The perfect neighbor, p.4
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.4

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  But now that Cybil had been here, he’d started to look at that back table, and wondered if she’d slip in again. To watch him with those big green eyes.

  “My man,” André said as he stopped to take a long drink from the water glass he kept on his beloved piano. “You ain’t just playing the blues tonight. You got ’em.”

  “Yeah. Looks like.”

  “Usually a woman tangled up there when a man’s got that look about him.”

  Preston shook his head, scowling as he lifted the sax to his lips. “No. No woman. It’s work.”

  André merely pursed his lips as Preston sent out music that throbbed like a pulse. “You say so, brother. If you say so.”

  * * *

  He got home at three, prepared to beat on Cybil’s door and demand quiet. It was a letdown to arrive and discover the party was over. There wasn’t a sound coming from her apartment.

  He let himself in, locked up, then told himself he’d take advantage of the peace. After brewing a pot of coffee strong enough to dance on, he settled back at his machine, back into his play, back into the minds of characters who were destroying their lives because they couldn’t reach their own hearts.

  The sun was up when he stopped, when the sudden rush of energy that had flooded him drained out again. He decided it was the first solid work he’d managed in nearly a week, and celebrated by falling facedown and fully dressed into bed.

  And there he dreamed.

  Of a pretty face framed by a fringe of glossy brown hair, offset by long-lidded and enormous eyes the color of willow fronds. Of a voice that bubbled like a brook.

  Why does everything have to be so serious? she asked him, laughing as she slid her arms up his chest, linked them around his neck.

  Because life’s a serious business.

  That’s only one-half of one of the coins. There are lots and lots of coins. Aren’t you going to dance with me?

  He already was. They were in Delta’s, and though it was empty, the music was playing, low and sultry.

  I’m not going to keep my eye on you. I can’t afford it.

  But you already are.

  The top of her head reached his chin. When she tilted her head back, flicked her tongue lazily over his jaw, he felt the rush of his own blood.

  That’s not all you want to keep on me, is it?

  I don’t want you.

  There was that laugh, light as air, frothy as champagne. What’s the point of lying, she asked him, in your own dreams? You can do anything you want to me in dreams. It won’t matter.

  I don’t want you, he said again, even as he pulled her to the floor.

  He awoke, sweating, tangled in sheets, appalled, amazed, and finally when his head started to clear, amused.

  The woman was a menace, he decided, and the only thing that had reflected any sort of reality in the painfully erotic dream was that he didn’t want her.

  He rubbed his hands over his face, glanced at the watch still on his wrist. Since it was after four in the afternoon, he judged he’d gotten the first decent eight hours of sleep he’d had in nearly a week. So what if it was at the wrong end of the time scale?

  He trooped down to the kitchen, drank the dregs of the coffee and rooted out the only bagel that still looked edible. He was going to have to break down and buy some food.

  He spent an hour working out, mechanically lifting weights, reminding his body it wasn’t built to simply sit at a keyboard. Pleased that the sweat he’d worked up this time had nothing to do with sexual fantasies, he spent another twenty minutes indulging in a hot shower, and shaved for the first time in three—or maybe it was four—days.

  He thought he might take himself out for a decent meal—which would be a nice change of pace. Then he’d face the tedium and low-grade horror of going to the market. Dressed and feeling remarkably clearheaded and cheerful, he opened his door.

  Cybil dropped the hand she’d lifted to ring his buzzer. “Thank God you’re home.”

  His mood wavered as his thought zoomed right back to the dream, and the barroom floor. “What?”

  “You have to do me a favor.”

  “No, I don’t.”

  “It’s an emergency.” She grabbed his arm before he could walk by. “It’s life and death. My life and very possibly Mrs. Wolinsky’s nephew Johnny’s death. Because one of us is going to die if I have to go out with him, which is why I told her I had a date tonight.”

  “And you think this interests me because …”

  “Oh, don’t be surly now, McQuinn. I’m a desperate woman. Look, she didn’t give me time to think. I’m a terrible liar. I mean, I just don’t lie very often, so I’m bad at it. She kept asking who I was going out with, and I couldn’t think of anybody, so I said you.”

  Because she’d meant it when she’d told him she was desperate, she darted in front of him to block his path.

  “Kid, let me point out one simple fact. This isn’t my problem.”

