Read an Excerpt
I like men. I’d better as I have four older brothers. I grew up outnumbered, then had two sons and continued to be in the minority. It was either like them, appreciate them, and do my best to understand them, or run screaming.
I like writing about men—their minds and hearts and hopes and dreams. I particularly enjoy exploring the dynamics between men, brothers, fathers and sons, friends. So it seemed natural to delve into these kinds of relationships in a new trilogy.
Cameron, Ethan, and Phillip were all troubled young boys who were adopted at difficult periods in their lives by Raymond and Stella Quinn. They didn’t share blood, but they became a family. In Sea Swept, Cameron’s story, the family faces tragedy and scandal that will change lives. Cameron’s lived the reckless life of a daredevil since leaving the quiet community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where Ray and Stella raised him and his brothers. He likes fast boats, fast cars, and fast women. Now he’s been called home, not only to say good-bye to the only father he ever loved, but also to face the challenge of caring for the last lost boy Ray was determined to save.
Who is Seth, this prickly young boy a dying Ray asked his sons to protect? To find out, and to keep his promise, Cameron will have to put the life he’d chosen on hold. And deal with a certain sexy social worker who’s every bit as determined as he to provide Seth with the right home. Anna Spinelli is full of surprises, and challenges. I hope you’ll enjoy the Quinns, men who are willing to fight to keep a promise.
CAMERON QUINN wasn’t quite drunk. He could get there if he put his mind to it, but at the moment he preferred the nice comfortable buzz of the nearly there. He liked to think it was just the two-steps-short-of-sloppy state that was holding his luck steady.
He believed absolutely in the ebb and flow of luck, and right now his was flowing fast and hot. Just the day before, he’d raced his hydrofoil to victory in the world championship, edging out the competition by the point of the bow and breaking the standing record for time and speed.
He had the glory, and the hefty purse, and he’d taken both over to Monte Carlo to see how they held up.
They held up just dandy.
A few hands of baccarat, a couple of rolls of the dice, the turn of a card, and his wallet weighed heavier. Between the paparazzi and a reporter from Sports Illustrated, the glory showed no signs of dimming either.
Fortune continued to smile—no, make that leer, Cameron thought—by turning him toward that little jewel in the Med at the same time that popular magazine was wrapping its swimsuit-edition shoot.
And the leggiest of those long-stemmed gifts from God had turned her high-summer blue eyes on him, tipped her full, pouty lips up in an invitational smile a blind man could have spotted, and opted to stay on a few days longer.
And she’d made it clear that with very little effort, he could get a whole lot luckier.
Champagne, generous casinos, mindless, no-strings sex. Yes indeed, Cameron mused, luck was definitely being his kind of lady.
When they stepped out of the casino into the balmy March night, one of the ubiquitous paparazzi leaped out, snapping frantically. The woman pouted—it was, after all, her trademark look—but gave her endless mane of ribbon-straight silvery-blond hair an artful toss and shifted her killer body expertly. Her red-is-the-color-of-sin dress, barely thicker than a coat of paint, made an abrupt halt just south of the Gates of Paradise.
Cameron just grinned.
“They’re such pests,” she said with a hint of a lisp or a French accent. Cameron was never sure which. She sighed, testing the strength of that thin silk, and let Cameron guide her down the moon-dappled street. “Every place I look is a camera. I’m so weary of being viewed as an object for the pleasure of men.”
Oh, yeah, right, he mused. And because he figured the pair of them were as shallow as a dry creek after a drought, he laughed and turned her into his arms. “Why don’t we give him something to splash on page one, sugar?”
He brought his mouth down to hers. The taste of her tickled his hormones, engaged his imagination, and made him grateful their hotel was only two blocks away.
She skimmed her fingers up into his hair. She liked a man with plenty of hair, and his was full and thick and as dark as the night around them. His body was hard, all tough muscle and lean, disciplined lines. She was very choosy about the body of a potential lover, and his more than met her strict requirements.
His hands were just a bit rougher than she liked. Not the pressure or movement of them—that was lovely—but the texture. They were a working man’s hands, but she was willing to overlook their lack of class because of their skill.
His face was intriguing. Not pretty. She would never be coupled, much less allow herself to be photographed, with a man prettier than she. There was a toughness about his face, a hardness that had to do with more than tanned skin tight over bones. It was in the eyes, she thought as she laughed lightly and wiggled free. They were gray, more the color of flint than smoke, and they held secrets.
She enjoyed a man with secrets, as none of them were able to keep them from her for long.
“You’re a bad boy, Cameron.” The accent was on the last syllable. She tapped a finger against his mouth, a mouth that held no softness whatsoever.
“So I’ve always been told—” He had to think for a moment as her name skimmed along the edges of his memory. “Martine.”
“Maybe, tonight, I’ll let you be bad.”
“I’m counting on it, sweetie.” He turned toward the hotel, slanted a glance over. At six feet, she was nearly eye to eye with him. “My suite or yours?”
“Yours.” She all but purred it. “Perhaps if you order up another bottle of champagne, I’ll let you try to seduce me.”
Cameron cocked an eyebrow, asked for his key at the desk. “I’ll need a bottle of Cristal, two glasses, and one red rose,” he told the clerk while keeping his eyes on Martine. “Right away.”
“Yes, Monsieur Quinn, I’ll take care of it.”
“A rose.” She fluttered at him as they walked to the elevator. “How romantic.”
“Oh, did you want one too?” Her puzzled smile warned him humor wasn’t going to be her strong point. So they’d forget the laughs and conversation, he decided, and shoot straight for the bottom line.
The minute the elevator doors closed them in, he pulled her against him and met that sulky mouth with his own. He was hungry. He’d been too busy, too focused on his boat, too angled in on the race to take any time for recreation. He wanted soft skin, fragrant skin, curves, generous curves. A woman, any woman, as long as she was willing, experienced, and knew the boundary lines.
That made Martine perfect.
She let out a moan that wasn’t altogether feigned for his benefit, then arched her throat for his nipping teeth. “You go fast.”
He slid his hand down the silk, up again. “That’s how I make my living. Going fast. Every time. Every way.”
Still holding her, he circled out of the elevator, down the corridor to his rooms. Her heart was rapping hard against his, her breath catching, and her hands . . . well, he figured she knew just what she was doing with them.
So much for seduction.
He unlocked the door, shoved it open, then closed it by bracing Martine against it. He pushed the two string-width straps off her shoulders and with his eyes on hers helped himself to those magnificent breasts.
He decided her plastic surgeon deserved a medal.
“You want slow?”
