The perfect neighbor, p.15
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.15

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  And his blood swam with it; his heart jolted until he was as lost and open as she.

  He murmured her name as he slipped into her, moaned it as she wrapped around him in welcome.

  With long, deep thrusts, he moved in her while their mouths met in a soft and stirring kiss. In a slow, sleek rhythm, she moved under him while their hands met to complete yet another link.

  They swallowed each other’s sighs, gripped each other’s hands as they let themselves shatter.

  And he was there when she awoke, holding her, as he’d held her while they slept.

  * * *

  “It’s definitely number one of the modern-day Top Ten Most Romantic Evenings.” Jody expertly changed Charlie’s diaper, cooing at him between commentary. “It knocks that Valentine’s Day carriage ride around the park and dozen white roses with diamond-chip earrings attached that my cousin Sharon experienced down to a poor second place. She’s going to be peeved.”

  “No one’s ever paid that much attention,” Cybil murmured, hugging one of the teddy bears in Charlie’s vast collection. “Not just the you-know.”

  “But the you-know.” Jody cocked her eyebrows as she fastened Charlie’s fresh diaper. “That was excellent, right?”

  “It was spectacular. You know that scene in Through the Mist, where Dorian and Alessa find each other after being cruelly separated by her evil, ambitious uncle?”

  “Oh.” Jody rolled her eyes, lifting Charlie up to bounce him. “Do I ever. I was up till two reading that book, then I woke up Chuck.” She smiled reminiscently. “We were both a little tired the next day but very, very loose. Anyway”—she shook herself before carrying Charlie into the living room so he could practice his crawling—“it was that good?”

  “It was better.”

  “No way.”

  “It was like having him take my heart out and hold it, then give it back to me.”

  “Oh, man.” Weak-kneed, Jody slipped into a chair. “That’s beautiful, Cyb. Just beautiful. You ought to write a romance novel yourself.”

  “But it wasn’t just that. It was all of it. Everything.” Still giddy, she threw her arms out and twirled in a circle, making Charlie rock back on his butt and clap in delight.

  “I’m so in love with him, Jody. I didn’t think you could be this much in love and not have it all just come steaming out of you. There shouldn’t be room inside for it all.”

  “Oh.” Jody’s sigh was long and loud. “When are you going to tell him?”

  “I can’t.” With a sigh of her own, Cybil picked up Charlie’s red plastic hammer and tapped the oversize head on her palm. “I’m not brave enough to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear.”

  “Cyb, the guy’s crazy about you.”

  “He’s got feelings for me, and maybe, maybe if I can wait, if he realizes I’m not going to let him down, he’ll let himself feel more.”

  “Let him down?” The very idea ruffled Jody’s feathers. “You never let anyone down. But maybe this time you’re letting Cybil down.”

  “He’s got reasons to be careful,” she said, then shook her head before Jody could speak. “I can’t tell you about it. They’re his own.”

  “Okay.”

  “Thanks. I’ve got to go. I have a million errands to run. Need anything?”

  “Actually, I do. If you’re going out anyway.”

  “I’ll just add it to the list. I’ve got a few things to pick up for Mrs. Wolinsky, and I told Mr. Peebles I’d see if the green grapes looked good at the market. Just let me find my shopping list.”

  “I’m only asking because you’re going out anyway and because it’s you.” Jody bit her lip, then grinned. “Don’t tell anybody what you’re getting for me, okay?”

  “I won’t.” Absently, Cybil dug through her purse. “I know that list is in here somewhere.”

  * * *

  It took longer than she’d expected—but Cybil found shopping usually did. Then, by the time she’d delivered the goods to Mrs. Wolinsky, the grapes—which had looked appetizing enough for her to buy a pound of her own—to Mr. Peebles and knocked on Jody’s door, it was after five o’clock.

  She hissed in frustration when Jody didn’t answer. It appeared her friend could stand the suspense, though Cybil herself wanted instant gratification. But either Jody had taken Charlie out for a little walk or she was visiting one of the other neighbors and they’d both just have to wait.

  Arms loaded, Cybil took the elevator up.

  And grinned like a fool when she saw Preston waiting for her in the hall. “Hi.”

  “Hi, neighbor.” He scooped the bags out of her arms, then bent down and kissed her. “Hold it,” he said when she dropped back from her toes to the balls of her feet. “Let’s do that again.”

