The perfect neighbor, p.7
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.7

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  She closed her eyes as she felt the gate she’d sworn to keep locked on her heart creak open. “Why did you?”

  “Because I thought it would keep you on your own side of the hall. Because you were a little too appealing for comfort. And because part of me got a kick out of you wanting to help me find work.”

  He saw her shoulders draw up at that and winced. “I didn’t mean it that way. Cybil, how could I not be amused when you offered me a hundred dollars to have dinner with you? A hundred dollars so you could spare an old woman’s feelings and get some out-of-work sax player a hot meal. It was … sweet. That’s not a word that comes easy to me.”

  “It’s humiliating,” she muttered, and grabbed the second bag and began shoving produce into the fridge.

  “Don’t let it be.” He took a chance and walked around the counter so they both stood in the kitchen. “It only backfired because the timing was off, and that’s my fault. If I’d told you who I was over dinner, as I should have, you’d have laughed about it. Instead, I made you cry, and I can’t stand knowing that.”

  She stood where she was, staring into the refrigerator. She hadn’t expected him to care, for it to matter to him. But it did. She simply couldn’t hold out against a caring heart.

  Drawing a deep breath, she told herself they would start fresh. Try for casual friends. “Want a beer?”

  Every knot in his shoulders loosened. “Oh, yeah.”

  “Figured.” She reached in for a bottle, disposed of the top, reached for a glass. “I haven’t heard you talk so much at one time since I met you.” When she turned, offering the beer, her eyes were smiling. “You must be dry.”

  “Thanks.”

  Her dimple fluttered. “But I’m out of cookies.”

  “You could always make some more.”

  “Maybe.” She turned away to deal with the groceries. “But I was thinking about baking a pie.” Tossing a look over her shoulder, she lifted a brow. “We never did have that pie.”

  “No, we didn’t.”

  Too appealing for comfort, he thought again. She was wearing an oversize cotton shirt, plain white. Leggings the color of summer skies, those silly shoes.

  Since she’d been marketing, he doubted that the just-under-the-smoldering-point perfume had been dabbed on to please anyone but herself, and had no idea why she would wear two gold hoops in one ear and a single diamond stud in the other.

  But it all combined into one fascinating package.

  When she turned back to reach into the bag again, he took her wrist with his free hand. “Are we on level ground now?”

  “Looks like.”

  “Then there’s something else.” He set the beer down. “I dream about you.”

  Now it was her mouth that went dry. And her stomach erupted with the crazed flapping of a hundred wings. “What?”

  “I dream about you,” he repeated, and stepped forward until her back was against the refrigerator. Her back against the wall this time, he thought. Not his. “About being with you, touching you.” Watching her face, he skimmed his fingertips over the tops of her breasts. “And I wake up tasting you.”

  “Oh, God.”

  “You said you felt something when I kissed you, and thought I did, too.” With his eyes still on hers, he ran his hands down her sides to her hips. “You were right.”

  Weak at the knees, she swallowed. Hard. “I was?”

  “Yeah. And I want to feel it again.”

  She strained back as he leaned forward. “Wait!”

  His mouth paused a breath from hers. “Why?”

  And her mind went blank. “I don’t know.”

  His lips curved in one of his rare smiles. “Stop me when you do,” he suggested, then captured her.

  It was the same. She was sure it wouldn’t be, couldn’t be the same fast, hot spin of heart and mind and body. But all those parts of her seemed to have been waiting, and poised to leap. Jody was right, she thought dimly. He’d ruined her.

  Bright, fresh, soft as a sunbeam. She was all those things. Warm, sweet, generous. All the things he’d forgotten to need were trembling in his arms.

  And he wanted them, wanted her with a quick punch of greed he hadn’t expected.

  On an oath, he savaged her throat. “Here. Right here.”

  “No.” It was the last thing she’d expected to hear come out of her own mouth when his hands were making her ache for more. Even as the need roared in her blood she said it again. “No. Wait.”

  He lifted his head, kept eyes that had gone the color of a storm at sea on hers. “Why?”

  “Because I …” Her head fell back on a moan when his hands, slow and firm, stroked up her body, awakening every pore.