  “No, it’s mine, I know it, and I would have made something better up if she hadn’t caught me when I was working and thinking of something else.” She lifted her hands, pushed them through her hair and had it standing in spikes. “She’s going to be watching, don’t you see? She’s going to know if we don’t go out of here together.”

  She whirled away to pace and rap her knuckles against her temples as if to stimulate thought. “Look, all you have to do is walk out of here with me, give an appearance of a nice, casual date. We’ll go have a cup of coffee or something, spend a couple of hours, then come back—because she’ll know if we don’t come back together, too. She knows everything. I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”

  That stopped him. The basic absurdity of it pulled him up short at the head of the stairs. “You’ll pay me to go out with you?”

  “It’s not exactly like that—but close enough. I know you can use the money, and it’s only fair to compensate you for your time. A hundred dollars, McQuinn, for a couple hours, and I’ll buy the coffee.”

  He leaned back against the wall, studying her. It was just ridiculous enough to appeal to a sense of the absurd he’d all but forgotten he had. “No pie?”

  Her laugh erupted on a gush of relief. “Pie? You want pie? You got pie.”

  “Where’s the C note?”

  “The … oh, the money. Hold on.”

  She dashed back into her apartment. He could hear her running up the steps, slamming around.

  “Just let me fix myself up a little,” she called out.

  “Meter’s running, kid.”

  “Okay, okay. Where the hell is my … ah! Two minutes, two minutes. I don’t want her to tell me I’d hold on to a man if I’d just put on lipstick.”

  He had to give her credit. When she said two minutes, she meant it. She ran back out, her feet in another pair of those skinny heels, her lips slicked with deep pink and earrings dangling. Mismatched again he noted as she handed him a crisp hundred-dollar bill.

  “I really appreciate this. I know how foolish it must seem. I can’t stand to hurt her feelings, that’s all.”

  “Her feelings are worth a hundred bucks to you, it’s your business.” Entertained, he stuffed the bill in his back pocket. “Let’s go. I’m hungry.”

  “Oh, do you want dinner? I can spring for a meal. There’s a diner just down the street. Good pasta. Okay, now. Pretend you don’t know she’s keeping her eye out for us,” she murmured as they walked to the entrance. “Just look natural. Hold my hand, will you?”

  “Why?”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She snatched his hand, linked her fingers firmly with his, then shot him a bright smile. “We’re going on a date, our first. Try to look like we’re enjoying ourselves.”

  “You only gave me a hundred,” he reminded her, surprised when she laughed.

  “God, you’re a hard man, 3B. A really hard man. Let’s get you a hot meal and see if it improves your mood.”

  It did. But it would have taken a stronger man than he to hold out
against an enormous, family-style bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and Cybil’s sunny disposition.

  “It’s great, isn’t it?” She watched him plow through the food with pleasure. Poor man, she thought, probably hasn’t had a decent meal in weeks. “I always eat too much when I come here. They give you enough for six starving teenagers with each serving. Then I end up taking home the rest and eating too much the next day. You can save me from that and take mine home with you.”

  “Fine.” He topped off their glasses of Chianti.

  “You know, I bet there are dozens of clubs downtown that would be thrilled to hire you to play.”

  “Huh?”

  “Your sax.”

  She smiled at him, luring him to look at her mouth, that flickering dimple, and wonder again.

  “You’re so good. I can’t imagine you won’t find steady work really soon.”

  Amused, he lifted his wine. She thought he was an out-of-work musician. Fine, then. Why not? “Gigs come and they go.”

  “Do you work private parties?” Inspired, she leaned on the table. “I know a lot of people—someone’s always having a party.”

  “I bet they are, in your little world.”

  “I could give your name out if you like. Do you mind traveling?”

  “Where am I going?”

  “Some of my relatives own hotels. Atlantic City’s not far. I don’t suppose you have a car.”

  He had a snazzy new Porsche stored in a downtown garage. “Not on me.”

  She laughed, nibbled on bread. “Well, it’s not difficult to get from New York to Atlantic City.”

  As entertaining as it was, he thought it wise to steer off awhile. “Cybil, I don’t need anyone to manage my life.”

  “Terrible habit of mine.” Unoffended, she broke the bread in half and offered him part. “I get involved. Then I’m annoyed when other people do the same to me. Like Mrs. Wolinsky, the current president of Let’s Find Cybil a Nice Young Man Club. It drives me crazy.”

