The perfect neighbor, p.6
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.6

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  her prey—held it down. “Our Preston’s loaded with talent, but he’s my biggest pain in the butt.”

  “Preston.” It only took a minute for the confusion to form, settle, then clear away. “Preston McQuinn.” She let out a shaky breath that was equal parts betrayal and mortification. “A Tangle of Souls.”

  “That’s our boy,” Mandy said cheerfully. “Come on, come on, McQuinn, answer the damn door. I thought when he decided to stay in the city for a couple months I’d be able to keep better track of him. But it’s still an obstacle course. Ah, here we go.”

  They both heard the bad-tempered snick of locks being turned. Then he yanked open the door. “What the hell do you … Mandy?”

  “You missed lunch,” she snapped. “You’re not answering the phone.”

  “I forgot lunch. The phone didn’t ring.”

  “Did you charge the battery?”

  “Probably not.” He stood where he was, staring across the hall to where Cybil watched him with wounded eyes in a pale face. “Come on in. Just give me a minute.”

  “I’ve already given you an hour.” She tossed a glance over her shoulder as she walked inside. “Thanks for buzzing me up, sweetie.”

  “No problem. No problem at all.” Then Cybil looked Preston dead in the eye. “You bastard,” she said quietly, and closed her door.

  “Don’t you have any place to sit in here?” Mandy complained behind him.

  “No. Yes. Upstairs. Damn it,” he muttered, despising the slide of guilt. Doing his best to shrug it off, he closed his door. “I don’t use the space down here much.”

  “No kidding. So who’s the kid across the hall?” she asked as she set her briefcase on the kitchen counter.

  “Nobody. Campbell, Cybil Campbell.”

  “I thought she looked familiar. ‘Friends and Neighbors.’ I know her agent. He’s crazy about her. Claims she’s the only ego-proof, neurosis-free client he’s ever had. Never whines, doesn’t miss deadlines, never demands coddling, and is currently making him a fat pile of money on the sales of her trade books and calendars, plus the merchandising tie-ins.”

  She sent Preston a baleful look. “I wonder what it’s like to have a neurosis-free client who remembers lunch dates and sends me gifts on my birthday.”

  “The neuroses are part of the package, but I’m sorry about lunch.”

  Annoyance faded into concern. “What’s up, Preston? You look ragged out. Is the play stalled?”

  “No, it’s moving. Better than I expected. I just didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

  “Out playing your horn till all hours again?”

  “No.” Thinking of the woman in 3A, he thought. Pacing the floor. Wanting the woman in 3A. The woman who now, undoubtedly, considered him a slightly lower life-form than slime.

  “Just a bad night, Mandy.”

  “Okay.” Because as irritated as he could make her, she cared about him. She crossed the room to give his tensed shoulders a brisk rub. “But you owe me lunch. How about some coffee?”

  “There’s some on the stove. It was fresh at six this morning.”

  “Let’s start over, then. I’ll make it.” She moved behind the counter. After she had the coffee going, she poked into the cupboards. She considered Preston’s welfare part of her job.

  “God, McQuinn, are you on a hunger strike? There’s nothing in here but potato chip crumbs and what once might have been cracked-wheat bread and is now a science project.”

  “I didn’t make it to the market yesterday.” Again his gaze flicked to the door and his mind to Cybil. “Mostly I call in dinner.”

  “On the phone you don’t answer?”

  “I’ll recharge the battery, Mandy.”

  “See that you do. If you’d remembered sooner, we’d be sitting in the Four Seasons right now, drinking Cristal to celebrate.” She grinned as she leaned on the counter toward him. “I closed the deal, Preston. A Tangle of Souls is going to be a major motion picture. You got the producers you wanted, the director you wanted and the option to do the screenplay yourself. All that plus a tidy little fee.”

  She gave him an amount in seven figures.

  “I don’t want them to screw it up,” was Preston’s first reaction.

  “Leave it to you.” Mandy sighed. “If there’s a downside, you find it. So do the screenplay.”

  “No.” He shook his head, walking to the window to try to absorb the news. A film would change the intimacy the play had achieved in the theater. But it would also take his work to millions. And the work mattered to him.

  “I don’t want to go back there, Mandy. Not that deep.”

  She poured two cups of coffee and joined him at the window. “Supervisory capacity. Consultant?”

  “Yeah, that works for me. Fix it, will you?”

