The perfect neighbor, p.12
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.12

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “It’s a love story, set in New York. At least, that’s the way it’s turning out.”

  His gaze flicked past her shoulder when he heard laughter rolling down the hall. Yes, Anna thought, that seemed to be the way it was turning out.

  “Haven’t you given the man a whiskey yet, Anna?”

  Daniel stepped into the room and simply dominated it. Size, presence and that great booming voice that refused to thin with age. His eyes glittered blue as the lochs of his homeland; his hair and rich full beard were stunningly white.

  “Is that any way to welcome a man after he’s come in out of the rain and brought up my favorite grandchild from the city?”

  “Oh, fine,” Matthew muttered, trailing in behind him. “When you wanted your pool fixed I was your favorite grandchild.”

  “Well, it’s fixed now, isn’t it?” Daniel said, and with a bark of laughter slapped Matthew on the back with the affection a father grizzly might show to his cub.

  “It’s good to see you, Mr. MacGregor.” Preston crossed the room, hand extended to shake. But for Daniel this was rarely sufficient when he’d taken an interest in a man. He clapped Preston into a hug with the force of a steel trap biting closed.

  “You’re looking fit, McQuinn, and a good drink of whiskey always makes a Scotsman fitter.”

  “You’ll have a drop in your tea, Daniel,” Anna warned him as she rose to fetch the decanter.

  “A drop.” For a big man, he could still manage to sulk like a child. “Anna.”

  “Two drops,” she conceded with a smile tugging at her mouth. “Tell me, Preston, do you smoke cigars?”

  “Not as a rule, no.”

  Anna turned, angled her head in warning at Daniel. “Then if I come across you with one in your hand, I’ll know who stuck it there before he dashed out of the room.”

  “The woman’ll nag you to death,” Daniel muttered. “Well, sit down, boy, and tell me how you and Cybil are getting on.”

  Little alarm bells sounded in Preston’s head. “Getting on?”

  “Neighbors, aren’t you?”

  “Yeah.” Relieved, Preston sat. “Across-the-hall neighbors.”

  “Pretty as a primrose, isn’t she?”

  “Grandpa.” Cybil sighed as she wheeled in a loaded tea tray. “Don’t start on McQuinn. He hasn’t even been here ten minutes.”

  “Start what?” Daniel narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you pretty or not?”

  “I’m adorable.” She laughed and kissed his nose. While she was close, she whispered in his ear. “Behave and I might tip a bit of my whiskey into your tea while she’s not looking.”

  Daniel’s teeth flashed in a grin; his eyebrows wiggled. “There’s a lass.”

  “You won’t believe these scones, McQuinn.” Satisfied she’d bribed The MacGregor, Cybil loaded a small plate. “I can’t quite pull them off. Mine are close, but not quite there.”

  “Cybil’s a fine cook,” Daniel agreed, scowling when he watched his wife measure a measly two drops of whiskey into a cup for him. “You’ve been feeding the man a bit from time to time, haven’t you, lass? Like a proper neighbor.”

  “She made us all a potpie the other night.” Matthew loaded a scone with strawberry jam. He’d promised to be a buffer, he remembered. “Preston, you want whiskey or are you making do with tea?”

  “I’ll take the whiskey, thanks. Neat.”

  “And how else would a man drink it?” Daniel muttered, pouting into his teacup. “So you’ve had a taste of our Cybil,” he added, and watched with a barely suppressed grin as Preston nearly bobbled a scone.

  “Excuse me?”

  “Her cooking.” Daniel’s eyes radiated innocence. Oh, aye, he thought, I’ve got you on the reel, laddie. “Woman who can cook like my darling here ought to have a family to feed.”

  “Grandpa.” Cybil tapped her finger on her whiskey glass.

  When a man was torn between his drink of choice and his granddaughter’s future, what choice did he have? Sacrifices, Daniel mused, had to be made. “What man doesn’t appreciate a hot meal well made, I’d like to know? You can’t disagree with that, can you, lad?”

  Somehow, somewhere, there was dangerous ground, was all Preston could think. “No.”

  “There!” Daniel pounded a fist, made plates rattle. “Hah! McQuinn’s a good and honorable name. You’ve done proud by it.”

  “Thanks,” Preston said cautiously.

  “But a man your age should be thinking of what comes after him. You must be thirty by now.”

  “That’s right.” And how the hell do you know that? Preston wondered.

  “A man gets to be thirty, it’s time to take stock, to consider his duties to name and family.”

  “I’ve got a few years left,” Matthew whispered to Cybil.

