The perfect neighbor, p.2
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.2
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         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Hold on,” he said simply, then turned back into his apartment to get her plate.

  Cybil had no intention of holding on, and finally found her key where it had decided to hide in the narrow inner pocket of the bag—where she’d put it so she’d know just where it was when she needed it.

  But he beat her. He strode out of his apartment, letting the door slam at his back. He carried his saxophone case in one hand and her plate in the other.

  “Here.” He wasn’t going to ask her what had put that sulky look on her sea-fairy face. He had no doubt that she’d tell him, for the next half hour.

  “You’re welcome,” she snapped, snatching it from him. Because her head was throbbing after two hours of listening to Jody’s cousin Frank’s monotone account of the vagaries of the stock market, she decided she’d give Mr. Mysterious a piece of her mind while the mood was on her.

  “Look, buddy, you don’t want to be friends, that’s just fine. I don’t need any more friends,” she said, swinging the plate for emphasis. “I have so many now I can’t take another on until one moves out of the country. But there’s no excuse for behaving like a snot, either. All I did was introduce myself and give you some damn cookies.”

  His lips wanted to twitch, but he controlled it. “Damn good cookies,” he said before he could stop himself, then immediately regretted it as the temper in her eyes switched to amusement.

  “Oh, really?”

  “Yeah.” He walked away, leaving her reluctantly intrigued and completely baffled.

  So she followed impulse, one of her favorite hobbies. After unlocking her door quickly, she stuck the plate on the table inside, locked up again, then, trying to keep her footsteps muffled, set off to follow him.

  It would be a great strip gag for Emily, she thought, and, handled right, could play out for weeks.

  Of course she’d have to make Emily wild about the guy, Cybil decided as she tried to tiptoe and race down the steps at the same time. It wouldn’t just be normal, perfectly acceptable curiosity but dreamy-eyed obsession.

  Breathless with the excitement of the chase, her mind whirling with possibilities, Cybil rushed out the front door, looked quickly right and left.

  He was already halfway down the block. Long stride, she thought, and, grinning, started after him.

  Emily, of course, would be sort of skulking, then jumping behind lampposts; or flattening herself against walls in case he turned around and—

  Nearly yelping, Cybil jumped behind a lamppost as the object of the chase sent an absent glance over his shoulder. With a hand over her heart, Cybil dared a peek and watched him turn the corner.

  Annoyed that she’d worn heels instead of flats to dinner, she sucked in a breath and made the dash to the corner.

  He walked for twenty minutes, until her feet were screaming and her initial rush of excitement was draining fast. Did the man just wander the streets with his saxophone every night? she wondered.

  Maybe he wasn’t just rude. Maybe he was crazy. He’d been recently released from the asylum—that’s why he didn’t know how to relate to people in the normal way.

  His filthy rich and abusive family had caught him, locked him up so that he couldn’t claim his rightful inheritance from his beloved grandmother—who had died under suspicious circumstances and had left him her entire fortune. And all those years of being imprisoned by the corrupt psychiatrist had warped his mind.

  Yes, that would be exactly what Emily would cook up in her head—and she’d be certain her tender care, her unqualified love, would cure him. Then all the friends and neighbors would try to talk her out of it—even as she dragged them into her schemes.

  And before it was over Mr. Mysterious would—

  She pulled up short as he walked into a small, dingy club called Delta’s.

  Finally, she thought, and skimmed back her hair. Now all she had to do was slip inside, find a dark corner and see what happened next.

  Chapter 2

  The place smelled of whiskey and smoke. Not really offensive, Cybil thought. More … atmospheric. It was dimly lit, with a pale-blue light illuminating a stingy stage. Round tables hardly bigger than pie plates were crammed together, and though most of them were occupied, the noise level was muted.

  She decided people talked in whispers in such places, planning liaisons, affairs, or enjoying those already made.

  At a thick wooden bar on the side wall, patrons loitered on stools and huddled over their drinks as if protecting the contents from invaders.

  It was, she decided, the kind of club that belonged in a black-and-white movie from the forties. The kind where the heroine wore long, slinky dresses, dark-red lipstick with a sweep of her platinum hair falling sulkily over her left eye as she stood on the stage under a single key light, torching her way through songs about the men who’d done her wrong.

  And while she did, the man who wanted her, and had done her wrong, brooded into his whiskey with his world-weary eyes shadowed by the brim of his fedora.