  “I can do that. Now, if you’ll stop turning cartwheels and dancing on the ceiling, we can talk about your work in progress.”

  Her dry tone got through, made his lips twitch. He set his coffee on the windowsill, turned and took her sharp-boned face in his hands. “You’re the best, and certainly the most patient agent in the business.”

  “You’re so right. I hope you’re as proud of yourself as I am. Are you going to call your family?”

  “Let me sit on it a couple days.”

  “It’s going to hit the trades, Preston. You don’t want them to hear about it that way.”

  “No, you’re right. I’ll call them.” Finally, he smiled. “After I charge the phone. Why don’t I clean up and take you out for that champagne.”

  “Why don’t you. Oh, one more thing,” she added as he started for the stairs. “Pretty Miss 3A? Are you going to tell me what’s going on between you?”

  “I’m not sure there’s anything to tell,” he murmured.

  * * *

  He still wasn’t sure when he knocked on her door later that evening. But he knew he had to answer for that look he’d put in her eyes.

  Not that it had been any of her business in the first place, he reminded himself. He hadn’t asked her to come nosing around. In fact he’d done everything to discourage her.

  Until last night, he thought, and hissed out a breath.

  Bad judgment, he decided. It had just been bad judgment. He shouldn’t have followed impulse and gone along with her. Shouldn’t have compounded the mistake by enjoying himself.

  Or by kissing her.

  Which he wouldn’t have done, his mind circled back, if she hadn’t asked him to.

  When she pulled open the door, he was ready with an apology. “Look, I’m sorry,” he began, delivering it with an impatient edge of annoyance. “But it was none of your business anyway. Let’s just straighten this out.”

  He started to step in, coming up short when she slapped a hand on his chest.

  “I don’t want you in here.”

  “For God’s sake. You started it. Maybe I let it get out of hand, but—”

  “Started what?”

  “This,” he snapped, furious at the sudden lack of words, hating the kicked-puppy look in her eyes.

  “All right, I started it. I should never have brought you cookies. That was devious of me. I shouldn’t have worried that you didn’t have a job, shouldn’t have bought you a decent meal because I thought you couldn’t afford it on your own.”

  “Damn it, Cybil.”

  “You let me think that. You let me believe you were some poor, out-of-work musician, and I’m sure you had a few private laughs over it. The brilliant, award-winning playwright Preston McQuinn, author of the stunning, emotionally wrenching A Tangle of Souls. But I bet you’re surprised I even know your work. A bubblehead like me.”

  She shoved him back a step. “What would a fluffy comic-strip writer know about real art, after all? About serious theater, about literature? Why shouldn’t you have a few laughs at my expense? You narrow-minded, arrogant creep.” Her voice broke when she’d promised herself she wouldn’t let it. “I was only trying to help you.”

&nbs
p; “I didn’t ask for your help. I didn’t want it.” He could see she was close to tears. The closer she got, the more furious he became. He knew how women used tears to destroy a man. He wouldn’t let it happen. “My work’s my own business.”

  “Your work’s produced on Broadway. That makes it public business,” she shot back. “And that has nothing to do with pretending to be a sax player.”

  “I play the damn sax because I like to play the damn sax. I didn’t pretend to be anything. You assumed.”

  “You let me assume.”

  “What if I did? I moved in here for a little peace and quiet. To be left alone. The next thing I know you’re bringing me cookies, then you’re following me and I’m spending half the night in the police station. Then you’re asking me to go out so you can slip by a seventy-year-old woman because you don’t have the guts to tell her to butt out of your personal life. And you top it off by offering me fifty dollars to kiss you.”

  Humiliation had the first tear spilling over, trailing slowly down her cheek and making his stomach clench. “Don’t.” The order whipped out of him. “Don’t start that.”

  “Don’t cry when you humiliate me? When you make me feel stupid and ridiculous and ashamed?” She didn’t bother to dash the tears away but simply looked at him out of unapologetically drenched eyes. “Sorry, I don’t work that way. I cry when someone hurts me.”

  “You brought it on yourself.” He had to say it, was desperate to believe it. And escaped by stalking to his own door.

  “You have the facts, Preston,” she said quietly. “You have them all in an accurate row. But you’ve missed the feelings behind them. I brought you cookies because I thought you could use a friend. I’ve already apologized for following you, but I’ll apologize again.”