Yes, the texture of his hands was rough, but God, exciting. She brought one mile-long leg up, wrapped it around his waist. He had to give her full marks for a sense of balance. “I want now.”
“Good. Me too.” He reached up under her excuse for a skirt and ripped away the whisper of lace beneath. Her eyes went wide, her breath thickened.
“Animal. Beast.” And she fastened her teeth in his throat.
Even as he reached for his fly, the knock sounded discreetly on the door behind her head. Every ounce of blood had drained out of his head to below his belt. “Christ, service can’t be that good here. Leave it outside,” he demanded and prepared to take the magnificent Martine against the door.
“Monsieur Quinn, I beg your pardon. A fax just came for you. It was marked urgent.”
“Tell him to go away.” Martine wrapped a hand around him like a clamp. “Tell him to go to hell and fuck me.”
“Hold on. I mean,” he continued, unwrapping her fingers before his eyes could cross. “Wait just a minute.” He shifted her behind the door, took a second to be sure he was zipped, then opened it.
“I’m sorry to disturb—”
“No problem. Thanks.” Cameron dug in his pocket for a bill, didn’t bother to check the denomination, and traded it for the envelope. Before the clerk could babble over the amount of the tip, Cameron shut the door in his face.
Martine gave that famous head toss again. “You’re more interested in a silly fax than me. Than this.” With an expert hand, she tugged the dress down, wiggling free of it like a snake shedding skin.
Cameron decided whatever she’d paid for that body, it had been worth every penny. “No, believe me, baby, I’m not. This’ll just take a second.” He ripped the envelope open before he could give in to the urge to ball it up, toss it over his shoulder, and dive headlong into all that female glory.
Then he read the message and his world, his life, his heart stopped.
“Oh, Jesus. Goddamn.” All the wine cheerfully consumed throughout the evening swam giddily in his head, churned in his stomach, turned his knees to water. He had to lean back against the door to steady himself before reading it again.
Cam, damn it, why haven’t you returned a call? We’ve been trying to reach you for hours. Dad’s in the hospital. It’s bad, as bad as it gets. No time for details. We’re losing him fast. Hurry. Phillip.
Cameron lifted a hand—one that had held the wheel of dozens of boats, planes, cars that raced, one that could show a woman shuddery glimpses of heaven. And the hand shook as he dragged it through his hair.
“I have to go home.”
“You are home.” Martine decided to give him another chance and stepped forward to rub her body over his.
“No, I have to go.” He nudged her aside and headed for the phone. “You have to go. I need to make some calls.”
“You think you can tell me to go?”
“Sorry. Rain check.” His mind just wouldn’t engage. Absently he pulled bills out of his pocket with one hand, picked up the phone with the other. “Cab fare,” he said, forgetting she was booked in the same hotel.
“Pig!” Naked and furious, she launched herself at him. If he had been steady, he’d have dodged the blow. But the slap connected, and the quick swipe. His ears rang, his cheek stung, and his patience snapped.
Cameron simply locked his arms around her, revolted when she took that as a sexual overture, and carted her to the door. He took the time to scoop up her dress, then tossed both the woman and the silk into the hall.
Her shriek rattled the teeth in his head as he threw the bolt. “I’ll kill you. You pig! You bastard! I’ll kill you for this. Who do you think you are? You’re nothing! Nothing!”
He left Martine screaming and pounding at the door and went into the bedroom to throw a few necessities into a bag.
It looked like luck had just taken the nastiest of turns.
CAM CALLED in markers, pulled strings, begged favors, and threw money in a dozen directions. Hooking transportation from Monaco to Maryland’s Eastern Shore at one o’clock in the morning wasn’t an easy matter.
He drove to Nice, bulleting down the winding coastal highway to a small airstrip where a friend had agreed to fly him to Paris—for the nominal fee of a thousand American dollars. In Paris he chartered a plane, for half again the going rate, and spent the hours over the Atlantic in a blur of fatigue and gnawing fear.
He arrived at Washington Dulles Airport in Virginia at just after six A.M. eastern standard time. The rental car was waiting, so he began the drive to the Chesapeake Bay in the dark chill of predawn.
By the time he hit the bridge crossing the bay, the sun was up and bright, sparkling off the water, glinting off boats already out for the day’s catch. Cam had spent a good part of his life sailing on the bay, on the rivers and inlets of this part of the world. The man he was racing to see had shown him much more than port and starboard. Whatever he had, whatever he’d done that he could take pride in, he owed to Raymond Quinn.
He’d been thirteen and racing toward hell when Ray and Stella Quinn had plucked him out of the system. His juvenile record was already a textbook study of the roots of the career criminal.
Robbery, breaking and entering, underage drinking, truancy, assault, vandalism, malicious mischief. He’d done as he’d pleased and even then had often enjoyed long runs of luck where he hadn’t been caught. But the luckiest moment of his life had been being caught.
Thirteen years old, skinny as a rail and still wearing the bruises from the last beating his father had administered. They’d been out of beer. What was a father to do?
On that hot summer night with the blood still drying on his face, Cam had promised himself he was never going back to that run-down trailer, to that life, to the man the system kept tossing him back to. He was going somewhere, anywhere. Maybe California, maybe Mexico.
His dreams had been big even if his vision, courtesy of a blackened eye, was blurry. He had fifty-six dollars and some loose change, the clothes on his back, and a piss-poor attitude. What he needed, he decided, was transportation.
He copped a ride in the cargo car of a train heading out of Baltimore. He didn’t know where it was going and didn’t care as long as it was away. Huddled in the dark, his body weeping at every bump, he promised himself he’d kill or he’d die before he went back.
When he crept off the train, he smelled water and fish, and he wished to God he’d thought to grab some food somewhere. His stomach was screamingly empty. Dizzy and disoriented, he began to walk.
There wasn’t much there. A two-bit little town that had rolled up its streets for the night. Boats bumping at sagging docks. If his mind had been clear, he might have considered breaking into one of the shops that lined the waterfront, but it didn’t occur to him until he had passed through town and found himself skirting a marsh.
The marsh’s shadows and sounds gave him the willies. The sun was beginning to break through the eastern sky, turning those muddy flats and that high, wet grass gold. A huge white bird rose up, making Cam’s heart skip. He’d never seen a heron before, and he thought it looked like something out of a book, a made-up one.
But the wings flashed, and the bird soared. For reasons he couldn’t name, he followed it along the edge of the marsh until it disappeared into thick trees.
He lost track of how far and what direction, but instinct told him to keep to a narrow country road where he could easily tuck himself into the high grass or behind a tree if a black-and-white cruised by.