  In other words, she thought with a smile, it was perfect.

  Hoping to go unnoticed, she scooted along the rear wall and found a table and, sitting, watched him through a haze of smoke and whiskey fumes.

  He wore black. Jeans with a T-shirt tucked into the waistband. He’d already taken off the leather jacket he’d put on against the evening chill. The woman he was speaking with was gorgeous, black and outfitted in a hot red jumpsuit that hugged every curvaceous inch. She had to be six feet tall, Cybil mused, and when she threw back her beautiful head and laughed, the full, rich sound rocked through the room.

  For the first time Cybil saw him smile. No, not just smile, she thought, transfixed by the lightning transformation of that stern and handsome face. That hot punch of grin, the hammer-blow power of it, couldn’t be called anything as tame as a smile.

  It was full of fun and affection and sly humor. It made her rest her chin on her fisted hands and grin in response.

  She imagined he and the beautiful Amazon were lovers, was certain of it when the woman grabbed his face in her hands and kissed him lavishly. Of course, Cybil thought, a man like that—with all those secrets and heartaches—would have an exotic lover, and they would meet in a dim, smoky bar where the music was dreamy and sad.

  Finding it wonderfully romantic, she sighed.

  * * *

  Onstage, Delta gave Preston’s cheeks an affectionate pinch. “So now you got women following you, sugar lips?”

  “She’s a lunatic.”

  “You want me to bounce her out?”

  “No.” He didn’t glance back but could feel those big green eyes on him. “I’m pretty sure she’s a harmless lunatic.”

  Delta’s tawny eyes glittered with amusement. “Then I’ll just check her out. Woman starts stalking my sugar lips, I gotta see what’s she made of, right, André?”

  The skinny black man at the piano stopped noodling keys long enough to smile up at her out of a face as battered and worn as the old spinet he played. “That you do, Delta. Don’t hurt her, now—she’s just a little thing. You ready to blow?” he asked Preston.

  “You start. I’ll catch up.”

  As Delta glided offstage, André’s long, narrow fingers began to make magic. Preston let the mood of it slide into him; then, closing his eyes, let the music come.

  It took him away. It cleared his head of the words and the people and the scenes that often crowded his head. When he played like this, there was nothing but the music, and the aching pleasure of making it.

  He’d once told Delta it was like sex. It dragged something out of you, put something back. And when it was over, it was always too soon.

  In the back, Cybil drifted into it, slid down into those low, bluesy notes, rose up with the sudden wailing sobs. It was different, she thought, watching him play than just hearing it through the walls. Watching him, there was more power, more heartbreak, more of that subtle sexual pull.

  It was music to weep by. To make love to. To
dream on.

  It caught her, focused her on the stage so she didn’t see Delta moving toward her table.

  “What’s your pleasure, little sister?”

  “Hmm.” Distracted, Cybil glanced up, smiled vaguely. “It’s wonderful. The music. It makes my heart hurt.”

  Delta lifted a brow. The girl had a bright and pretty face, she mused. Didn’t look much like a lunatic with that tipped nose and those long-lidded eyes. “You drinking or just taking up space?”

  “Oh.” Of course, Cybil realized, a place like this needed to sell drinks. “It’s whiskey music,” she said with another smile. “I’ll have a whiskey.”

  Delta’s brow only arched higher. “You don’t look old enough to be ordering whiskey, little sister.”

  Cybil didn’t bother to sigh. It was an opinion she heard constantly. She flipped open her purse, pulled out her driver’s license.

  Delta took it, studied it. “All right, Cybil Angela Campbell, I’ll get your whiskey.”

  “Thanks.” Content, Cybil rested her chin on her fists again and just listened. It surprised her when Delta came back not with one glass of whiskey but two, then folded that glamorous body into the chair next to her.

  “So, what are you doing in a place like this, young Cybil? You got a Rainbow Room face.”

  Cybil opened her mouth, then realized she could hardly say she’d followed her mysterious neighbor all over Soho. “I don’t live far from here. I suppose I just followed an impulse.” She lifted the whiskey, gestured with it to the stage. “I’m glad I did,” she said, then drank.

  Delta’s lips pursed. The girl might look like a varsity cheerleader, but she drank her whiskey like a man. “You go wandering around the streets alone at night, somebody’s going to eat you up, little sister.”

  Cybil’s eyes gleamed over the rim of her glass. “Oh, I don’t think so. Big sister.”