  “I want you.” His thumbs circled her breasts, over them. “You want me.”

  “Yes, but—” Her hands opened and closed on his shoulders as she fought off a new spurt of longing. “There are a few things I don’t let myself do on impulse. I’m really sorry to say this is one of them.”

  She opened her eyes again, let out one more shaky breath. How closely he watched her, she realized. How sharply, even with desire clouding his mind. He could step back from it, look through it, and measure.

  “It’s not a game, Preston.”

  He lifted a brow, surprised that she’d understood his thoughts so clearly. “No? No,” he decided, because he believed her. “You wouldn’t be good at that kind of game, would you?”

  Someone had been, she thought, and was suddenly, brutally sorry for him. “I don’t know. I’ve never played it.”

  He stepped back, shrugged and seemed completely in control again while her system continued to jangle. Unconsciously, she lifted her fingertips to her throat where his mouth had aroused dozens of raw nerves.

  “I need time before I share myself that way. Making love is a gift and shouldn’t be given thoughtlessly.”

  Her words touched him and, for reasons he couldn’t understand, settled him. “It often is.”

  “Not for me.” She shook her head. “Not from me.”

  Because he had a sudden urge to stroke her cheek, he hooked his thumbs in his front pockets. Better not to touch again, he reasoned. Not quite yet. “And telling me that is supposed to make me content to step back?”

  “Telling you that is supposed to make you understand why I said no, when I want to say yes. When we both know you could make me say yes.”

  Heat flicked into his eyes. “That’s a dangerous kind of honesty you have there.”

  “You need the truth.” She didn’t believe she’d ever known anyone who needed it more. “And I don’t lie to men I’m planning to be intimate with.”

  He stepped forward again, watched her lips tremble on a strangled breath. He could make her say yes … and the power of that was heady. Using it, he realized, would damage something he wasn’t completely sure he believed existed.

  “You need time,” he said. “You got an estimate on that?”

  Her breath shuddered out again. “Right now it feels like five minutes ago. But …” She managed a weak laugh when his lips curved. “I can’t really say, except you’ll be the first to know.”

  “Maybe we could shave a couple of days off it,” he murmured, and indulged himself by leaning down to rub his lips over hers.

  Hoping it would focus her, she kept her eyes open. But her vision went blurry at the edges. “Um, yes, that’s probably going to work.”

  “Let’s shoot for a week,” he murmured, deepening the kiss degree by degree until she went limp.

  When he stepped back, she pressed a hand to her heart. “Fortnight. I’ve always liked that word, haven’t you? We could try for a fortnight.”

  The last thing he’d expected to do when buffeted by desire was laugh. “I think we’ll save that one for later.”

  “Right, good. Smart.” She concentrated on breathing as he turned and picked up his beer. “Well, I have all this …” She gestured vaguely.

  “Food?” he suggested. Delighted by h
er bewilderment.

  “Food, yes. I have all this food. I thought I’d fix some …”

  He waited a beat while she pressed her hand to her temple and frowned at the stove. “Dinner?”

  “That’s it. Ha. Dinner. Funny how words just skip out of reach sometimes. I’m going to fix dinner.” She blew out a breath. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”

  He sipped his beer, leaned back against the counter. “Can I watch you cook?”

  “Sure. You can sit there and maybe slice vegetables or something.”

  “Okay.” Because the idea had amazing appeal, he skirted the counter to sit on a stool. “You cook a lot?”

  “Yes, I guess. I really like to cook. It’s an adventurous process, all the ingredients, heat, timing, the mix of smells and textures and tastes.”

  “So … do you ever cook naked?”

  She paused in the act of sniffing a glossy red pepper. Giggling, she set it on the counter between them. “McQuinn, you made a joke.” She put a hand over his, squeezed. “I’m so proud.”

  “No, I didn’t. That was a perfectly serious question.”

  When she laughed, leaned over to grab his face and kiss him noisily on the mouth, he wouldn’t have recognized his own foolish grin. “So do you?”

  “Never when I’m sauteing chicken. Which is what I’m about to do.”