He badly wanted to find shelter, somewhere he could curl up and sleep, sleep away the pangs of hunger and the greasy nausea. As the sun rose higher, the air grew thick with heat. His shirt stuck to his back; his feet began to weep.
He saw the car first, a glossy white ’Vette, all power and grace, sitting like a grand prize in the misty light of dawn. There was a pickup beside it, rusted, rugged and ridiculously rural beside the arrogant sophistication of the car.
Cam crouched down behind a lushly blooming hydrangea and studied it. Lusted after it.
The son of a bitch would get him to Mexico, all right, and anywhere else he wanted to go. Shit, the way a machine like that would move, he’d be halfway there before anybody knew it was gone.
He shifted, blinked hard to clear his wavering vision, and stared at the house. It always amazed him that people lived so neatly. In tidy houses with painted shutters, flowers and trimmed bushes in the yard. Rockers on the front porch, screens on the windows. The house seemed huge to him, a modern white palace with soft blue trim.
They’d be rich, he decided, as resentment ground in his stomach along with hunger. They could afford fancy houses and fancy cars and fancy lives. And a part of him, a part nurtured by a man who lived on hate and Budweiser, wanted to destroy, to beat all the bushes flat, to break all the shiny windows and gouge the pretty painted wood to splinters.
He wanted to hurt them somehow for having everything while he had nothing. But as he rose, the bitter fury wavered into sick dizziness. He clamped down on it, clenching his teeth until they, too, ached, but his head cleared.
Let the rich bastards sleep, he thought. He’d just relieve them of the hot car. Wasn’t even locked, he noted and snorted at their ignorance as he eased the door open. One of the more useful skills his father had passed on to him was how to hot-wire a car quickly and quietly. Such a skill came in very handy when a man made the best part of his living selling stolen cars to chop shops.
Cam leaned in, shimmied under the wheel, and got to work.
“It takes balls to steal a man’s car right out of his own driveway.”
Before Cam could react, even so much as swear, a hand hooked into the back of his jeans and hauled him up and out. He swung out, and his bunched fist seemed to bounce off rock.
He got his first look at the Mighty Quinn. The man was huge, at least six-five and built like the offensive line of the Baltimore Colts. His face was weathered and wide, with a thick shock of blond hair that glinted with silver surrounding it. His eyes were piercingly blue and hotly annoyed.
Then they narrowed.
It didn’t take much to hold the boy in place. He couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds, Quinn thought, if he’d fished the kid out of the bay. His face was filthy and badly battered. One eye was nearly swollen shut, while the other, dark slate gray, held a bitterness no child should feel. There was blood dried on the mouth that managed to sneer despite it.
Pity and anger stirred in him, but he kept his grip firm. This rabbit, he knew, would run.
“Looks like you came out on the wrong end of the tussle, son.”
“Get your fucking hands off me. I wasn’t doing nothing.”
Ray merely lifted a brow. “You were in my wife’s new car at just past seven on a Saturday morning.”
“I was just looking for some loose change. What’s the big fucking deal?”
“You don’t want to get in the habit of overusing the word ‘fuck’ as an adjective. You’ll miss the vast variety of its uses.”
The mildly tutorial tone was well over Cam’s head. “Look, Jack, I was just hoping for a couple bucks in quarters. You wouldn’t miss it.”
“No, but Stella would have dearly missed this car if you’d finished hot-wiring it. And my name isn’t Jack. It’s Ray. Now, the way I figure it you’ve got a couple of choices. Let’s outline number one: I haul your sorry butt into the house and call the cops. How do you feel about doing the next few years in a juvenile facility for badasses?”
Whatever color Cam had left in his face drained away. His empty stomach heaved, his palms suddenly covered in sweat. He couldn’t stand a cage. Was sure he would die in a cage. “I said I wasn’t stealing the goddamn car. It’s a four-speed. How the hell am I supposed to drive a four-speed?”
“Oh, I have a feeling you’d manage just fine.” Ray puffed out his cheeks, considered, blew out air. “Now, choice number two—”
“Ray! What are you doing out there with that boy?”
Ray glanced toward the porch, where a woman with wild red hair and a ratty blue robe stood with her hands on her hips.
“Just discussing some life choices. He was stealing your car.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake!”
“Somebody beat the crap out of him. Recently, I’d say.”
“Well.” Stella Quinn’s sigh could be heard clearly across the dewy green lawn. “Bring him in and I’ll take a look at him. Hell of a way to start the morning. Hell of a way. No, you get inside there, idiot dog. Fine one you are, never one bark when my car’s being stolen.”
“My wife, Stella.” Ray’s smile spread and glowed. “She just gave you choice number two. Hungry?”
The voice was buzzing in Cam’s head. A dog was barking in high, delighted yips from miles and miles away. Birds sang shrilly and much too close by. His skin went brutally hot, then brutally cold. And he went blind.
“Steady there, son. I’ll get you.”
He fell into the oily black and never heard Ray’s quiet oath.
When he woke, he was lying on a firm mattress in a room where the breeze ruffled the sheer curtains and carried in the scent of flowers and water. Humiliation and panic rose up in him. Even as he tried to sit up, hands held him down.
“Just lie still a minute.”
He saw the long, thin face of the woman who leaned over him, poking, prodding. There were thousands of gold freckles over it, which for some reason he found fascinating. Her eyes were dark green and frowning. Her mouth was set in a thin, serious line. She’d scraped back her hair, and she smelled faintly of dusting powder.
Cam realized abruptly that he’d been stripped down to his tattered Jockeys. The humiliation and panic exploded.
“Get the hell away from me.” His voice came out in a croak of terror, infuriating him.
“Relax now. Relax. I’m a doctor. Look at me.” Stella leaned her face closer. “Look at me now. Tell me your name.”
His heart thundered in his chest. “John.”
“Smith, I imagine,” she said dryly. “Well, if you have the presence of mind to lie, you’re not doing too badly.” She shined a light in his eyes, grunted. “I’d say you’ve got yourself a mild concussion. How many times have you passed out since you were beat up?”
“That was the first.” He felt himself coloring under her unblinking stare and struggled not to squirm. “I think. I’m not sure. I have to go.”
“Yes, you do. To the hospital.”
“No.” Terror gave him the strength to grab her arm before she could rise. If he ended up in the hospital, there would be questions. With questions came cops. With cops came the social workers. And somehow, before it was over, he’d end up back in that trailer that stank of stale beer and piss with a man who found his greatest relief in pounding on a boy half his size.
“I’m not going to any hospital. I’m not. Just give me my clothes. I’ve got some money. I’ll pay you for the trouble. I have to go.”
She sighed again. “Tell me your name. Your real one.”
