The perfect neighbor, p.3
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.3

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  “Come on, wiggle.”

  “Hey!” The shout came from a woman hanging out an open window across the street. “You want I should call the cops?”

  “Yes.” Cybil snapped the word back as she wiggled her fingers and Preston probed, then blew out a steadying breath. “Yes, please. Thanks.”

  “Polite little victim, aren’t you?” Preston muttered. “Nothing’s broken. You might want to get it x-rayed anyway.”

  “Thanks so much, Dr. Doom.” She jerked a hand away, kept her chin lifted and gestured with her uninjured hand in what Preston thought of as a grandly regal gesture. “You can go. I’m just fine.”

  As the man sprawled on the sidewalk began to moan and stir, Preston set a foot on his throat. “I think I’ll just stick around. Why don’t you go get my sax for me. I dropped it back there when I still believed the Big Bad Wolf ate Red Riding Hood.”

  She nearly told him to go get it himself, then decided if she had to hit the jerk on the sidewalk again, she’d hurt herself as much as him. With stiff dignity, she walked down the block, picked up the case and carried it back.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “For what?”

  “For the thought.”

  “Don’t mention it.” Preston added a bit more weight when the man on the ground began to curse.

  When the squad car pulled up ten minutes later, he stepped back. Cybil wasn’t having any trouble giving the cops the details, and Preston harbored the hope that he could just slide away and stay out of it. The hope died as one of the uniforms turned to him.

  “Did you see what happened here?”

  Preston sighed. “Yeah.”

  * * *

  And that was why it was nearly 2 a.m. before he trooped up the steps with Cybil toward their respective apartments. He still had the unappealing taste of police station coffee in his mouth and a low-grade headache on the brew.

  “It was kind of exciting, wasn’t it? All those cops and bad guys. It was hard to tell one from the other in the detective bureau. Well, you could because the detectives have to wear ties. I wonder why. It was nice of them to show me around. You should have come. The interrogation rooms look just the way you imagine they would. Dark and creepy.”

  He was certain she had to be the only person on the planet who could find a sunny side to being mugged.

  “I’m wired,” she announced. “Aren’t you wired? Want some cookies? I still have plenty.”

  He nearly ignored her as he dug out his keys, then his stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten anything for the past eight hours. And her cookies were a minor miracle.

  “Maybe.”

  “Great.” She unlocked her door, left it open, stepping out of her shoes as she walked to the kitchen. “You can come in,” she called out. “I’ll put them on a plate for you so you can take them back and eat them in your own den, but there’s no point in waiting in the hall.”

  He stepped in, leaving the door open behind him. He should have known her place would be bright and cheerful, full of cute and classy little accents. With his hands in his pockets, he wandered around, tuning out her bubbling chatter while she transferred cookies from a canister in the shape of a manically grinning cow to the same bright-yellow plate she’d used before.

  “You talk too much.”

  “I know.” She skimmed a hand over her spiky bangs. “Especially when I’m nervous or wired up.”

  “Are you ever otherwise?”

  “Now and then.”

  He noted a scatter of framed photos, several pairs of earrings, another shoe, a romance novel and the scent of apple blossoms. Each suited her, he thought, as perfectly as the next. Then he paused in front of a framed copy of a comic strip on the wall.

  “‘Friends and Neighbors,’” he mused, then studied the signature under the last section. It read simply, Cybil. “This you?”

  She glanced over. “Yes. That’s my strip. I don’t imagine you spend much time reading the comics, do you?”

  Knowing a dig when he heard one, he looked back over his shoulder. It must have been the late hour, he decided, after a long day that made her look so fresh and pretty and appealing. “Grant Campbell—‘Macintosh’—that your old man?”

  “He’s not old, but yes, he’s my father.”

  The Campbells, Preston mused, meant the MacGregors. And wasn’t that a coincidence? He moved over to stand on the opposite side of the counter and help himself to the cookies she was arranging in a stylish circular pattern.

  “I like the edge to his work.”

  “I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.” Because he was reaching for another cookie, Cybil smiled. “Want some milk?”

  “No. Got a beer?”

  “With cookies?” She grimaced but turned to her refrigerator. Preston had a chance to see it was well stocked as she bent down—which gave him a chance to appreciate just what snug black slacks could do for a perky woman’s excellent butt—and retrieved a bottle of Beck’s Dark.

