The perfect neighbor, p.8
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       The Perfect Neighbor, p.8

         Part #9 of The MacGregors series by Nora Roberts
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  She’d gotten her voice back quickly enough and had launched into a lecture. He should have more respect for his workplace if not for his sleeping area, since they seemed to be one in the same. Why the hell did he keep the curtains drawn over the windows? Did he like caves? Did he have a religious objection to doing laundry?

  He’d grabbed her out of self-defense and had stopped her mouth in the most satisfying of ways.

  And if they hadn’t tripped over a small mountain of laundry on the way to the bed, he doubted they’d have ended the afternoon with a trip to the cleaners.

  Still, there were advantages, he thought. He appreciated a clean space, even though he rarely noticed a messy one. He liked tumbling into bed on freshly laundered sheets—though he would have preferred to tumble on them with Cybil. And it was hard to complain when you opened a cupboard and found actual food.

  Even the sexual frustration was working for him. The writing was pouring out of it, and out of him. Maybe the play had taken a turn on him, focusing now more on a female character, one with a shining naiveté and enthusiasm. A woman alive with energy and optimism. And one who’d be seduced by and damaged by a man who had none of those things inside him. A man who wouldn’t be able to stop himself from taking them from her, then leaving her shattered.

  He saw the parallels well enough between what he created and what was, but he refused to worry about it.

  He sipped his coffee, reminding himself to ask Cybil why his always tasted faintly of swamp water, and turned to the comic section to see what she’d been up to.

  He skimmed it, frowned, then went back to the first section and read it again.

  * * *

  She was already at work, her window open, because spring had decided to be kind. A lovely warm breeze wafted through along with the chaos of street noise.

  After her sheet of paper was set and scaled, she set her T-square back in its place in the custom-built tool area she’d designed to suit herself. She tilted her head, facing the first blank section. It was double the size of what would appear in the dailies in a couple of weeks. She already had it in her mind—the setup, the situation and the punch line that would comprise those five windows and give the readership their morning chuckle over coffee.

  The elusive Mr. Mysterious, now known as Quinn, huddled in his dim cave, writing the Great American Novel. Sexy, cranky, irresistible Quinn, so serious, so intense in his own little world he was completely unaware that Emily was crouched on his fire escape, peering through the narrow chink of his perpetually drawn curtains, struggling to read his work in progress through a pair of binoculars.

  Amused at herself—because in her own way Cybil knew her subtle little probes and questions on how his play was going were the more civilized version of her counterpart’s voyeurism, she settled down to lightly sketch her professional interpretation of the man across the hall.

  She exaggerated ruthlessly, his good points and his bad. The tall, muscular body, the ruggedly chiseled looks, the cool eyes. His rudeness, his humor and his perpetual bafflement with the world Emily lived in.

  Poor guy, she thought, he doesn’t have a clue what to do with her.

  When the buzzer sounded, she tucked her pencil behind her ear, thinking Jody had forgotten her key.

  She stopped to top off her coffee cup on the way. “Just hang on. Coming.”

  Then she opened the door and experienced one more rapid meltdown. His hair was just a little damp and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Boy, oh, boy, just look at those pecs, she thought, and barely resisted licking her lips.

  His jeans were faded, his feet bare, and his face—his face was so wonderfully serious and sober.

  “Hi.” She managed to make it sound bright and easy while she pictured herself biting him. “You run out of soap in the shower? Need to borrow some?”

  “What? No.” He’d forgotten he was only half-dressed. “I want to ask you about this,” he continued, lifting the paper.

  “Sure, come on in.” It would be safe, she told herself. Jody would be there any minute and stop her from jumping Preston. “Why don’t you get some coffee and come up? I’m working and it’s rolling pretty well.”

  “I don’t want to interrupt, but—”

  “Not much does,” she said cheerfully over her shoulder as she started up the stairs. “There’s cinnamon bagels if you want one.”

  “No.” Hell, he thought, and ended up pouring a cup of coffee and taking a bagel after all.

  He hadn’t been upstairs before, since he’d never come over when she was working. He tormented himself by glancing into her bedroom, studying the big bed with its bold blue cover and sumptuous mountain of jewel-toned pillows, the slim rods of the white iron headboard where he could imagine trapping her hands under his as he finally did everything he wanted with her. To her.

  It smelled of her, fresh, female, with seductive undertones of vanilla.

