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23.12.2018

Maine was beautiful in June green and wild. Shelby drove along the coast, keeping her mind a blank. Through the open windows of the car, she could hear the water hurl itself against rock. Passion, anger, grief the sound expressed all three. She understood it.

From time to time there were wildflowers along the roadside, tough little blossoms that could stand up to the salt and the wind. For the most part there were rocks, worn smooth from the eternal beating of water, glistening near the shoreline, dry and brooding above it, until the tide would rise and claim them as well.

If she drew deep, Shelby could breathe again. Perhaps that's why she had come, and come quickly, before Washington could suffocate her. The air here was brisk and clean. The summer that had taken over spring so quickly had yet to reach this far north. She needed to hold on to spring for just a bit longer.

She saw the lighthouse on the narrow point of land that jutted arrogantly into the sea and forced her tense fingers to relax on the wheel. Peace of mind perhaps she would

find it here as her brother always sought to do.

It was barely dawn. When her plane had landed, it had still been dark. She could see the sun rising, streaming color into the sea while gulls dipped and floated over rock and sand and water. It was still too early for their shadows. They called out above the noise of the surf, an empty, lonely sound. Shelby shook that off. She wouldn't think of emptiness or loneliness now. She wouldn't think at all.

The beach was deserted, the air cool and breezy when she stepped from her car. The lighthouse was a wide sphere of white, solitary and strong against the elements. Perhaps it was worn and a bit weather-beaten in places, but it held a simple power that remained timeless and real. It seemed a good place to shelter from any storm. Shelby took her bag from the back of the car and approached the door at the base. It would be locked, she knew. Grant never gave open invitations. She pounded on the wood with the side of her fist, wondering just how long he'd ignore it before answering. He'd hear it, because Grant heard everything, just as he saw everything. Isolating himself from the rest of humanity hadn't changed that.

Shelby pounded again and watched the sun rise. It took a bit more than five full minutes before the door creaked open.

He had the look of their father, Shelby thought-dark, intelligent good looks, a bit rough around the edges. The surprisingly deep green eyes were clouded with sleep, the thick just-a-bit-too-long hair, rumpled with it.

Grant scowled at her and rubbed a hand over his unshaven chin. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"A typical Grant Campbell welcome." She stood on her toes to brush his lips with hers.

"What time is it?"

"Early."

Swearing, he dragged a hand through his hair and stepped back to let her through. For a moment, he leaned against the door to get his bearings, one thumb hooked in his only concession to modesty a pair of faded cutoffs. Then he followed her up the steep, creaky flights of stairs to his living quarters.

Straightening, he took his sister by the shoulders and studied her, quickly, and with an intensity she had never quite grown used to. She stood passively, a half-smile on her lips and shadows under her eyes.

"What's wrong?" he asked bluntly.

"Wrong?" She shrugged and tossed her bag on a chair that could have done with reupholstering. "Why does there have to be something wrong for me to pay a visit?" She glanced back at him, noting that he still hadn't put on any weight. His build teetered between lean and thin, and yet, like his home, there was a basic strength about him. She needed that too. "You gonna make the coffee?"

"Yeah." Grant moved through what served as a living room, despite the dust, and into a tidy, organized kitchen. "Want breakfast?"

"Always."

With what might have been a chuckle, he pulled out a slab of bacon. "You're skinny, kid."

"You're not exactly husky these days yourself."

His answer was a grunt. "How's Mom?"

"She's fine. I think she's going to marry the Frenchman."

"Dilleneau, with the big ears and the cagey brain."

"That's the one." Shelby dropped into a chair at the round oak table as bacon began to sizzle. "Are you going to immortalize him?"

"Depends." He shot Shelby a wicked grin. "I don't suppose Mom would be surprised to see her fianc

"Surprised, no pleased … down for a visit."

"Maybe." Grant plopped a plate of bacon on the table.

"Are we going to have eggs too?" She got up for plates and mugs while Grant broke a half-dozen into a pan. "Sure, scrambled's fine," Shelby said wryly to his back. "Getting many tourist these days?"

"No."

The word was so flat and final, Shelby nearly laughed. "You could always try land mines and barbed wire. It amazes me how anyone so in tune with people could dislike them so much."

