The perfect neighbor, p.16
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.16

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Good Lord. He is like your father. Cybil, you have to do what’s right for you. But if you love him this much, you may never be happy unless you at least try to work things out with him.”

  “He thinks I’m frivolous.” The fighting edge came back in her voice, pleasing Gennie enormously. “And that my work is less important than his just because it’s different. He doesn’t trust me. He thinks he can flick me off like a gnat one minute, and he can’t keep his hands off me the next.”

  She whirled around, ready to spew out more complaints, and saw her mother smiling. “What?”

  “How did you find another? I thought I had the only one.”

  “Grandpa found him.”

  Gennie’s smile sharpened, her aristocratic eyebrows arched. “Oh,” she said in the regal tone Cybil recognized as dangerous. “Oh, really.”

  For the first time in more than twenty-four hours, Cybil smiled.

  * * *

  Preston scowled and shoved his sax back in his case. Damn the woman. He couldn’t even play out his frustration. He certainly couldn’t work, which he’d proven after spending most of a miserable day between staring at his screen and going across the hall to bang on Cybil’s door.

  That was before he’d finally realized she wasn’t inside anymore.

  She’d left him. Which he decided was the smartest thing she’d done since she’d met him. And after brooding over it, he’d figured out the best thing he could do for both of them was to be gone when she got back. From wherever the hell she’d gone.

  He was going back to Connecticut in the morning. He could tolerate construction workers, plumbers, electricians and whoever else would descend on him on a daily basis for the next few weeks. But he couldn’t tolerate living across the hall from a woman he loved and couldn’t have due to his own stupidity.

  Everything she’d said to him had been completely true. He had no defense.

  “I won’t be around for a while, André.”

  The piano player looked up through the haze of smoke from the cigarette between his lips. “That so?”

  “I’m heading back to Connecticut tomorrow.”

  “Uh-huh. Woman chase you away?” Brow cocked, André stretched back. “That your tail I see between your legs, brother?”

  With a short, humorless laugh, Preston picked up his case. “See you around.”

  “I’ll be right here.” When Preston’s back was turned, André jerked up his chin, signaling his wife, then stabbed a thumb in Preston’s direction.

  With a nod, she glided over to block Preston’s exit. “Leaving early tonight, sugar lips.”

  “I haven’t got anything in me. And I want an early start in the morning. I’m going back to Connecticut.”

  “Back to the boonies?” She smiled, hooked her arm around his shoulders. “Well, let’s have us a goodbye drink, ’cause I’m gonna miss your pretty face.”

  “I’ll miss yours, too.”

  “Not just mine,” she said, then held up two fingers to the bartender. “That little girl put the blues into you, and you can’t put them all in your sax. Not this time. Not with her.”

  “No, not with her.” He lifted his glass. “That’s over.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Because she said it is.” He drank, let the fire course through him, but found it didn’t quite warm his insides.

  Delta let out a short laugh. “When did a man take that for an answer?”

  “When the woman means it, this man takes it.”

  “McQuinn.” Delta patted his cheek. “You sure are a fool.”

  “No argument. That’s why it’s over. I ruined it—I have to live with it.”

  “You ruin it—you have to fix it.”

  “When you hurt someone that much, they’ve got the right to lock you out.”

  “Honey, when you love someone that much, you’ve got the right to pick that lock, then do a lot of crawling on your hands and knees.” She turned, studied him eye to eye. “You love her that much?”

  He turned his glass, watched the whiskey through the smoke. “I didn’t know there was this much. That there could be.”

  “Sugar lips.” She kissed him. “Go pick yourself a lock.”

  He shook his head, tossed back the rest of his drink, then started the walk home.

  Delta was wrong, he told himself. Sometimes you couldn’t fix it. You couldn’t pick the lock, and you were better off not trying. Why should she let him back in? He carried the image of how her face had paled, how her eyes had gone huge and hollow—and how the tears had swirled in them over the heat of anger.

  He didn’t have any right to ask her to listen. To let him crawl or beg or play on her sympathies.

  And he didn’t realize he’d started to run until he’d reached Jody’s door, out of breath, and was pounding on it.

  “For God’s sake.” After checking the peep, Jody wrenched open the door and hitched her robe closed. If Chuck didn’t sleep like a rock, she wouldn’t have had to race out of bed before the noise woke the baby. “It’s after midnight. Are you crazy?”

