The perfect neighbor, p.13
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.13

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  that beautiful skin. She told me she was pregnant, and lovely, terrified tears slipped out of her eyes and down her cheeks. She blamed herself, begged me not to abandon her. Where would she go, what would she do? She had little money. She was afraid. She thought I would hate her.”

  “No,” Cybil whispered. “You wouldn’t hate her.”

  “Of course I didn’t. I didn’t hate her, I didn’t blame her. I was afraid, I was shaken, but part of me was thrilled. The decision had been taken out of my hands. I didn’t need to be practical now but could marry her, start a life with her.”

  He prowled now, restless in the cage of his own past. “Money was no problem. I’d come into a large part of my inheritance at twenty-five, would come into more at thirty. Money wasn’t a problem,” he said again, then lifted the poker and jabbed viciously at the logs blazing.

  “I dried her tears, and I held her, told her everything would be fine. It would be wonderful. We’d be married right away. We’d stay in Newport until the baby was born, then we’d go to New York just as we’d planned. It would be three of us instead of two, but we’d be happy. We had a touching parting scene as she left to go back to her little apartment—to rest and call her family and tell them the wonderful news. We agreed to go to my parents after the show that evening and tell them.

  “I started making plans almost immediately. Imagined myself as her husband, as the father of the child we’d made together.”

  “You wanted the baby,” Cybil said, remembering the ease with which he’d held little Charlie.

  “Yes, I did.”

  He turned to her then, his back to the fire. But the heat that pumped from the flames couldn’t reach the cold memories left inside him. “I wanted her, and the child, and the life I imagined we could make together. And while I was floating on that particular cloud, my sister came to my door.”

  He could still see it, still bring it back. Every movement, every gesture. Another play on another stage. “Like Pamela, she was weeping, she was trembling, she was pale. And like Pamela, she was pregnant. Further along, just showing, so I was worried at the state she was in. She clung to me, sobbing and sobbing, and finally managed to tell me her husband was having an affair.”

  His voice changed now, darkened, flattened, as did his eyes. “She told me that she’d dashed back home, leaving Jacob with my mother, because she’d forgotten something. They were to be out all day, so she wasn’t expected back only an hour after she’d left. Wasn’t expected to walk in and find her husband scrambling back into his trousers and a woman in her bed. Her own bed.”

  “Oh, Preston, how horrible for her.” She rose then, wanting to comfort. “How awful for your family. She must have …” She trailed off as it clicked. The scenes he’d been painting for her, the scenes he’d painted in his play. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

  He stepped back from the sympathy she offered. “Her name was Leanna in A Tangle of Souls, but she was pure Pamela. Beautiful and clever and cold. A woman who could act without rehearsing the lines. Who could play a man brilliantly, all for money, for power, for the possibilities. She would have married me for those things, and to give a socially prominent name to the baby my closest friend, my sister’s husband, had planted in her. But I was no longer in the mood.”

  “You loved her, and she hurt you. Hurt all of you. I’m so sorry.”

  “Yes, I loved her, but she taught me. You can’t trust the heart. My sister trusted hers, and it almost destroyed her. If she hadn’t had Jacob and the baby on the way, I think it would have. They needed her, and that’s what got her through.”

  “But you didn’t have that.”

  “I had my work, and the satisfaction of facing the woman who’d cut through our lives. She wept and she swore it was all a lie. Some terrible mistake. She begged me to believe her, and I very nearly did. She was that good.”

  “No,” Cybil murmured. “You were in love. You’d have wanted to believe her.”

  “Either way. We argued, and some of the layers on that perfectly presented mask of hers fell away. I saw her for what she was. A schemer, a liar, a cheat. A woman who thought nothing of seducing and sleeping with another’s husband for pleasure and going from him to another man for gain. But she finished the run of the play.” He smiled thinly. “The show must go on.”

  “How did you stand it?”

  “She was good, and it was only a matter of reminding myself the work was more important than she was, more important than anything else.” He arched a brow. “You think that was a cold decision on my part?”

  “No.” She laid her hands on his shoulders, then on his cheeks, wondering that he couldn’t see the hurt was still there. “No, I think it was brave.” Then she leaned into him, held him, sighing when his arms finally came around her. “She didn’t deserve even the smallest piece of your heart, Preston. Then or now.”

  “Now she’s only an interesting character in a play. I won’t give anyone that much ever again. I don’t have it to give.”

  “If you believe that, you’ve let her take more.” She lifted her head, and her eyes were drenched. “You’ve let her win.”