"I don't dislike them." Grant heaped eggs on another plate. "I just don't want to be around them." Without standing on ceremony, he sat down and began to fill his plate. He ate; Shelby pretended to. "How're your roommates?"

"They've settled on peaceful coexistence," Shelby told him as she nibbled on a slice of bacon. "Kyle's looking in on them until I get back."

Grant shot her a look over the rim of his mug. "How long are you staying?" This time she did laugh. "Always gracious. A few days," she told him. "No more than a week. No, please." She held up her hand, palm up. "Don't beg me to extend my visit; I simply can't stay any longer." She knew he would scowl and swear and open his home to her for as long as she needed.

He finished off the last of his eggs. "Okay, you can drive into town for supplies while you're here."

"Always happy to be of service," Shelby muttered. "How do you manage to get every major newspaper in the country delivered out here?"

"I pay for it," he said simply. "They think I'm odd."

"You are odd."

"Just so. Now …are you here, Shelby?"

"I just wanted to get away for a few days," she began, only to be cut off by a rude fourletter word. Instead of responding with a joke or an equally rude rejoinder, she dropped her gaze to her plate. "I had to get away," she whispered. "Grant, my life's a mess."

"Whose isn't?" he responded, but put one long slender finger under her chin to lift it.

"Don't do that, Shelby," he murmured when he saw her eyes were brimming over. "Take a deep breath and tell me about it."

She took the breath, though it was a shaky one, and struggled to control the tears. "I'm in love and I shouldn't be, and he wants me to marry him and I can't."

"Well, that sums things up. Alan MacGregor." When Shelby sent him a swift look, Grant shook his head. "No, no one told me. You've been linked with him in the papers half a dozen times in the last month. Well, he's one of that tidy little group I can honestly say I respect."

"He's a good man," Shelby stated, blinking back tears. "Maybe a great one."

"So what's the problem?"

"I don't want to love a great man," she said fiercely. "I can't marry one." Grant rose, retrieved the coffeepot, and filled both mugs again. He sat, then pushed the cream at Shelby. "Why?"

"I won't go through it again, Grant."

"Through what?"

Her look sharpened; the tears dried up. "Damn you, don't pull that on me." Calmly he sipped his coffee, pleased that she would snipe at him now rather than weep.

"I've been hearing a rumor or two that the Senator might try for the top spot sooner or later. Maybe sooner than expected."

"You hear correctly, as usual."

He lingered over the coffee, black and strong. "Don't you fancy having one of your dresses in the Smithsonian, Shelby?"

"Your humor's always been on the odd side, Grant."

"Thanks."

Annoyed, she pushed her plate aside. "I don't want to be in love with a senator."

"Are you?" he countered. "Or are you in love with the man?"

"It's the same thing!"

"No, it's not." He set down the coffee and plucked a piece of untouched bacon from Shelby's plate. "You, better than most, know it."

"I can't risk it!" she said with sudden passion. "I just can't. He'll win, Grant, he will if he lives long enough. I can't deal with it the possibilities …

"You and your possibilities," he flung back. The memory hurt, but he pushed it aside.

"Okay, let's take a few of them. First, do you love him?"

"Yes, yes, I love him. Dammit, I just told you I did."

"How much does he mean to you?"

Shelby dragged both hands through her hair. "Everything."

"Then, if he runs for president and something happens to him…drained from her face. "Is it going to hurt any less whether you have his ring on your finger or not?"

"No." She covered her mouth with her hand. "Don't, Grant."

"You've got to live with it," he said harshly. "We've both had to live with it, carry it around with us. I was there, too, and I haven't forgotten. Are you going to shut yourself off from life because of something that happened fifteen years ago?"

"Haven't you?"

Direct hit, he thought ruefully, but didn't acknowledge it. "We're not talking about me. Let's take an other of your possibilities, Shelby. Suppose he loves you enough to chuck it for you."

"I'd despise myself."

"Exactly. Now, the last one. Suppose …hers. "He runs and wins and lives to a ripe old age writing his memoirs and traveling as an ambassador of goodwill or playing Parcheesi on the sun porch. You're going to be damned mad he had fifty years without you."

She let out a long breath. "Yeah. But

"We've already gone through the buts," he interrupted. "Of course, there're probably several million possibilities in between. He could get hit by a car crossing the street or

you could. He could lose the election and become a missionary or an anchor on the six o'clock news."

