The perfect neighbor, p.10
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.10

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  Amazing.

  And plundered on the living room rug.

  Incredible.

  And being savaged under the hot, beating spray of the shower was an experience she would be more than willing to repeat.

  Through the hours of the night he’d reached for her, thrilled her, had never seemed quite able to get enough of her. Or she of him. They’d been so completely in tune, so utterly together, that at times it had seemed his heart had beat inside hers.

  The candles had guttered out in their own fragrant pools, and light had been seeping softly through the windows when she’d fallen into an exhausted sleep.

  Only to wake alone.

  She knew it shouldn’t hurt her that he hadn’t slept with her, hadn’t woken with her. It wasn’t to be like that between them. She knew that, accepted that. There would be no soft and foolish words between them, no baring of souls.

  The border of intimacy stopped at the physical, with his side of it walled thick. Her heart was her own problem, not his.

  How could he know she’d never given herself so absolutely to any other man? Why should he be expected to know that the primitive power of their desire for each other was driven by love on her side?

  She rubbed her tired eyes and ordered herself up and out of bed.

  She’d walked into the relationship with her eyes open, she thought as she tidied up the bedroom. She’d known its limitations. His limitations. They could be together, enjoy each other, as long as certain lines weren’t crossed.

  Well, that was fine. She wasn’t going to pine and sigh over it. She was in charge of her own emotions; she was responsible for her own actions; and she was hardly going to mope around because she was involved with an exciting, fascinating, interesting man.

  “Damn it!” She hurled her shoes into the closet. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!”

  Cybil leaped on the bed, grabbed the phone. She had to tell someone, talk to someone. And when it was this vital, there was really only one someone.

  “Mama? Mama, I’m in love,” she said, then burst into wild tears.

  * * *

  Preston’s fingers flew over the keyboard. He’d had less than three hours’ sleep, but his system was revved, his mind clear as crystal. His first major play had been wrenched out of him, every word a wound. But this was pouring out, streaming like wine out of a magic bottle that had only been waiting to be decanted.

  It was so fully alive. And for the first time in longer than he could remember, so was he.

  He could see it all perfectly, the sets, the staging, the characters and everything inside them. The doomed, the damned, the triumphant. A world in three acts.

  There was an energy here, inside these people who formed on the page and lived on the stage already set inside his head. He knew them, knew how their hearts would leap and how they would break.

  The thread of hope that ran through their lives hadn’t been planned, but it was there, woven through and tangled so that he found himself riding on it with them.

  He wrote until he ran dry; then, disoriented, glanced around the room. It was dark but for the lamp he’d switched on and the steady glow from his computer screen. He hadn’t a clue what time it was—what day, for that matter. But his neck and shoulders were stiff, his stomach empty, and the coffee in the cup on his desk looked faintly revolting.

  Standing, he worked out the worst of the kinks, then walked to the window, pushed open the curtains. There was a hell of a spring storm going on. He hadn’t noticed. Now he watched the flashing of lightning, the scurry of desperate pedestrians rushing to appointments or shelter.

  The entrepreneur on the corner was doing a brisk business in the umbrellas, which no one in New York seemed to own for longer than it took the pavement to dry.

  He wondered if Cybil was looking out her window, watching the same scene. What she would think of it, how she would turn something so simple and ordinary as a thunderstorm in the city into the bright and ridiculous.

  She’d use the Umbrella Man, he decided, work up an entire biography for him, give the figure in black slicker and hood a name, a background, a personality full of quirks. And the anonymous street vendor would become part of her world.

  She had such a gift for drawing people into her world.

  He was in it now, Preston mused. He hadn’t been able to stop himself from opening that colorful door and stepping inside the confusion, the delights, the energy.

  She didn’t seem to understand he didn’t belong there.

  When he was inside, when he was surrounded by her, it seemed as though he could stay. That if he let it, life could be just that simple and extraordinary.

  Like a storm in the city, he thought. But storms pass.

  He’d nearly let himself sink into it that morning. Nearly let himself sink in and stay in that warm bed, with that warm body that had turned to curl around him in sleep.