  “Nobody won, my sister, my friend, me. Three lives damaged, and all she got from it was a few auditions. Nobody won,” he murmured, and brushed a tear from her cheek with his thumb. “Don’t cry. I didn’t tell you to make you cry, just to help you understand who I am.”

  “I know who you are, and I can’t help hurting for you.”

  “Cybil.” He brought her close again. “If you keep wearing your heart that close to the surface, someone’s going to come along and break it.”

  She closed her eyes but didn’t tell him someone already had.

  Chapter 10

  It was time, Daniel decided, to have a private little chat with young Preston McQuinn. It was simple enough to lure the man up into his tower office while Cybil was busy with Anna in another part of the house. And Matthew—well, the boy was likely off somewhere or other looking for inspiration for one of his metal toys.

  Matthew’s sculptures invariably brought Daniel both puzzlement and pride.

  “Have a seat, lad. Stretch out your legs.” Daniel walked to the bookshelf, took out a copy of War and Peace and chose a cigar out of the hollow. “Will you have one?”

  Preston only lifted a brow. “No, thanks. Interesting literature, Mr. MacGregor.”

  “Well, a man does what he can to keep his woman off his back.” Daniel ran the length of the cigar under his nose, sniffed in appreciation, sighed in anticipation as he sat, then took his time lighting it. Part of the pleasure was in the small and delightful steps.

  He unlocked the bottom drawer in his huge oak desk, took out a large carved shell and set it in the center of his blotter as an ashtray. Following that came a tiny battery-operated fan. It was the newest of Daniel’s attempts to keep Anna from sniffing him out.

  “Wife doesn’t want me smoking.” The pity of it had Daniel shaking his head. “And the older she gets, the sharper her nose. Got one like a bloodhound,” he muttered, then settled back, sighed. “Now, then.”

  “What if she comes up?” Preston wanted to know.

  “We worry about that if and when, boy, if and when.” But his healthy fear of his wife’s wrath had him nudging the little fan closer. “So tell me, your play’s going well for you?”

  “Yes, it is.”

  “I’m not only asking as an investor, I want you to know. I’m interested in you.”

  “Mmm-hmm.”

  “Admire your father’s work. Got some of his books around here.” Daniel leaned back in the enormous leather chair, puffed out smoke. “A bird tells me that Hollywood’s taken quite an interest in your work, McQuinn.”

  “You’ve got a good ear for birds.”

  “I do indeed. How does it sit with you, this movie business?”

  “Well enough.”

  “You play poker, don’t you, McQuinn?”

  “I’ve been known to ante up occasionally.”


  “I’ll wager you play a fine game of it. You’re not one to give your hand away. I like that.” Contemplatively, Daniel tapped his cigar on the shell. “You’ll be in New York a few more weeks?”

  “Another month, anyway. Most of the work on the house should be done by then.”

  “A fine big house, too, by the sea.” Daniel smiled as Preston narrowed his eyes. “The birds tell me all manner of things. It’s good for a man to have a house of his own. Some of us aren’t meant to live in a hive, with people buzzing through the next wall. We need our own space, for ourselves, for our family. Room to spread out,” he continued, gesturing. “A place where a man can go to have a damn cigar in his own house without being nagged half to death.”

  As Daniel scowled, took another puff, Preston’s lips twitched.

  “True enough,” Preston agreed. “Though I wouldn’t say my house is anywhere near the scale of yours.”

  “Young yet, aren’t you? You build as you go. And you’d need the sea, as I did, having grown up with it outside your door.”

  “I prefer it to the city.” Since he wasn’t quite sure where the conversation was headed, Preston didn’t relax quite yet. “And if I had to live in a suburban development I’d likely slit my throat in a week.”

  Daniel laughed, puffed and eyed Preston through the cloud of smoke. “You’re a man who needs his privacy, and that’s a reasonable thing. But when solitude and privacy become isolation, it’s not always healthy, is it?”

  Preston angled his head. “I don’t see any neighbors mowing their yards and trimming their hedges when I look out the windows of Castle MacGregor.”

  Daniel’s grin flashed in his beard. “That you don’t, McQuinn. But while private we are, isolated we aren’t. You know Cybil grew up by the sea, as well.” He clamped the cigar between his teeth. “Along the coast of Maine, where her father guarded his privacy like a pit bull.”

  “So I’ve heard,” Preston said mildly.

  “Her father’s a good man for all he’s a Campbell.” Idly, Daniel drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. “Time was a highlander’d sooner bed down with rats and weasels than let a Campbell through the front door. You don’t hold the ’45 against him and his, do you, McQuinn?”

  It took him a minute, possibly longer, to realize Daniel referred to the Jacobite Rebellion over two hundred years before. Thinking a laugh would be out of place, he disguised it with a cough. “No,” he said, very seriously. “Times change. We have to move on.”