  “I don’t want—”

  “I’m not finished,” she said with such quiet dignity he felt one more wave of guilt. “I took you to dinner because I didn’t want to hurt a very nice woman, and I thought you might be hungry. I enjoyed being with you, and I felt something when you kissed me. I thought you did, too. So you’re right.” She nodded coolly, even as another tear slid down her cheek. “I did bring it all on myself. I suppose you save all your emotions for your work, and can’t find the way to let them into your life. I’m sorry for you. And I’m sorry I trod on your sacred ground. I won’t do it again.”

  Before he could think of how to respond, she shut her door. He heard her locks slide into place with quick, deliberate clicks. Turning, he let himself in to his own apartment, followed her example by closing, then locking, the door behind him.

  He had what he wanted, he told himself. Solitude. Quiet. She wouldn’t come knocking on his door again to interrupt his thoughts, to distract him, to tangle him up in feelings and conversations he didn’t want. In feelings he didn’t know what to do with.

  And he stood, exhausted by the storm and sick of himself, staring at an empty room.

  Chapter 5

  He couldn’t sleep, except in patches. And the patches were riddled with dreams. In them he would find himself wrapped around Cybil. His back in a corner, up against a wall, at the edge of a cliff.

  It always seemed as if she’d maneuvered him there, where there was nowhere to go but to her.

  And when he did, the dreams became brutally erotic, so that when he managed to rip himself from them, he found himself aroused, furious and filled with the memory, the taste, of her in his mouth.

  He couldn’t eat, found himself picking at food when he bothered with it at all. Nothing satisfied him; everything reminded him of that simple meal they’d shared a few nights before.

  He lived on coffee until his nerves jangled and his stomach burned in protest.

  But he could work. It seemed he could always flow into a story, into his people, when his emotions were pumped. It was painful to tear those feelings out of his own heart and have the characters he created gobble them greedily up. But he relished the exchange, even fed on it.

  He remembered what Cybil had said before she’d closed the door on him—that he used all his emotions in his work and didn’t know how to let them into his life.

  She was right, and it was better that way. There were, to his mind, very few people he could trust with feelings. His parents, his sister—though his need to fulfill their expectations of and for him was a double-edged sword.

  Then Delta and André, those rare friends he allowed himself and who expected no more from him than what he wanted himself.

  Mandy, who pushed him when he needed pushing, listened when he needed to unburden and somehow managed to care about him even when he didn’t.

  He didn’t want a woman digging her way into his heart. Not again. He’d learned his lesson there, and had kept any and all applicants since Pamela out of that vulnerable territory.

  She’d cured him, he thought, with lies, deceptions, betrayals. A man could learn a good deal at the tender age of twenty-five that held him in good stead for the duration. Since he’d stopped believing in love, he never wasted time looking for it.

  But he couldn’t stop thinking of Cybil.

  He’d heard her go out several times in the last three days. He’d been distracted more than once by the laughter and voices and music from her apartment.

  She wasn’t suffering, he reminded himself. So why was he?

  It was guilt, he decided. He’d hurt her and it had been neither necessary nor intentional. He’d been charmed by her; reluctantly, but charmed nonetheless. He hadn’t meant to make her feel foolish, to bruise her feelings. Tears could still rip at him, even knowing how false and sly they could be when they slid down a woman’s cheek.

  But they hadn’t looked false or sly on Cybil, he remembered. They’d looked as natural as rain.

  He wasn’t going to resolve the problem—his problem, he thought—until he’d settled with her. He hadn’t apologized well; he could admit that. So he’d apologize again now that she’d had some time to get those emotions of hers she was so free with under some control.

  There was no reason for them to be enemies, after all. She was the granddaughter of a man he admired and respected. He doubted Daniel MacGregor would return the compliment if he learned that Preston McQuinn had made his little girl cry.

  And, Preston realized, Daniel MacGregor’s opinion mattered to him.

  So, a little voice nagged at him, did Cybil’s.

  That was why he was pacing the living area of his apartment instead of working. He’d heard her go out, again, but hadn’t been quite quick enough to get downstairs and into the hall before she’d gone.

  He could wait her out, Preston thought. She had to come back sometime. And when she did, he’d head her off and offer her a very civilized apology. It was blatantly obvious the woman had a soft heart. She’d have to forgive him. Once she had, they could go back to being neighbors.