  “This do? It’s what Chuck likes.”

  “Chuck has good taste. Boyfriend?”

  She smirked, getting out a pilsner glass before he could tell her he’d just take the bottle. “I suppose that indicates that I’m the type to have boyfriends, but no. He’s Jody’s husband. Jody and Chuck Myers, just below you in 2B. I was out to dinner with them tonight, and Jody’s excessively boring cousin Frank.”

  “Is that what you were muttering about when you came home?”

  “Was I muttering?” She frowned, then leaned on the counter and ate one of his cookies. Muttering was another habit she kept trying to break. “Probably. It’s the third time Jody’s roped me into a date with Frank. He’s a stockbroker. Thirty-five, single, handsome if you like that lantern-jawed, chiseled-brow sort. He drives a BMW coupe, has an apartment on the Upper East Side, a summer place in the Hamptons, wears Armani suits, enjoys French-provincial cuisine and has perfect teeth.”

  Amused despite himself, Preston washed down cookies with cold beer. “So why aren’t you married and looking for a nice split-level in Westchester?”

  “Ah, you’ve just voiced my friend Jody’s dream. And I’ll tell you why.” She wagged a cookie, then bit in. “One, I don’t want to get married or move to Westchester, Two, and really more to the point, I would rather be strapped to an anthill than strapped to Frank.”

  “What’s wrong with him?”

  “He bores me,” she said, then winced. “That’s so unkind.”

  “Why? Sounds honest to me.”

  “It is honest.” She picked up another cookie, ate it with only a little guilt. “He’s really a very nice man, but I don’t think he’s read a book in the last five years or seen a movie. A few selected films, perhaps, but not a movie. Then he critiques them.”

  “I don’t even know him, and I’m already bored.”

  That made her laugh and reach for another cookie. “He’s been known to check out his grooming in the back of his spoon at the dinner table—just to make sure he’s still perfect—and he can spend the rest of his life, and yours, talking about annuities and stock futures. And all that aside, he kisses like a fish.”

  “Really.” He forgot he’d wanted to grab a handful of cookies and get out. “And how is that exactly?”

  “You know.” She made an O with her mouth, then laughed. “You can imagine how a fish kisses, which I suppose they don’t, but if they did. I nearly escaped without having the experience tonight, then Jody got in the way.”

  “And it doesn’t occur to you to say no?”

  “Of course it occurs to me.” Her grin was quick and completely self-deprecating. “I just can’t seem to get it out in time. Jody loves me, and for reasons that continue to elude me, she loves Frank. She’s sure we’d make a wonderful couple. You know how it is when someone you care about puts that kind of benign pressure on you.”

  “No. I don’t.”

  She tilted her head. Remembering his empty living room. No furniture, and now no family. “That
’s too bad. As inconvenient as it may be from time to time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

  “How’s the hand?” he asked when he saw her rubbing her knuckles.

  “Oh. A little sore still. It’ll probably give me some trouble working tomorrow. But I should be able to turn the experience into a good strip.”

  “I can’t see Emily laying a mugger out on his ass.”

  Cybil’s face glowed on a grin. “You do read it.”

  “Now and again.” She was entirely too pretty, he thought suddenly. Entirely too bright. And it was abruptly too tempting to find out if she tasted the same way.

  That’s what happened, Preston supposed, when you hung around eating homemade cookies in the middle of the night with a woman who made her living looking at the light side of life.

  “You don’t have your father’s edge or your mother’s artistic genius, but you have a nice little talent for the absurd.”

  She let out a half laugh. “Well, thank you so much for that unsolicited critique.”

  “No problem.” He picked up the plate. “Thanks for the cookies.”

  She narrowed her eyes as he headed for the door. Well, he was going to see just how much of a talent she had for the absurd in some upcoming strips, she decided.

  “Hey.”

  He paused, glanced back. “Hey, what?”

  “You got a name, apartment 3B?”

  “Yeah, I’ve got a name, 3A. It’s McQuinn.” He balanced his beer and his plate, and shut the door between them.

  Chapter 3

  When scenes and people filled her head, Cybil could work until her fingers cramped and refused to hold pencil or brush.

