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The Perfect Neighbor

Nora Roberts

  Chapter 1

  “So … have you talked to him yet?”

  “Hmm?” Cybil Campbell continued to work at her drawing board, diligently sectioning off the paper with the skill of long habit. “Who am I talking to?”

  There was a long and gusty sigh—one that had Cybil fighting to keep her lips from twitching. She knew her first-floor neighbor Jody Myers well—and understood exactly what him she was referring to.

  “The gorgeous Mr. Mysterious in 3B, Cyb. Come on, he moved in a week ago and hasn’t said a word to anyone. But you’re right across the hall. We need some details here.”

  “I’ve been pretty busy.” Cybil flicked a glance up, watching Jody, with her expressive brown eyes and mop of dusky-blond hair, energetically pace around the studio. “Hardly noticed him.”

  Jody’s first response was a snort. “Get real. You notice everything.”

  Jody wandered to the drawing board, hung over Cybil’s shoulder, then wrinkled her nose. Nothing much interesting about a bunch of blue lines. She liked it better when Cybil started sketching in the sections.

  “He doesn’t even have a name on the mailbox yet. And nobody ever sees him leave the building during the day. Not even Mrs. Wolinsky, and nobody gets by her.”

  “Maybe he’s a vampire.”

  “Wow.” Intrigued with the idea, Jody pursed her pretty lips. “Would that be cool or what?”

  “Too cool,” Cybil agreed, and continued to prep her drawing, as Jody danced around the studio and chattered like a magpie.

  It never bothered Cybil to have company while she worked. The fact was, she enjoyed it. She’d never been one for isolation and quiet. It was the reason she was happy living in New York, happy to be settled into a small building with a handful of unapologetically nosy neighbors.

  Such things not only satisfied her on a personal level, they were grist for her professional mill.

  And of all the occupants of the old, converted warehouse, Jody Myers was Cybil’s favorite. Three years earlier when Cybil had moved in, Jody had been an energetic newlywed who fervently believed that everyone should be as blissfully happy as she herself was.

  Meaning, Cybil mused, married.

  Now the mother of the seriously adorable eight-month-old Charlie, Jody was only more committed to her cause. And Cybil knew she herself was Jody’s primary objective.

  “Haven’t you even run into him in the hall?” Jody wanted to know.

  “Not yet.” Idly, Cybil picked up a pencil, tapped it against her full-to-pouty bottom lip. Her long-lidded eyes were the green of a clear sea at twilight, and might have been exotic or sultry if they weren’t almost always shimmering with humor.

  “Actually, Mrs. Wolinsky’s losing her touch. I have seen him leave the building during the day—which rules out vampire status.”

  “You have?” Instantly caught, Jody dragged a rolling stool over to the drawing board. “When? Where? How?”

  “When—dawn. Where? Heading east on Grand. How? Insomnia.” Getting into the spirit, Cybil swiveled on her stool. Her eyes danced with amusement. “Woke up early, and I kept thinking about the brownies left over from the party the other night.”

  “Atomic brownies,” Jody agreed.

  “Yeah, so I couldn’t get back to sleep until I ate one. Since I was up anyhow, I came in here to work awhile and ended up just standing at the window. I saw him go out. You can’t miss him. He must be six-four. And those shoulders …”

  Both women rolled their eyes in appreciation.

  “Anyway, he was carrying a gym bag and wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt, so my deduction was he was heading to the gym to work out. You don’t get those shoulders by lying around eating chips and drinking beer all day.”

  “Aha!” Jody speared a finger in the air. “You are interested.”

  “I’m not dead, Jody. The man is dangerously gorgeous, and you add that air of mystery along with a tight butt …” Her hands, rarely still, spread wide. “What’s a girl to do but wonder?”

  “Why wonder? Why don’t you go knock on his door, take him some cookies or something. Welcome him to the neighborhood. Then you can find out what he does in there all day, if he’s single, what he does for a living. If he’s single. What—” She broke off, head lifting in alert. “That’s Charlie waking up.”

  “I didn’t hear a thing.” Cybil turned her head, aiming an ear toward the doorway, listened, shrugged. “I swear, Jody, since you gave birth you have ears like a bat.”

  “I’m going to change him and take him for a walk. Want to come?”

  “No, can’t. I’ve got to work.”

  “I’ll see you tonight, then. Dinner’s at seven.”

  “Right.” Cybil managed to smile as Jody dashed off to retrieve Charlie from the bedroom where she’d put him down for a nap.

  Dinner at seven. With Jody’s tedious and annoying cousin Frank. When, Cybil asked herself, was she going to develop a backbone and tell Jody to stop trying to fix her up?

