It turned out to be busy for a Monday morning. By eleven, Shelby had sold several pieces, including three that she had taken out of the kiln only the evening before. Between customers, she sat behind the counter wiring a lamp she had made in the shape of a Greek amphora. To have simply sat during the idle time would have been impossible for her. To have dusted or fiddled with the displays would have bored her to distraction. She left such things to Kyle, to their mutual satisfaction. Because it was warm, she kept the door of the shop open. It was, Shelby knew, more tempting to stroll through an open door than to open a closed one. Spring came in, along with the unique sound of cars riding over cobblestone. She had a steady stream of browsers who bought nothing. Shelby didn't mind. They were, company as much as potential buyers. The woman carrying the manicured poodle in a hand-knit sweater was an interesting diversion. The restless teenager who came in to poke around gave her a chance to touch on the problems of youth and unemployment. Shelby hired him to wash the windows. While she wired, the boy stood on the street side running a squeegee over the glass while a portable radio bounced out tunes at his feet. She enjoyed the sound as it mixed with the occasional snatches of conversations from passersby. Did you see the price of that dress?
If he doesn't call me tonight, I'm going to… -Hitler Germany.
Idly she finished the conversations in her head as she worked. Shelby was threading the wire up the inside of the lamp when Myra Ditmeyer sauntered in. She wore a breezy vermilion suit that matched the shade of her lipstick. The powerful punch of her scent filled the little shop.
"Well, Shelby, always keeping those clever hands busy." With a smile of pure pleasure, Shelby leaned over the counter to kiss Myra's powdered cheek. If you want some acerbic gossip or just plain fun, there was no one, in Shelby's opinion, better than Myra. "I thought you'd be home planning all the wonderful things you're going to feed me tonight."
"Oh, my dear, that's all seen to." Myra set down her alligator bag. "The cook's in a creative spin even as we speak."
"I've always loved eating at your house." Shelby pulled the wire through the top of the lamp. "None of those stingy little meals or inedible sauces disguised as exotic." Absently she tapped her foot to the beat of the radio. "You did say Mama was coming."
"Yes, with Ambassador Dilleneau."
"Oh, yeah the Frenchman with the big ears."
"Is that any way to talk about a diplomat?"
"She's been seeing him quite a bit," Shelby said casually. "I've wondered if I'm going to have a Gallic steppapa."
"You could do worse," Myra pointed out.
"Mmm. So, tell me, Myra cord with a few … deft turns. "Who've you set up for me tonight?"
"Set up," Myra repeated, wrinkling her nose. "What an unromantic phrase."
"Sorry. How about who are you planning to loose Cupid's arrows on?"
"It's still unromantic when you're smirking." Myra watched Shelby screw in a light bulb.
"In any case, I think you should be surprised. You've always been fond of surprises."
"I like giving better than getting."
"How well I know. How old were you? Eight, as I recall, when you and Grant… surprised a small, rather influential gathering in your mother's parlor with uncomfortably accurate caricatures of the Cabinet."
"It was Grant's idea," Shelby said, with a lingering twinge of regret that she hadn't thought of it first. "Papa laughed about it for days."
"He had a unique sense of humor."
"As I recall you offered Grant two thousand for the one of the Secretary of State."
"And the scoundrel wouldn't sell it to me. Good God," she mused. "What it would be worth now?"
"It would depend what name he signed to it, wouldn't it?"
"How is Grant? I haven't seen him since Christmas."
"The same brilliant, grumpy." A laugh stole through the words. "Guarding his lighthouse fortress and his anonymity. I think I might sneak up there and bother him for a couple of weeks this summer."
"Such a gorgeous young man," Myra mused. "What a waste for him to seclude himself on that little bit of coast."
"It's what he wants," Shelby said simply. "For now."
Both women looked toward the door where a young man stood in a crisp messenger's uniform. Shelby glanced at the basket over his arm. "Can I help you?"
"Miss Shelby Campbell?"
"Yes, I'm Shelby."
He shifted the basket he carried from his arm to his hand as he walked to her. "Delivery for you, Miss Campbell."
