ive you a tour a little later if I can slip away.” She gave a quick, satisfied glance around at the crowd—the banner of a Washington hostess. “How are things at your shop?”
Shelby knew Washington was a crazy town. That’s why she loved it. She could have elegance and history, if that’s what she wanted, or dingy clubs and burlesque. On a trip from one side of town to the other, she could go from grace and style to mean streets—there was always a choice: gleaming white monuments, dignified state buildings, old brick row houses, steel and glass boxes, statues that had oxidized too long ago to remember what they’d oxidized from, cobblestoned streets or Watergate.
But the city hadn’t been built around one particular structure for nothing. The Capitol was the core, and politics was always the name of the game. Washington bustled frantically—not with the careless ongoing rush of New York, but with a wary, look-over-your-shoulder sort of frenzy. For the bulk of the men and women who worked there, their jobs were on the line from election to election. One thing Washington was not, was a blanket of security. That’s why Shelby loved it. Security equaled complacency and complacency equaled boredom. She’d always made it her first order of business never to be bored.
Georgetown suited her because it was yet it wasn’t D.C. It had the energy of youth: the university, boutiques, coffeehouses, half-price beer on Wednesday nights. It had the dignity of age: residential streets, ivied redbrick walls, painted shutters, neat women walking neat dogs. Because it couldn’t be strictly labeled as part of something else, she was comfortable there. Her shop faced out on one of the narrow cobblestoned streets with her living quarters on the second floor. She had a balcony, so she could sit out on warm summer nights and listen to the city move. She had bamboo slats at the windows so she could have privacy if she chose. She rarely did.
Shelby Campbell had been made for people, for conversations and crowds. Strangers were just as fascinating to talk to as old friends, and noise was more appealing than silence. Still, she liked to live at her own pace, so her roommates weren’t of the human sort. Moshe Dayan was a one-eyed tomcat, and Auntie Em was a parrot who refused to converse with anyone. They lived together in relative peace in the cluttered disorder Shelby called home.
She was a potter by trade and a merchant by whim. The little shop she had called Calliope had become a popular success in the three years since she’d opened the doors. She’d found she enjoyed dealing with customers almost as much as she enjoyed sitting at her potter’s wheel with a lump of clay and her imagination. The paperwork was a matter of constant annoyance. But then, to Shelby, annoyances gave life its bite. So, to her family’s amusement and the surprise of many friends, she’d gone into trade and made an undeniable success of it.
At six, she locked the shop. From the outset, Shelby had made a firm policy not to give her evenings to her business. She might work with clay or glazes until the early hours of the morning, or go out and mix with the streetlife, but the merchant in her didn’t believe in overtime. Tonight, however, she faced something she avoided whenever possible and took completely seriously when she couldn’t: an obligation. Switching off lights as she went, Shelby climbed the stairs to the second floor.
The cat leapt nimbly from his perch on the windowsill, stretched and padded toward her. When Shelby came in, dinner wasn’t far behind. The bird fluffed her wings and began to gnaw on her cuttlebone.
“How’s it going?” She gave Moshe an absent scratch behind the ears where he liked it best. With a sound of approval, he looked up at her with his one eye, tilting his head so that the patch he wore looked raffish and right. “Yeah, I’ll feed you.” Shelby pressed a hand to her own stomach. She was starving, and the best she could hope for that evening would be liver wrapped in bacon and crackers.
“Oh, well,” she murmured as she went into the kitchen to feed the cat. She’d promised her mother she’d make an appearance at Congressman Write’s cocktail party, so she was stuck. Deborah Campbell was probably the only one capable of making Shelby feel stuck.
Shelby was fond of her mother, over and above the basic love of a child for her parent. There were times they were taken for sisters, despite the twenty-five-year difference in their ages. The coloring was the same—bright red hair too fiery for chestnut, too dark for titian. While her mother wore hers short and sleek, Shelby let hers curl naturally with a frizz of bangs that always seemed just a tad too long. Shelby had inherited her mother’s porcelain complexion and smoky eyes, but whereas the combination made Deborah look delicately elegant, Shelby somehow came across looking more like a waif who’d sell flowers on a street corner. Her face was narrow, with a hint of bone and hollow. She often exploited her image with a clever hand at makeup and an affection for antique clothes.