  Probably, she decided, about the same time she told Mrs. Wolinsky the same thing. And Mr. Peebles on the first floor, and her dry cleaner. What was this obsession with the people in her life to find her a man?

  She was twenty-four, single and happy. Not that she didn’t want a family one day. And maybe a nice house out in the burbs somewhere with a yard for the kids. And the dog. There’d have to be a dog. But that was for some time or other. She liked her life right now very much, thanks.

  Resting her elbows on her drawing board, she propped her chin on her fists and gave in enough to stare out the window and allow herself to daydream. Must be spring, she mused, that was making her feel so restless and full of nervous energy.

  She reconsidered going for that walk with Jody and Charlie after all but then heard her friend call out a goodbye and slam the door behind her.

  So much for that.

  Work, she reminded herself, and swiveled back to begin sketching in the first section of her comic strip, “Friends and Neighbors.”

  She had a steady and clever hand for drawing and had come by it naturally. Her mother was a successful, internationally respected artist; her father, the reclusive genius behind the long-running “Macintosh” comic strip. Together, they had given her and her siblings a love of art, a sense of the ridiculous and a solid foundation.

  Cybil had known, even when she’d left the security of their home in Maine, she’d be welcomed back if New York rejected her.

  But it hadn’t.

  For over three years now her strip had grown in popularity. She was proud of it, proud of the simplicity, warmth and humor she was able to create with everyday characters in everyday situations. She didn’t attempt to mimic her father’s irony or his often sharp political satires. For her, it was life that made her laugh. Being stuck in line at the movies, finding the right pair of shoes, surviving yet another blind date.

  While many saw her Emily as autobiographical, Cybil saw her as a marvelous well of ideas but never recognized the reflection. After all, Emily was a statuesque blonde who had miserable luck holding a job and worse luck with men.

  Cybil herself was a brunette of average height with a successful career. As for men, well, they weren’t enough of a priority for her to worry about luck one way or the other.

  A scowl marred her expression, narrowing her light-green eyes as she caught herself tapping her pencil rather than using it. She just couldn’t seem to concentrate. She scooped her fingers through her short cap of brandy-brown hair, pursed her softly sculpted mouth and shrugged. Maybe what she needed was a short break, a snack. Perhaps a little chocolate would get the juices flowing.

  She pushed back, tucking her pencil behind her ear in an absentminded habit she’d been trying to break since chi
ldhood, left the sun-drenched studio and headed downstairs.

  Her apartment was wonderfully open; aside from the studio space, that had been the main reason she’d snapped it up so quickly. A long service bar separated the kitchen from the living area, leaving the lower level all one area. Tall windows let in light and the street noises that had kept her awake and thrilled for weeks after her arrival in the city.

  She moved well, another trait inherited from her mother. What her father called the Grandeau Grace. She had long limbs that had been suited to the ballet lessons she’d begged for as a child—then grown tired of. Barefoot, she padded into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and considered.

  She could whip up something interesting, she mused. She’d had cooking lessons, too—and hadn’t become bored with them until she’d outdistanced her instructor in creativity.

  Then she heard it and sighed. The music carried through the old walls, across the short hallway outside her door. Sad and sexy, she mused, the quiet sob of the alto sax. Mr. Mysterious in 3B didn’t play every day, but she’d come to wish he would.

  It always stirred her, those long liquid notes and the swirl of emotion behind them.

  A struggling musician? she wondered. Hoping to find his break in New York. Brokenhearted, no doubt, she continued, weaving one of her scenarios for him as she began to take out ingredients. A woman behind it, of course. Some cold-blooded redhead who’d caught him under her spell, stripped his soul, then crushed his still-throbbing heart under her four-inch Italian heel.

  A few days before, she’d invented a different lifestyle for him, one where he’d run away from his filthy rich and abusive family as a boy of sixteen. Had survived on the streets by playing on street corners in New Orleans—one of her favorite cities—then had worked his way north as that same vicious family—headed by an insane uncle—scoured the country for him.

  She hadn’t quite worked out why they were scouring, but it wasn’t really important. He was on the run and comforted only by his music.

  Or he was a government agent working undercover.

  An international jewel thief, hiding from a government agent.

  A serial killer trolling for his next victim.

  She laughed at herself, then looked down at the ingredients she’d lined up without thinking. Whatever he was, she realized with another laugh, apparently it looked like she was making him those cookies.

  * * *

  His name was Preston McQuinn. He wouldn’t have considered himself particularly mysterious. Just private. It was that ingrained need for privacy that had plopped him down in the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities.

  Temporarily, he mused, as he slipped his sax back into its case. Just temporarily. In another couple of months, the rehab would be completed on his house on Connecticut’s rocky coast. Some called it his fortress, and that was fine with him. A man could be blissfully alone for weeks at a time in a fortress. And no one got in unless the gates were lifted.