  “Okay.” Laughing, she wound her arms around his neck, shifted back to her toes and put a great deal more energy into the greeting. “How’s that?”

  “That was fine. What have you got in here? Bricks?”

  Searching for her ever-elusive key, she laughed again. “Food mostly, and some cleaning supplies. Some this and some that. I picked up a few things for you. The apples looked very good, and they’re better for you to snack on while you’re working than candy bars or stale bagels.”

  She found her key with a little aha! and unlocked the door. “Oh, and I got you some ammonia—it’ll take care of that grime you’re letting build up on your windows.”

  “Apples and ammonia.” He set the bags on the counter. “What else could a man ask for?”

  “Cheesecake, straight from the deli. It was irresistible.”

  “It’ll have to wait.” He spun her around, off her feet, and began to twirl with her.

  “Well, you’re in a mood, aren’t you?” Grinning, she bent down to kiss him. “If your smile got any bigger, I might fall in.”

  “You’d be better than cheesecake. I finished the play.”

  “You did?” The hands that were braced on his shoulders slid around to hug his neck. “That’s wonderful. That’s great.”

  “I’ve never had anything move so fast. It still needs work, but it’s there. All there. You had a lot to do with it.”

  “Me?”

  “So much of you kept jumping into it. Once I stopped trying to push you back out, it just raced.”

  “I’m speechless. What did you write about me? What was I like? What did I do in it? Can I read it?”

  “So much for speechless,” he noted, and set her back on her feet. “After I fiddle with it a bit more you can read it. Let’s go to the diner and celebrate.”

  “The diner? You want to go celebrate something like this with spaghetti and meatballs?”

  “Exactly.” And he didn’t give a damn if it was sentimental. “With you, where you once took a struggling musician out for a hot meal.”

  “Did you put that in there? About me paying you? God.”

  “You’ll like it, don’t worry.”

  “What’s my name—in the play, what’s my name?”

  “Zoe.”

  “Zoe.” She pursed her lips, considered, then the dimple fluttered at the corner of her mouth. “I like it.”

  “Nothing ordinary quite fit. She kept tossing them back at me.” He laughed a little, shook it off.

  “You look so happy.” She reached up, brushing at his hair. “It’s nice to see you look so happy.”

  “I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Come on. Let’s go.”

  “I have to put the groceries away, fix my face. Then we’ll go.”

  “Go fix whatever you think’s wrong with your face. I’ll put them away.”

  “All right. They actually have places,” she called out as she ran up the stairs. “They don’t just get tossed into cupboards.”

  “Just make it fast,” he told her, and started pulling things out of the first bag.

  He’d been going crazy for the past hour, just waiting for her to get back so he could tell her. Tell her first. And to tell her, to find a
way to tell her, that somehow, somewhere, over the last few weeks, everything had changed for him.

  And though he’d fought it, ignored it, denied it, it had changed nonetheless. He realized that for the first time in much, much too long, the sensation he continued to feel was simple happiness.

  She was right. He looked happy. He was happy. But it wasn’t just the play. It was Cybil, and it had been all along.

  She made him happy.

  It had come out in his work. There was an underlying glow of hope in this play he hadn’t intended to put there when he’d begun. But it was just there—shimmering and impossible to resist. The way she was.

  It had come out in his life when she had come into his life. With cookies and chatter and compassion. With generosity and laughter and verve.

  What he felt for her—what she, being who she was, had given him no choice but to feel—filled him, completed him and, he thought, in a very real sense saved him.

  The last line of his play said it, he mused.

  Love heals.

  With a little time, a little effort, he thought, he had a chance of making the kind of life with her he’d stopped believing really existed.

  He reached in the second bag, pulled out a box. And felt the world that had so recently gone rock steady, waver, shake and fall away under his feet.

  “I was going to change, but I decided not to waste the time when we could be celebrating.” She clattered down the steps at a dead run, the foolish earrings he’d given her swinging. “I just have to call Jody, see if she’s back yet. Then we’re out of here.”

  “What the hell is this, Cybil?” Pale, coldly furious, he tossed the home pregnancy test kit on the counter. “Are you pregnant?”

  “I—”

  “You think you’re pregnant, but you don’t tell me. What? Were you going to pick your time, your place, your mood, then let me in on it?”