  “That’s all right. I have an excellent imagination.”

  She laughed again; then, catching the wicked gleam in his eyes, cleared her throat. “I think I want some wine. Do you want wine?” He only lifted his nearly full glass of beer. “Oh, yeah.”

  She took a bottle of white out of the refrigerator, then turned back, giggling again. “You’re going to have to stop that.”

  “Stop what?”

  “Stop making me think I’m naked. Go put on some music,” she ordered, waving a hand toward the living area. “Maybe open a window, because it’s really hot in here, and give me a minute to clear the lust out of my head so I can think of something else to talk about.”

  “You never have trouble talking.”

  “You consider that an insult,” she said as he slid off the stool. “I don’t. I’m a conversation connoisseur.”

  “Is that the current term for chatterbox?”

  “Well, you’re just full of wit and humor tonight, aren’t you?” And nothing could have pleased her more.

  “Must be the company,” he murmured, then cocked a brow as he flipped through her CDs. “You have decent taste in music.”

  “You were expecting otherwise?”

  “I wasn’t expecting Fats Waller, Aretha, B.B. King. Of course, you’ve got plenty of chirpy stuff in here, too.”

  “What’s wrong with chirpy music?”

  In answer, he held up a CD of The Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits. “I rest my case.”

  “Excuse me, but that was given to me by a very dear friend, and it happens to be a classic.”

  “A classic what?”

  “Obviously you have no appreciation for nostalgia and have failed to recognize the sly, underlying social commentary of David Cassidy’s rendition of ‘I Think I Love You,’ or the desperate sexual motivation that permeates the mood of ‘Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted.’ But I’d be happy to discuss them with you.”

  “I bet you actually know the lyrics.”

  She managed to swallow the chuckle and began to wash the vegetables. “Naturally. During a brief, shining period in my youth, I was in a band.”

  “Right.” He settled on B.B.

  “Lead vocals and rhythm guitar. The Turbos.” She smiled as he walked back to the counter. “Jesse—lead guitar—was into cars.”

  “You play guitar.”

  “Yes. Well, I played the guitar. A hot red Fender, which I imagine my mother still has in my old room—along with my toe shoes, my chemistry set, the sketches I made when I was going to be a fashion designer and the books I collected on animal husbandry before I realized that if I became a vet, I’d have to euthanize animals as well as play with them.”

  She laid a cutting board on the counter, selected the proper knife from her block. “They were all quests.”

  Fascinating, he thought. The woman was absolutely fascinating. “Fender guitars and toe shoes were quests?”

  “I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to be. Everything I tried was so much fun at first, then it was just work. Do you know how to slice peppers?”

  “No. Don’t you consider what you do now work, of a sort?”

  She sighed and began to slice the peppers herself. “Yes, and it’s not of a sort, either. It’s a lot of work, but it’s still fun. Don’t you enjoy writing?”

  “Rarely.”

  She looked up again. “Then why do you do it?”

  “It won’t let me do anything else. It’s my only quest.”

  She nodded, switching to fat, white mushrooms. “It’s like that for my mother. She never wanted to do anything but paint. Sometimes, when I watch her working, I can see how painful it is for her to have a vision and to have to pull out all her skills to transfer what she wants to communicate to canvas. But when she’s finished, when it’s right, she glows. The satisfaction, maybe even the shock of seeing what she’s capable of doing, I suppose. It would be like that for you.”

  She glanced up, saw him studying her speculatively. “It always surprises you when I understand something other than what’s right on the surface, doesn’t it?”

  He grabbed her hand before she could turn away. “If it does, it only means I’m the one who doesn’t understand you. I’m likely to keep offending you until I do.”

  “I’m ridiculously easy to understand.”

  “No, that’s what I thought. I was wrong. You’re a maze, Cybil. With dozens of twists and turns and unexpected angles.”

  Her smile bloomed slowly, beautifully. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

  “I’m not a nice man. You’d be smart to boot me out, lock your door and keep it that way.”

  “Being smart, I’ve figured that out for myself already. However …” Gently, she laid a hand to his cheek. “You seem to be my new quest.”

