shifting his eyes from his daughter to Shelby. "The devil take you, Justin Blade."
"You're sending him off prematurely," Shelby commented, spreading her cards. "A straight, from the five to the nine."
Alan walked over to look at her cards. "I'll be damned, she drew the six and seven."
"No one but a bloody witch draws an inside straight," Daniel boomed, glaring at her.
"Or a bloody Campbell," Shelby said easily.
His eyes narrowed. "Deal the cards."
Justin grinned at her as Shelby scooped in chips. "Welcome aboard," he said quietly and began to shuffle.
They played for an hour, with Shelby sticking to a system of illogic that kept her head above water. Normally she wouldn't have labeled a twenty-five-dollar take impressive, but considering her competition, she was well pleased. Whether they would have played into the afternoon became, academic the minute Daniel heard his wife's voice drifting up the stairs. Immediately he stubbed out the better part of a seven-dollar cigar, then shoved it and an ashtray under his desk.
"I'll raise you five," he said, leaning on his desk again.
"You haven't opened yet," Shelby reminded him sweetly. Plucking a peppermint from the bowl on his desk, she popped it into his mouth. "Gotta cover all your tracks, MacGregor."
Daniel grinned and tousled her hair. "A good lass, Campbell or not."
"We should have known they'd be busy losing their money to Justin," Anna stated as she stepped inside the room with Diana beside her.
"Lost a trick to the new kid on the block too." Caine held out a hand for his wife's.
"About time Justin had some competition." Hooking her arms around Caine's neck, Diana rested her chin on the top of his head. "Anna and I were thinking about a swim before lunch. Anyone interested?"
"Fine idea." Daniel eased the ashtray a bit further under his desk with his foot. "Do you swim, girl?"
"Yes." Shelby set down her cards. "But I didn't bring a suit."
"There's a closetful in the bathhouse," Serena told her. "You won't have any trouble finding one to fit."
"Really?" She shot Alan a look. "Isn't that handy? A closetful of suits." He gave her an easy smile. "Didn't I mention it? A swim sounds good," he added as he dropped his hands to her shoulders. "I've never seen Shelby in a bathing suit. Twenty minutes later Alan found himself in the relaxing heat of the sauna. Instead of Shelby, he was joined by his brother and Justin. Leaning back, letting his muscles relax, he remembered the damp, soft sheen on her skin and the flush of pink that had covered her when he'd held her.
"I like your taste," Caine commented and rested his shoulders against the side wall.
"Even though it surprised me."
Alan opened his eyes enough to bring Caine into focus. "Did it?"
"Your Shelby isn't anything like the classy blonde with the, uh, interesting body you were dating a few months ago." Caine brought up one knee to settle more comfortably.
"She wouldn't have lasted five minutes with Dad."
"Shelby isn't like anyone."
"I have to respect someone who draws to an inside straight." Justin added stretching out on his back on the bench above Alan. "Serena tells me she suits you."
"It's always nice to have family approval," Alan said dryly. Justin only laughed and pillowed his head on his folded arms. "You MacGregors have a habit of interfering in this sort of thing."
"He speaks, of course, from personal experience." Caine pushed damp hair from his forehead. "At the moment, I'm rather enjoying the old man's preoccupation with Alan. It takes the heat off Diana and me."
"You'd think he'd be too involved with Rena and his expected grandchild to put energy into anything else." Alan rested his arms on the upper bench and let the sweat roll off him.
"Hell, he's not going to be satisfied until he's knee-deep in little MacGregors and/or Blades." Caine grinned. "Actually I've been giving it some thought myself."
"Thinking about it isn't going to produce another Comanche-Scotsman," Justin said lazily.
"Diana and I thought we'd test the waters with our niece or nephew first."
"How does it feel to have fatherhood looming before you, Justin?" Alan asked him. Justin stared up at the wooden ceiling remembering what it was like to feel life move under his hand, inside the woman he loved. Thrilling. He could see how Serena looked, naked, swollen with his child. Beautiful. He knew how he felt sometimes in the early hours of dawn when she was warm and asleep beside him…
"Terrified," he murmured. "Scares the hell out of me. Babies add a multitude of 'What ifs' to your life. The more I want it, the closer it comes, the more scared I am." He managed to shrug from his prone position. "And the more I want to see just what that part of me and Serena is going to look like."
"Strong stock," Caine stated. "Good blood."
Justin gave a quiet chuckle and closed his eyes.
"Apparently Daniel's decided to feel the same way about Campbells. Are you going to marry her, Alan?"
"Here, in the fall."
"Dammit, why didn't you say so?" Caine demanded. "Dad would've had an excuse to dip into that vintage champagne he hoards."
"Shelby doesn't know it yet," Alan said easily. "I thought it wiser to tell her first."
" Hmm. She doesn't strike me as a woman who takes to being told."
"Very observant," Alan told Justin. "But then, I've tried asking. Sooner or later I might have to change my tactics."
Caine's brows drew together. "She said no?"