"Thanks." Automatically, she reached into the cash drawer for a dollar. "Who's it from?"
"Card's inside," he told her, pocketing the bill. "Enjoy." She played the game. Shelby had been known to study and poke at a package on Christmas morning for twenty minutes before ripping off the paper. There were such possibilities in the unknown. She tilted the package from side to side, peered at it, then cupped her chin on both hands and stared at it.
"Oh, come on, Shelby!" Myra shifted her weight from foot to foot with impatience.
"Lift off the cover; I'm dying to see."
"In a minute," Shelby murmured. "It might be a picnic. Who'd send me a picnic? Or a puppy." She bent her ear close and listened. "Too quiet for a puppy. And it smells like d held it. "That's funny, who'd … send me " She opened the lid. "Strawberries."
The basket was rich with them plump and moistly red. Their scent drifted up with memories of the sun-warmed field they'd been plucked from. Shelby lifted one and held it under her nose, savoring.
"Wonderful," she decided. "Really, really wonderful. Myra plucked one out and bit it neatly in half. " Mmm." She popped the rest into her mouth. "Aren't you going to read the card?"
Still holding the berry, Shelby lifted out the plain white envelope, balancing it in her palm as if testing the weight. She turned it over, held it up to the light then turned it back to the front. "Shelby!"
"Oh, all right." She ripped open the seal and drew out the card. Shelby,
They made me think of you.
Alan Watching her carefully, Myra saw the surprise, the pleasure, and something that wasn't regret or wariness but had aspects of both.
"Anyone I know?" she said dryly when Shelby didn't speak.
"What?" She looked up blankly, then shook her head. "Yes, I suppose you do." But she slipped the card back into the envelope without saying. "Myra." The name was on a long drawn-out sigh. "I think I'm in trouble."
"Good." She gave Shelby a smug smile and a nod. "It's about time you were. Would you like me to drive my cook crazy and add another name to my list for dinner tonight?" Oh, it was tempting. Shelby nearly agreed before she stopped herself. "No. No, I don't think it would be wise."
"Only the young think they know anything about wisdom," Myra stated with a sniff.
"Very well, then; I'll see you at seven." She chose another berry before she picked up her purse. "Oh, and Shelby, pack up that lamp and bring it along. Just put it on my account."
She'd have to call him, Shelby told herself when she was alone. Dammit, she'd have to call and thank him. She bit into a berry so that the juice and sweetness exploded inside her mouth a sensual taste, part sun, part earth. And she remembered how Alan's taste had exploded inside her mouth.
Why hadn't he sent her something ordinary like flowers? Flowers she could have passed off and for gotten. She looked down into the basket, filled with berries brilliantly red and begging to be tasted. How did you deal with a man who sent you a basket of strawberries on a spring morning?
He'd known it, of course, she decided abruptly. A man like him would be a quick and clever judge of people. She felt simultaneous twinges of annoyance and admiration. She didn't like to be read so easily but
Leaving the lid open, Shelby reached for the phone.
Alan calculated he had between fifteen and twenty minutes before the Senate was called back to the floor. He'd use the time to review the proposed budget cuts. A deficit that edged uncomfortably close to two-hundred billion had to be trimmed, but Alan viewed the proposed cuts in education as unacceptable. Congress had already partially rejected the sought-after domestic spending cuts, and he felt he had enough support to influence a modification on the education snipping.
There was more on his mind than deficits and budgets, however. Though it was the spring following an election year, Alan had been approached by the Senate Majority Leader. He'd been carefully felt out by an expert at saying nothing while hardly pausing for breath. It didn't take magic for Alan to conclude that he was being considered as the party's hope for the next decade. But did he want the top rung?
He'd thought about it he wasn't a fool or without ambition. Still, he had believed if he ever decided to take a grab at the presidential brass ring, it would be in another fifteen, perhaps twenty years. The possibility of making his move sooner, at his party's urging, was something he would have to weigh carefully. Nevertheless, as far as Alan's father was concerned, there had never been any question that his eldest son would run for president and win. Daniel MacGregor liked to think he still held the strings guiding his offsprings' lives. Sometimes they gave him the gift of his illusions. Alan could still remember his sister's announcement of her pregnancy that past winter. Daniel's attention was centered on that and the marriage of their brother, Caine, so that the pressure had lifted from Alan. For now, he thought wryly. It shouldn't be long before he got one of his father's famous phone calls.