  She spent the next day fueled on cookies and the diet soft drinks she liked to pretend balanced out the cookie calories. On paper, section by section, Emily and her friend Cari—who over the last couple of years had taken on several Jody-like attributes—plotted and planned on how to discover the secrets of the Mr. Mysterious.

  She was going to call him “Quinn,” but not for several installments.

  For three days she rarely left her drawing board. Jody had a key, so it wasn’t necessary to run down and let her in every time she dropped over for a visit. And Jody was always happy enough to dash down to open the door for Mrs. Wolinsky or one of the other neighbors who stopped by.

  At one point on the third evening, enough people were in the apartment to have put together a small, informal party while Cybil remained coloring in her big Sunday strip.

  Someone had turned on the stereo. Music blared, but it didn’t distract her. Laughter and conversation rose up the stairs, and there was a shout of greeting as someone else dropped in.

  She smelled popcorn, and wondered idly if anyone would bring her some.

  Leaning back, she studied her work. No, she didn’t have her father’s edge, she acknowledged, or her mother’s genius. But all in all, she did indeed have a “nice little talent.”

  She had a quick and clever hand at drawing. She could paint—quite well, really, she mused—if the mood was right. The strip gave her an arena for her own brand of social commentary.

  Perhaps she didn’t dig into sore spots or turn a sarcastic pencil toward politics, but her work made people laugh. It gave them company in the morning over their hurried cup of coffee or along with a lazy Sunday breakfast.

  More than anything, she thought as she signed her name, it made her happy.

  If McQuinn in 3B thought his careless comment insulted her, he was wrong. She was more than content with her nice little talent.

  Flushed with the success of three days’ intense work, she picked up the phone as it rang and all but sang into it. “Hello?”

  “Well, well, there’s a cheery lass.”

  “Grandpa!” Cybil leaned back in her chair and stretched cramped muscles. “Yes, I’m a cheery lass, and there’s no one I’d rather talk to than you.”

  Technically, Daniel MacGregor wasn’t her grandfather, but that had never stopped either of them from thinking of him as such. Love ignored technicalities.

  “Is that so? Then why haven’t you called me or your grandmother? You know how she worries about you down there in that big city all alone.”

  “Alone?” Amused, she held out the phone so the sounds of the party downstairs would travel through the receiver to Hyannis Port. “It doesn’t feel as if I’m ever alone.”

  “You’ve got the place full of people again?”

  “So it seems. How are you? How is everyone? Tell me everything.”

  She settled back, happy to chat with him about family, her aunts and uncles, her cousins, the babies.

  She listened and laughed, added her own comments, and was pleased when he told her there was a family gathering in the works for the summer.

  “Wonderful. I can’t wait to see everyone again. It’s been too long since Ian and Naomi’s wedding last fall. I miss you.”

  “Well then, why do you have to wait until summer? We’re right here, after all.”

  “Maybe I’ll surprise you.”

  “I called with one for you. I’ll wager you haven’t heard as yet that little Naomi’s expecting. We’ll have another bairn under the Christmas tree this year.”

  “Oh, Grandpa, that’s wonderful. I’ll call them tonight. And with Darcy and Mac ready to have theirs any day, we’ll have lots of babies to cuddle this Christmas.”

  “For a young woman so fond of babes, you ought to be busy making your own.”

  It was an old theme and made her grin. “But my cousins are doing such a fine job of it.”

  “Hah! That they are, but that doesn’t mean you can shirk your duty, little girl. You may be a Campbell by birth, but you’ve got some MacGregor in your heart.”

  “Well, I could always give in and marry Frank.”

  “The one with the fish mouth?”

  “No, he just kisses like a fish. Then again … yeah, the one with the fish mouth. We could make you some guppies.”

  “Bah. You need a man, not a trout in an Italian suit. A man with more on his mind than dollars and cents, with an understanding of art, with enough of a serious nature to keep you out of trouble.”

  “I keep myself out of trouble,” she reminded him, but decided it was best not to mention the mugging incident. “Besides, Grandma won’t let me have you, so I’ll just have to pine away here in the big, bad city”

  He let out a bark of a laugh. “All the men in that city, you ought to be able to find one to suit you. You get out and about, don’t you? You’re not sitting there all day writing your funny papers.”