She might have inherited her looks from her mother, but her personality was hers alone. Shelby never thought about being freewheeling or eccentric, she simply was. Her background and upbringing were lodged in Washington, and overtones of politics had dominated her childhood. Election-year pressure, the campaign trail that had taken her father away from home for weeks at a time, lobbying, bills to pass or block—they were all part of her past.
There’d been careful children’s parties that had been as much a part of the game as a press conference. The children of Senator Robert Campbell were important to his image—an image that had been carefully projected as suitable for the Oval Office. And a great deal of the image, as Shelby remembered, had been simple fact. He’d been a good man, fair-minded, affectionate, dedicated, with a keen sense of the ridiculous. That hadn’t saved him from a madman’s bullet fifteen years before.
She’d made up her mind then that politics had killed her father. Death came to everyone—even at eleven, she’d understood that. But it had come too soon for Robert Campbell. And if it could strike him, who she’d imagined was invulnerable, it could strike anyone, anytime. Shelby had decided with all the fervor of a young child to enjoy every moment of her life and to squeeze it for everything there was to have. Since then, nothing had changed her analysis. So, she’d go to Write’s cocktail party at his spacious home across the river and find something there to amuse or interest her. Shelby never doubted she’d succeed.
Shelby was late, but then, she always was. It wasn’t from any conscious carelessness or need to make an entrance. She was always late because she never finished anything as quickly as she thought she would. Besides, the white brick Colonial was crowded, filled with enough people that a latecomer wasn’t noticed.
The room was as wide as Shelby’s entire apartment and twice as long. It was done in whites and ivories and creams, which added to the sense of uncluttered space. A few excellent French landscapes hung on the walls in ornate frames. Shelby approved the ambience, though she couldn’t have lived with it herself. She liked the scent of the place—tobaccos, mixed perfumes and colognes, the faintest trace of light sweat. It was the aroma of people and parties.
Conversations were typical of most cocktail parties—clothes, other parties, golf scores—but running through it were murmurs on the price index, the current NATO talks, and the Secretary of the Treasury’s recent interview on Face to Face.
Shelby knew most of the people there, dressed in thin silks or in tailored dark suits. She evaded capture by any of them with quick smiles and greetings as she worked her way with practiced skill to the buffet. Food was one thing she took very seriously. When she spotted finger-sized quiches, she decided her evening wasn’t going to be a total loss after all.
“Why, Shelby, I didn’t even know you were here. How nice to see you.” Carol Write, looking quietly elegant in mauve linen, had slipped through the crowd without spilling a drop of her sherry.
“I was late,” Shelby told her, returning the brief hug with her mouth full. “You have a beautiful home, Mrs. Write.”
“Why, thank you, Shelby. I’d love to g
“Fine. I hope the congressman’s well.”
“Oh, yes. He’ll want to see you— I can’t tell you how much he loves that urn you made for his office.” Though she had a soft Georgian drawl, Carol could talk as quickly as a New York shopkeeper making a pitch. “He still says it was the best birthday present I ever bought him. Now, you must mingle.” Carol had Shelby’s elbow before she could grab another quiche. “No one’s better at keeping conversations moving than you are. Too much shop talk can simply murder a party. There are several people here you know of course, but—ah, here’s Deborah. I’ll just leave you to her a moment and play hostess.”
Released, Shelby eased back toward the buffet. “Hello, Mama.”
“I was beginning to think you’d backed out.” Deborah skimmed a glance over her daughter, marveling that the rainbow-colored skirt, peasant blouse, and bolero looked so right on her when it would have been a costume on anyone else.
“Um-um, I promised.” Shelby cast a connoisseur’s eye over the buffet before she made her next choice. “Food’s better than I expected.”