  She’d looked so … soft, he thought now. So welcoming. What had moved through him as he’d watched her in that fragile light had been a different kind of hunger. One that yearned to hold, to sigh out all the troubles and doubts and hold on to dreams.

  It had been safer for both of them to leave her sleeping.

  He flicked the curtains closed and walked downstairs.

  He started fresh coffee, foraged for food, toyed with the idea of a nap.

  But he thought of her, and of the night, and knew the restlessness inside him wouldn’t allow him to rest.

  What was she doing over there?

  He had no business knocking on her door, interrupting her work just because his was finished for now. Just because the drum of rain made him feel edgy and alone. Just because he wanted her.

  He liked being alone, he reminded himself as he prowled the living area. He needed the edge for his work.

  He wanted to sit with her and watch the rain. To make slow, lazy love with her while it pounded the streets and sidewalks and cocooned them from everything but each other.

  Wanted her, he admitted, just a little too much for comfort.

  He told himself it was safe enough to want. It was crossing the line from want to need that was dangerous. Just how close, he wondered, was he already skirting that very thin, very shaky line?

  When a woman got inside a man this way, it changed him, left him wide-open so that he made mistakes and exposed pieces of himself better left alone.

  She wasn’t Pamela. He wasn’t so blind he believed every woman was a liar and a cheat and cold as stone. If he’d ever known anyone with less potential for cruelty and deceit, it was Cybil Campbell.

  But that didn’t change the bottom line.

  From want to need to love were short, skidding steps. Once a man had taken the fall and ended up broken, he learned to keep his balance at all costs. He didn’t want the desperation, the vulnerability, the loss of self that went hand in hand with genuine intimacy. And he’d stopped believing himself capable of those things.

  Which meant there was nothing to worry about, he told himself, sipping his coffee and staring at his door as if he could see through it and through the one across the hall. She wasn’t asking for anything more than passion, companionship, enjoyment.

  Exactly as he was.

  She was perfectly aware the arrangement was temporary.

  He’d be gone in a few weeks, and their lives would go comfortably in other directions. She with her crowds of friends, he with his contented solitude.

  He’d set his cup down with a violent snap before he realized the idea annoyed him.

  They could still see each other from time to time, he told himself as he began to pace again. His house in Connecticut was a reasonable commute from the city. Isn’t that why he’d chosen it in the first place?

  He came into the city often enough. There was no reason he couldn’t make it more often.

  Until she got involved with someone else, he thought, jamming his hands in his pockets. Why should a woman like that wait around for him to breeze in and out of her life?<
br />
  And that was fine, too, he decided as his temper began to rumble like the thunder outside. Who was asking her to wait around? She could damn well hook herself up with any idiot her interfering friends tossed at her.

  But not, by God, while he was still across the hall.

  He strode to her door, intending to make a few things clear. And opened it just in time to watch Cybil launch herself joyfully into the arms of a tall man with sun-streaked brown hair.

  “Still the prettiest girl in New York,” he said in a voice that hinted of beignets and chicory. “Give me a kiss.”

  And as she did, lavishly, Preston wondered which method of murder would be most satisfying.

  Chapter 8

  “Matthew! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? When did you get in? How long are you staying? Oh, I’m so happy to see you! You’re all wet. Come inside, take off your jacket—when are you going to buy a new one? This one looks like it’s been through a war.”

  He only laughed, hefted her off her feet and kissed her again. “You still never shut up.”

  “I babble when I’m happy. When are you— Oh, Preston.” She beamed at him out of eyes shining with joy. “I didn’t see you there.”

  “Obviously.” Bare hands, he thought, would be the most satisfying. He would simply take the guy with the smug brown eyes and the scarred leather jacket apart piece by piece. And feed each one to Cybil. “Don’t let me interrupt the reunion.”

  “It’s great, isn’t it? Matthew, this is Preston McQuinn.”

  “McQuinn?” Matthew ran his tongue around his teeth. He was fairly sure the man braced in the hallway wanted to break them. “The playwright. I caught your work the last time I was in the city. Cyb cried buckets. I practically had to carry her out of the theater.”