“Cam, who did this to you?”
“Don’t lie to me,” she snapped.
And he couldn’t. His fear was too huge, and his head was starting to throb so fiercely he could barely stop the whimper. “My father.”
“Because he likes to.”
Stella pressed her fingers against her eyes, then lowered her hands and looked out of the window. She could see the water, blue as summer, the trees, thick with leaves, and the sky, cloudless and lovely. And in such a fine world, she thought, there were parents who beat their children because they liked to. Because they could. Because they were there.
“All right, we’ll take this one step at a time. You’ve been dizzy, experienced blurred vision.”
Cautious, Cam nodded. “Maybe some. But I haven’t eaten in a while.”
“Ray’s down taking care of that. Better in the kitchen than me. Your ribs are bruised, but they’re not broken. The eye’s the worst of it,” she murmured, touching a gentle finger to the swelling. “We can treat that here. We’ll clean you up and doctor you and see how you do. I am a doctor,” she told him again, and smiled as her hand, blissfully cool, smoothed his hair back. “A pediatrician.”
“That’s a kid doctor.”
“You still qualify, tough guy. If I don’t like how you do, you’re going in for X-rays.” She reached into her bag for antiseptic. “This is going to sting a little.”
He winced, sucked in his breath as she began to treat his face. “Why are you doing this?”
She couldn’t stop herself. With her free hand she brushed back a messy shock of his dark hair. “Because I like to.”
THEY’D KEPT him. it had been as simple as that, Cam thought now. Or so it had seemed to him at the time. He hadn’t realized until years later how much work, effort, and money they’d invested in first fostering, then adopting him. They’d given him their home, their name, and everything worthwhile in his life.
They’d lost Stella nearly eight years ago to a cancer that had snuck into her body and eaten away at it. Some of the light had gone out of that house on the outskirts of the little water town of St. Christopher’s, and out of Ray, out of Cam, and out of the two other lost boys they’d made their own.
Cam had gone racing—anything, anywhere. Now he was racing home to the only man he’d ever considered his father.
He’d been to this hospital countless times. When his mother had been on staff, and then when she’d been in treatment for the thing that killed her.
He walked in now, punchy and panicked, and asked for Raymond Quinn at the admission’s desk.
“He’s in Intensive Care. Family only.”
“I’m his son.” Cameron turned away and headed for the elevator. He didn’t have to be told what floor. He knew too well.
He saw Phillip the moment the doors opened onto ICU. “How bad?”
Phillip handed over one of the two cups of coffee he held. His face was pale with fatigue, his normally well-groomed tawny hair tousled by his hands. His long, somewhat angelic face was roughened by stubble, and his eyes, a pale golden brown, shadowed with exhaustion.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it. It’s bad, Cam. Christ, I’ve got to sit down a minute.”
He stepped into a small waiting area, and dropped into a chair. The can of Coke in the pocket of his tailored suit clunked. For a moment he stared blindly at the morning show running brightly on the TV screen.
“What happened?” Cam demanded. “Where is he? What do the doctors say?”
“He was heading home from Baltimore. At least Ethan thinks he’d gone to Baltimore. For something. He hit a telephone pole. Dead on.” He pressed the heel of his hand to his heart because it ached every time he pictured it. “They say maybe he had a heart attack or a stroke and lost control, but they’re not sure yet. He was driving fast. Too fast.”
He had to close his eyes because his stomach kept trying to jump into his throat. “Too fast,” he repeated. “It took them nearly an hour to cut him out of the wreck. Nearly an hour. The paramedics said he was conscious on and off. It was just a couple miles from here.”
He remembered the Coke in his pocket, opened the can, and drank. He kept trying to block the image out of his head, to concentrate on the now, and the what happened next. “They got ahold of Ethan pretty quick,” Phillip continued. “When he got here Dad was in surgery. He’s in a coma now.” He looked up, met his brother’s eyes. “They don’t expect him to come out of it.”
“That’s bullshit. He’s strong as an ox.”
“They said . . .” Phillip closed his eyes again. His head felt empty, and he had to search for every thought. “Massive trauma. Brain damage. Internal injuries. He’s on life support. The surgeon . . . he . . . Dad’s a registered organ donor.”
“Fuck that.” Cam’s voice was low and furious.
“Do you think I want to consider it?” Phillip rose now, a tall, rangy man in a wrinkled thousand-dollar suit. “They said it’s a matter of hours at most. The machines are keeping him breathing. Goddamn it, Cam, you know how Mom and Dad talked about this when she got sick. No extreme measures. They made living wills, and we’re ignoring his because . . . because we can’t stand not to.”
“You want to pull the plug?” Cam reached out, grabbed Phillip by the lapels. “You want to pull the goddamn plug on him?”
Weary and sick at heart, Phillip shook his head. “I’d rather cut my hand off. I don’t want to lose him any more than you do. You’d better see for yourself.”
He turned, led the way down the corridor, where the scent was hopelessness not quite masked by antiseptics. They moved through double doors, past a nurse’s station, past small glass-fronted rooms where machines beeped and hope hung stubbornly on.
Ethan was sitting in a chair by the bed when they walked in. His big, calloused hand was through the guard and covering Ray’s. His tall, wiry body was bent over, as if he’d been talking to the unconscious man in the bed beside him. He stood up slowly and, with eyes bruised from lack of sleep, studied Cam.
“So, you decided to put in an appearance. Strike up the band.”
“I got here as soon as I could.” He didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want to believe it. The man, the old, terrifyingly frail man, lying in the narrow bed, was his father. Ray Quinn was huge, strong, invincible. But the man with his father’s face was shrunken, pale and still as death.
“Dad.” He moved to the side of the bed, leaned down close. “It’s Cam. I’m here.” He waited, somehow sure it would take only that for his father’s eyes to open, to wink slyly.
But there was no movement, and no sound except the monotonous beep of the machines.
“I want to talk to his doctor.”
“Garcia.” Ethan scrubbed his hands over his face, back into his sun-bleached hair. “The brain cutter Mom used to call Magic Hands. The nurse’ll page him.”
Cam straightened, and for the first time he noticed the boy curled up asleep in a chair in the corner. “Who’s the kid?”
“The latest of Ray Quinn’s lost boys.” Ethan managed a small smile. Normally it would have softened his serious face, warmed the patient blue eyes. “He told you about him. Seth. Dad took him on about three months ago.” He started to say more but caught Phillip’s warning look and shrugged. “We’ll get into that later.”
