The perfect neighbor, p.14
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.14

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “No, I have to go.” Because she could feel ridiculous tears stirring in her throat, burning there. “I have some calls to make, and I have a headache,” she said, lifting a hand to rub at her throbbing temple. “It makes me irritable. I think I need some aspirin and a nap.”

  She started out, stopping when he laid a hand on her arm. He felt her tremble and absorbed a hard wash of shame. “Cybil—”

  “I don’t feel well, Preston. I’m going home to lie down.”

  She broke free, rushed out. He winced as he heard the slam of the door. “You stupid son of a bitch,” he muttered, rubbing his fingers against his eyes. “Why didn’t you just kick her a couple of times while you were at it?”

  Disgusted with himself, he paced the room, shoving his hands in his pockets, then pulling them out again to yank at the drapes.

  The sun was brilliant, streaming through the glass, making him narrow his eyes in defense. Maybe he did close himself off from what was on the other side, he thought. He worked better that way. And he didn’t have to justify or explain his work habits to anyone.

  He didn’t have to hurt her that way.

  But damn it, she’d burst in on him at the worst possible time. He was entitled to his privacy, to his space when the work and the words were racing through him.

  He didn’t dismiss her. He didn’t ignore her. How the hell did you ignore someone who wouldn’t get out of your mind no matter what else was sharing the space with her?

  But he’d been trying to, hadn’t he? Very deliberately trying to do both, ever since the little session with Daniel MacGregor in his tower office in Hyannis Port.

  Because the clever, canny, meddling old man was right.

  He was already in love with her.

  If he ignored it, dismissed it, kept pushing it just a little further out of reach, it might go away before it got a good, firm grip on him.

  He wasn’t risking love again, not when he knew exactly what it could do to twist heart and soul, to wring every drop of blood out of them. He wasn’t going to allow himself to become that vulnerable to her.

  He’d get over it, he told himself, and pulled the curtains shut again. He’d put things back on balance and they’d both be happier.

  And as far as his insufferable behavior of the last few days, he’d make it up to her. She hadn’t done anything to deserve it, except exist. She’d done nothing but give, he thought. He’d done nothing but take.

  Knowing work was out of the question, he went downstairs. He considered going across the hall, knocking, leading in with the apology he owed her. But she was entitled to her privacy, as well, he decided. He’d give it to her and take a walk.

  He didn’t think about buying her flowers until he saw them, bright and sunny in an outdoor cart. Not roses, he mused. Too formal. Not the daisies—they were cheerful but ordinary. He settled on tulips in butter yellow and creamy white.

  The minute they were in his hand, he felt lighter.

  He kept walking, realizing he’d gone on too long without taking the time to really let his mind clear. As it did, he thought more about what she’d said in that brief, dark scene in his room.

  Just how often had she nudged aside her own moods, her own needs, to accommodate his? The MacGregor had hit that one, as well. It was her nature to think about the needs of those she cared about before her own.

  He’d never known anyone as selfless, generous or unfailingly happy in her own skin. He’d stopped being all those things, except when he was with her. When he let himself really be with her.

  She’d been so excited when she’d burst into his apartment. He’d become so used to seeing her that way he hadn’t considered it might have been something special that had put that shine in her eyes.

  He’d taken care of that quickly enough, he thought viciously.

  And he’d taken her for granted, he realized, almost from the first moment.

  He could change that. And would. He’d give her back as much as he took, put them on equal ground. So when the time came to step back from each other—and it would—they might have a chance to do so as friends.

  He simply couldn’t imagine his life without her as part of it any longer.

  He stayed out the rest of the afternoon, into early evening. When he went to her door with flowers he didn’t feel foolish. He felt settled. And when she opened it, he felt right.

  “Did you get some rest?”

  “Yes.” She’d dived into sleep the way a rabbit dives into a thicket. To hide. “Thanks.”

  “Feel like company?” He brought the tulips up into her line of sight. And when she stared at them, he recognized simple shock. “And tulips?”

  “Ah … sure. They’re wonderful. I’ll get a vase.”

  Just how much had he left out, he wondered, if his bringing her a handful of flowers stunned her? “I’m sorry about this afternoon.”