  Considering, Delta nodded. “Maybe, maybe not. Delta Pardue.” She touched her glass to Cybil’s. “This is my place.”

  “I like your place, Delta.”

  “Maybe, maybe not.” Delta let loose that rich laugh again. “But you sure like my man there. You’ve had your pretty cat’s-eyes on him since you came in.”

  Thoughtfully, Cybil swirled her whiskey while she debated how to play it. Though she had no doubt she could handle herself on the streets—or anywhere else, for that matter—Delta outweighed her by at least thirty pounds. And as she’d said, it was her place. Her man. No point in making a potential new friend want to rip out her lungs at their first meeting.

  “He’s very attractive,” Cybil said casually. “It’s hard not to look. So I’ll keep looking if it’s all the same to you. I doubt his eyes are going to wander when he’s got someone like you in focus.”

  Delta’s teeth flashed in a brilliant grin. “Maybe you can take care of yourself after all. You’re a smart girl, aren’t you?”

  Cybil chuckled into her whiskey. “Oh, yeah. I am. And I do like your place. I like it a lot. How long have you owned it, Delta?”

  “This? Two years here.”

  “And before? It’s New Orleans I’m hearing in your voice, isn’t it?”

  Delta inclined her head. “You got good ears.”

  “I do, actually, for dialects, but yours is one I couldn’t miss. I have family in New Orleans. My mother grew up there.”

  “I don’t know any Campbells—what’s your mama’s maiden name?”

  “Grandeau.”

  Delta eased back. “I know Grandeaus, many Grandeaus. Are you kin to Miss Adelaide?”

  “Great-aunt.”

  “Grand lady.”

  Cybil snorted, drank. “Stuffy, irritating and cold as winter. The twins and I—my brother and sister—used to think she was a witch of the wicked sort.”

  “She has power, but it only comes from money and a name. Grandeau, eh? Who’s your mama?”

  “Genviève Grandeau Campbell, the artist.”

  “Miss Gennie.” Delta set her whiskey down so that she could rear back and thump a hand to her heart as she rocked with laughter. “Miss Gennie’s little girl comes into my place. Oh, the world is a wonderful thing.”

  “You know my mother?”

  “My mama cleaned house for your grandmère, little sister.”

  “Mazie? You’re Mazie’s daughter? Oh.” Instantly bonded, Cybil grabbed Delta’s hand. “My mother talked about Mazie all the time. We visited her once when I was a little girl. She gave us beignets, fresh and wonderful. We sat on the front porch and had lemonade, and my father did a sketch of her.”

  “She put it in her parlor and was very proud. I was in the city when your family came. I was working. My mama, she talked of that visit for weeks after. She had a place deep in her heart for Miss Gennie.”

  “Wait until I tell them I met you. How is your mother, Delta?”

  “She died last year.”

  “Oh.” Cybil laid her other hand over Delta’s, cupping it warmly. “I’m so sorry.”

  “She lived a good life, died sleeping, so died a good death. Your mama and your daddy, they came to the funeral. They sat in the church. They stood at the grave. You come from good people, young Cybil.”

  “Yes, I do. So do you.”

  * * *

  Preston didn’t know how to figure it. There was Delta, a woman he considered the most sane of anyone he knew, huddled together with the pretty crazy woman, apparently already the fastest of friends. Sharing whiskey, laughs. Holding hands the way women do.

  For more than an hour they sat together in the back of the room. Now and then, Cybil would begin what could only have been one of her chattering monologues, her hands gesturing, her face mobile. Delta would lean back and laugh, or lean forward, shaking her head in amazement.

  “Look at that, André.” Preston leaned on the piano.

  André wiggled his fingers loose, then lit a cigarette. “Like a couple of hens in the coop. That’s a pretty girl there, my man. Got sparkle to her.”

  “I hate sparkle,” Preston muttered, and no longer in the mood to play, tucked his sax in the case. “Catch you next time.”

  “I’ll be here.”

  He thought he should just walk out, but he was just a little irritated to have his good friend getting chummy with his lunatic. Besides, it would give him some satisfaction to let his nosy neighbor know he was onto her.

  But when he stopped by the table, Cybil only glanced up and smiled at him. “Hi. Aren’t you going to play anymore? It was wonderful.”

  “You followed me.”