  “Where is she, Jody? Where did she go?”

  She wrinkled her nose, lifting her chin with a dignity that was difficult to maintain in a robe covered with pink kittens. “Are you drunk?”

  “I had one drink. No, I’m not drunk.” He’d never felt more sober, or more desperate. “Where’s Cybil?”

  “Like I’d tell you after you broke her heart. Go back up to your hole,” she ordered, pointing dramatically. “Before I wake up Chuck and some of the other people around here. They might just lynch you on the spot.” Her bottom lip trembled. “Everyone loves Cybil.”

  “So do I.”

  “Right. That’s why you made her cry her eyes out.” As her own threatened to fill, Jody dug a ratty tissue out of the pocket of her robe.

  All Preston could do was close his eyes against the vicious guilt. “Please tell me where she is.”

  “Why should I?”

  “So I can crawl, and give her a chance to kick me while I’m down. So I can beg. For God’s sake, Jody, tell me where she is. I have to see her.”

  Jody sniffled into the tissue, but the eyes over it had cleared. And now they narrowed as they studied Preston’s face and saw pale desperation. “You really love her?”

  “Enough to let her send me away if that’s what she wants. But I have to see her first.”

  What could a romantic heart do but sigh? “She’s at her parents’ in Maine. I’ll write it down for you.”

  Rocked with relief, stunned with gratitude, he had to close his eyes again. “Thanks.”

  “If you hurt her again,” she muttered as she scribbled on the back of an envelope, “I’ll hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands.”

  “I won’t even put up a fight.” He blew out a breath. “Are you, ah …”

  She glanced over, then smiled and laid a hand on her belly. “Yeah, I’m ‘ah.’ I’m due on Valentine’s Day. Isn’t that perfect?”

  “It’s great. Congratulations.” He took the envelope she handed him. Then stuffed it into his pocket, framed her face in his hands and kissed her. “Thank you.”

  She waited until he’d dashed out, then exhaled, long and sharp. “Oh, yeah,” she murmured as she closed and locked the door. “I can see how that could work into a no-scale. Definitely no-scale potential.” Then she closed her eyes, crossed the fingers of both hands. “Good luck, Cybil.”

  * * *

  “The MacGregor.” Grant said the words through clenched teeth, his dark-brown eyes snapping as visions of murder and mayhem danced through his mind. “Interfering old goat.”

  Because it was a sentiment Grant had expressed in various terms any number of times since she’d told him the night before of Daniel’s matchmaking plot, Gennie didn’t bother to suppress the grin. Her husband adored Daniel MacGregor.

  “I thought it was ‘meddling old blockhead.’”

  “That, too. If he wasn’t six hundred years old,
I’d kick his butt.”

  “Grant.” Gennie set down her sketch pad, deciding the lovely old maple she’d been sketching would be in full leaf rather than tender bud before her husband stopped pacing. “You know he did it out of love.”

  “Didn’t work, did it?”

  Gennie started to speak; then, hearing the sound of a car, turned, shielding her eyes against the slant of the midmorning sun. She felt a little ripple go through her heart. “I’m not so sure of that,” she murmured.

  “Who the hell is that?” It was Grant’s usual sentiment when someone dared to trespass on his staunchly guarded privacy. “If that’s another tourist, I’m getting the gun.”

  “You don’t have a gun.”

  “I’m buying one.”

  She couldn’t help it. Gennie sprang to her feet, tossed the sketchbook down on the glider and threw her arms around him. “Oh, Grant, I love you.”

  The feel of her broke through his darkening mood like sun through storm clouds. “Genviève.” He lowered his head, took her mouth. His blood stirred and his heart warmed. “Tell whoever that is to go away and never come back.”

  Gennie kept her arms around him, laid her head on his shoulder and watched the gorgeous little car fight its way down the narrow, rutted road Grant refused to have repaired. “I think that’s going to be up to Cybil.”

  “What?” Grant’s eyes narrowed as he shifted his gaze to watch the car’s progress. “You figure that’s him? Well, well,” he said, and would have pushed his way clear if his wife’s arms hadn’t tightened around him. “I’m going to be able to kick some butt after all.”

  “Behave.”

  “The hell I will.”

  Preston spotted them as a particularly nasty bump snapped his teeth together. He’d been too busy cursing whoever considered this ditch in the middle of nowhere a road to notice much more than the next rut, but as his gaze was drawn up, he saw the couple standing in the yard of a rambling white farmhouse.