  “Because you don’t want a nice young man.”

  “Oh, I suppose I will, eventually. Coming from a big family sort of predisposes you—or me, anyway—into wanting one of your own. But there’s lots of time for that. I like living in the city, doing what I want when I want. I’d hate to keep regular hours, which is why nothing ever stuck before cartooning. Not that it isn’t work or doesn’t take discipline, but it’s my work and my time. Like your music, I guess.”

  “I guess.” His work was very rarely a pleasure—as hers seemed to be. But his music was.

  “McQuinn.” Smiling, she nudged her bowl to the side, thinking it would make him a very nice meal later in the week. “How often do you really rip loose and come up with more than, oh, say, three declarative sentences in a row during a conversation?”

  He ate the last half of his last meatball, studied her. “I like November. I talk a lot in November. It’s the kind of transitory month that makes me feel philosophical.”

  “Three on the button, and clever, too.” She laughed at him. “You have a sly sense of humor in there, don’t you?” Sitting back, she sighed lustily. “Want dessert?”

  “Damn right.”

  “Okay, but don’t order the tiramisu, because then I’d be forced to beg you for a bite, then two, then I’d end up stealing half of it and go into a coma.”

  Keeping his eyes on hers, he signaled for the waitress with the casual authority of a man used to giving orders. It made Cybil’s brow crease.

  “Tiramisu,” he told the waitress. “Two forks,” and made Cybil weak with laughter. “I want to see if putting you into a coma actually shuts you up.”

  “Won’t.” She patted her chest as the last laugh bubbled out. “I even talk in my sleep. My sister used to threaten to put a pillow over my head.”

  “I think I’d like your sister.”

  “Adria’s gorgeous—probably just your type, too. Cool and sophisticated and brilliant. She runs an art gallery in Portsmith.”

  Preston decided they might as well finish off the wine. It was a very nice Chianti, he mused, which probably explained why he was feeling more relaxed than he had in weeks. Months, he corrected. Maybe years. “So, are you going to fix me up with her?”

  “She might go for you,” Cybil considered, eyeing him over her glass and enjoying the happy little buzz the wine had given her. “You’re great-looking in a sort of rough, I-don’t-give-a-damn way. You play a musical instrument, which would appeal to her love and appreciation of the arts. And you’re too nasty to treat her like royalty. Too many men do.”

  “Do they?” he murmured, realizing that his talkative dinner companion was well on her way to being plowed.

  “She’s so beautiful. They can’t help it. Worse, she’s irritated when they’re dazzled by the way she looks, so she ends up tossing them back. She’d probably end up breaking your heart,” she added, gesturing with her glass. “But it might be good for you.”

  “I don’t have a heart,” he said when the waitress brought their dessert. “I thought you’d figured that out.”

  “Sure you do.” With a sigh of surrender, Cybil picked up her fork, scooped up the first bite and tasted with a long moan of pleasure. “You’ve just got it wrapped in armor so nobody can bayonet it again. God, isn’t this wonderful? Don’t let me eat any more than this one bite, okay?”

  But he was staring at her, amazed that the little lunatic across the hall had zeroed in on him so accurately, so casually, when those who claimed to love him had never come close.

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Say what? Didn’t I tell you not to let me eat any more of this? Are you a sadist?”

  “Never mind.” Deciding to let it go, he yanked the plate out of her reach. “Mine,” he said simply. And proceeded to eat the rest.

  He only had to poke her once with his fork to hold her off.

  * * *

  “Well, I had fun.” Cybil tucked her arm through his as they walked back toward their building. “Really. That was so much more entertaining than an evening trying to keep Johnny from sliding his hand up my skirt.”

  For some reason, the image irritated him, but Preston merely glanced down. “You’re not wearing a skirt.”

  “I know. I wasn’t sure I could get out of the date, and this was my automatic defense system,”

  The breezy saffron-colored slacks struck him abruptly as more sexy than defensive. “So why don’t you just break Johnny’s face like you did the mugger’s the other night?”

  “Because Mrs. Wolinsky adores him, and I’d never be able to tell her that the apple of her eye has hands like an ape.”

  “I think that’s a mixed metaphor, but I get the picture. You’re a pushover.”