  “Oh.” So the flowers were an apology, she thought, as she took a blue glass vase from a cupboard. She shook off me vague disappointment that they hadn’t been for no reason at all and turned to smile. “It doesn’t matter. It’s what you get when you disturb a bear in his den.”

  “It matters.” He laid a hand on hers over the tulips. “And I’m sorry.”

  “All right.”

  “That’s it? A lot of women would make a man grovel a little.”

  “I don’t care for groveling much. Aren’t you lucky?”

  He lifted her hand, turning it over to press his lips to the palm. “Yes. I am.” And for the second time he saw blank shock on her face.

  He’d never given her tenderness, he realized, amazed at his own stupidity. Never given her the simple glow of romance. “I thought, if you’re feeling better, you might like to go out to dinner.”

  She blinked. “Out?”

  “If you like. Or if you’re not feeling up to it,” he continued, coming around the counter, “we can have a quiet dinner in. Whatever you want,” he murmured, cupping her face to brush his lips over her forehead.

  “Who are you? And what are you doing in Preston’s body?”

  He chuckled, then kissed her cheeks, one, the other. “Tell me what you want, Cybil.”

  To be touched like this. Looked at like this. “I … I can just fix something here.”

  “If you want to stay in, I’ll take care of dinner.”

  “You? You? All right, that’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

  He drew her into his arms, held her. “I’m not threatening to cook. We’d never survive the night that way.” He nuzzled her hair, stroked it. “I’ll order in.”

  “Oh, well, all right.” He was holding her, she thought dizzily. Just holding her, as if that was enough, as if that was everything.

  “You’re tight.” He murmured it, sliding his hands up to rub at the tension in her shoulders. “I don’t think I’ve ever known you to be knotted up. The headache still bothering you?”

  “No, not much.”

  “Why don’t you go up. Soak in the tub until you’re relaxed. Then you can put on one of those robes you’re so fond of and we’ll have a quiet dinner.”

  “I’m fine. I can …” She trailed off as his mouth skimmed hers, retreated, then returned, softly, gently, sweetly enough to dissolve her knees.

  “Go on up.” He drew her away, smiling as she stared up at him with slumberous, confused eyes. “I’ll take care of everything.”

  “All right. I guess I’m a little unsteady yet.” Which might explain why she wasn’t entirely sure how to get upstairs in her own apartment. “The, ah, number for the pizza place is on the phone.”

  “I’ll take care of it.” He gave her a nudge toward the steps. “Go relax.”

  “Okay.” She started to the steps, up, then stopped and turned back to study him. “Preston?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Are you …” With a half laugh she shook her head. “Nothing. Never mind. I won’t be long.”

  “Take your time,” he told her. It was going to require a
bit of his to make certain everything was ready for her when she came back down.

  If the hint of romance nearly shocked her speechless, he thought she’d have a hard time forming a single word by the time the evening he was planning was over.

  He picked up the phone, punched the button on memory next to Jody’s name. “Jody? Preston McQuinn. Yeah. Listen, does Cybil have a favorite restaurant around here? No, not the diner,” he said with a laugh. “We’re moving upscale. Let’s try French and fancy.”

  He had to grin at Jody’s long, three-toned “Oh,” then scribbled down the name she gave him. “I don’t suppose you’d have the number handy. You do, huh? You’re a genius. Now, let’s see if you can hit three for three. Which dessert on their menu sends her into a coma? Got it, thanks. Special?” He glanced upstairs, grinned. “No, nothing special. Just a quiet dinner in. Thanks for the tip.”

  He laughed again as Jody continued to shoot out questions. “Hey, we both know she’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”

  He hung up, dialed the restaurant and outlined his needs. Then, metaphorically pushing up his sleeves, got down to work.

  Chapter 11

  She did as he’d suggested and took her time. She needed it to adjust to this strange new mood of his. Or was it a side of him, she wondered, he just hadn’t shown her before?

  How could she have known he had such sweetness in him? And how could she have predicted that his showing her, giving her that sweetness, would make it so much more difficult for her to stay in control of her own feelings?

  She loved him when he was careless and cross, when he was amused and amusing, when he was hot and hungry. How much more could she love him when he was kind and caring?