Your mother misses you. She worries about you. When are you going to take the time to come visit? Why aren't you married yet? Your sister can't carry on the line by herself, you know.
That might be simplifying it, Alan thought with a grin. But that would be the essence of the call. Strange, he'd always been able to shrug off his father's views on marriage and children. But now
Why was it a woman he'd met only a few days before made him think of marriage?
People didn't bind themselves willingly to someone they didn't know. She wasn't even the type of woman who'd appealed to him in the past. She wasn't sleek and cool. She wouldn't be undemanding, or make a comfortable hostess for elegant state dinners. She wouldn't be gracious, and she'd be anything but tactful. And, Alan added with a glimmer of a smile, she wouldn't even have dinner with him.
A challenge. She would be a challenge and he'd always enjoyed working his way through one. But that wasn't why. A mystery. She was a mystery and he'd always liked solving them, step by step. But that wasn't why. She had the verve of the very young, the skill of an artist and the flash of a rebel. She had passion that boiled rather than simmered and eyes as quiet as a foggy evening. She had a child's mouth and a woman's allure and a mind that would never adhere to the logical one-step-at-a-time structure of his own. The chemistry between them was almost absurdly wrong. And yet
And yet, at thirty-five, Alan suddenly believed there was such a phenomenon as love at first sight. So, he would wage his patience and tenacity against her flash and energy and see who won in the end. If indeed there could ever be a winner between oil and water. . The phone rang beside him. Alan let it go until he remembered his secretary wasn't in the outer office. Mildly annoyed, he pushed the blinking button and answered. " Senator MacGregor."
His lips curved as he leaned back in his chair. "You're welcome. How do they taste?" Shelby brought a berry to her mouth for a nibble. "Fantastic. My shop smells like a strawberry patch. Dammit, Alan," she said with an exasperated sigh. "Strawberries are an unfair tactic. You're supposed to fight with orchids or diamonds. I could have coped very nicely with a big tacky diamond or five-dozen African orchids." He tapped the pen he'd been using on the stack of papers on his desk. "I'll be certain not to give you either. When are you going to see me, Shelby?"
She was silent for a moment, torn, tempted. Ridiculous, she thought, shaking her head. Just because he had a bit of whimsy under the political protocol was no reason to toss aside a lifelong belief. "Alan, it simply wouldn't work. I'm saving us both a lot of trouble by saying no."
"You don't strike me as the type to avoid trouble."
"Maybe not I'm making an exception in your case. Years from now, when you have ten grandchildren and bursitis, you'll thank me."
"Do I have to wait that long for you to have dinner with me?" She laughed, cursing him at the same time. "I really like you." He heard another quick sound of frustration. "Dammit, Alan, don't be charming anymore. We'll both end up on thin ice. I just can't take it breaking under me again."
He started to speak, then heard the signal the buzzers and lights that warned of a quorum call. "Shelby, I have to go. We're going to talk about this some more."
"No." Her voice was firm now as she cursed herself for saying more than she had intended. "I hate repeating myself. It's boring. Just consider that I've done you a favor. Good-bye, Alan."
She hung up, then slammed the lid closed on the strawberries. Oh, God, she asked herself, how had he managed to get to her so quickly?
While she dressed for Myra's dinner party, Shelby listened to an old Bogart film. She listened only because the television had lost its shaky grip on the horizontal hold two weeks before. Currently she was amused by the situation. It was like having a large, rather ostentatious radio that took a great deal more imagination than a full-color twenty-inch screen.
While Bogey spoke in his weary, tough-guy voice, she slipped her narrow beaded vest over her frilled lace shirt.