  “Am not.”

  “Are so,” he said before he caught himself and fell too deeply into the childish game. “You let your friend Joanie—”

  “Jody.”

  “Right, push her cousin on you, and the old lady downstairs sticks you with her nephew with the fast hands, and God knows how many other friends you have dumping their cast-off relatives in your lap. All because you can’t just say butt out.”

  “They mean well.”

  “They’re meddling with your life. It doesn’t matter what they mean.”

  “Oh, I don’t know.” She blew out a breath and smiled at a young couple strolling on the opposite side of the street. “Take my grandfather. Well, he’s not really my grandfather if you get picky, which we don’t. He’s my dad’s sister Shelby’s father-in-law. And on my mother’s side, she’s cousin to the spouses of his other two children. It’s a little complicated, if you get picky.”

  “Which you don’t.”

  “Exactly. There’s all this convoluted family connection between Daniel and Anna MacGregor and my parents, so why niggle? My aunt Shelby married their son Alan MacGregor—you might have heard of him. He used to live in the White House.”

  “The name rings a distant bell.”

  “And my
mother, the former Genviève Grandeau, is a cousin of Justin and Diana Blade—siblings—who married, respectively, Daniel and Anna’s other two children, Serena and Caine MacGregor. So Daniel and Anna are Grandpa and Grandma. Is that clear?”

  “Yes, I can follow that, but I’ve forgotten the entire point of the exercise.”

  “Me, too.” She laughed in delight, then had to tighten her grip before she overbalanced. “A little too much wine,” she explained. “Anyway, let me think … Yes, I have it. Meddling. We were talking about meddling, which my grandfather—who would be Daniel MacGregor—is the uncontested world champ at. When it comes to matchmaking, he knows no peer. I’m telling you, McQuinn, the man is a wizard. I have …”

  She had to stop, use her fingers to count. “Um, I think it’s seven cousins so far he’s managed to match up, marry off. He’s terrifying.”

  “What do you mean, ‘match up’?”

  “He just sort of finds the right person for them—don’t ask me how—then he works out a way to put them together, let nature take its course, and before you know it, you’ve got wedding bells and bassinets. He just told me my cousin Ian and his wife are expecting their first. They were married last fall. The man’s batting a thousand.”

  “Does anyone tell him to butt out?”

  “Oh, constantly.” She tipped up her head and grinned. “He just doesn’t pay attention. I figure he’s going to work on Adria or Mel next—give my brother, Matthew, time to season.”

  “What about you?”

  “Oh, I’m too slick for him. I know his canny tricks, and I’m not going to fall in love for years. What about you? Ever been there?”

  “Where would that be?”

  “Love, McQuinn, don’t be dense.”

  “It’s not a place—it’s a situation. And there’s nothing there.”

  “Oh, I think there will be,” she said dreamily. “Eventually.”

  For the second time, she pulled up short. “Oh, damn. That’s Johnny’s car. He’s come in from New Jersey after all. Damn, damn, damn. Okay, here’s the plan.”

  She whirled around, shook her head clear when it spun. “I should never have had that last glass of wine, but I’m still master of my fate.”

  “You bet you are, kid.”

  “Enough to know you call me ‘kid’ so you can feel superior and aloof, but that’s beside the point. We’re just going to stroll on down a few more feet until we’re right in front of her window. Very natural, okay?”

  “That’s a tough one, but I’ll see what I can do.”

  “I just love that nasty streak of sarcasm. Okay, this is fine, this is good. Now, we’re going to stand right here, because she’s watching, I promise. Any minute you’ll see her curtains twitch. Look for it.”

  Because it seemed harmless, and he was starting to enjoy the way she held on to him, he flicked a glance over her head. “Right on cue. So?”

  “You’re going to have to kiss me.”

  His gaze shot back to hers. “Am I?”

  “And you’re going to have to make it look good. If you do it right, she’ll figure Johnny’s a lost cause—for a while, anyway. And I’ll give you another fifty.”

  He ran his tongue around his teeth. She had her face tipped back and looked as appealing as a single rosebud in a garden of thorns. “You’re going to pay me fifty bucks to kiss you.”

  “Like a bonus. This could send Johnny back to Jersey for good. Just think of it as being onstage. Doesn’t have to mean anything. Is she still watching?”

 
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