  She kept rose petals in a bowl, a book beside the bed and candles in the window.

  “Find everything?” she called out.

  He shook himself. “Yeah. Listen, Cybil …” He stepped into her studio. “God, how do you work with all that noise?”

  She barely glanced up. “What noise? Oh, that.” She continued to sketch, using a new pencil, as she’d forgotten the one behind her ear. “Sort of like background music. Half the time I don’t hear it.”

  The room looked efficient and creative with its neat shelves holding both supplies and clever tchotchkes. He recognized the work of the sidewalk artist in one of the paintings on her wall, and the genius of her mother in two others.

  There was a complex and fascinating metal sculpture in the corner, a little clutch of violets tucked into a glass inkwell and a cozy divan heaped with more pillows against the wall.

  But she didn’t look efficient, bent over the big slanted board with her legs folded up under her, the toenails of her bare feet painted pink, a pencil behind one ear and a gold hoop in the other.

  She looked scattered, and sexy.

  Curious, he walked around to peer over her shoulder. An act that, he admitted, had anyone dared to try on him would have earned the offender a quick and painful death.

  “What are all the blue lines for?”

  “Scaling, perspective. Takes a little math before you can get down to business. I work in five windows for the dailies,” she continued, sketching easily. “I have to set them on paper like this, work out the theme, the gag, the hit, so that the strip can move from start to finish in five connected beats.”

  Satisfied, she moved to the next section. “I sketch it in first, just need to see how it hangs—you’d say a draft, where you get the story line down, then decide where it needs to be punched up. I’ll give it more details, fiddle a bit before I switch to pen and ink.”

  He frowned, focusing on the first sketch. “Is that supposed to be me?”

  “Hmm. Why don’t you pull up a stool. You’re blocking the light.”

  “What is she doing there?” Ignoring the suggestion, he tapped a finger on the second window. “Spying on me. You’re spying on me?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous—you don’t even have a fire escape outside your bedroom.” She looked into her mirror, made several faces that left him staring at her, then started on the third section.

  “What about this?” he demanded, rapping the paper on her shoulder.

  “What about it? God, you smell fabulous.” Pleasing herself, she turned and sniffed him. “What kind of soap is that?”

  “Are you going to have this guy take a shower next?” When she pursed her lips in obvious consideration, Preston shook his head. “No. There has to be a line. I was oddly amused when you introduced this parody of me into the script, but—”

  He broke off as he heard her front door open and slam shut. “Who’s that?”

  “That would be Jody and Charlie. So you’ve gotten a kick out of the new guy?” She stopped sketching and shifted to smile up at him. “I wondered, because you hadn’t
mentioned it before. You know, some people don’t even recognize themselves. They just have no self-awareness, I suppose, but I thought you’d see it if you happened to read the strip. Hi, Jody. There’s Charlie.”

  “Hi.” It wasn’t an easy matter, even for a happily married woman, to keep her tongue from falling out when she was so suddenly and unexpectedly faced with a well-muscled, naked male chest. “Uh, hi. Are we interrupting?”

  “No, Preston just had some questions about the strip.”

  “I love the new guy. He’s really got Emily in a spin. I can’t wait to see what happens next.” She broke into a wide grin as Charlie exploded out a “Da!” and reached for Preston.

  “He calls every man he sees ‘Da.’ Chuck’s a little put out by it, but Charlie’s just a guy’s guy, you know.”

  “Right.” Absently, Preston ran a hand over Charlie’s downy brown hair. “I just want to get something straight about how this thing is going,” he began, turning back to Cybil.

  “Da!” Charlie said again, arms extended hopefully, smile sleepy.

  “Just how close to reality do you work?” Preston asked, automatically taking the baby and settling him on his shoulder.

  Cybil’s heart simply melted. “You like babies.”

  “No, I toss them out of third-story windows at every opportunity,” he said impatiently, then shook his head when Jody squeaked. “Relax. He’s fine. What I want to know is this business here.” Shifting the baby, he dropped the comic section on her board.

  “Oh, the ‘no-scale’ bit. This is really part one. They’ll run the second half of it tomorrow. I think it works.”

  “Chuck and I fell over laughing when we read it this morning,” Jody put in, relaxed again as she watched Preston absently patting the now-sleeping baby.

  “You’ve got these two women here—”

  “Emily and Cari.”