Phillip stood at the foot of the bed, rocking back and forth on his heels. “So how was Monte Carlo?” At Cam’s blank stare, he shrugged his shoulder. It was a gesture all three of them used in lieu of words. “The nurse said that we should talk to him, to each other. That maybe he can . . . They don’t know for sure.”
“It was fine.” Cam sat and mirrored Ethan by reaching for Ray’s hand through the bed guard. Because the hand was limp and lifeless, he held it gently and willed it to squeeze his own. “I won a bundle in the casinos and had a very hot French model in my suite when your fax came through.” He shifted, spoke directly to Ray. “You should have seen her. She was incredible. Legs up to her ears, gorgeous man-made breasts.”
“Did she have a face?” Ethan asked dryly.
“One that went just fine with the body. I tell you, she was a killer. And when I said I had to leave, she got just a little bitchy.” He tapped his face where the scratches scored his cheek. “I had to toss her out of the room into the hall before she tore me to ribbons. But I did remember to toss her dress out after her.”
“She was naked?” Phillip wanted to know.
“As a jay.”
Phillip grinned, then had his first laugh in nearly twenty hours. “God, leave it to you.” He laid his hand over Ray’s foot, needing the connection. “He’ll love that story.”
IN THE CORNER, Seth pretended to be asleep. He’d heard Cam come in. He knew who he was. Ray had talked about Cameron a lot. He had two thick scrapbooks filled to busting with clippings and articles and photos of his races and exploits.
He didn’t look so tough and important now, Seth decided. The guy looked sick and pale and hollow-eyed. He’d make up his own mind about what he thought of Cameron Quinn.
He liked Ethan well enough. Though the man’d work your butt raw if you went out oystering or clamming with him. He didn’t preach all the time, and he’d never once delivered a blow or a backhand even when Seth had made mistakes. And he fit Seth’s ten-year-old view of a sailor pretty well.
Rugged, tanned, thick curling hair with streaks of blond in the brown, hard muscles, salty talk. Yeah, Seth liked him well enough.
He didn’t mind Phillip. He was usually all pressed and polished. Seth figured the guy must have six million ties, though he couldn’t imagine why a man would want even one. But Phillip had some sort of fancy job in a fancy office in Baltimore. Advertising. Coming up with slick ideas to sell things to people who probably didn’t need them anyway.
Seth figured it was a pretty cool way to run a con.
Now Cam. He was the one who went for the flash, who lived on the edge and took the risks. No, he didn’t look so tough, he didn’t look like such a badass.
Then Cam turned his head, and his eyes locked onto Seth’s. Held there, unblinking and direct until Seth felt his stomach quiver. To escape, he simply closed his eyes and imagined himself back at the house by the water, throwing sticks for the clumsy puppy Ray called Foolish.
Knowing the boy was awake and aware of his gaze, Cam continued to study him. Good-looking kid, he decided, with a mop of sandy hair and a body that was just starting to go gangly. If he grew into his feet, he’d be a tall one before he was finished sprouting. He had a kiss-my-ass chin, Cam observed, and a sulky mouth. In the pretense of sleep, he managed to look harmless as a puppy and just about as cute.
But the eyes . . . Cam had recognized that edge in them, that animal wariness. He’d seen it often enough in the mirror. He hadn’t been able to make out the color, but they’d been dark. Blue or brown, he imagined.
“Shouldn’t we park the kid somewhere else?”
Ethan glanced over. “He’s fine here. Nobody to leave him with anyhow. On his own he’d just look for trouble.”
Cam shrugged, looked away, and forgot him. “I want to talk to Garcia. They’ve got to have test results, or something. He drives like a pro, so if he had a heart attack or a stroke . . .” His voice trailed off—it was simply too much to contemplate. “We need to know. Standing around here isn’t helping.”
“You need to do something,” Ethan said, his soft voice a sign of suppressed temper, “you go on and do it. Being here counts.” He stared at his brother across Ray’s unconscious form. “It’s always what counted.”
“Some of us didn’t want to dredge for oysters or spend our lives checking crab pots,” Cam shot back. “They gave us a life and expected us to do what we wanted with it.”
“So you did what you wanted.”
“We all did,” Phillip put in. “If something was wrong with Dad the last few months, Ethan, you should have told us.”
“How the hell was I supposed to know?” But he had known something, just hadn’t been able to put his finger on it. And had let it slide. That ate at him now as he sat listening to the machines that kept his father breathing.
“Because you were there,” Cam told him.
“Yeah, I was there. And you weren’t—not for years.”
“And if I’d stayed on St. Chris he wouldn’t have run into a damn telephone pole? Christ.” Cam dragged his hands through his hair. “That makes sense.”
“If you’d been around. If either of you had, he wouldn’t have tried to do so much on his own. Every time I turned around he was up on a damn ladder, or pushing a wheelbarrow, or painting his boat. And he’s still teaching three days a week at the college, tutoring, grading papers. He’s almost seventy, for Christ’s sake.”
“He’s only sixty-seven.” Phillip felt a hard, ice-edged chill claw through him. “And he’s always been healthy as a team of horses.”
“Not lately he hasn’t. He’s been losing weight and looking tired and worn-out. You saw it for yourself.”
“All right, all right.” Phillip scrubbed his hands over his face, felt the scrape of a day’s growth of beard. “So maybe he should have been slowing down a little. Taking on the kid was probably too much, but there wasn’t any talking him out of it.”
The voice, weak and slurred, caused all three men to jolt to attention.
“Dad.” Ethan leaned forward first, his heart fluttering in his chest.
“I’ll get the doctor.”
“No. Stay,” Ray mumbled before Phillip could rush out of the room. It was a hideous effort, this coming back, even for a moment. And Ray understood he had moments only. Already his mind and body seemed separate things, though he could feel the pressure of hands on his hands, hear the sound of his sons’ voices, and the fear and anger in them.
He was tired, oh, God, so tired. And he wanted Stella. But before he left, he had one last duty.
“Here.” The lids seemed to weigh several pounds apiece, but he forced his eyes to open, struggled to focus. His sons, he thought, three wonderful gifts of fate. He’d done his best by them, tried to show them how to become men. Now he needed them for one more. Needed them to stay a unit without him and tend the child.
“The boy.” Even the words had weight. It made him wince to push them from mind to lips. “The boy’s mine. Yours now. Keep the boy, whatever happens, you see to him. Cam. You’ll understand him best.” The big hand, once so strong and vital, tried desperately to squeeze. “Your word on it.”
“We’ll take care of him.” At that moment, Cam would have promised to drag down the moon and stars. “We’ll take care of him until you’re on your feet again.”
“Ethan.” Ray sucked in another breath that wheezed through the respirator. “He’ll need your patience, your heart. You’re a fine waterman because of them.”