  He started back upstairs, leaving behind the nearly empty living room. He only used it to play—the acoustics were dandy—or to work out if he didn’t feel like going to the gym a couple of blocks away.

  The second floor was where he lived—temporarily, he thought again. And all he needed in this way station was a bed, a dresser, the right lighting and a desk sturdy enough to hold his laptop, monitor and the paperwork that they often generated.

  He wouldn’t have had a phone, but his agent had forced a cell phone on him and had pleaded with him to keep it on.

  He did—unless he didn’t feel like it.

  Preston sat at the desk, pleased that the little turn with his sax had cleared out the cobwebs. Mandy, his agent, was busy chewing on her inch-long nails over the progress of his latest play. He could have told her to spare the enamel. It would be done when it was done, and not a minute before.

  The trouble with success, he thought, was that it became its own entity. Once you did something people liked, they wanted you to do it again—only faster and bigger. Preston didn’t give a damn about what people wanted. They could break down the doors of the theater to see his next play, give him another Pulitzer, toss him another Tony and bring him money by the truckloads. Or they could stay away in droves, critically bomb the work and demand their money back.

  It was the work that mattered. And it only had to matter to him.

  Financially, he was secure, always had been. Mandy said that was part of his problem. Without the need or desire for money to keep him hungry, he was arrogant and aloof from his audience. Then again, she also said that was what made him a genius. Because he simply didn’t give a damn.

  He sat in the big room, a tall, muscular man with disordered hair the color of a well-fed mink’s pelt. Eyes of cool blue scanned the words already typed. His mouth was firm and unsmiling, his face narrow, rawboned and carelessly handsome.

  He tuned out the street sounds that seemed to batter against the windows day and night, and let himself slip back into the soul of the man he’d created inside the clever little computer. A man struggling desperately to survive his own desires.

  The harsh sound of his buzzer made him swear as he felt himself sucked back into that empty room. He considered snarling and waiting it out, then weighed in human nature and decided the intruder would probably keep coming back until he dispatched them once and for all.

  Probably the eagle-eyed old woman from the ground floor, Preston decided as he started down. She’d already tried to snag him twice when he’d headed out to the club in the evening. He was good at evading, but it was becoming a nuisance. Smarter to hit her face-on with a few rude remarks and let her huff away to gossip about him.

  But when he checked the peephole, he didn’t see the tidy woman with her bright bird’s eyes, but a pretty brunette with hair short as a boy’s and big green eyes.

  From across the hall, he realized, and wondered what the hell she could want. He’d figured since she’d left him alone for nearly a week, she intended to keep right on doing so. Which made her, in his mind, the perfect neighbor.

  Annoyed that she’d spoiled it, he opened the door, leaned against it. “Yeah?”

  “Hi.” Oh, yes, indeed, Cybil thought, he was even better when you got a good close-up look at the face. “I’m Cybil Campbell. 3A?” She offered a bright, friendly smile and gestured to her own door.

  He only lifted an intriguingly winged eyebrow. “Yeah?”

  A man of few words, she decided and continued to smile—though she wished his eyes would flicker away just long enough for her to crane her neck and see beyond him into the apartment. She couldn’t very well try it when he was focused on her, without appearing to be prying. Which, of course, she wasn’t. Really.

  “I heard you playing a while ago. I work at home and sound travels.”

  If she was here to bitch about the noise, she was out of luck, Preston mused. He played when he felt like playing. He continued to study her coolly—the pert, slightly turned-up nose; the sensuously ripe mouth; the long narrow feet with sassily painted pink toes.

  “I usually forget to turn the stereo on while I’m working,” she went on cheerfully, making him notice a tiny dimple that winked off and on beside her mouth. “So it’s nice to hear you play. Ralph and Sissy were into Vivaldi big-time. Which is fine, really, but monotonous when that’s all you hear. They used to live in your place, Ralph and Sissy,” she explained, waving a hand toward his apartment. “They moved to White Plains after Ralph had an affair with a clerk at Saks. Well, he didn’t really have an affair, but he was thinking about it, and Sissy said it was move out of the city or she’d scalp him in a divorce. Mrs. Wolinsky gives them six months, but I don’t know, I think they might make it. Anyway …”

  She held out the pretty yellow plate with a small mountain of chocolate-chip cookies heaped on it, covered by clear pink plastic wrap. “I brought you some cookies.”

  He glanced down at them, giving her a very brief window of opportunity to sneak a pe
ek around him and see his empty living room.

  The poor guy couldn’t even afford a couch, she thought. Then his unsmiling blue eyes flicked back to hers.


  “Why what?”