  He was making an effort, she thought, to apologize to her for hurting her. And he didn’t even know, not really, just what he’d done. But it mattered enough—she mattered enough—for him to want to make it right again.

  How could she say no?

  A quiet, casual evening at home would be good for both of them. He didn’t like crowds, and at the moment, she didn’t have the energy for them herself. So they’d eat pizza in front of the TV, be easy with each other again. They’d laugh, talk about something unimportant and make love on the sofa while an old movie flickered on the screen.

  They’d make things simple again. Because simple was really what was best for both of them.

  Steadier, she belted a long, silky blue robe, flicked her fingers through her nearly dry hair, and started downstairs.

  She heard the music first. Low, dreamy. The kind that set the pulse for seduction. It didn’t puzzle her for long. After all, the man liked his music. But when she was halfway down the steps, she saw the candles burning. Dozens of them, with pinpoint flames that flickered and swayed.

  He was standing in that shimmering light, waiting for her.

  He’d changed into trousers and a black shirt and had shaved off the two days’ growth of beard. His hand was already held out for hers, and she stepped down to take it, more than a little dazzled at the way the light glinted on his hair and deepened the blue of his eyes.

  “Feeling better?”

  “I’m fine. What’s going on here?”

  “We’re having dinner.”

  “The set’s a little elaborate for …” He raised her hand to his lips, nibbled lightly at her knuckles, and had the breath strangling in her throat. “Pizza,” she managed, and he only smiled.

  “I like looking at you in candlelight. Seeing what it does to your eyes. Those exotic, enormous eyes,” he murmured, and drew her close to kiss them gently closed. “And your skin.” He trailed his lips over her cheek. “That impossibly soft skin. I’m afraid I’ve put bruises on it forgetting just how soft it is.”

  “What?” Her head seemed to be circling slowly.

  “I’ve been careless with you, Cybil. I won’t be tonight.” He lifted her hands again, kissed them again, and had her heart stumbling.

  “I have something for you,” he told her, and picked up a small square box with an elaborate pink bow from the counter.

  Instantly, she whipped her hands behind her back. “I don’t need gifts. I don’t want them.”

  He frowned, puzzled at the shaky edge in her voice. Then realized she was thinking of Pamela. “It’s not because you need them, or ask for them, or anything else for that matter. It’s because they made me think of you.” He held the box out. “Open it before you decide. Please.”

  Feeling foolish, she took the box, gently removed the bow. “Well, who doesn’t like presents?” she said lightly. “And you missed my birthday.”

  “I did?”

  He said it with such guilty surprise she laughed. “Yes, it was in January, and just because you didn’t know me is really no excuse for not giving me a present. So this will …” She stopped, stared into the box at the earrings, two long dangles of hematite in the shape of a dozen tiny, foolish fish. Like minnows on the line.

  She laughed, rolled with it as she took them out, held them up and shook so they would clack together. “They’re ridiculous.”

  “I know.”

  “I love them.”

  “I figured you would.”

  Eyes sparkling, she slipped the thin wire backs through her ears. “Well, what do you think?”

  “They’re you. Definitely.”

  “It’s such a sweet thing to do.”

  She tossed her arms around him, kissed him lavishly enough to have his blood heating. Then he heard the sniffle.

  “Oh, God, don’t. Don’t do that.”

  “Sorry.” She pressed her face to his throat. “It’s just—flowers and candles and silly fish all in one night. It’s so thoughtful.” But she drew a long breath, blew it out, stepped back. “There, all clear.”

  “Thank God.” He brushed his thumb over her lashes where a tiny tear clung. “Ready for champagne?”

  “Champagne?” Baffled, she lifted her hands. “Well, it’s tough not to be ready for champagne.”

  She watched as he stepped into the kitchen, took a bottle from her own crystal ice bucket and began to open it. What in the world had gotten into him? she wondered. Suddenly, he was relaxed, happy, romantic …

  “You finished your play! Oh, Preston, you finished it.”

  “No, I didn’t. Not quite.” He popped the cork, poured the wine.

  “Oh.” Trying to puzzle it out, she angled her head as he turned, handed her a glass full of straw-colored, bubbling wine. “Then what are we celebrating?”

  “You.” He touched his glass to hers. “Just you.” He laid a hand on her cheek, then lifted his own glass to her lips.