Shelby had shoved aside her uncertain mood of the afternoon. She had always believed if you simply refused to admit you were upset or to acknowledge depression, you wouldn't be upset or depressed. In any case, she was sure that now that she had made herself crystal-clear and had refused Alan MacGregor for the third time, he would get the picture.
If she regretted the fact that there would be no more baskets of strawberries or surprises, she told herself she didn't. No one could make Shelby believe that something that she said was untrue was really more true than Shelby would admit to herself. She stepped into a pair of foolish evening shoes that had more heel than leather as she dropped a few essentials into her bag keys, a well-used lipstick and a half-roll of Life Savers.
"Are you staying in tonight, Moshe?" she asked as she passed by the cat who lounged on her bed. When he only opened his eye in acknowledgment, she breezed out of the room. "Okay, don't wait up." Shelby dropped her purse on top of the box that held Myra's lamp and prepared to lift both when someone knocked on the door. "You expecting someone?" she asked Auntie Em. The bird merely fluttered her wings, unconcerned. Hefting the box, Shelby went to answer.
Pleasure. She had to acknowledge it as well as annoyance when she saw Alan. "Another neighborly visit?" she asked, planting herself in the doorway. She skimmed a glance down the silk tie and trim, dark suit. "You don't look dressed for strolling." The sarcasm didn't concern him he'd seen that quick flash of unguarded pleasure. "As a public servant, I feel an obligation to conserve our natural resources and protect the environment." Reaching over, he clipped a tiny sprig of sweet pea into her hair. "I'm going to give you a lift to the Ditmeyers'. You might say we're carpooling." Shelby could smell the fragrance that drifted from just above her right ear. She had an urge to put her hand up and feel the small blossoms. Since when, she demanded of herself, had she been so vulnerable to charm? "You're going to Myra's little t … together?"
"Yes. Are you ready?"
Shelby narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out how Myra could have learned the name of the strawberry sender. "When did she ask you?"
" Hmm?" He was distracted by the way the thin lace rose at her neck. "Last week at the Writes'."
Some of her suspicions eased. Perhaps it was just coincidence after all. "Well, I appreciate the offer, Senator, but I'll drive myself. See you over the canap "
"Then, I'll ride with you," he said amiably. "We don't want to put any more carbon monoxide in the air than necessary. Shall I put that in the car for you?" Shelby took a firmer grip on the box as her hold in other areas started to slip. It was that damn serious smile and those thoughtful eyes, she decided. They made a woman feel as though she were the only one he'd ever looked at in quite that way.
"Alan," she began, a bit amused by his persistence. "What is this?"
"This .. threatened to dig holes in the stiff cardboard she held. "Is what our ancestors would have called a siege," he finished softly. "And MacGregors are notoriously successful at laying siege."
Her breath shuddered out to merge with his. "You don't do badly at hand-to-hand combat either." He chuckled and would have kissed her again if she hadn't managed to step back. "All right." Shelby thrust the box into his arms, considering it a strategic move. "We'll carpool. I don't want to be condemned as an air-polluter. You drive," she decided with a sudden mood-switching grin. "Then, I can have an extra glass of wine at dinner."
"You left your TV on," Alan commended as he stepped aside to let her pass.
"That's all right. It's broken anyway." Shelby clattered down the steps, heedless of her fragile heels and the steep drop. The sun had nearly set, sending wild streaks of red into a darkening, sober sky. Shelby laughed, turning back to Alan when she reached the narrow alleyway. "Carpool, my foot. But it's still not a date, MacGregor. What we'll call this is a … car," she added, patting the hood of his Mercedes. "Very sedate." Alan opened the trunk and set the box inside. He glanced back up at Shelby as he closed it. "You have an interesting way of insulting someone." She laughed, that free smoke-edged laugh as she went to him. "Dammit, Alan, I like you." Throwing her arms around his neck, she gave him a friendly hug that sent jolts of need careening through him. "I really like you," she added, tilting back her head with a smile that lit her whole face with a sense of fun. "I could probably have said that to a dozen other men who'd never have realized I was insulting them."
"So." His hands settled at her hips. "I get points for perception."