“Shelby, get your mind off your stomach.” With a half sigh, Deborah hooked arms with her daughter. “In case you haven’t noticed, there are several nice young men here.”
“Still trying to marry me off?” Shelby kissed her lightly on the cheek. “I’d almost forgiven you for the pediatrician you tried to foist on me.”
“He was a very personable young man.”
“Hmmm.” Shelby decided not to mention that the personable young man had had six pairs of hands—all very active.
“Besides, I’m not trying to marry you off; I just want you to be happy.”
“Are you happy?” Shelby countered with a quick gleam in her eye.
“Why, yes.” Absently Deborah tightened the diamond stud in her left ear. “Of course I am.”
“When are you going to get married?”
“I’ve been married,” Deborah reminded her with a little huff. “I’ve had two children, and—”
“Who adore you. I’ve got two tickets for the ballet at the Kennedy Center next week. Want to come with me?”
The faint frown of annoyance vanished from Deborah’s brow. How many women, she thought, had a daughter who could exasperate and please so fully at the same time? “A clever way to change the subject, and I’d love to.”
“Can I come to dinner first?” she asked, then beamed a smile to her left. “Hi, Steve.” She tested a solid upper arm. “You’ve been working out.”
Deborah watched her offspring spill charm over the Assistant Press Secretary, then dole out more to the newly appointed head of the EPA without missing a beat. Effortless, genuine, Deborah mused. No one enjoyed, or was enjoyed by a crowd, so much as Shelby. Then, why did she so scrupulously avoid the one-on-one entanglements? If it had been simply marriage that Shelby avoided, Deborah would have accepted it, but for a long time, she’d suspected it was something else Shelby blocked off.
Deborah would never have wished her daughter unhappiness, but even that would have relieved her mind. She’d watched Shelby avoid emotional pain one way or another for fifteen years. Without pain, Deborah knew, there was never true fulfillment. Yet … she sighed when Shelby laughed that smoky, careless laugh as she drew out various members of the group she’d joined. Yet Shelby was so vital, so bright. Perhaps she was worrying over nothing. Happiness was a very personal thing.
Alan watched the woman with flaming hair who was dressed like a wealthy Gypsy. He could hear her laugh float across the room, at once sensuous and innocent. An interesting face, he mused, more unique than beautiful. What was she? he wondered. Eighteen? Thirty? She didn’t seem to belong to a Washington party—God knows he’d been at enough of them to know who did. There was nothing sleek or cautious about her. That dress hadn’t come from one of the accepted shops the political wives patronized, and her hair certainly hadn’t been styled in any sophisticated salon. But she fit in. Despite the touch of L.A. flair and New York savvy, she fit right in. But who the hell—
“Well, Senator.” Write gave Alan a firm slap on the back. “It’s good to see you outside the arena. We don’t lure you out often enough.”
“Good Scotch, Charlie.” Alan lifted his glass again. “It always does the trick.”
“It usually takes more than that,” Write corrected. “You burn a lot of midnight oil, Alan.”
Alan smiled easily. No one’s moves were secret in Washington. “There seems to be a lot to burn at the moment.”
With a nod of agreement, Write sipped his drink. “I’m interested in your views on Breiderman’s bill coming up next week.”
Alan met the congressman’s eyes calmly, knowing Write was one of Breiderman’s leading supporters. “I’m against it,” he said simply. “We can’t afford any more cuts in education.”
“Well, Alan, you and I know things aren’t so black and white.”
“Sometimes the gray area gets too large—then it’s best to go back to basics.” He didn’t want a debate, and he discovered he didn’t want shop talk. It was a poor mood to be in for a senator at a political party. But Alan MacGregor was enough politician to evade questions when it suited him. “You know, I thought I knew everyone here.” Alan glanced idly around the room. “The woman who seems to be a cross between Esmeralda and Heidi—who is she?”
“Who?” Write repeated, intrigued enough by the description to forget his planned retort and follow Alan’s gaze. “Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t met Shelby.” He grinned, enjoying the description more now that he knew whom it referred to. “Want an introduction?”