Alan opened his eyes again. "God, there're times you look just like him. She didn't say no or yes. Shelby's father was Senator Robert Campbell."
"Robert Campbell," Caine repeated quietly. "Oh, I see. She'd have an understandably difficult time with your profession. Her father was campaigning in the presidential primaries when he was assassinated, wasn't he?"
"Yes." Alan read the unspoken question in his brother's eyes. "And yes, I intend to run when the time's right." It was the first time, he realized, that he'd said it out loud. Eight years wasn't so very long to prepare for such a long hard road. He let out a long quiet breath. "It's something else Shelby and I have to discuss."
"You were born for it, Alan," Justin said simply. "It isn't something you can turn your back on."
"No, but I need her. If it came down to making a choice
"You'd take Shelby," Caine finished, understanding perfectly what it meant to find one love, one woman. "But I wonder if either of you could live with it." Alan remained silent a moment, then closed his eyes again. "I don't know." A choice, one way or the other, would split him neatly in two.
On the Wednesday following her weekend in Hyannis Port, Shelby received her first Daniel MacGregor phone call. Holding Auntie Em's water dish in one hand, she picked up the receiver with the other.
"Yes." Her lips curved. No one else boomed at you in quite that way. "Hello, Daniel."
"You've closed down shop for the day?"
"I toss clay on Wednesdays," she told him as she caught the receiver between her ear and shoulder and replaced the bird's water dish. "But yes, I've closed down. How are you?"
"Fine, fine, lass. I'm going to make it a point to take a look at that shop of yours the next time I'm in Washington."
"Good." She dropped to the arm of a chair. "And you'll buy something." Daniel gave a wheezy chuckle. "That I might, if you're as clever with your hands as you are with your tongue. The family plans to spend the Fourth of July weekend at the Comanche in Atlantic City," Daniel stated abruptly. "I wanted to extend the invitation to you myself."
The Fourth of July, Shelby mused. Fireworks, hot dogs, and beer. It was less than a month away how had time gone so quickly? She wanted to picture herself standing on the beach with Alan, watching colors explode in the sky. And yet … future, was something she still couldn't see. "I appreciate it, Daniel. I'd love to come." That much was true, Shelby told herself. Whether she would or not was another matter.
"You're right for my son," Daniel told her, shrewd enough to have caught her brief hesitation. "Never thought I'd hear myself say that about a Campbell, but I'm saying it. You're strong and bright. And you know how to laugh. You've good Scottish blood in you, Shelby Campbell. I'll see it in my grandchildren."
She did laugh, because her eyes had filled too abruptly for her to stop the tears. "You're a pirate, Daniel MacGregor, and a schemer."
"Aye. I'll see you at the Comanche."
When she hung up, Shelby pressed her fingers to her eyes. She wasn't going to fall apart over a few bluff words. She'd known from the first morning she'd woken in Alan's arms that she was only postponing the inevitable. Right for him? Daniel said she was right for him, but perhaps he only saw the surface. He didn't know what she was holding inside her. Not even Alan knew how deep-seated the fear was, how real and alive it had remained all these years.
If she allowed herself, she could still hear those three quick explosions that had been bullets. And she could see, if she let herself see, the surprised jerk of her father's body, the way he had fallen to the ground almost at her feet. People shouting, rushing, crying. Her father's blood on the skirt of her dress. Someone had pushed her aside to get to him. Shelby had sat on the floor, alone. It had been for perhaps no more than thirty seconds: it had been a lifetime.
She hadn't needed to be told her father was dead she'd seen the life spill out of him.
She'd felt it spill out of herself.
Never again, Shelby thought on a shaky breath. She would never could never die so painfully again.
The knock on the door had to be Alan. Shelby gave herself an extra minute to be certain the tears were under control. Taking a last deep breath, she went to answer the door.
"Well, MacGregor. No food," she commented with an arched brow. "Too bad."
"I thought his might make up for it." He held out a single rose whose petals were the color of her hair. A traditional gift, she thought, trying to take it casually. But nothing he gave her would ever be taken casually. As her fingers closed around the stem she knew it was a token. A traditional, serious-minded man was offering her a very serious part of himself.
"One rose is supposed to be more romantic than dozens," she said easily enough. Then the tears backed up behind her eyes. It was. "Thank you." She threw her arms around him, pressing her mouth to his with force and a hint of desperation. It was the desperation that had Alan holding her gently, one hand stroking her wild tangle of hair as his lips soothed hers.
"I love you," she whispered, burying her face against his neck until she was certain her eyes were dry.
Alan slipped a hand under her chin to lift it, then studied her. "What's wrong, Shelby?"
"Nothing," she said too quickly. "I get sentimental when someone brings me a present." The quiet intensity in his eyes didn't change; the churning emotion inside her didn't ease.
"Make love to me, Alan." She pressed her cheek against his. "Come to bed with me now."
He wanted her. She could make his desire springboard from easy to urgent with a look, but he knew it wasn't the answer either of them needed then. "Let's sit down. It's time we talked."