“Don’t worry about Seth. We’ll look after him.”
“Right here.” He moved closer, bending low. “We’re all right here.”
“Such good brains. You’ll figure how to make it all work. Don’t let the boy go. You’re brothers. Remember you’re brothers. So proud of you. All of you. Quinns.” He smiled a little, and stopped fighting. “You have to let me go now.”
“I’m getting the doctor.” Panicked, Phillip rushed out of the room while Cam and Ethan tried to will their father back to consciousness.
No one noticed the boy who stayed curled in the chair, his eyes squeezed tightly shut against hot tears.
THEY CAME ALONE and in crowds to wake and to bury Ray Quinn. He’d been more than a resident of the dot on the map known as St. Christopher’s. He’d been teacher and friend and confidant. In years when the oyster crop was lean, he’d helped organize fund-raisers or had suddenly found dozens of odd jobs that needed to be done to tide the watermen over a hard winter.
If a student was struggling, Ray found a way to carve out an extra hour for a one-on-one. His literature classes at the university had always been filled, and it was rare for one to forget Professor Quinn.
He’d believed in community, and that belief had been both strong and supple in deed. He had realized that most vital of humanities. He had touched lives.
And he had raised three boys that no one had wanted into men.
They had left his gravesite buried in flowers and tears. So when the whispering and wondering began, it was most often hushed quickly. Few wanted to hear any gossip that reflected poorly on Ray Quinn. Or so they said, even as their ears twitched to catch the murmurs.
Sexual scandals, adultery, illegitimate child. Suicide.
Ridiculous. Impossible. Most said so and meant it. But others leaned a bit closer to catch every whisper, knit their brows, and passed the rumor from lip to ear.
Cam heard none of the whispers. His grief was so huge, so monstrous, he could barely hear his own black thoughts. When his mother had died, he’d handled it. He’d been prepared for it, had watched her suffer and had prayed for it to end. But this loss had been too quick, too arbitrary, and there was no cancer to blame for it.
There were too many people in the house, people who wanted to offer sympathy or share memories. He didn’t want their memories, couldn’t face them until he’d dealt with his own.
He sat alone on the dock that he’d helped Ray repair a dozen times over the years. Beside him was the pretty twenty-four-foot sloop they’d all sailed in countless times. Cam remembered the rig Ray had had that first summer—a little Sunfish, an aluminum catboat that had looked about as big as a cork to Cam.
And how patiently Ray had taught him how to sail, how to handle the rigging, how to tack. The thrill, Cam thought now, of the first time Ray had let him handle the tiller.
It had been a life-altering experience for a boy who’d grown up on hard streets—salty air in his face, wind snapping the white canvas, the speed and freedom of gliding over water. But most of all, it had been the trust. Here, Ray had said, see what you can do with her.
Maybe it had been that one moment, on that hazy afternoon when the leaves were so full and green and the sun already a white-hot ball behind the mist, that had turned the boy toward the man he was now.
And Ray had done it with a grin.
He heard the footsteps on the dock but didn’t turn. He continued to look out over the water as Phillip stood beside him.
“Most everybody’s gone.”
Phillip slipped his hands into his pockets. “They came for Dad. He’d have appreciated it.”
“Yeah.” Tired, Cam pressed his fingers to his eyes, let them drop. “He would have. I ran out of things to say and ways to say them.”
“Yeah.” Though he made his living with clever words, Phillip understood exactly. He took a moment to enjoy the silence. The breeze off the water had a bit of a bite, and that was a relief after the crowded house, overheated with bodies. “Grace is cleaning up in the kitchen. Seth’s giving her a hand. I think he’s got a case on her.”
“She looks good.” Cam struggled to shift his mind to someone else. Anything else. “Hard to imagine her with a kid of her own. She’s divorced, right?”
“A year or two ago. He took off right before little Aubrey was born.” Phillip blew out a breath between his teeth. “We’ve got some things to deal with, Cam.”
Cam recognized the tone, and the tone meant it was time for business. Resentment bubbled up instantly. “I was thinking of taking a sail. There’s a good wind today.”
“You can sail later.”
Cam turned his head, face bland. “I can sail now.”
“There’s a rumor going around that Dad committed suicide.”
Cam’s face went blank, then filled with red-hot rage. “What the fuck is this?” he demanded as he shot to his feet.
There, Phillip thought with dark satisfaction, that got your attention. “There’s some speculation that he aimed for the pole.”
“That’s just pure bullshit. Who the hell’s saying that?”
“It’s going around—and some of it’s rooting. It has to do with Seth.”
“What has to do with Seth?” Cam began to pace, long, furious strides up and down the narrow dock. “What, do they think he was crazy for taking the kid on? Hell, he was crazy for taking any of us on, but what does that have to do with an accident?”
“There’s some talk brewing that Seth is his son. By blood.”
That stopped Cam dead in his tracks. “Mom couldn’t have kids.”
“I know that.”
Fury pounded in his chest, a hammer on steel. “You’re saying that he cheated on her? That he went off with some other woman and got a kid? Jesus Christ, Phil.”
“I’m not saying it.”
Cam stepped closer until they were face to face. “What the hell are you saying?”
“I’m telling you what I heard,” Phillip said evenly, “so we can deal with it.”
“If you had any balls you’d have decked whoever said it in their lying mouth.”
“Like you want to deck me now. Is that your way of handling it? Just beat on it until it goes away?” With his own temper bubbling, Phillip shoved Cam back an inch. “He was my father too, goddamn it. You were the first, but you weren’t the only.”
“Then why the hell weren’t you standing up for him instead of listening to that garbage? Afraid to get your hands dirty? Ruin your manicure? If you weren’t such a damn pussy, you’d have—”
Phillip’s fist shot out, caught Cam neatly on the jaw. There was enough force behind the punch to snap Cam’s head back, send him staggering for a foot or two. But he regained his balance quickly enough. With eyes dark and eager, he nodded. “Well, then, come on.”
Hot blood roaring in his head, Phillip started to strip off his jacket. Attack came swiftly, quietly and from behind. He barely had time to curse before he was sailing off the dock and into the water.
Phillip surfaced, spat, and shoved the wet hair out of his eyes. “Son of a bitch. You son of a bitch.”
Ethan had his thumbs tucked in his front pockets now and studied his brother as Phillip treaded water. “Cool off,” he suggested mildly.
“This suit is Hugo Boss,” Phillip managed as he kicked toward the dock.
“That don’t mean shit to me.” Ethan glanced over at Cam. “Mean anything to you?”
“Means he’s going to have a hell of a dry-cleaning bill.”