"And a few other things." When her gaze slipped to his mouth, she felt the strength of longing weaken all the memories and all the vows. "I'm going to hate myself for this," she murmured. "But I want to kiss you again. Here, while the light's fading." Her eyes came back to his, still smiling, but darkened with an anticipation he knew had nothing to do with surrender. "I've always thought you could do mad things at dusk without any consequences."
Tightening her arms around his neck, Shelby pressed her mouth to his. He was careful, very careful not to give in to the urgent desire to drag her closer. This time he'd let her lead him, and in doing so, lead herself where he wanted them both to go.
The light was softly dying. There was an impatient honking from the street on the other side of the shop.
Through the window of the apartment across the alley came the rich tang of spaghetti sauce and the bluesy sounds of an old Gershwin record. Straining closer, Shelby felt the fast, even beat of Alan's heart against her own.
His taste was the same quietly debilitating flavor as she remembered. Shelby could hardly believe she'd lived for so long without knowing that one particular taste. It seemed less possible she'd be able to live without it now. Or the feel of those strong steady arms around her the firm body that transmitted safety and danger to her at the same time.
He'd know how to protect her if something threatened. He knew how to take her to the brink of an abyss she'd so cleverly avoided. And Shelby was too aware that he could take her over the edge.
But his mouth was so tempting, his taste so enticing. And dusk was still holding back the night sky. She gave herself to it longer than she should have and not as long as she wanted to.
"Alan…moment while his arms and hers kept their bodies pressed close. There was strength in his face a face she could trust. But there was so much between them. "We'd better go," Shelby murmured. "It's nearly dark."
The Ditmeyers' home was lit though there was still color in the western sky. Shelby could just see the riot of phlox in the rock garden as she stepped from the car. Her mother was already there, Shelby discovered when she caught a glimpse of the diplomatic plates on the Lincoln in the drive.
"You know Ambassador Dilleneau?" Shelby offered her hand to Alan as they stepped onto the walk. "Slightly."
"He's in love with my mother." She brushed her bangs out of her eyes as she turned to him. "Men are, typically, but I think she has a soft spot for him."
"That amuses you?" Watching her, Alan pressed the doorbell.
"A little," she admitted. "It's rather sweet. She blushes," Shelby added with a quick laugh. "It's a very odd feeling for a daughter to see her mother blush over a man."
"You wouldn't?" Alan skimmed a thumb over her cheekbone. Shelby forgot her mother altogether. "Wouldn't what?"
"Blush," he said softly, tracing her jawline. "Over a man."
"Once I was twelve and he was thirty-two." She had to talk just keep talking to remember who she was. "He, uh, came to fix the water heater."
"How'd he make you blush?"
"He grinned at me. He had a chipped tooth I thought was really sexy." On a quick ripple of laughter, Alan kissed her just as Myra opened the door.
"Well, well." She didn't bother to disguise a selfsatisfied smile. "Good evening. I see you two have met."
"What makes you think that?" Shelby countered breezily as she stepped inside. Myra glanced from one to the other. "Do I smell strawberries?" she asked sweetly.
"Your lamp." Shelby gave her a bland look and indicated the box Alan carried. "Where would you like it?"
"Oh, just set it down there, Alan. It's so nice to have just a few friends in," Myra continued as she tucked an arm through each of theirs. "Gossip is so much more intimate that way. Herbert, pour two more of those marvelous aperitifs you must try it," she added to both Shelby and Alan. "I've just discovered this marvelous little blackberry liqueur."
"Herbert." Shelby walked over to the Justice and gave him a smacking kiss. "You've been out sailing again." She grinned at his sunburned nose. "When are we going to the beach to wind-surf?"
"The child almost makes me believe I could do it," he commented as he gave her a squeeze. "Good to see you, Alan." His face folded into comfortable grandfatherly lines that made people forget he was one of the top judiciary figures in the country. "I think you know everyone. I'll just get those drinks."
"Hello, Mama." Shelby bent to kiss her mother's cheek when the emerald clusters on Deborah's ears caught her eye. "I haven't seen these before I'd have borrowed them immediately."