  “I know who they are by now,” Preston muttered, narrowing his eyes at both women. “They’re discussing—they’re rating, for God’s sake—the way Quinn kissed Emily a couple days ago.”

  “Uh-huh. Chuck laughed?” Cybil wanted to know. “I wondered if men would get it or if it would just hit with women.”

  “Oh, yeah, he died over it.”

  “Pardon me.” With what he considered admirable restraint, Preston held up a hand. “I’d like to know if the two of you sit around here discussing your various sexual encounters and then rating them on a scale of one to ten before you then give the American public a good chuckle over it with their cornflakes.”

  “Discussing them?” Eyes wide and innocent, Cybil stared up at Preston. “Honestly, McQuinn, this is a comic strip. You’re taking it too seriously.”

  “So all this about the no-scale is just a bit?”

  “What else?”

  He studied her face. “I wouldn’t like to think that when I finally get you into bed, I’m going to read about my performance in five sections in the morning paper.”

  “Oh, my. Oh, well.” Jody patted a hand on her heart. “I think I’ll just take Charlie and go put him down for his nap.” She eased him out of Preston’s arms and hurried out.

  “McQuinn.” Cybil smiled, tapped her pencil. “I have a feeling that event would be worth the full Sunday spread.”

  “Is that a threat or a joke?”

  When she only laughed, he spun her stool around, then knocked the air out of her lungs with a fierce and demanding kiss. “Tell your friend to go away, and we’ll find out.”

  “No, I’m keeping her. She’s all that stopped me from biting your throat when you came in.”

  “Are you trying to drive me crazy?”

  “Not really. It’s kind of a side effect.” Her pulse had gone from slow shuffle to manic tap dance. “You’ve got to go. I’ve finally found a distraction I can’t work through. And you’re it.”

  Seeing no reason he should go crazy alone, he leaned down one last time and took her mouth. “When you speak of this”—he caught her bottom lip between his teeth, drawing it erotically through them—“and I expect you will, be accurate.”

  He walked to the doorway, turning back in time to see her shudder. “No-scale?” he said, realizing he suddenly found it not just amusing but gratifying.

  When she managed to do nothing more than make one helpless gesture with her hands, he laughed. And was still grinning when he jogged down her steps and out the door.

  “Safe?” Jody whispered, poking her head into the doorway.

  “Oh, God, God, Jody, what am I going to do here?” Shaken, Cybil stabbed the second pencil behind her ear, knocked the first out of place, and didn’t even bother to curse. “I thought I had it all figured out. I mean what’s wrong with easing yourself into what promises to be a blistering, roof-raising affair with an incredibly intense, gorgeous, interesting man?”

  “Let me think.” Holding up a finger, Jody strolled in and picked up the coffee Preston had never touched. “Okay, I’ve got it. Nothing. The answer to that question is nothing.”

  “And if you’re a little bit in love with him, that only sweetens the deal, right?”

  “Absolutely. Otherwise it’s fun but sort of like eating too much chocolate at one sitting. You enjoy it when it’s going on, then you feel a little queasy and ashamed.”

  “But what if you went all the way in. What do you do when you’ve gone over the brink?”

  Jody set down the coffee. “You went over the brink?”

  “Just now.”

  “Oh, honey.” All sympathy, Jody wrapped her arms around Cybil and rocked. “It’s all right. It had to happen sooner or later.”

  “I know, but I always thought it would be later.”

  “We all do.”

  “He won’t want me to be in love with him. It’ll just annoy him.” Turning her face to Jody’s shoulder, she let out a shaky breath. “I’m not too happy about it myself, but I’ll get used to it.”

  “Sure you will. Poor Frank.” With a sigh, Jody patted Cybil’s shoulder, then stepped back. “He never really had a shot, did he?”

  “Sorry.”

  “Oh, well.” Jody dismissed her favorite cousin with an absent flick of the wrist. “What are you going to do?”

  “I don’t know. I guess running and hiding’s out.”

  “That’s for wimps.”

  “Yeah. Wimps. How about pretending it’ll go away?”

  “That’s for morons.”

  Cybil drew a bracing breath. “How about shopping?”

  “Now you’re talking.” On a quick salute, Jody headed for the door. “I’ll see if Mrs. Wolinsky will watch Charlie, then we’ll handle this problem like real women.”