  She merely elbowed him. “Do something,” she hissed.

  “If he turns it on me, it’s gonna cost you.”

  “Name your price.”

  “Oh, I will.” And cheerfully throwing himself on the sword, Matthew dropped into a chair. “Grandpa, I haven’t told you about this woman I’ve been seeing lately.”

  “Woman?” Distracted, Daniel blinked, then zeroed in on his grandson. “What woman would that be? I thought you were too busy building your big metal toys to pay any mind to women.”

  “I pay them plenty of mind.” Matthew grinned, lifted his whiskey in salute. “This one’s something special.”

  “Is she, now?” Shifting gears, Daniel settled back. “Well, it would take a special lass to catch your eye for more than a blink.”

  “Oh, I’ve been looking at this one for a while. Name’s Lulu,” Matthew decided on the spot. “Lulu LaRue, though I think that’s her stage name. She’s a table dancer.”

  “Dances on tables!” Daniel roared as his wife choked back a laugh, then continued to drink her tea. “Naked on tables?”

  “Of course naked. What’s the point otherwise? She’s got the most amazing tattoo on her—”

  “Naked, tattooed dancing girls! I’ll be damned, Matthew Campbell. You want to break your dear mother’s heart? Anna, are you listening to this?”

  “Yes, of course I am, Daniel. Matthew, stop teasing your grandfather.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” Matthew shrugged, grinned and watched Daniel’s eyes narrow into blue slits. “But I don’t see why I can’t have a naked, tattooed dancing girl if I want.”

  * * *

  Much later, after the rain had passed and night had fallen and Preston had slipped into her room to take advantage of her and the big four-poster bed, Cybil hummed in contentment.

  It had been a near perfect day.

  Perfect enough that she let herself curl up against the man she loved and pretend, in this fairy tale world, that he had scaled the walls of the castle to find her. And love her. And stay with her for always.

  “Tell me something,” he murmured, too relaxed to worry about how soothing it was to be there with her arm draped over him, her head in the curve of his shoulder and their bodies sharing a lazy, intimate warmth.

  “Okay. Despite exhaustive research, the exact number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin has never been fully documented.”

  “I thought it was 634.”

  “That’s mere speculation. Nor in related studies has it ever been fully discovered precisely how many frogs one must kiss before finding the prince.”

  “That goes without saying. But …” He loved the way she chuckled as she shifted closer. “What I really wanted to know—and you would be the handiest authority on the subject—is what the hell was all that with your grandfather at tea?”

  “Which all?” She lifted her head, skimmed her hair back from her brow, then rolled her eyes. “Oh, that all. I didn’t warn you because I had the pathetic hope that it wouldn’t be necessary. The fault is entirely mine.”

  She shifted, rolling over so that her body lounged cozily over his. “Do you know you have wonderful eyes, McQuinn? They’re almost translucent, li
ke I could dive right into that moonlight blue and just disappear.”

  “Is that a genuine comment or an evasion of the subject at hand?”

  “Both.” But since it had to be dealt with, she sat up, kissed him, then reached for the robe she’d tossed at the foot of the bed earlier.

  “Why do you have to cover up whenever you talk to me?”

  She glanced over, and to his surprise, flushed a little. “A latent puritanical streak?”

  “Incredibly latent,” he noted, but only smiled as she belted the robe. “Now, about your grandfather and his sudden interest in my family name—or as he put it during dinner, the good blood, strong stock in my ancestry.”

  “Well, McQuinn, you’re a Scotsman.

  “Third-generation Rhode Islander.”

  “Hardly matters in the vast and historic scheme of things.”

  She rose and poured them a glass to share from the pitcher of ice water that had been placed on the bedside table. “I’ll apologize first,” she said, without looking at him. “But hope you’ll understand Grandpa means well. It’s all out of love, and he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t like you.”

  Something much too akin to nerves moved into Preston’s stomach. “Done what, exactly?”

  “I didn’t realize it—or it didn’t sink in fully until we got here. It should have,” she murmured, sitting on the bed and handing him the glass before she’d sipped herself. “The other night when you mentioned how you knew each other and he’d put you onto the apartment across from mine, I should have latched on to it. Well.” She jerked her shoulders. “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”

  “What, Cybil?”

  She blew out a breath, lifted her lashes and looked directly into his eyes. “He’s picked you out for me. It’s just that he loves me,” she said quickly. “And he wants what he thinks is best for me—that’s marriage, a family, a home. And that appears to be you.”