  Not really standing, he thought. Embracing. There on the grass just greening with spring, beside an old-fashioned glider positioned to nestle between graceful shrubs, were the parents of the woman he loved.

  He wondered which one of them would kill him first.

  Resigned, he muscled the car down the lane and scanned the place where he would likely be buried in a shallow grave.

  He’d seen it before, he realized, in the work of Genviève Campbell. She’d painted here, he thought, with love and with brilliance. The romantic old whitewashed lighthouse that loomed over the cliff, the tumbling rocks that showed color and age in the morning light, the bent and twisted trees—all had been pulled together to form a place and a painting of wild beauty.

  The house, with its gleaming white paint, its many windows and cozily covered porch, the tidy flower beds waiting for the spring that would come late to this part of the world, offered simple comfort.

  Cybil had grown up here, he thought, in this wild and wonderful place.

  He stopped the car, but the sense of relief that his bones could now stop rattling couldn’t compete against nerves. The couple on the lawn had turned to watch him. Even at a distance, Preston could see the sentiment on the rugged face of Cybil’s father.

  And the sentiment wasn’t welcome.

  He stepped out of the car, determined to live long enough to see Cybil and say his piece. After that, he supposed, all bets were off.

  No wonder, Gennie thought, as she watched Preston cross the yard. No wonder she’d fallen so hard. Feeling Grant tense, she dug her fingers into his waist in warning. He vibrated like a pit bull on a choke chain.

  “Mrs. Campbell. Mr. Campbell.” Preston nodded but knew better than to offer his hand. It would be very hard to type with a stub. “I’m Preston McQuinn. I need Cybil—need to see Cybil,” he corrected, flustered.

  “How old are you, McQuinn?”

  Preston’s brows knit at the unexpected question delivered in slow, measured tones that didn’t dilute the threat. “Thirty.”

  Grant inclined his head. “You want to live to see thirty-one, you get back in that car, put it in reverse and just keep going.”

  Preston kept his eyes level, unconsciously rolling his shoulders like a boxer preparing for a bout. “Not until I’ve seen Cybil. After that, you can take me apart. Or try to.”

  “You’re not getting within ten feet of her.” Grant set Gennie aside as if she weighed little more than a child’s doll.

  As he took a menacing step forward, Preston kept his hands at his sides. Cybil’s father could have first blood, he decided. He’d earned it.

  “Stop it!” Gennie dashed between them, slapped a hand on each of their chests. She sent her husband one withering look, then offered Preston the same.

  He had a moment to think he’d just been chastised by a queen, then his heart stumbled. “She has your eyes.” He had to swallow. “Cybil. She has your eyes.”

  And the soft green of them warmed. “Yes, she does. She’s on the cliff, behind the lighthouse.”

  “Damn it, Gennie.”

  Before he could stop himself, Preston lifted a hand to the one she pressed to his heart. He could feel his own thundering beat. “Thank you.”

  He lifted his gaze to Grant’s, held it. “I won’t hurt her. Not ever again.”

  “Damn it,” Grant muttered again when Preston started for the cliffs in long, determined strides. “Why did you do that?”

  With a sigh, Gennie turned back, took her husband’s face in her hands. “Because he reminded me of someone.”

  “Like hell.”

  She laughed. “And I think our daughter’s going to be a very happy woman very shortly.”

  He let out one exasperated sigh. “I should’ve gotten just one punch in, on principle. Damn, if he wasn’t going to let me.”

  Then Grant glanced over, watched Preston disappear behind the wide white base of the tower. “I might’ve been able to do it if one look at your eyes hadn’t cut him off at the knees. He’s stupid in love with her.”

  “I know. Remember how scary that is?”

  “It’s still scary.” With a laugh, he pulled her against him again. “The boy’s got guts,” Grant mused. “And being your daughter, Cybil will twist them into knots for a while before she forgives him.”

  “Of course she will. He deserves it. Daniel was right about them,” she added.

  “I know.” Grant grinned down at his wife. “But let’s not tell him for a while and make him suffer.”

  * * *

  She was sketching, sitting on a rock with the wind ruffling through her dark hair, her head bent over the pad, her pencil flying.

  The sight of her stole his breath. He’d driven through the night, through the morning, all the while trying to imagine how he would feel when he saw her again. For once his imagination had fallen far short.