"Anton gave them to me." A delicate color seeped into her cheeks. "In appreciation for that party I hostessed for him."
"I see." Shelby's gaze shifted to the trim Frenchman beside her mother. "You have exquisite taste, Ambassador," she told him as she offered her hand. His eyes twinkled as he brought it to his lips a trait that made up for the ears as far as Shelby was concerned. "You look lovely as always, Shelby. Senator, a pleasure to see you in such a relaxed atmosphere."
"Senator MacGregor." Deborah smiled up at him. "I didn't realize you and Shelby were acquainted."
"We're working on disrupting an old family tradition." He accepted the glass the Justice offered.
"He means feud," Shelby explained at her mother's blank look. She sipped the liqueur, approved it, then sat on the arm of Myra's chair.
"Oh Oh," Deborah repeated as she remembered. "The Campbells and the MacGregors … were blood enemies in Scotland though I can't quite remember why."
"They stole our land," Alan put in mildly.
"That's what you say." Shelby shot him a look as she sipped again. "We acquired MacGregor land through a royal decree. They weren't good sports about it." Alan gave her a thoughtful smile. "I'd be interested to hear you debate that issue with my father."
"What a match," Myra said, brightening at the thought. "Herbert, can you just see our Shelby nose-to-nose with Daniel? All that red hair and stubbornness. You really should arrange it, Alan."
"I've been giving it some thought."
"Have you?" Shelby's brows lifted to disappear completely under her frizz of bangs.
"Quite a bit of thought," he said in the same even tone.
"I've been to that wonderful anachronism in Hyannis Port." Myra gave Shelby a brief pat on the thigh.
"It's right up your alley, dear. She's so fond of the well, let's say unique, shall we?"
"Yes." Deborah sent Shelby a fond smile. "I could never figure out why. But then, both of my children have always been a mystery. Perhaps it's because they're so bright and clever and restless. I'm always hoping they'll settle down." This time she beamed the smile at Alan. "You're not married either, are you, Senator?"
"If you'd like," Shelby said as she studied the color of her liqueur through the crystal, "I could just step out while you discuss the terms of the dowry."
"Shelby, really," Deborah murmured over the sound of the Justice's chuckle.
"It's so difficult for parents to see their children as capable adults," the Ambassador commented in his light, soothing voice. "For myself, I have two daughters with children of their own. Still, I worry. How are your children, Myra? You have a new grandson, don't you?"
Nothing could have been better calculated to change the subject. Shelby sent him a faint admiring nod and watched his eyes twinkle as Myra began an enthusiastic description of her grandson's first tooth.
He'd suit her, Shelby decided, watching her mother from under her lashes. She was the type of woman who never felt quite whole without a man. And she'd been shaped and polished into a political wife years before. The gloss was still there. Elegant manners, elegant style, elegant patience. Shelby gave a little sigh she didn't even hear. How could she and her mother look so much alike and be so very different? Elegance had always seemed a silk-lined cage to Shelby and a cage equaled restrictions no matter how it was formed. She still remembered too many of them. The bodyguards discreet, but always there. The carefully screened parties, the sophisticated alarm systems, the intrusion of the press. The security hadn't saved her father, though a photographer had gotten an award-winning picture of the gunman seconds too late to do any good.
Shelby knew what was behind the elegance; the state dinners, the speeches, the galas. There were a hundred tiny fears, a millennium of doubts. The memory of too many political assassinations and assassination attempts in hardly more than twenty years. No, her mother was made for the life. Patient, with a rod of steel beneath the fragile skin. Shelby wouldn't choose it, nor would she let it choose her. She'd love no one who could leave her again so horribly.
Letting the conversation flow around her, Shelby tilted back her glass. Her eyes met Alan's. It was there that quietly brooding patience that promised to last a lifetime. She could almost feel him calmly peeling off layer after layer of whatever bits and pieces made up her personality to get to the tiny core she kept private. You bastard. She nearly said it out loud. Certainly it reflected in her eyes for he smiled at her in simple acknowledgment. The siege was definitely under way. She only hoped she had enough provisions to outlast him.