  There was the matter of the hundred dollars, as well, which instead of amusing him as it had initially, now made him feel nasty.

  He was sure she’d be ready to laugh the whole thing off now. How long could that kind of cheerful nature hold a grudge?

  He would have been surprised to find out just how long, and how well, if he’d seen Cybil’s face as she rode the elevator up to the third floor.

  It annoyed her, outrageously, that she had to pass the man’s door to get to her own. It infuriated her that doing so made her think of him, remember how stupid she’d been—and how much more stupid he’d made her feel.

  She shifted the weight of the two bags of groceries she carried in either arm and tried to dig out her key so she wouldn’t have to linger in the hallway a second longer than necessary.

  The elevator gave its usual announcing thud when it reached her floor. She was still searching for the elusive key when she stepped off.

  Her teeth set when she saw him, and her eyes went frosty.

  “Cybil.” He’d never seen her eyes cold, and the chill of them threw him off rhythm. “Ah, let me give you a hand wit
h those.”

  “I don’t need a hand, thank you.” She could only pray to grow a third one, rapidly, that could find her bloody keys.

  “Yes, you do, if you’re going to keep rooting around in that purse.”

  He tried a smile, then scowled as they played tug-of-war with one of her bags. In the end he just wrenched it out of her grip. “Look, damn it, I said I was sorry. How many times do I have to say it before you get out of this snit you’re in?”

  “Go to hell,” she shot back. “How many times do I have to say it before you start to feel the heat?”

  She finally snagged the key, jabbed it into the lock. “Give me my groceries.”

  “I’ll take them in for you.”

  “I said give me the damn bag.” They were back to tugging, until she hissed out a breath. “Keep them, then.”

  She shoved open the door, but before she could slam it in his face, he’d shoved it open again and pushed his way inside. Their eyes met, both narrowed, and he thought he caught a glint of violence in hers.

  “Don’t even think about it,” he warned her. “I’m not an underweight mugger.”

  She thought she could still do some damage but decided it would only make him seem more important than she’d determined he would be. Instead, she turned on the heel of her pink suede sneakers, dumped her bag on the counter. When he did the same, she nodded briskly.

  “Thanks. Now you’ve delivered them. Want a tip?”

  “Very funny. Let’s just settle this first.” He reached in his pocket, where he’d folded the hundred-dollar bill she’d given him. “Here.”

  She flicked the money a disinterested glance. “I’m not taking it back. You earned it.”

  “I’m not keeping your money over what turned out to be a bad joke.”

  “Bad joke!” The ice in her eyes turned to sharp green flames. “Is that what it was? Well, ha-ha. Now that you bring it up, I owe you another fifty, don’t I?”

  That hit the mark, had his jaw clenching as she grabbed up her purse. “Don’t push it, Cybil. Take the money back.”

  “No.”

  “I said take the damn money.” He grabbed her wrist, yanked her around and crumpled the bill into her palm. “Now …” Then watched in astonishment as she ripped a hundred dollars into confetti.

  “There, problem solved.”

  “That,” he said on what he hoped was a calming breath, “was amazingly stupid.”

  “Stupid? Well, why break pattern? You can go now,” she said.

  Her voice was so suddenly regal, so completely princess to peon, he nearly blinked. “Very good, very effective,” he murmured. “The lady-of-the-manor tone was so utterly unexpected.”

  Her next suggestion, delivered in the same haughty tone, was also utterly unexpected, to the point, and made him blink.

  “That works, too,” he acknowledged. “And I don’t think you meant that in a romantic sense.”

  She simply turned, stalked around the counter and began to put away her groceries. If insults and swearing didn’t work, perhaps ignoring him would.

  It might have if he hadn’t seen her fingers tremble as she pushed a box into the cupboard. And seeing it, he felt everything inside him fade but the guilt.

  “Cybil, I’m sorry.” He watched her hand hesitate, then grab a soup can and shove it away. “It took on a life of its own, and I didn’t do anything to stop it. I should have.”

  “You didn’t have to lie to me. I’d have left you alone.”

  “I didn’t lie—or didn’t start out to. But I let you assume something other than the truth. I want my privacy. I need it.”

  “You’ve got it. I’m not the one who just bullied his way into someone’s apartment.”

  “No, you’re not.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, dragged them out again and laid them on the counter. “I hurt you, and I didn’t have to. I’m sorry for it.”

 
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