  “I wasn’t that bad.”

  “Yes, you were. Of course, you used to tear up during greeting-card commercials, so you’re an easy mark.”

  “That’s ridiculous, and— Oh, my phone. Hang on a minute.” She darted inside, leaving the men eyeing each other narrowly.

  “I’m a sculptor,” Matthew said in the same lazy drawl. “And since I really need my hands to work, I’ll tell you I’m Cybil’s brother before I offer to shake.”

  “Brother?” The murderous gleam shifted but didn’t quite fade. “Not much family resemblance.”

  “Not especially. Want to see my ID, McQuinn?”

  “That was Mrs. Wolinsky,” Cybil announced as she dashed back. “She saw you come in but couldn’t get to her door in time to waylay you. I’m supposed to tell you she thinks you’re more handsome than ever.” Chuckling, Cybil grabbed both his cheeks. “Isn’t he pretty?”

  “Don’t start.”

  “Oh, but you are. Such a pretty face. All the female hearts flutter.” She laughed again, then snagged Preston’s hand. “Come on, let’s have a drink to celebrate.”

  He started to refuse, then shrugged. It wouldn’t do any harm to take a few minutes to size up Cybil’s brother.

  “What kind of sculptor?”

  “I work in metal primarily.” Matthew peeled off his jacket, tossed it carelessly over the arm of a chair. It barely had time to land before Cybil snatched it off.

  “I’ll just hang this in the bathroom to dry. Preston, pour us some wine, will you?”

  “Sure.”

  “She have any beer?” Matthew wanted to know and sauntered over to lean on the counter while Preston moved through the kitchen with a familiarity that had the big brother arching a brow.

  “Yeah.” He plucked out two, popped the tops, then took out the wine for Cybil. “You work in the South?”

  “That’s right. New Orleans suits me better than New England. Weather-wise, it gives me more room to work outside if I want. Cyb hasn’t mentioned you. When did you move in?”

  Preston lifted his beer, noted Matthew’s eyes were nearly the exact color of Cybil’s hair. Like good aged whiskey. “Not long ago.”

  “Work fast, do you?”

  “Depends.”

  “Preston.” Cybil heaved a sigh as she came back. “Couldn’t you have used glasses?”

  “We don’t need glasses.” Matthew grinned, keeping a challenging eye on Preston. “We’ll just drink our beer like real men, then chew up the bottle.”

  “Then you probably don’t want any dainty cheese and crackers, or girlie pate to go with it.”

  “Says who?” Matthew demanded, and slid onto a stool. “You used to have four of these, didn’t you?”

  “Oh, Preston borrowed one. What are you doing in New York, Matthew?” She stuck her head in the fridge.

  “Just some quick preliminary business for my show this fall. I’m only here for a couple days.”

  “And you checked into a hotel, didn’t you?”

  “Your revolving-door policy drives me crazy.” Matthew gestured toward Preston with his beer. “You’ve lived across the hall for a bit, right? So you know what goes on in here. It’s terrifying. She lets …” He shuddered dramatically. “People in here.”

  “Matthew is a professional recluse,” Cybil said dryly as she began preparing a small feast. “You two should get along famously. Preston doesn’t like people, either.”

  “Ah, finally. A man of sense.” Matthew aimed one of his quick, crooked smiles at Preston and decided he might like him after all. “I let her talk me into staying here once,” Matthew continued, stealing a cracker. “Oh, the horror. Three days, people dropping in, talking, eating, drinking, standing around, bringing their relatives and pets.”

  “It was only one little dog.”

  “Who insisted on sitting in my lap, without invitation, then ate my socks.”

  “If you hadn’t left them lying on the floor, he wouldn’t have eaten them. Besides, he only chewed them a bit.”

  “It’s all a matter of perspective,” Matthew concluded. “And you see, in a civilized hotel, the only people who drop in are housekeeping and room service—and they knock first and very rarely bring along small, toothy dogs.” He reached over, pinched her chin. “But I’ll let you cook me dinner, darling.”