  * * *

  She bought a new dress. A slinky length of black sin that made Jody roll her eyes and declare, “The man’s a goner,” when Cybil tried it on.

  She bought new shoes. Mile-high heels as thin as honed scalpels.

  She bought new lingerie. The kind women wear when they expect it to be seen by a man who’ll then be compelled to rip it off.

  And she imagined Preston’s wide hands and long fingers peeling the silky-as-cobwebs hose down her legs.

  Then there were flowers to choose, candles, wine.

  Marketing for a meal she would design to tease the senses and whet the palate for a more primitive kind of appetite.

  By the time she got home she was loaded down, and she was calm.

  There was a scene to be set, and doing so gave her focus. Because she wanted to take the rest of the day to prepare, because she needed it to be perfect, she wrote a note to Preston and stuck it to her door.

  Then she locked herself in, drew a deep breath and took everything up to the bedroom.

  She arranged tender lilies and fragrant rosebuds in vases, in bowls, and set them on tables, the dresser, the windowsills. Then she grouped candles, all white, a trio here, a single there, a half-dozen scented tealights on a circle of mirrored glass.

  Some she lit so the room would fill with soft light
and gentle fragrance while she worked.

  She unwrapped two slender-stemmed wineglasses, placed them just so on the low table in front of the curved wicker chaise. Reminded herself to chill the wine.

  Facing the bed, she stopped, considered. Would turning down the duvet and sheets be too obvious? Then she laughed at herself. Why stop now?

  When it was done, when she could look around the room and see there was nothing that wasn’t as she needed it to be, she went down to make the early preparations for the meal she intended to cook.

  She listened, hoping he’d begin to play so that some of him would come inside her rooms with her. But his apartment remained silent.

  With careful deliberation she chose music for mood, arranging CDs in her changer.

  Satisfied, she went back up, laid her new dress on the bed, shivered in anticipation as she set the black lace bra and the blatantly provocative matching garter belt beside it and imagined what it would feel like to wear them.

  Powerful, she decided. Secretive and certain.

  She shivered again, thrilling to the clutch of lust deep in her center, then went to draw a hot, frothy bath.

  She poured wine, lit more candles to promote the mood, before she slipped into the tub. And closing her eyes, she imagined Preston’s hands, rather than the frothy water, on her.

  Nearly an hour later, she was slathering every inch of her body with cream, sliding her fingers along to make certain her skin was silky and scented, when Preston tugged her note off the front door:

  McQuinn, I’ve got plans. I’ll see you later. Cybil

  * * *

  Plans? Plans? She had plans when he’d worked himself into a turmoil over her all day? He read the note again, furious with both of them, as he hadn’t been able to get the image of spending yet another foolish evening with her out of his head.

  For God’s sake, he’d gone out and bought her flowers. He hadn’t bought flowers for a woman since …

  He crumpled the note in his hand. What else could he expect? Women were, first and foremost, tuned to their own agenda. He’d known it, accepted it, and if he’d let himself forget that single relevant detail with Cybil, he had no one to blame but himself.

  She’d see him later?

  It appeared she was a game player after all. But he didn’t have to step up to bat.

  He turned, marched back into his apartment, where he tossed the lilacs that had inexplicably reminded him of her on the kitchen counter. He flipped her balled note across the room, picked up his sax and stalked out to work off his temper at Delta’s.

  * * *

  At exactly seven-thirty, Cybil took the stuffed mushrooms she’d slaved over out of the oven. The table was set for two, with more candles, more flowers precisely arranged. There was a wonderfully colorful avocado-and-tomato salad chilling along with the wine.

  Once they’d enjoyed their appetizers and first course, she intended to destroy him with her seafood crepes.

  If all went according the plan, they’d polish off the meal with icy champagne and fresh raspberries and cream. In bed.

  “Okay, Cybil.”

  She took off her apron, marched to the mirror to check the fit and line of the dress. She slipped on her heels, added another dash of perfume, then gave her reflection a bracing smile.

  “Let’s go get him.”

  She sauntered across the hall, pressed his buzzer, then waited with her heart hammering. Shifting from foot to foot, she buzzed again.

  “How could you not be home? How could you? Didn’t you get the note? You must have. It’s not on the door, is it? Didn’t I specifically say I’d see you later?”

  Groaning, she thumped her fist against the door. Then she jerked upright and
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