  She tasted the wine, a froth on the tongue, silk in the throat. But it was the way he looked at her that made her head spin. “I don’t know what to say to you.”

  “Well, there’s an unprecedented event.” Smiling, he brought the wine to his own lips, tasted it. Tasted her.

  “Ah, so this is all a ploy to shut me up.” Chuckling, relaxed again, she enjoyed the champagne. “Very clever, aren’t you?”

  “I haven’t even started.” He took the glass from her, set it aside, then drew her into his arms. Even as she lifted her mouth, expecting the kiss—expecting, he was sure, demand and heat—he skimmed his cheek over hers and began to move to the rhythm of the music. “I’ve never asked you to dance.”

  “No.” Her eyes drifted closed. “You haven’t.”

  “Dance with me, Cybil.”

  She ran her hands up his back, laid her head on his shoulder and fell into the music and him. They danced, swaying together in the kitchen washed with candle glow.

  When his lips grazed her jaw, she turned her head so that his mouth cruised over hers. Her pulse was slow, slow and thick, her limbs weak as water.

  “Preston.” She murmured it, rising on her toes to give him more.

  “That must be dinner,” he said against her lips.

  “What?”

  “Dinner. The buzzer.”

  “Oh.
” She’d thought the buzzing was in her head, and had to brace a hand on the counter for balance when he left her to release the outer door.

  “I hope you’re not disappointed,” he commented, unlocking her door. “It isn’t pizza.”

  “Oh, that’s all right. Anything’s fine.” How was a woman supposed to eat when her stomach was full of tiny, energetic butterflies?

  But her eyes widened when, rather than a delivery boy, two tuxedoed waiters appeared at the door.

  She watched, astonished, as with discretion and efficiency they arranged food on the table Preston had already set with her best dishes. In less than ten minutes, they were gone, and she’d yet to find her voice.

  “Hungry?”

  “I … It looks wonderful.”

  “Come, sit down.” He took her hand again, led her to the table in front of the window, then bent to brush a kiss at her nape.

  She must have eaten. She would never be able to remember what, or how it had tasted. Her innate powers of observation had deserted her. All she could see was Preston. All she would remember was the way his fingers had brushed hers, how his mouth had skimmed over her knuckles. How he had smiled and poured more wine, until her head was swimming with it.

  How he had looked at her when he’d risen and held out a hand for hers to bring her to her feet. The way her heart had tripped when he’d lifted her right off them and into his arms.

  She suddenly seemed so delicate. So vulnerable when she trembled. Even if he’d wished it otherwise, he couldn’t have been anything but gentle.

  He carried her up the steps, into the bedroom, and laid her on the pillows. He lit the candles as he had once before, but this time when he turned to her, when he came to her, his touch was feather soft.

  And he took her, dreaming, into the kiss.

  He gave more than he’d thought he had left in him. Found more in her open response than he’d believed possible. If she trembled, it wasn’t triumph he felt but tenderness.

  And he gave it back to her.

  Slow, silky, sumptuous kisses. Long, liquid, lingering caresses. He had her floating on some high, lace-edged cloud where the air was full of perfume and the world beyond it insignificant.

  Gently, he slipped the robe from her, the glide of his hands sending silvery shivers along her skin and shimmering warmth beneath it. Through dazed eyes she watched as he drew back, as his gaze followed the lazy trail of a single fingertip over her body.

  “You’re so lovely, Cybil.” Those suddenly intense blue eyes met hers. “How many times have I forgotten to tell you? To show you?”

  “Preston—”

  “No. Let me do both. Let me watch you enjoy being touched as I should have touched you before. Like this,” he murmured, skimming his fingertips over her.

  Her breath caught, and the cloud beneath her began to rock. Then he lowered his head and let his mouth follow the path his fingertips had blazed.

  Now she was drowning, slowly floating beneath the surface of a warm dark sea. Helpless there, drifting with only his hands and lips to anchor her. And that first wave came in a long, liquid crest that washed through her system to leave it weak and heavy with pleasure.

  He wanted to have her steep in it, to sate her with it. No sharp flash this time but a slow burn. He explored and exploited every inch of her, lingering when her breath quickened, savoring when her body arched on each steadily building delight.

 
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