“You, too,” Ethan said and shoved Cam off the dock. “This isn’t the time or place to go punching each other. So when the pair of you haul your butts out and dry off, we’ll talk this through. I sent Seth on with Grace for a while.”
Eyes narrowed, Cam skimmed his hair back with his fingers. “So you’re in charge all of a sudden.”
“Looks to me like I’m the only one who kept his head above water.” With this, Ethan turned and sauntered back toward the house.
Together Cam and Phillip gripped the edge of the dock. They exchanged one long, hard look before Cam sighed. “We’ll throw him in later,” he said.
Accepting the apology, Phillip nodded. He pulled himself up on the dock and sat, dragging off his ruined silk tie. “I loved him too. As much as you did. As much as anyone could.”
“Yeah.” Cam yanked off his shoes. “I can’t stand it.” It was a hard admission from a man who’d chosen to live on the edge. “I didn’t want to be there today. I didn’t want to stand there and watch them put him in the ground.”
“You were there. That’s all that would have mattered to him.”
Cam peeled off his socks, his tie, his jacket, felt the chill of early spring. “Who told you about—who said those things about Dad?”
“Grace. She’s been hearing talk and thought it best that we knew what was being said. She told Ethan and me this morning. And she cried.” Phillip lifted a brow. “Still think I should have decked her?”
Cam heaved his ruined shoes onto the lawn. “I want to know who started this, and why.”
“Have you looked at Seth, Cam?”
The wind was getting into his bones. That was why he suddenly wanted to shudder. “Sure I looked at him.” Cam turned, headed for the house.
“Take a closer look,” Phillip murmured.
WHEN CAM WALKED into the kitchen twenty minutes later, warm and dry in a sweater and jeans, Ethan had coffee hot and whiskey ready.
It was a big, family-style kitchen with a long wooden table in the center. The white countertops showed a bit of age, the wear and tear of use. There’d been talk a few years back of replacing the aging stove. Then Stella had gotten sick, and that had been the end of that.
There was a big, shallow bowl on the table that Ethan had made in his junior year in high school wood shop. It had sat there since the day he’d brought it home, and was often filled with letters and notes and household flotsam rather than the fruit it had been designed for. Three wide, curtainless windows ranged along the back wall, opening the room up to the yard and the water beyond it.
The cabinet doors were glass-fronted, and the dishes inside plain white stoneware, meticulously arranged. As would be, Cam thought, the contents of all the drawers. Stella had insisted on that. When she wanted a spoon, by God, she didn’t want to search for one.
But the refrigerator was covered with photos and newspaper clippings, notes, postcards, children’s drawings, all haphazardly affixed with multicolored magnets.
It gave his heart a hitch to step into that room and know his parents wouldn’t ever again be there.
“Coffee’s strong,” Ethan commented. “So’s the whiskey. Take your choice.”
“I’ll have both.” Cam poured a mug, added a shot of Johnnie Walker to the coffee, then sat. “You want to take a swing at me, too?”
“I did. May again.” Ethan decided he wanted his whiskey alone and neat. And poured a double. “Don’t much feel like it now.” He stood by the window, looking out, the untouched whiskey in his hand. “Maybe I still think you should have been here more the last few years. Maybe you couldn’t be. It doesn’t seem to matter now.”
“I’m not a waterman, Ethan. I do what I’m good at. That’s what they expected.”
“Yeah.” He couldn’t imagine the need to run from the place that was home, and sanctuary. And love. But there was no point in questioning it, or in holding on to resentments. Or, he admitted, casting blame. “The place needs some work.”
“I should have made more time to come around and see to things. You always figure there’s going to be plenty of time to go around, then there’s not. The back steps are rotting out, need replacing. I kept meaning to.” He turned as Phillip came into the room. “Grace has to work tonight, so she can’t keep Seth occupied for more than a couple hours. You lay it out, Phil. It’ll take me too long.”
“All right.” Phillip poured coffee, left the whiskey alone. Rather than sit, he leaned back against the counter. “It seems a woman came to see Dad a few months back. She went to the college, caused a little trouble that nobody paid much attention to at the time.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Caused a scene in his office, a lot of shouting and crying on her part. Then she went to see the dean and tried to file sexual molestation charges against Dad.”
“That’s a crock.”
“The dean apparently thought so, too.” Phillip poured a second cup of coffee and this time brought it to the table. “She claimed Dad had harassed and molested her while she was a student. But there was no record of her ever being a student at the college. Then she said she’d just been auditing his class because she couldn’t afford full tuition. But nobody could verify that either. Dad’s rep stood up to it, and it seemed to go away.”
“He was pretty shaken,” Ethan put in. “He wouldn’t talk to me about it. Wouldn’t talk to anybody. Then he went away for about a week. Told me he was going down to Florida to do some fishing. He came back with Seth.”
“You’re trying to tell me people think the kid’s his? For Christ’s sake, that he had something going on with this bimbo who waits, what, ten, twelve years to complain about it?”
“Nobody thought too much of it then,” Phillip put in. “He had a history of bringing strays home. But then there was the money.”
“He wrote checks, one for ten thousand dollars, another for five, and another for ten over the last three months. All to Gloria DeLauter. Somebody at the bank noticed and mumbled to somebody else, because Gloria DeLauter was the name of the woman who’d tried to hang him up on the sexual misconduct charges.”
“Why the hell didn’t somebody tell me what was going on around here?”
“I didn’t find out about the money until a few weeks ago.” Ethan stared down into his whiskey, then decided it would do him more good inside than out. He downed it, hissed once. “When I asked him about it, he just told me the boy was what was important. Not to worry. As soon as everything was settled he’d explain. He asked me for some time, and he looked so . . . defenseless. You don’t know what it was like, seeing him scared and old and fragile. You didn’t see him, you weren’t here to see him. So I waited.” Whiskey and guilt paired with resentment and grief to burn a hole inside him. “And I was wrong.”
Shaken, Cam pushed back from the table. “You think he was paying blackmail. That he diddled some student a dozen years ago and knocked her up? And now he was paying so she’d keep quiet. So she’d hand over the kid for him to raise?”
“I’m telling you what was, and what I know.” Ethan’s voice was even, his eyes steady. “Not what I think.”
“I don’t know what I think,” Phillip said quietly. “But I know Seth’s got his eyes. You only have to look at him, Cam.”
“No way he fucked with a student. And no way he cheated on Mom.”
“I don’t want to believe it.” Phillip set down his mug. “But he was human. He could have made a mistake.” One of them had to be realistic, and he decided he was elected. “If he did, I’m not going to condemn him for it. What we have to do is figure out how to do what he asked. We have to find a way to keep Seth. I can find out if he started adoption proceedings. They couldn’t be final yet. We’re going to need a lawyer.”