  The color, excitement and pleasure that had been glowing in her cheeks drained so that she was as pale as he now. “Is that what you think, Preston?”

  “What the hell am I supposed to think? You waltz in, all smiles, not a care in the world, and there’s this.” He rapped a finger on the box. “And you’re the one who claims she doesn’t play games, doesn’t tell lies. What else is keeping this from me but both of those?”

  “And that makes me like Pamela, doesn’t it?” All the joy that had shimmered in her heart throughout the day turned to ashes, cold and gray. “Calculating, deceitful. Just one more user.”

  He had to steady himself, to calm, but the slash of betrayal where he had finally, finally decided to trust was ripping through him. “This is you and me, no one else. I want an explanation.”

  “I wonder if there’s ever really been a you and me and no one else,” she murmured. “I’ll give you an explanation, Preston. I picked up apples for you, grapes for 1B and several small items for Mrs. Wolinsky. And I picked up that handy little will-it-be-pink-or-blue kit for Jody. She and Chuck are hoping they’re expecting a baby brother or sister for Charlie.”

  “Jody?”

  “That’s right.” Every word she spoke hurt her throat. “I’m not pregnant, so you can relax on that score.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Oh, so am I. I’m terribly sorry.” Her eyes ached as she picked up the box, examined it. “Jody was so excited when she asked me to buy this. So hopeful. For some people the idea of making a child is a joyful one. But for you,” she went on, putting the box down, making herself look at him, “it’s a threat, just a bad memory of a bad time.”

  “It was a poor reaction, Cybil. Knee-jerk.”

  “You could say instinctive, I suppose. What would you have done, Preston, if it had been mine? If I’d been pregnant? Would you have thought I’d tricked you, trapped you, done it on purpose to ruin your life? Or maybe you’d have wondered if I’d been with another man and was laughing at you behind your back.”

  “No, I wouldn’t have thought that.” The very idea shocked him. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I wouldn’t have thought that.”

  “What’s ridiculous about it? She did it—why not me? Why the hell not me? You let her jump right back in here. You’re the one who left the door open for her.”

  “You’re right. Cybil—”

  She stepped back sharply when he reached for her. “Oh, don’t. I can’t quite figure out if you think I’m just another calculating bitch or pathetically malleable. But I’m neither. I’m just me, and I’ve been nothing but honest with you. You had no right to hurt me like this, and I had no right to let you. But that stops now. I want you to go.”

  “I’m not going until we settle this.”

  “It’s settled. I don’t blame you for it. I’m just as much at fault. I gave too much and expected too little. You were honest with me. ‘This is all I have. Don’t ask for more,’ you said. ‘This is what I am. Take it or leave it.’ It’s my own fault that’s what I did. But I won’t be doing it anymore. I need someone in my life who respects me, who trusts me. I’m not settling for less. So I want you out.”

  She strode to the door, flung it open. “Get the hell out.”

  Because in spite of the fire in her eyes, they were swimming with tears; despite the fists her hands were clenched in, they were shaking. He went to the door, but he stopped, looked at her.

  “I was wrong. Completely wrong. Cybil, I’m sorry.”

  “So am I.” She started to slam the door, then drew a deep breath. “I lied. I haven’t always been honest with you, but now I will be. I’m in love with you, Preston. And that’s the pity of it.”

  He said her name, started toward her, but she shut the door. He heard the locks snap into place.

  He pounded on the door, cursed through it. He paced the hallway, then stalked into his own apartment to call her. But she wouldn’t answer.

  He tried pounding again, and finally feeling that everything he’d begun to treasure in his life was slipping away, he tried begging. But she was upstairs, with that door closed, as well, and couldn’t hear him as she wept in the dark.

  Chapter 12

  “I ought to go find the son of a bitch and break his legs, his arms. Then his neck.” Grant Campbell paced the kitchen of the home he’d built with his wife, his mood as dark and rough as the sea that thrashed outside.

  “That wouldn’t stop her from hurting.” Gennie turned from the window where she’d been watching for her daughter and studied her husband.

  Long and lean, she mused, and still just a bit dangerous. So much the man she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. And so much more.

  “It’d make me feel a hell of a lot better,” Grant muttered. “I’m going out to get her.”

  “No, don’t.” Gennie laid a hand on his arm before he could storm out the door. “Let her be awhile.”

  “It’s dark,” he said, and felt helpless.