  It wasn’t nerves, Preston discovered. It was outright terror. “How the hell did he come to that conclusion?” he demanded, and set his water back on the table with a hard click of glass on wood.

  “It’s not an insult, McQuinn.” Her voice chilled several frigid degrees. “It’s a compliment. As I said, he loves me very much, so he obviously thinks a great deal of you if he believes you’d make me a proper husband and be a good father for the many great-grandchildren he hopes I’ll give him.”

  “I thought you didn’t want marriage.”

  “I didn’t say I did. I said he wanted it for me.” Her chin jerked up before she got out of bed again, stalking to the bureau to snatch up her brush and drag it over her hair. “And the fact that you’re so obviously appalled is incredibly insulting.”

  “I suppose you think it’s amusing.”

  “I think it’s sweet.”

  “You think it’s sweet for your ninety-something grandfather to pick out men for you?”

  “He isn’t grabbing them off the street corner for me to audition.” Ridiculously hurt, she slammed down the brush. “You needn’t panic, McQuinn. I’m not buying my trousseau or booking chapels. I’m perfectly capable of finding my own husband when and if I want one. Which I’ve already said I don’t.”

  She tossed her head and, for lack of something better to do with her hand, wrenched open a jar of cream and began to slather it on her hands.

  “Now, I’m tired, and I’d like to go to bed. And since you don’t care to sleep with me after sex, you should go.”

  Was it just temper, he wondered, or was there something more in the reflection of her eyes in the mirror? “Why are you angry?”

  “Why am I angry?” she said quietly, unsure if she wanted to weep or scream. “How can someone who writes about what’s inside people with such insight, such sensitivity, ask a question like that? Why am I angry, Preston?”

  She turned then because it was best to face the issue head-on. “Because you’re sitting there in the bed we just shared, still warm from me, and utterly baffled, completely shocked that someone who loves me thinks there could or should be something more between us than sex.”

  “Of course there’s more between us than sex.” His own temper started to twitch as he grabbed his jeans and tugged them on.

  “Is there? Is there really?”

  The cool, flat tone had him looking over, had the sneaky worm of guilt sliding into him. “I care about you, Cybil. You know I do.”

  “You find me amusing. That’s not the same thing.”

  Yes, there was more than temper, he realized before she turned away. There was hurt. Somehow he’d hurt her again without plan or purpose. He took her arm, firmly turned her back. “I care about you.”

  Her heart, already too much his, softened. “All right.” She touched a hand to his, squeezed, released. “Let’s forget about it.”

  He wanted to agree, to keep it simple. But the smile she’d tossed him before she’d walked to the window hadn’t reached her eyes. And those eyes had been wounded. “Cybil, I don’t have more than that.”

  “I didn’t ask for more than that. The moon’s come out. All the clouds have been blown away. We can walk the cliffs tomorrow. It’s a little chilly, though.” Absently, her heart weeping in her breast, she rubbed her arms. “I think we need another log on the fire.”

  “I’ll do it.”

  The fire in the fieldstone hearth still burned bright and cheerful. But he took a log from the carved box, sat it on the flames, then watched them rise up, lick, curve greedily around it.

  For a time the only sound in the room was the crack and the hiss of wood being consumed.

  Maybe it was because she didn’t ask, so deliberately didn’t ask, that he was compelled to tell her. “Would you sit down?”

  “I like standing here looking at the stars. You can’t see the stars in New York. It’s all the lights. You forget to look up, much less wonder where the stars are. In Maine, where I grew up, they filled the sky. I never realize I miss them until I see them again. You can get along, very well, for long periods, without a lot of things. Hardly even noticing you’re missing them.”

  When his hands came to her shoulders, she tensed, an instinctive movement it took concentrated effort to undo. But she smiled when she turned. “Why don’t we go out and get a better look at them while they’re there.”

  “I want you to sit down and listen to me.”

  “All right.” Struggling to be casual, she walked to one of the deep chairs in front of the fire. “I’m listening.”

  He sat beside her, leaned forward in his chair and kept his eyes on her face. “I always wanted to write. I can’t remember otherwise. Not the novels my father had hoped for. It was always plays. Everything was very clear in my head. The stage, each set, the movement of the actors, the precise angle and quality of the lights. Often, maybe too often, that was the world I lived in. You come from a prominent family, one with a lot of social obligations and demands.”

  “I suppose that’s true.”

  “So do I. I tolerated that end of it, enjoyed it occasionally, but for the most part just tolerated or eluded it.”

  “You value your privacy,” she said. “I understand that. My father’s the same, and Matthew.”