  “Just lately, but I hit a hot streak here and needed to run with it. There’s this new guy across the hall. Kind of surly and standoffish. No, actually, let’s just say it straight. He’s rude and abrupt. I think he’s out of work, except he plays the sax sometimes in this little club a few blocks from here. He’s just the perfect new neighbor for Emily.”

  “Is that so?”

  “He stays inside his apartment all day, doesn’t talk to anyone. His name’s McQuinn.”

  “If he doesn’t talk to anyone, how do you know his name?”

  “Grandpa.” She allowed herself a smug smile. “Have you ever known me to fail getting anyone to talk to me if I put my mind to it? Not that he’s the chatty sort even when you prime his pump with cookies, but I wheedled his name out of him.”

  “And how does he look to you, little girl?”

  “He looks good, very, very good. He’s going to drive Emily crazy.”

  “Is he, now?” Daniel said, and laughed with delight.

  When he’d gotten all that he needed to know out of his honorary granddaughter, Daniel made his next call. He hummed to himself, examined his nails, buffed them on his shirt, then grinned fiercely when Preston answered the phone with an impatient, “Yeah, what?”

  “Ah, you’ve such a sweet nature to you, McQuinn. It warms my heart.”

  “Mr. MacGregor.” There was no mistaking that booming Scottish burr.
In an abrupt shift of mood, Preston smiled warmly and pushed away from his computer.

  “Right you are. And how are you settling in to the apartment there?”

  “Well enough. I have to thank you again for letting me use it while my house is a construction zone. I’d never have been able to work with all those people around.” He scowled at the wall as the noise from across the hall battered against it. “Not that it’s much better here tonight. My neighbor seems to be celebrating something.”

  “Cybil? She’s my granddaughter, you know. Sociable child.”

  “You’re telling me. I didn’t realize she was your granddaughter.”

  “Well, in a roundabout way. You ought to shake yourself loose, boy, and join the party.”

  “No, thanks.” He’d rather drink drain cleaner. “I think half the population of Soho’s crammed in there. This building of yours, Mr. MacGregor, is full of people who’d rather talk than eat. Your granddaughter appears to be the leader.”

  “Friendly girl. It comforts me to know you’re across the hall for a bit. You’re a sensible sort, McQuinn. I don’t mind imposing by asking you to keep an eye on her. She can be naive, if you get my meaning. I worry about her.”

  Preston had the image of her flattening a mugger with the speed and precision of a lightweight boxer and smiled to himself. “I wouldn’t worry.”

  “Well, I won’t knowing you’re close by. Pretty young thing like Cybil … she is a pretty thing, isn’t she?”

  “Cute as a button.”

  “Smart, too. And responsible, for all it seems like she’s fluttering through life. You can’t be a dim-witted flutterer and produce a popular comic strip day after day, now can you? Got to be creative, artistic and practical enough to meet deadlines. But you know about that sort of business, don’t you? Writing plays isn’t an easy business.”

  “No.” Preston rubbed his eyes, gritty from fighting with work that refused to run smooth. “It’s not.”

  “But you’ve a gift, McQuinn, a rare one. I admire that.”

  “It’s been feeling like a curse lately. But I appreciate it.”

  “You should get yourself out, take your mind off it. Kiss a pretty girl. Not that I know much about writing—though I’ve two grandchildren who make their living from it, and damn well, too. You should make the most of being right there in the city before you take yourself back and lock the doors on your house.”

  “Maybe I will.”

  “Oh, and McQuinn, you’ll do me the favor of not mentioning to Cybil that I asked you to mind her a bit? She’d get huffy over it. But her grandmother worries herself sick over that girl.”

  “She won’t hear it from me,” Preston promised.

  Since the noise was going to drive him crazy, Preston took himself off. He played at the club but found it didn’t quite get him past the thoughts that jangled in his brain.

  It was too easy to imagine Cybil sitting at the table in the back, her chin on her fists, her lips curved, her eyes dreamy.

  She’d invaded one of his more well-guarded vaults, and he resented it bitterly.

  Delta’s was one of his escapes. There were times he’d drive into the city from Connecticut just to slip onto the stage with André and play until all the tension of the day dissolved into, then out of, the music.

  He could drive home again or, if the hour grew too late, just drop down on the cot in Delta’s back room and sleep until morning.

  No one bothered him at the club or expected more than he wanted to give.

 
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