  “Right enough.” Pleased, Daniel thumped a fist on the desk. “And as I said, he’s a good man, and his wife’s a fine woman. Comes from good stock herself. Their children do them proud.”

  At sea, Preston merely nodded. “I’m sure you’re right.”

  “Of course I’m right. You’ve seen for yourself, haven’t you? She’s a bright and lovely woman, my Cybil. A heart big as the moon, warm as the sun. She draws people to her just by being. There’s a light about her, don’t you think?”

  “I think she’s unique.”

  “That she is. There’s no deceit in her, or guile,” Daniel continued, his blue eyes sharp and focused. “Too often she puts her own feelings aside to spare another’s. Not that she’s a doormat, not with that good Scots blood in her. She’ll spit when she’s cornered, but she’s more likely to hurt herself before she’d hurt another. Causes me some worry.”

  Though he was hearing no more than he’d seen for himself, Daniel’s words had Preston shifting uncomfortably in the chair. “I don’t think you have to worry about Cybil.”

  “It’s a grandparent’s right, duty and pleasure, if it comes down to it, to worry about his chicks. She wants a place to put all the love she holds inside her. The man who engages that heart of hers will live his life lucky.”

  “Yes, he will.”

  “You’ve had your eye on her, McQuinn.” Daniel leaned forward now. “I don’t need birds to tell me that.”

  More than my eye, Preston thought with an inward wince. “As you said, she’s a lovely woman.”

  “And you’re a single man of thirty. What are your intentions?”

  Well, Preston thought, that was cutting straight to the core. “I don’t have any.”

  “Then it’s time you got some.” To punctuate, Daniel banged his fist on the desk. “You’re not blind or stupid, are you?”

  “No.”

  “Well then, what’s stopping you? The girl’s exactly what you need to lighten up that serious nature of yours, to keep you from burrowing into a cave like a bear with indigestion.” Eyes narrowed, he jabbed out with the cigar. “And if I didn’t know you were just what’s best for her, you wouldn’t be within arm’s reach, I can tell you that.”

  “You put me in arm’s reach, Mr. MacGregor.” Feeling trapped, and furious because of it, Preston pushed out of his chair. “You dumped me on her doorstep, under the guise of doing me a favor.”

  “I did you the finest favor of your life, lad, and you should be thanking me for it, instead of looking murderous.”

  “I don’t know how the rest of the family and acquaintances handle your button pushing, but I can tell you I don’t appreciate or need it.”

  “If you didn’t need it,” Daniel disagreed in a roar, “why are you still moping about something that’s gone—and never really was—instead of taking hold of what is?”

  The temper that had been heating Preston’s eyes turned to ice. “That’s my business.”

  “It’s your flaw,” Daniel disagreed, more pleased than not to watch the anger, and the control. “And a man’s entitled to one or two. I’ve had over ninety years in this world to watch people, to measure them, to see them as they are. I’ll tell you something, McQuinn, that you’re either too young or too stubborn to see for yourself—you match, the pair of you. One balancing the other.”

  “You’re wrong.”

  “Hah! Damned if I am. The lass wouldn’t have asked you to this house if she wasn’t already in love with you. And you’d not have come unless you were already in love with her.”

  So he goes pale at that, Daniel thought, sitting back again with satisfaction. Love, for some, was a scary business.

  “You’ve miscalculated.” Preston spoke softly as his stomach clenched into a dozen tight fists. “Love has nothing to do with what’s between Cybil and me. And if I hurt her. When I hurt her,” Preston corrected, “you’ll own part of the blame for it.”

  He stalked out, leaving Daniel puffing on his cigar. Hurt was part of love, he acknowledged. Though he’d suffer for knowing his precious girl would ache a bit along the way. And yes, he’d own part of the blame for it. But when the man stopped wriggling like a stubborn trout on the line and made her happy … Well then, who would own the credit, he’d like to know, if it wasn’t Daniel MacGregor?

  And laughing, he finished his cigar in secret delight.

  * * *

  Cybil was sorry the trip to Hyannis had put Preston in a prickly mood. One, she thought, that hadn’t completely reversed itself after a week back in New York.

  He was a difficult man. She accepted that. Now that she knew the full story of what he’d been through, what had been done to him, she didn’t see how he could be otherwise.

  It would take him, a man with that much sensitivity, that much heart, a long time to trust again. A long time to allow himself to feel again.

  She could wait.

  But it hurt. She couldn’t stop it from hurting when he turned away from her just a little too quickly, or barricaded himself against her with his work, his music or the long, solitary walks he’d begun to take at odd hours.