  “She’ll come in when she’s ready.”

  “I can’t stand it. I can’t stand the look he put in her eyes.”

  “She has to hurt before she can heal. We both know that.” Because they both needed it, Gennie slipped into his arms, rested her head on his shoulder. “She knows we’re here.”

  “It was easier when one of them would fall down. Scrape or break something.”

  “You didn’t think so then.” Her laugh was as warm as it had been when he’d first met her; her voice was rich and recalled the scent of magnolias in full bloom. She tipped back her head, cupped his face. “You always hurt more than they did.”

  “I just want to put her on my lap, make it go away.” He lowered his brow to Gennie’s. “Then I want to rip the bastard’s lungs out.”

  “Me, too,” she said, pleased when he chuckled.

  That was how Cybil saw them when she came in the room. The two of them standing in the kitchen, standing close, their eyes on each other’s.

  And that, she decided, that bond, that intimacy, was what she wanted. What she’d been willing to give.

 
She walked to them, slipped an arm around each to make a circle. “Do you know how many times in my life I’ve come in here and seen the two of you just like this? And how lovely it is?”

  “Your hair’s wet.” Grant rubbed his cheek over it.

  “I was watching the waves crash.” She tilted her head to kiss him. “Stop worrying so, Daddy.”

  “I will. When you’re fifty. Maybe.” He patted her cheek. “Want some coffee?”

  “Mmm, no. Nothing really. I think I’ll take a hot bath, then snuggle into bed with a book. It always worked for me when I was a teenager working off a crush.”

  “During those crises, I ran your bath,” her mother reminded her. “Why break tradition?”

  “You don’t have to do that, Mama.”

  “Let me fuss.” Gennie slipped an arm around her shoulders.

  With a sigh, Cybil let herself be guided out. “I was sort of hoping you would.”

  “Your father needs to be alone to pace and curse your young man.”

  “He’s not my ‘young man,’” Cybil muttered as they started up the wide, circular stairs Grant had designed to echo the narrow, metal ones in the lighthouse just beyond the house. “He never was.”

  “But you’re not a teenager now.” Gently, Gennie turned Cybil as they moved into the bedroom where Cybil had dreamed her young-girl dreams. “And this isn’t a crush.”

  The tears came again, spurting out of her center, flooding her heart, throat, eyes, as she shook her head. “Oh, Mama.”

  “There, baby.” She led Cybil to the bed, still covered with its colorful quilt, and, sitting beside her, opened her arms.

  “I want to hate him.” Burrowing into the comfort, Cybil wept and clung. “I want to hate him. If I could, for just a little while, I’d stop loving him.”

  “I wish I could tell you that you would. I wish I knew. Some men are so hard, so baffling.” Gennie rocked her daughter as she spoke. “I know you, sweet baby. I know if you love him there’s something in him that makes him worthy of it.”

  “He’s wonderful. He’s horrible. Oh, Mama.” Cybil leaned back, weeping still. “He’s just like Daddy.”

  “Oh, God help you.” With a half laugh, Gennie gathered her close again.

  “I always loved the story.” Her breath hitched, and she gratefully took the tissue Gennie snagged from the box near the bed. “The story about how you met—when your car broke down in the storm and you were lost, and you stumbled on the lighthouse where he was living like a hermit. And he was so cranky and rude.”

  She paused to blow her nose, while Gennie stroked her hair and added, “He couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”

  “The way he tells it, you burst in on him. And he was annoyed because you were wet and beautiful.” Cybil sighed and studied her mother’s face with its honey-toned skin, its strong bones, the lovely fall of dark hair that framed it. “You’re so beautiful, Mama.”

  “You have my eyes,” Gennie said softly. “That makes me feel beautiful.”

  Tired after the storm of tears, Cybil wiped them dry. “We’re just wrong for each other,” she said at length. “Preston and I. He’s so fiercely private, so absorbed in his work. But it’s not that he doesn’t have humor.”

  She sighed, rose, walked to the window so that she could see the moon on the water. “Sometimes it can be incredibly charming, unexpected, delightful. He’s so moody you never know what’s going to pop up. And there’s this amazing sensitivity, and you realize he’s almost afraid to trust, to feel. Then he touches you, and you’re lost. All the things that he is, all of those complicated things he is, are there when he touches you. But he still doesn’t quite let you in.”

 
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