  He said her name, then realized his shaky whisper wouldn’t carry over the sounds of wind and water. He started down the narrow beaten path toward the sea.

  Maybe she heard him, or perhaps his shadow changed her light. Or maybe she simply sensed him. But her head came up, and her eyes whipped to him. Emotions stormed through them before they turned the chilly green of a winter sea.

  Then, as if his presence didn’t matter in the least, she began to sketch again. “You’re a long way from home, McQuinn.”

  “Cybil.” His throat felt rusty.

  “We’re not much on visitors around here. My father often talks about mining the road. Too bad he hasn’t gotten around to it.”

  “Cybil,” he said again, while his fingers itched to touch her.

  “If I’d had any more to say to you, I’d have said it in New York.” Go away! her mind screamed. Go away before the tears come back.

  “I have something to say to you.”

  She flicked him a disinterested glance. “If I’d wanted to hear it … same goes.” She closed her sketchbook, rose. “Now—”

  “Please.” He lifted a hand, but when he
r eyes flared in warning, dropped it again. “Hear me out. Then if you want me to go, I’ll go. You’re too … fair,” he said for a lack of a better word, “not to listen.”

  “All right.” She sat back on the rock, opened her sketchbook again. “I’ll just keep working, if you don’t mind.”

  “I—” He didn’t know where to begin. All the speeches he’d rehearsed, all the pleas and promises, deserted him. “My agent ran into yours yesterday.”

  “Really? What a small, insular world we live in.”

  He might have winced at that biting tone, but he was too busy looking at her. “He told her about the series—the television series they’re going to do based on your strip. She said it was a major deal.”

  “For some.”

  “You didn’t tell me.”

  She spared him another glance. “You’re not interested in my work.”

  “That’s not true, but I can’t blame you for thinking it. I worked it out, time-wise. The day you came to see me, almost bursting with excitement. You’d come to tell me, and I ruined it for you. I—” He broke off, had to turn away and stare out over the green and restless sea. “I was distracted by the play, and more, what I was feeling for you. What I didn’t want to feel for you.”

  Her fingers tightened and she broke the tip of her pencil. Furious with herself, she stuck it behind her ear and dug in her small tool bag for another. “If that’s what you came to say, you’ve said it. Now you can go.”

  “No, that’s not what I came to say, but I’ll apologize for it, and tell you I’m happy for you.”

  “Whoopee.”

  He shut his eyes, fisted his hands. So, she could be cruel, he thought, when it was deserved. “Everything you said to me the night you threw me out of your life was right. I let something that had happened a long time ago stand in front of now. I used it to cut myself off from the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I watched my sister’s world shatter, saw her struggle to function over the betrayal and the pain, to raise her son alone and give birth to another before the ink was dry on her divorce papers.”

  How could she hold herself aloof from that, Cybil thought, as she closed her book again? How could she be unmoved? “I know it was hell for her, for both of you. No one should have gone through what your sister did, Preston.”

  “No, they shouldn’t. But people do.”

  He turned back, met her eyes. Already, he thought in wonder, already there was sympathy in them. “It would work, wouldn’t it, if I used my sister to play on your compassion? That’s not what I want to do. Not what I’m going to do.”

  He walked to where the land fell off, where it seemed to have been hacked by an ax to form a wall that faced the churning sea. Gulls screamed overhead, swooping down with flashes of white wings, then rising up again to soar.

  She came here, he thought, here to this place whenever she visited her childhood home. Came here on those rare times when she needed to be alone with her thoughts.

  It was only right, he supposed, that he finally gave her his thoughts, and the feelings behind them, in a place that was hers.

  “I loved Pamela. What happened between us changed me.”

  “I know.” She would have to forgive him, Cybil realized as she could feel her heart softening. Before she let him go.

  “I loved her,” he repeated, turning toward her again, stepping forward. “But what I felt for her isn’t a shadow, isn’t even a pale substitute, for what I feel for you. What I feel when I think of you, when I look at you. It overwhelms me, Cybil. It makes me ache. It makes me hope.”

  Her lips trembled open. Her heart began to beat in a quick, almost painful rhythm she recognized as joy. She saw on his face what she’d never really believed she would see. Struggling to absorb it, she looked away, down the long, rocky coast that seemed to stretch into forever.

  “For what?” she managed. “What does it make you hope for?”

 
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