"All right." Shelby dropped her forehead to their joined hands. "Nobody makes me see what a fool I am better than you."

"One of my minor talents. Listen, walk out on the beach; clear your head. When you come back, eat something, then get about twelve-hours sleep, because you look like hell. Then … do."

"I love you, you creep."

"Yeah." He shot her one of his quick grins. "Me too." His house was too empty and too quiet, but there was nowhere Alan wanted to go. He'd forced himself to give Shelby a full day alone, then had gone half mad when he'd learned on Friday that she was no where to be found. Twenty-four hours later, he was still trying to reason with himself.

She had a right to go when and where she chose. He had no reason to expect her to answer or to explain to him. If she decided to go off for a few days, he had no right to be angry, certainly no reason to be worried.

He rose from the desk in his study to pace. Where the hell was she? How long was she going to stay away? Why hadn't she at least let him know?

Frustrated, he balled his hands into his pockets. He'd always been able to find the route out of a problem. If it didn't work one way, it worked another, but there was always a viable system. It was only a matter of time and patience. He had no more patience. He was hurting like he'd never been aware he could hurt everywhere, all at once, and unrelentingly.

When he found her, he'd plead, beg? What was left? He could give up pieces of himself for her and still be whole, but without her, he'd never be more than part of a man. She'd stolen something from him, then shut the door, he thought furiously. No … she'd been reluctant to take the love he offered. He couldn't take it back now, even if she disappeared from his life.

She was capable of that, he realized with a sudden surge of panic. Shelby could pack her bags and take off without leaving a trace behind. Damn if she would! Alan frowned at the phone again. He'd find her. First he'd find her. Then he'd deal with her, one way or another.

He'd start by calling her mother, then work his way through everyone she knew. With a brittle laugh, Alan picked up the receiver. With Shelby, it could take the better part of a week.

Before he could dial, the doorbell sounded. Alan let it ring three times before he remembered that McGee was in Scotland. Swearing, he slammed down the phone and went to answer.

The messenger grinned at him. "Delivery for you, Senator," he said brightly and handed Alan a clear plastic bag. "You guys are strange," he added before he sauntered away. While he stared at the bag in his hand, Alan closed the door. Swimming around a bit frantically in the trapped water was a bright-orange goldfish.

Slowly Alan moved into the parlor, studying his gift with wary eyes. What the hell was he supposed to do with this? he wondered. Impatient with the interruption, he pulled out a Waterford goblet and breaking the seal on the plastic, dumped fish and water inside. After setting the bag aside, Alan opened the little card that had been attached to it. Senator,

If you can take life in the goldfish bowl, so can I.

After reading the one sentence three times, Alan shut his eyes. She'd come back. The card dropped to the table as he turned to head for the door. Even as he opened it, the doorbell rang.

"Hi." Shelby smiled, though the greeting had been bright enough to reveal her nerves.

"Can I come in?"

He wanted to grab her quickly, hold her to be sure she stayed. It wasn't the way to keep Shelby. "Sure." When he wanted to step forward, Alan stepped back to let her come in on her own. "You've been away."

"Just a quick pilgrimage." She thrust her hands into the wide pockets of a pair of baggy denim overalls. He looked tired, she noted, as if he hadn't slept. Her hands itched to touch his face, but she kept them both firmly tucked away.

"Come in and sit down." Alan gestured toward the parlor before they walked, both cautious and conscious of the other. "McGee's away. I could fix coffee."

"No, not for me." Shelby wandered the room. How was she going to start? What was she going to say? All the careful speeches, the glib ones, the passionate ones, slipped quietly out of her head. He'd placed the krater she'd made him near the window where it caught the sun. She stared at it. "I suppose I should begin by apologizing for falling apart on you the other day.

"Why?"

"Why?" Shelby turned around to face him again. "Why what?"

"Why would you apologize?"

She lifted her shoulders, then let them fall. "I hate to cry. I'd rather swear, or kick something." Nerves were jumping inside her something she hadn't expected, and something his calm, steady gaze did nothing to soothe. "You're angry with me."

"No."

"You were." She moved restlessly around the room. "You had a right to be, I trailed off when she spotted the goldfish swimming in circles inside the Waterford.