  “You’re so good to me.”

  “You ever had Cyb’s homemade chicken potpie, McQuinn?”

  “Can’t say I have.”

  “Well, watch me sweet-talk us into some.”

  * * *

  It was an interesting way to spend the evening, Preston thought later, watching Cybil relate to her brother. The ease of affection, humor, occasional exasperation. He remembered it had been like that between him and his sister. Before Pamela.

  After that, there had still been affection, but the ease of it had vanished. All too often he had felt an awkwardness that had never been there before.

  But awkwardness wasn’t a problem with the Campbells. They cheerfully told embarrassing stories about each other, and when that paled, ganged up to tell him about their absent and therefore defenseless sister and any number of cousins.

  By the time he left, he was wondering if he could work bits of them into act two, for a little comic relief.

  Work, Preston decided, since Cybil was likely to be occupied with family for quite some time yet, was his best hope for the rest of the night.

  * * *

  “I like your friend.” Matthew stretched out his legs and swirled the brandy Cybil had opened in his honor.

  “That’s handy—so do I.”

  “A little on the sober side for you.”

  “Ah, well.” She settled in beside him on the sofa. “A little change of pace now and again can’t hurt.”

  “Is that what he is?” Matthew gave her earlobe a tug. “I noticed you two didn’t waste any time getting locked together when I so accommodatingly strolled upstairs to make a phone call.”

  “If you were making a phone call, how do you know what we were doing down here? Unless you were spying.” She smiled sweetly, fluttered her lashes and got another jerk on the ear.

  “I wasn’t spying. I just happened to glance down th
e stairs at one very strategic moment. And since he looked at you any number of times during the evening like he knew you’d be a lot more tasty than your chicken potpie—which was great, by the way—I cleverly put two and two together.”

  “You were always bright, Matthew. I suppose it’s reasonable to say, since you’re being nosy, that Preston and I are together.”

  “You’re sleeping with him.”

  Deliberately, Cybil widened her eyes. “Why, no—we’ve decided to be canasta partners. We realize it’s a big commitment, but we think we can handle it.”

  “You always were a smart-ass,” he muttered.

  “That’s how I make my fame and fortune.”

  “Now you’re making it turning McQuinn across the hall into Emily’s elusive and irritable Quinn.”

  “How could I resist?”

  Matthew drummed his fingers, shifted. “Emily thinks she’s in love with him.”

  Cybil said nothing for a moment, then shook her head. “Emily is a cartoon character who pretty much does what I tell her to do. She’s not me.”

  “She has pieces of you—some of your most endearing and annoying pieces.”

  “True. That’s why I like her.”

  Matthew blew out a breath, frowned into his brandy. “Look, Cyb, I don’t want to horn into your personal life, but I’m still your big brother.”

  “And you’re so good at it, Matthew.” She leaned over to kiss his cheek. “You don’t have to worry about this. Preston didn’t and isn’t taking advantage of your baby sister.” She took Matthew’s brandy, sipped, handed it back. “I took advantage of him. I baked him cookies, and ever since he’s been my love slave.”

  “There’s that mouth again.” Uncomfortable, he pushed off the sofa, paced a bit. “Okay, I don’t want the details, but—”

  “Oh, and I was so looking forward to sharing all of them with you, especially the home videos.”

  “Shut up, Cybil.” Working his way from uncomfortable to embarrassed, Matthew dragged a hand through his hair. “I know you’re grown-up, and you’re seriously cute in spite of that nose.”

  “My nose is very attractive.” She sniffed with it.

  “We all worked hard to make you believe that, and you’ve overcome that little deformity so well.”

  She had to laugh. “Shut up, Matthew.”

  “All I want to say is … be careful. You know? Careful.”

  Her eyes went soft as she rose. “I love you, Matthew. In spite of that annoying facial tic.”

  “I don’t have a facial tic.”

  “We worked hard to make you believe that.” Laughing again, she slipped her arms around him for a fierce hug. “It’s so nice to have you here. Can’t you stay longer?”

 
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