  “I know. It was rude. But I’m so glad I did. I loved listening, and I might never have met Delta otherwise. We were just—”

  “Don’t do it again,” he said shortly, and stalked to the door.

  “Ooooh, he’s plenty pissed off,” Delta said with a chuckle. “Got that ice in his eyes, chills down to bone.”

  “I should apologize,” Cybil said as she bolted to her feet. “I don’t want him angry with you.”

  “Me? He’s—”

  “I’ll come back soon.” She dropped a kiss on Delta’s cheek, making the woman blink in surprise. “Don’t worry, I’ll smooth things over.”

  When she dashed out, Delta simply stared after her, then let out one of her long laughs. “Little sister, you got no idea what you’re in for. Then again,” she mused, “neither does sugar lips.”

  Outside, Cybil dashed down the sidewalk. “Hey!” she shouted at his retreating back, then cursed herself for not having the sense to ask Delta what the man’s name was. “Hey!” Risking a twisted ankle, she switched from jog to run and managed to catch up.

  “I’m sorry,” she began, tugging on the sleeve of his jacket. “Really. It’s completely my fault.”

  “Who said it wasn’t?”

  “I shouldn’t have followed you. It was impulse. I have such a problem resisting impulse—always have—and I was irritated because of that idiot Frank and … well, that doesn’t matter. I only wanted to—could you slow
down a little?”

  “No.”

  Cybil rolled her eyes. “All right, all right, you wish I’d get run over by a truck, but there’s no need to be upset with Delta. We just started talking and we found out that her mother used to work for my grandmother, and she—Delta, I mean—knows my parents and some of my Grandeau cousins, so we hit it off.”

  He did stop now, to simply stare at her. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” he muttered, and made her laugh.

  “I had to follow you into that one and make pals with your girlfriend. Sorry.”

  “My girlfriend? Delta?”

  And to Cybil’s amazement, the man could laugh. Really laugh, with a wonderful baritone rumble that melted all the ice and made her sigh in delight.

  “Does Delta look like anyone’s girlfriend? Man, you are from Mars.”

  “It’s just an expression. I didn’t want to be presumptive and call her your lover.”

  His eyes were still warm with amusement as he stared down at her. “That’s a happy thought, kid, but the guy I was just jamming with happens to be her husband, and a friend of mine.”

  “The skinny man at the piano? Really?” Pursing her lips, Cybil thought about it, found it charming and romantic. “Isn’t that lovely?”

  Preston only shook his head and started walking again.

  “What I meant was,” Cybil continued—he’d just known she couldn’t possibly be finished—as she hurried along beside him, “I’m sure she came back to check me out, you know? To make sure I wasn’t going to hassle you, and then, well, one thing led to another. I don’t want you to be annoyed with her.”

  “I’m not annoyed with her. You, on the other hand, have gone so far beyond being an annoyance I can’t find the word.”

  Her mouth fell into a pout. “Well, I’m sorry, and I’ll certainly make it a point to leave you alone, since that’s apparently what you like best.”

  Her perky nose went up in the air, and she sailed across the street in the opposite direction from their building.

  Preston stood there a moment, watching her scissor those very pretty legs down the opposite sidewalk. Then, with a shrug, he turned the corner, telling himself he was glad to be rid of her. It wasn’t his concern if she wandered around alone at night. She wouldn’t have been out walking around on those silly, skinny heels if she hadn’t followed him in the first place.

  He wasn’t going to worry about it.

  And, swearing, he turned around, headed back. He was going to make sure she got home, that was all. Back inside, where he could wash any responsibility for her welfare off his hands and forget her.

  He was still the best part of a crosstown block away when he saw it happen. The man slid out of the shadows, made his grab and had Cybil letting out an ear-piercing scream as she struggled. Preston dumped his case, sprinted forward with his fists already clenched.

  Then skidded to an amazed halt as Cybil not only broke free but doubled her attacker over with a hard knee to the groin, knocked him flat with a perfect uppercut.

  “I only had ten lousy dollars in here. Ten lousy dollars, you jerk!” She was shouting by the time Preston gathered his wits and rushed up beside her. “If you’d needed money, why didn’t you just ask!”

  “You hurt?”

  “Yes, damn it. And it’s your fault. I wouldn’t have hit him so hard if I hadn’t been mad at you.”

  Noting that she was nursing the knuckles on her right hand, Preston grabbed it by the wrist. “Let’s see. Wiggle your fingers.”

  “Go away.”

 
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