“I think I’ll handle it myself,” Alan murmured. “Thanks.”
Alan wandered away, moving easily through the groups of people, stopping when pressed to. Like Shelby, he was made for crowds. Handshakes, smiles, the right word at the right time, a good memory for faces. It was stock-in-trade for a man whose career hinged on public whim as much as on his own skill. And he was skilled.
Alan knew the law; was familiar with all its shades and angles, though unlike his brother, Caine, also a lawyer, Alan had been drawn to the theory of law more than the individual cases. It had been the overview that had fascinated him—how the law, or the basis for it, the Constitution, worked for the people. Politics had caught his imagination in college, and even now at thirty-five; with a term in Congress behind him and his first term in the Senate under way, he enjoyed exploring its endless possibilities.
“Alone, Alan?” Myra Ditmeyer, a Supreme Court Justice’s wife, plucked at his arm as he edged away from a group.
Alan grinned and with the privilege of an old friend, kissed her cheek. “Is that an offer?”
She gave one of her booming laughs, shaking so that the ruby drops at her ears danced. “Oh, you devil, if it only could be. Twenty years, you Scottish heartbreaker; all I’d need would be twenty years—a drop in the bucket.” Her smile was genuine, her eyes shrewd as she studied him. “Why don’t you have one of those polished cosmopolitan types of yours on your arm tonight?”
“I was hoping to talk you into a weekend in Puerto Vallarta.”
This time Myra poked a long scarlet nail into his chest as she laughed. “It would serve you right if I took you up on it. You think I’m safe.” She sighed, her round, finely lined face falling into wistful lines. “Unfortunately true. We need to find you someone dangerous, Alan MacGregor. A man your age still single.” She clucked her tongue. “Americans like their presidents tidily married, my dear.”
Alan’s grin only widened. “Now you sound like my father.”
“That old pirate.” Myra sniffed, but a gleam of amusement shone in her eyes. “Still, you’d be wise to take his advice on a thing or two. A successful politician is a couple.”
“I should get married to advance
“Don’t try to outsmart me,” Myra ordered, then saw his eyes shift in the direction of a low, familiar laugh.
Well, well, she thought, wouldn’t that be an interesting match? The fox and the butterfly.
“I’m having a dinner party next week,” she decided on the spot. “Just a few friends. My secretary will call your office with the details.” Patting his cheek with a many-ringed hand, she moved away to find a strategic spot to watch.
Seeing Shelby drift away from the trio she was talking with, Alan moved in her direction. When he was near, the first thing he noticed was her scent—not floral, not spicy or musk, but a teasing merging of all three. It was more an aura than a perfume, and unforgettable. Shelby had crouched down in front of a curio cabinet, her nose pressed close.
“Eighteenth-century china,” she murmured, sensing someone behind her. “‘Tea-dust’ glaze. Spectacular, isn’t it?”
Alan glanced down at the bowl that seemed to fascinate her, then at the crown of vivid red hair. “It certainly draws attention.”
She looked up over her shoulder and smiled—as stunning and unique an allure as her scent. “Hello.”
“Hello.” He took the hand she held up—strong and hard, a paradox with her looks—and helped her to her feet. He didn’t relinquish it as he normally would have done without thinking, but continued to hold it as she smiled up at him.
“I got distracted on my way to my objective. Would you do me a favor?”
His brow lifted. There was a ring of both finishing school and the streets in her speech. “What?”
“Just stand here.” In a swift move, she steered around him, slipped a plate off the buffet, and began to fill it. “Every time I start to do this, someone sees me and hauls me off. I missed my dinner. There.” Satisfied, she nudged Alan’s arm. “Let’s go out on the terrace.” Shelby slipped around the table and through the French doors.
Warm air and the scent of early lilacs. Moonlight fell over grass that had been freshly mowed and tidily raked. There was an old willow with tender new branches that dipped onto the flagstone. With a sigh of pure sensual greed, Shelby popped a chilled shrimp into her mouth. “I don’t know what this is,” she murmured, giving a tiny hors d’oeuvre a close study. “Have a taste and tell me.”