  “I valued it. I needed it.” Too restless to sit, he rose to wander the room. “I love my parents, my sister, no matter how little we sometimes understand one another. I’m sure I hurt them countless times with small acts of carelessness, but I do love them, Cybil.”

  “Of course you do,” she began, but said nothing more when he shook his head.

  “My sister, Jenna, she was always so outgoing, so easy with people. She’s a lovely woman. She wasn’t quite twenty-one when she married. Married my best friend from college. I introduced them.”

  It still scraped him raw to think of that. The first step in the whole miserable journey had been his. Glancing at the water, he wished it were whiskey.

  “They were great together,” he murmured. “Shining with love, full to burstin
g with hope and plans. Jacob came along just over a year later. And less than a year after that she was pregnant again and glowing with it.”

  He stuck his hands in his pockets, moved to the window. But he didn’t see the stars. “About that time, my first play was being produced. Locally, just a small theater group, but a place with cachet. My father’s an important writer, so that made his son’s work of some interest.”

  “It’s of interest on its own,” Cybil declared, and he glanced back, grateful to her for understanding his need for that separate legitimacy. But she would, he thought, because of who she was and from what she’d come.

  “Now I certainly hope so. But not then, not right at the start. And it was vital to me that my work stand on its own and not lean on his. Part of that was pride,” he continued thoughtfully. “But part of it was respect. Whatever the reason, this play, this first of mine to be produced, was incredibly important to me.”

  Because he turned away, seemed to need a moment to gather himself, she spoke again. “I didn’t sleep at all the night before my first strip came out. However much I loved the work, I couldn’t have stood it if people thought I was using my father’s accomplishments as a stepping-stone.”

  “Some always will,” Preston murmured. “You can’t let it matter. The work has to matter most, and this play did to me. There wasn’t any aspect of it I wasn’t involved in—the set designs, the staging, the casting, the rehearsals, lighting cues. All of it.”

  She smiled a little. “I imagine you drove everyone, including yourself, insane.”

  “I’m sure I did. The company had a lot of talent. The actress who played the lead was stunning, certainly the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She dazzled me.”

  He faced her. “I’d just turned twenty-five, and I was hopelessly in love with her. Every minute I spent with her was a gift. Just to watch her onstage, saying lines I’d written, that had come from me. Having her look at me and smile and ask me if that was how I meant it to be. The more I became involved with her, the less the play meant to me.”

  Even now it burned inside him, what he’d tossed aside. And what he’d had stolen. “She was gentle. Oh, and sweet. Even a little shy when she wasn’t onstage. I made excuses to be with her, then began to realize she was making them to be with me. We became lovers on a Sunday afternoon, in her bed, and afterward, she cried on my shoulder and told me she loved me. I think I would have cut off my arm for her at that moment.”

  Cybil folded her hands in her lap and wondered what it would be like to be loved like that by a man like him. She didn’t speak because she could see there was more. And what was left still caused him pain.

  “For weeks,” he continued, “my world revolved around her. The play opened, garnered very decent reviews. All I could think was that the play had been the vehicle that had given her to me. That was all that mattered.”

  “Love should matter most.”

  “Should it?” He laughed shortly and the cynical light was back in his eyes. “But words last, Cybil. That’s why a writer should take care with them.”

  Love lasts. She wanted to say it, nearly did, but she could already see his hadn’t.

  “I bought her gifts,” he continued, “because they made her happy, took her dancing or to the club because she loved to be with people. She was so beautiful I thought she deserved to be showcased. She needed the right clothes, the right jewelry, to be showcased in, didn’t she? So why not buy them for her? And if she needed a little to tide her over, why not write her a check? It was only money, and I had more than enough.”

  Cybil could see where it was going, or thought she could. She wanted, so badly, to go to him, to slip her arms around him in comfort. But it wasn’t unhappiness in his voice, in his eyes; it was bitterness.

  “She had talent, and I wanted to help her become an important actress. Why not use my influence—or my father’s, my family’s—to boost her career?”

  “You loved her,” Cybil said quietly, already hurting for him. “What you wouldn’t have used for yourself, you would use for someone you loved.”

  “And that makes it right?” He shook his head. “No, it’s never right to use someone else. But I did. She talked about marriage, shyly again, almost wistfully. I hesitated there. Her career needed her attention. We could wait to settle down. After the play, I told her, after she began to move up, we’d go to New York and we’d both own theater. We’d own it together.”

  Together, he thought, was all too often a word that didn’t hold true. “Then one day she came to me, weeping, shaking, so pale you could almost see through
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