  Walks where he made it clear he wanted to be alone, that he didn’t want to share with her.

  She told herself his work was giving him trouble—though he never talked about his play with her any longer. She imagined he didn’t think she could understand the pain, the joy, the frustration of his work or what parts of himself it could swallow. That stung, but she told herself she accep
ted it.

  She’d always been able to lie to herself more easily than she had to others.

  Her own work had taken a new turn and was involving more of her time and energy. The meeting she’d had just before leaving for Hyannis had been a vital one. But she’d told no one. Not family, not friends, not her lover.

  Superstitious, she supposed, as she climbed out of a cab in front of her building. She’d been afraid to say it out loud and jinx it before it was real.

  Now it was.

  She pressed a hand to her heart, felt it thud in hard, excited beats. Heard herself giggle. Now it was very real, and she couldn’t wait to tell everyone.

  Maybe she’d have a party to celebrate. A loud, silly, joyful bash of a party.

  Champagne and balloons. Pizza and caviar.

  As if preparing for it, she danced up the steps. She had to call her parents, her family, to grab Jody so they could squeal at each other.

  But first, she had to tell Preston.

  She used the knuckles of both fists, rapping a cheerful tattoo on his door. He’d be working, she thought, but this couldn’t wait. He’d understand.

  They had to celebrate. Glug champagne in the middle of the afternoon, get a little drunk and stupid and make crazy love.

  When he opened the door she was shining like a sunbeam.

  “Hi! I just got back. You won’t believe it.”

  He was rumpled, unshaven, and resented the fact that one look at her could yank his mind right out of his play. Just one look. “I’m working, Cybil.”

  “I know. I’m sorry. But I’m going to burst if I don’t tell somebody.” She lifted her hands to his face, rubbed them over the stubble. “You look like you could use a quick break anyway.”

  “I’m in the middle of things,” he began, but she was already breezing in.

  “I bet you haven’t eaten lunch. I just had the most incredible lunch at this new hot spot uptown. Why don’t I fix you a sandwich and we’ll—”

  “I don’t want a sandwich.” He heard the edgy snap to his voice, didn’t bother to soften it as he stalked to the stove to pour coffee that had been ripening for hours. “And I don’t have time for one. I want to work.”

  “You have to eat.” She had her head inside his fridge, then brought it out again when she heard him go upstairs. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She blew out a breath, rolled her eyes and started up after him.

  “Okay, forget the sandwich. I just have to tell you how I spent my day. God, McQuinn, it’s dark as a tomb in here.” Instinctively, she marched to the window, started to throw open the drapes.

  “Leave them alone. Damn it, Cybil.”

  Her hand froze, then dropped away, as slowly, as completely, as her mood. He was already at the keyboard, she noted, already closed off from her, just as he closed himself off from the life that surged and pulsed outside his curtained window.

  He worked with lamplight and stale coffee. And with his back to her.

  Nothing that was inside her, that had been bubbling like a geyser, mattered to him.

  “It’s so easy for you to ignore me,” she murmured. “To dismiss me.”

  There was no mistaking the hurt in her voice. He braced himself against it, refused to feel guilty. “It’s not easy, but right now it’s necessary.”

  “Yes, you’re working, and I’ve got some nerve, don’t I, interrupting genius, interfering with such a grand enterprise. One I couldn’t possibly understand.”

  Irritated, he flicked a glance at her. “You can work with people hovering. I can’t.”

  “Then again,” she continued, “it’s easy for you to ignore and dismiss me at other times, too, when work has nothing to do with it.”

  He pushed away from the keyboard, shifted toward her. “I’m not in the mood to argue with you.”

  “And, of course, it always comes down to your moods. If you’re in the mood to be with me or be alone. To talk to me or be quiet. To touch me or turn away.”

  There was a hint of finality in her tone that had panic skating up his spine. “If that didn’t suit you, you should have said so.”

  “You’re right. Absolutely. Exactly right. And just now it doesn’t suit me, Preston, to be treated like a mild annoyance easily swatted aside, then picked up again when you have a moment. It doesn’t suit me to have what matters to me shrugged off as unimportant.”

  “You want me to stop work and listen to how you spent the day shopping and having lunch?”

  She opened her mouth, closed it again, but not before one small sound of hurt had escaped.

  “I’m sorry.” Furious with himself, he got to his feet. She looked as if he’d slapped her. “I’m streaming toward the end of this, and I’m distracted, nasty.” He dragged his hands through his hair because she hadn’t moved, hadn’t stopped staring at him with those wide, wounded eyes. “Let’s go downstairs.”

 
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