"No, I "Shelby." He took her by the shoulders. "It's time." Her breath came out in a jerk. He'd given her all the room he would give her. She'd known he'd draw the line sooner or later. With a nod, she walked to the couch, still clutching the rose. "Would you like a drink?"
"No." With a hand on her shoulder again, he eased her down, then sat beside her. "I love you," he said simply. "You know that and that I want you to marry me. We haven't known each other for long," he continued when Shelby remained silent. "If you were a different kind of woman, I might be persuaded that you needed time to be certain of your feelings for me. But you're not a different kind of woman."
"You know I love you, Alan," she interrupted. "You're going to be logical, and I
"Shelby." He could stop an impassioned speech with a whisper. "I know you have a problem with my profession. I understand it, maybe only in a limited way, but I do understand it. It's something you and I have to work out from this point on." He took her hands and felt the tension. "We'll deal with it, Shelby, in whatever way we have to." She still didn't speak but stared at him as if she already knew what he would say. "I think I should tell you now that I've been approached by a few key members of the party and that I'm seriously considering running for president. It won't be for nearly a decade, but the nuts and bolts of it have already started."
She'd known it of course she'd known it but hearing it out loud had the muscles in her stomach contracting like a fist. Feeling the pressure building in her lungs, she let out a long slow breath. "If you're asking my opinion," she managed in a calm voice, "you shouldn't consider it, you should do it. It's something you were meant to do, Alan, something you were meant to be." The words, even as she said them, knew them for the truth, tore at her.
"I know with you, it's not simply a matter of power and ambition. You'd see the hardships as well, the strain, the impossible responsibility." Shelby rose, knowing if she sat still a moment longer, she'd explode. Quickly she set the rose down. Too quickly. The stem nearly snapped between her fingers. "There is such a thing as destiny," she murmured.
"Perhaps." He watched as she paced the room, running her hand over the back of a pillow she snatched from the couch. "You're aware that it's more than just putting my name on the ballot. When the time comes, it'll mean long hard campaigning. I need you with me, Shelby."
She stopped a moment, her back to him, to squeeze her eyes tight. Fighting for composure, she turned around. "I can't marry you, Alan." Something flashed in his eyes fury or pain, she couldn't be sure but his voice was calm when he spoke. "Why?"
Her throat was so dry, she wasn't certain she could answer. With an effort, she swallowed. "You're fond of logic; be logical. I'm not a political hostess; I'm not a diplomat or an organizer. That's what you need."
"I want a wife," Alan returned evenly. "Not a staff."
"Dammit, Alan, I'd be useless. Worse than useless." With a sound of frustration, she began to pace again. "If I tried to fit the mold, I'd go mad. I haven't the patience for beauty shops and secretaries and being tactful twenty-four hours a day. How could I be First Lady when I'm not even a lady half the time?" she tossed out. "And damn you, you'll win. I'd find myself in the White House stifled by elegance and protocol." He waited as her ragged breathing filled the room. "Are you saying you'd marry me if I chose not to run?"
She whirled around, eyes brilliant and tormented. "Don't do that to me. You'd hate me…
I'd hate myself. It can't be a choice between what you are and me, Alan."
"But a choice between what you are and me," he countered. The anger he'd strapped in broke free. "You can make a choice." He sprang up from the couch to grab both of her arms. Fury poured out of him, overwhelming her. She'd known it would be deadly, she'd seen hints of it, but she had no defense. "You can choose to push me out of your life with a simple no, expect me to accept it knowing you love me. What the hell do you think I'm made of?"
"It's not a choice," she said passionately. "I can't do anything else. I'd be no good for you, Alan; you have to see that."
He shook her with enough violence to snap her head back. "Don't lie to me, and don't make excuses. If you're going to turn your back on me, do it with the truth." She crumbled so quickly, she would have slid to the floor if he hadn't been holding her.
"I can't handle it." Tears streamed down her face, huge, fast, painful. "I can't go through it all again, Alan, waiting, just waiting for someone to
" On a sob, she covered her face with her hands. "Oh, God, please, I can't stand it. I didn't want to love you like this; I didn't want you to matter so much that everything could be taken from me again. I can see it happening all over again. All those people pressing close, all those faces and the noise. I watched someone I love die in front of my eyes once. I can't again; I can't!" Alan held her close, wanting to soothe, needing to reassure. What words could he use to penetrate this kind of fear, this kind of grief? There was no place for logic here, no place to be calm and rationalize. If it was her love that made her so deadly afraid, how could he ask her to change it?
"Shelby, don't. I won't
"No!" She cut him off, struggling out of his hold. "Don't say it. Don't! Please, Alan, I can't bear it.
You have to be what you are, and so do I. If we tried to change, we wouldn't be the same people each of us fell in love with."
"I'm not asking for you to change," he said evenly as his patience began to strain again.
"I'm only asking for you to have faith in me."
"You're asking too much! Please, please just leave me alone." Before he could speak, she dashed into the bedroom and slammed the door.