  “Why did you bring me cookies?”

  “Oh, well, I was baking them. Sometimes I cook to clear out my head when I can’t seem to concentrate on work. Most often it’s baking that does it for me. And if I keep them all, I’ll just eat them all and hate myself.” The dimple kept fluttering. “Don’t you like cookies?”

  “I’ve got nothing against them.”

  “Well then, enjoy.” She pushed them into his hands. “And welcome to the building. If you need anything I’m usually around.” Again she gestured vaguely with pretty, slim-fingered hands. “And if you want to find out who’s who around here, I can fill you in. I’ve lived here a few years now, and I know everybody.”

  “I won’t.” He stepped back and shut the door in her face.

  Cybil stood where she was a moment, stunned speechless by the abrupt dismissal. She was fairly certain that she’d lived for twenty-four years without ever having had a door shut in her face, and now that she’d had the experience, she decided she didn’t care for it.

  She caught herself before she could pound on his door and demand her cookies back. She wouldn’t sink that low, she told herself, turning sharply on her heel and marching back to her own door.

  Now she knew the mysterious Mr. Mysterious was insanely attractive, built like a god and as rude as a cranky two-year-old who needed a swat on the butt and a nap. Well, that was fine, just fine. She could stay out of his way.

  She didn’t slam her door—figuring he’d hear it and smirk with that go-to-hell mouth of his. But when she was safely inside, she turned to the door and indulged in a juvenile exhibition of making faces, sticking out her tongue and wagging her fingers from her ears.

  It made her feel marginally better.

  But the bottom line was the man had her cookies, her favorite dessert plate and her very rare animosity. And she still didn’t know his name.

  * * *

  Preston didn’t regret his actions. Not for a minute. He calculated his studied rudeness would keep his terminally pert neighbor with the turned-up nose and sexy pink toenails out of his hair during his stay across the hall. The last thing he needed was the local welcoming committee rolling up at his door, especially when it was led by a bubbly motormouth brunette with eyes like a fairy.

  Damn it, in New York, people were supposed to ignore their neighbors. He was pretty sure it was a city ordinance, and if not, it should be.

  Just his luck, he thought, that she was single—he had no doubt that if she’d had a husband she’d have poured out all his virtues and delights. That she worked at home and would therefore be easy to trip over whenever he headed out was just another black mark.

  And that she made, hands down, the best chocolate-chip cookies in the known universe was close to unforgivable.

  He’d managed to ignore them while he worked. Preston McQuinn could ignore a nuclear holocaust if the words were pumping. But when he surfaced, he started to think about them lying in his kitchen on their chirpy yellow plate.

  He thought about them while he showered, while he dressed, while he eased out the kinks brought on by hours sitting in one spot with posture his third-grade teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, had termed deplorable.

  So when he went down for what he considered a well-earned beer, he eyed the plate on the counter. He’d popped the top, took a thoughtful drink. So what if he had a couple? he mused. Tossing them in the trash wasn’t necessary—he’d given perky Cybil the heave-ho.

  She was going to want her party plate back, he imagined. He might as well sample the wares before he dumped the plate outside her door.

  So he ate one. Grunted in approval. Ate a second and blew out a breath of pure appreciation.

  And when he’d consumed nearly two dozen, he cursed.

  Like a damn drug, he thought, feeling slightly ill and definitely sluggish. He stared at the near-empty plate with a combination of self-disgust and greed. With what scraps of willpower he had left, he dumped the remaining cookies in a plastic bowl, then crossed the room to get his sax.

  He was going to walk around the block a few times before he headed to the club.

  When he opened the door he heard her stomping up the stairs. Wincing, he drew back, leaving his door open only a crack. He could hear that mile-a-minute voice of hers going, which had him lifting a brow when he saw she was alone.

  “Never again,” she muttered. “I don’t care if she sticks bamboo shoots under my nails, holds a hot poker to my eye. I will never, ever, go through that torture again in this lifetime. That’s it. Over, done.”

  She’d changed her clothes, Preston noted, and was wearing snug black pants with a tailored black blazer, offsetting them with a shirt the color of ripe strawberries and long dangles at her ears.

  She kept talking to herself as she opened a purse the size of a postage stamp. “Life’s too short to be bored witless for two precious hours of it. She will not do this to me again. I know how to say no. I just have to practice, that’s all. Where the bloody hell are my keys?”

  The sound of the door opening behind her made her jump, spin around. Preston noted that the dangles in her ears didn’t match and wondered if it was a fashion statement or carelessness. Since she apparently couldn’t find her keys in a bag smaller than the palm of his hand, he opted for the latter.

  She looked flushed, flustered and fresh. And smelled even better than her cookies. And because he noticed, she only irritated him more.