  “Until it stops being fun and just becomes work?”

  His eyes were so serious, she thought. And he was so ready to believe the worst. “McQuinn, you’re already work, and you’re still sitting in my kitchen.” She smiled again. “Do you know how to slice carrots into pencil sticks?”

  “I don’t have a clue.”

  “Then watch and learn. Next time you’re going to have to carry your weight.” She peeled a carrot clean with a few quick, experienced strokes, then flicked a glance up at him. “Am I still naked?”

  “Do you want to be?”

  She laughed and picked up her neglected wine.

  It took a long time to cook a simple meal when you were distracted by conversation, by lingering looks, by seductive touches.

  * * *

  It took a long time to eat a simple meal when you were sliding lazily into love with the man across from you.

  She recognized the signs—the erratic beating of the heart, the bubbling in the blood that was desire. When those were tangled so silkily around dreamy smiles and soft sighs, love was definitely a short trip away.

  She wondered what it would be like when she reached it.

  It took a long time to say good-night when you were floating on deep, dark kisses in the doorway.

  And longer still to sleep when your body ached and your mind was full of dreams.

  When she heard the faint drift of his music, she smiled and let it lull her to sleep.

  Chapter 6

  With his hair still wet from his morning shower, Preston sat at his own kitchen counter on one of Cybil’s stools she’d insisted he borrow. He scanned the paper as he ate cold cereal and bananas because Cybil had pushed both on him once she’d gotten a look at his cupboards.

  Even a kitchen klutz—which apparently meant him—could manage to
pour milk onto cold cereal and slice a banana, she’d told him.

  He’d decided against taking offense, though he didn’t think he was quite as clumsy in the kitchen as she did. He’d managed to put a salad together, hadn’t he? While she’d done something incredible and marvelous to a couple of pork chops.

  The woman was one hell of a cook, he mused, and was rapidly spoiling his appetite for the quick slap-together sandwiches he often lived on.

  It didn’t seem to bother her that they hadn’t gone out to dinner since that first meal she’d cooked for him. He imagined she would, before much longer, tire of preparing the evening meal and demand a restaurant.

  People generally got itchy for a change of pace when the novelty wore off and routines became ruts.

  And he supposed they already had a kind of routine. They kept to their separate corners during the day. Well, except for the couple of times she’d dropped by and persuaded him to go out. To the market, just for a walk, to buy a lamp.

  He glanced back toward his living room, frowning at the whimsical bronze frog holding up a triangular-shaped lampshade. He still wasn’t sure how she’d talked him into buying such a thing, or into paying Mrs. Wolinsky for a secondhand recliner she’d wanted to get rid of.

  And rightfully so, he decided. Who the hell wanted a green-and-yellow plaid recliner in their living room?

  But somehow he had one—which despite its hideous looks was amazingly comfortable.

  Of course if you had a chair and a lamp you needed a table. His was a sturdy Chippendale in desperate need of refinishing—and as Cybil had pointed out—a bargain because of it.

  She just happened to have a friend who refinished furniture as a hobby, and would put him in touch.

  She also just happened to have a friend who was a florist, which explained why there was a vase of cheerful yellow daisies on Preston’s kitchen counter.

  Another friend—of which Preston had decided she had a legion—painted New York street scenes and sold them on the sidewalk, and couldn’t he use a couple of paintings to brighten up the walls?

  He’d told her he didn’t want to brighten anything, but there were now three very decent original watercolors on his wall.

  She was already making noises about rugs.

  He didn’t know how she worked it, Preston thought, shaking his head as he went back to his breakfast. She just kept talking until you were pulling out your wallet or holding out your hand.

  But they kept out of each other’s way.

  Well, there had been Saturday afternoon, when she’d invaded with buckets and mops and brooms and God knows what. If he was going to live in a place, she’d told him, at least it could be clean. And somehow he’d ended up spending three hours of a rainy afternoon when he should have been writing, scrubbing floors and chasing down dust.

  Then again, he’d nearly gotten her into bed. Very nearly gotten her there, he remembered, when she’d stood in speechless shock at the state of his bedroom.

 
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