"Well, he's come up in the world," she said with a jerky laugh. "I don't think he appreciates it. Alan." When she faced him this time, her eyes were huge and questioning and vulnerable. "Do you still want me? Have I ruined it?" He would have gone to her then, taken her on any terms hers or his. But he wanted more than the moment, much more.

"Why did you change your mind?"

Shelby went toward him, grabbing his hands. "Does it matter?"

"It matters." He released her hands only to frame her face with his own. His eyes held that brooding serious look that could still turn her knees to jelly. "I have to know you'll be happy; have what you want, what you can live with. I want forever from you."

"All right." Shelby lifted her hands to his wrists, holding them a moment before she backed away. "I considered the possibilities," she began. "I thought through all the it's and the maybes. I didn't like all of them, but the one I hated the most was life without you. You're not going to play Parcheesi without me, MacGregor." His brow lifted. "I'm not?"

"No." She brushed at her bangs with another unsteady laugh. "Marry me, Alan. I won't agree with all your policies, but I'll try to be tactful in print some of the time. I won't head any committees, and I'll only go to luncheons if there's no way out, but my own career's an understandable excuse for that. I won't give conventional parties, but I'll give interesting ones. If you're willing to take the risk of setting me loose on world politics, who am I to argue?"

He hadn't thought he could love her any more than he already did. He'd been wrong.

"Shelby, I could go back to law, open a practice right here in Georgetown."

"No!" She whirled away from him. "No, dammit, you're not going back to law, not for me, not for anyone! I was wrong. I loved my father, I adored him, but I can't let what happened to him control the rest of my life or yours." She stopped, needed to control her voice to calmness again. "I'm not changing for you, Alan. I can't. But I can do what you asked and have faith in you." She shook her head before he could speak. "I won't pretend that I won't ever be frightened, or that there won't be parts of the way we live that I'll hate. But I'll be proud of what you do." Calmer, she turned back to him. "I'm proud of who you are. If I still have a few dragons to fight, Alan, I'll do it." He came to her, looking into her eyes before he gathered her close. "With me?" She let out a long relieved sigh. "Always." When she turned her head, her mouth found his as hungry and seeking as her own. She felt it had been years rather than days and urged him down, with a murmur of his name, on the carpet with her. There was no patience in either of them, only needs. Alan swore, fighting with snaps until Shelby laughed and rolled atop him to drive him senseless with her lips on his naked chest. He wasn't content only to be touched. His hands sought her through the denim, causing her strength to sag and her brain to cloud.

When at last there were no more obstructions, he added his mouth to his hands, devouring and molding. The house was silent except for breathless murmurs and quiet sighs. Once more he buried his face in her hair to absorb the fragrance, to let it absorb him, as Shelby drew him into her.

Then there was nothing but pleasure, the desperate, whirling pleasure of being together. It was late afternoon with softening light when Shelby stirred against him. They lay together on the couch, tangled and naked and drowsy. A bottle of wine grew warm on the table beside them.

When she opened her eyes, she saw that he slept on, his face relaxed, his breathing even. Here was the contentment, the easy, solid contentment she felt each time she lay quiet in his arms. Tilting her head back, Shelby watched him until he, too, stirred and his eyes opened. With a smile, she leaned closer to touch her lips to his.

"I can't remember when I've spent a more … teased his tongue with hers.

"Since I don't intend to move for at least twenty-four hours, we'll see how you like Sunday as well."

"I think I'm going to love it." She slid a hand over his shoulder. "I don't like to be pushy, Senator, but when are you going to marry me?"

"I thought September in Hyannis Port."

"The MacGregor fortress." He saw by her eyes the idea appealed to her. "But September's two and a half months away.".

"We'll make it August," he said as he nibbled at her ear. "In the meantime, you and your roommates can move in here, or we can start looking for another place. Would you like to honeymoon in Scotland?"

Shelby nestled into his throat. "Yes." She tilted her head back. "In the meantime," she said slowly as her hands wandered down to his waist. "I've been wanting to tell you that there's one of your domestic policies I'm fully in favor of, Senator."

"Really?" His mouth lowered to hover just above hers.

"You have " she nipped at his bottom lip " my full support. I wonder if you could just me."

Alan slid a hand down her side. "It's my civic duty to make myself available to all my constituents."

Shelby's fingers ran up his chest to stop his jaw just before he captured her lips. "As long as it's only me, Senator." She hooked her arm around his neck. "This is the oneman one-vote system."