Intrigued, Alan bit into the finger food she held to his mouth. “Pâté wrapped in pastry with … a touch of chestnut.”
“Hmm. Okay.” Shelby devoured the rest of it. “I’m Shelby,” she told him, setting the plate on a glass table and sitting behind it.
“I’m Alan.” A smile lingered on his mouth as he sat beside her. Where did this street waif come from? he wondered. He decided he could spend the time to find out, and the spring air was a welcome relief from the tobacco smoke and hothouse flowers inside. “Are you going to share any of that?”
Shelby studied him as she considered. She’d noticed him across the room, perhaps because he was tall with a naturally athletic build you didn’t often see at a Washington party. You saw carefully maintained builds, the kind that spoke of workouts three times a week and racquetball, but his was more like a swimmer’s—a channel swimmer’s—long and lean. He’d cut through currents with little resistance.
His face wasn’t smooth; there were a few lines of care in it that complemented the aristocratic cast of his face and his long, thin mouth. His nose was slightly out of alignment, which appealed to her. The dark hair and dark eyes made her think of a Brontë hero—Heathcliff or Rochester, she wasn’t sure. But he had a thoughtful, brooding quality about him that was both restful and distracting. Shelby’s lips curved again.
“Sure. I guess you earned it. What are you drinking?”
Alan reached toward the plate. “Scotch, straight up.”
“I knew you could be trusted.” Shelby took the glass from him and sipped. Her eyes laughed over the rim; the faint breeze played with her hair. Moonlight, starlight, suited her. She looked, for a moment, like an elf who might vanish with a puff at will.
“What are you doing here?” he asked her.
“Maternal pressure,” she told him easily. “Have you ever experienced it?”
His smile was wry and appealing. “Paternal pressure is my specialty.”
“I don’t imagine there’s much difference,” Shelby decided over a full mouth. Swallowing, she rested the side of her face on her palm. “Do you live in Alexandria?”
The moonlight glimmered in her eyes, showing him they were as pure a gray as he’d ever seen. “P Street.”
“Funny we haven’t run into each other in the local market. My shop’s only a few blocks from there.”
“You run a shop?” Funky dresses, velvet jackets, he imagined. Perhaps jewelry.
“I’m a potter.” Shelby pushed his glass back across the table.
“A potter.” On impulse, Alan took her hand, turning it over to examine it. Small and narrow, her fingers were long, with the nails clipped short and unpainted. He liked the feel of her hand, and the look of her wrist under a heavy gold bracelet. “Are you any good?”
“I’m terrific.” For the first time that she could remember, she had to suppress the urge to break contact. It ran through her mind that if she didn’t, he was going to hold her there until she forgot she had other places to go. “You’re not a Washington native,” she continued, experimenting by letting her hand stay in his. “What is it … New England?”
“Massachusetts. Very good.” Sensing the slight resistance in her hand, Alan kept it in his as he picked up another hors d’oeuvre and offered it.
“Ah, the trace of Harvard lingers.” So did a slight disdain in her voice. His eyes narrowed fractionally at it. “Not medicine,” she speculated as she allowed her fingers to lace with his. It was already becoming a very comfortable sensation. “Your palms aren’t smooth enough for medicine.”
Perhaps one of the arts? she wondered, again noticing that romantically brooding expression in his eyes. A dreamer, she suspected—a man who tended to think things through layer by layer before he acted.
“Law.” Alan accepted the careful study as well as the faint surprise on her face. “Disappointed?”
“Surprised.” Although his voice suited the law, she decided—smooth and clean with undercurrents that might have been drama or humor. “But then I suppose my conception of lawyers is at fault. Mine has jowls and wears tortoiseshell glasses. Don’t you think the law tends to get in the way of a lot of ordinary things?”
His brow lifted in direct harmony with the corner of his mouth. “Such as murder and mayhem?”