“I want to find out more about this Gloria DeLauter.” Deliberately, Cam unclenched his fists before he could use them on something, or someone. “I want to know who the hell she is. Where the hell she is.”
“Up to you.” Phillip shrugged his shoulders. “Personally, I don’t want to get near her.”
“What’s this suicide crap?”
Phillip and Ethan exchanged a look, then Ethan rose and walked to a kitchen drawer. He pulled it open, took out a large sealed bag. It hurt him to hold it, and he saw by the way Cam’s eyes darkened that Cam recognized the worn green enameled shamrock key ring as their father’s.
“This is what was inside the car after the accident.” He opened it, took out an envelope. The white paper was stained with dried blood. “I guess somebody—one of the cops, the tow truck operator, maybe one of the paramedics—looked inside and read the letter, and they didn’t trouble to keep it to themselves. It’s from her.” Ethan tapped out the letter, held it out to Cam. “DeLauter. The postmark’s Baltimore.”
“He was coming back from Baltimore.” With dread, Cam unfolded the letter. The handwriting was a large, loopy scrawl.
Quinn, I’m tired of playing nickel and dime. You want the kid so bad, then it’s time to pay for him. Meet me where you picked him up. We’ll make it Monday morning. The block’s pretty quiet then. Eleven o’clock. Bring a hundred and fifty thousand, in cash. Cash money, Quinn, and no discounts. You don’t come through with every penny, I’m taking the kid back. Remember, I can pull the plug on the adoption any time I want. A hundred and fifty grand’s a pretty good bargain for a good-looking boy like Seth. Bring the money and I’m gone. You’ve got my word on it. Gloria
“She was selling him,” Cam murmured. “Like he was a—” He stopped himself, looked up sharply at Ethan as he remembered. Ethan had once been sold as well, by his own mother, to men who preferred young boys. “I’m sorry, Ethan.”
“I live with it,” he said simply. “Mom and Dad made sure I could. She’s not going to get Seth back. Whatever it takes, she won’t get her hands on him.”
“We don’t know if he paid her?”
“He emptied his bank account here,” Phillip put in. “From what I can tell—and I haven’t gone over his papers in detail yet—he closed out his regular savings, cashed in his CDs. He only had a day to get the cash. That would have come to about a hundred thousand. I don’t know if he had fifty more—if he had time to liquidate it if he did.”
“She wouldn’t have gone away. He’d have known that.” Cam put the letter down, wiped his hands on his jeans as if to clean them. “So people are whispering that he killed himself in what—shame, panic, despair? He wouldn’t have left the kid alone.”
“He didn’t.” Ethan moved to the coffeepot. “He left him with us.”
“How the hell are we supposed to keep him?” Cam sat again. “Who’s going to let us adopt anybody?”
“We’ll find a way.” Ethan poured coffee, added enough sugar to make Phillip wince in reaction. “He’s ours now.”
“What the hell are we going to do with him?”
“Put him in school, put a roof over his head, food in his belly, and try to give him something of what we were given.” He brought the pot over, topped off Cam’s coffee. “You got an argument?”
“Couple dozen, but none of them get past the fact that we gave our word.”
“We agree on that, anyway.” Frowning, Phillip drummed his fingers on the table. “But we’ve left out one pretty vital point. None of us knows what Seth’s going to have to say about it. He might not want to stay here. He might not want to stay with us.”
“You’re just looking to complicate things, as usual,” Cam complained. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“Because he doesn’t know you, he barely knows me.” Phillip lifted his cup and gestured. “The only one he’s spent any time with is Ethan.”
“Didn’t spend all that much with me,” Ethan admitted. “I took him out on the boat a few times. He’s got a quick mind, good hands. Doesn’t have much to say for himself, but when he does, he’s got a mouth on him. He’s spent some time with Grace. She doesn’t seem to mind him.”
“Dad wanted him to stay,” Cam stated with a shrug. “He stays.” He glanced over at the sound of a horn tooting three quick beeps.
“That’ll be Grace dropping him back off on her way to Shiney’s Pub.”
“Shiney’s?” Cam’s brows shot up. “What’s she doing down at Shiney’s?”
“Making a living, I expect,” Ethan returned.
“Oh, yeah.” A slow grin spread. “Does he still have his waitresses dress in those little skirts with the bows on the butt and the black fishnet stockings?”
“He does,” Phillip said with a long, wistful sigh. “He does indeed.”
“Grace would fill out one of those outfits pretty well, I’d imagine.”
“She does.” Phillip smiled. “She does indeed.”
“Maybe I’ll just mosey down to Shiney’s later.”
“Grace isn’t one of your French models.” Ethan pushed back from the table, took his mug and his annoyance to the sink. “Back off.”
“Whoa.” Behind Ethan’s back, Cam wiggled his brows at Phillip. “Backing off, bro. Didn’t know you had your eye aimed in that particular direction.”
“I don’t. She’s a mother, for Christ’s sake.”
“I had a really fine time with the mother of two in Cancun last winter,” Cam remembered. “Her ex was swimming in oil—olive oil—and all she got in the divorce settlement was a Mexican villa, a couple of cars, some trinkets, art, and two million. I spent a memorable week consoling her. And the kids were cute—from a distance. With their nanny.”
“You’re such a humanitarian, Cam,” Phillip told him.
“Don’t I know it.”
They heard the front door slam and looked at each other. “Well, who talks to him?” Phillip wanted to know.
“I’m no good at that kind of stuff.” Ethan was already edging toward the back door. “And I’ve got to go feed my dog.”
“Coward,” Cam muttered as the door shut at Ethan’s back.
“You bet. Me, too.” Phillip was up and moving. “You get first crack. I’ve got those papers to go through.”
“Wait just a damn minute—”
But Phillip was gone, and cheerfully telling Seth that Cameron wanted to talk to him. When Seth came to the kitchen door, the puppy scrambling at his heels, he saw Cam scowling as he poured more whiskey in his coffee.
Seth stuck his hands in his pockets and lifted his chin. He didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to talk to anybody. At Grace’s he’d been able to just sit on her little stoop, be alone with his thoughts. Even when she’d come out for a little while and sat beside him with Aubrey on her knee, she’d let him be.
Because she understood he’d wanted to be quiet.
Now he had to deal with the man. He wasn’t afraid of big hands and hard eyes. Wouldn’t—couldn’t—let himself be afraid. He wouldn’t care that they were going to kick him loose, toss him back like one of the runt fish Ethan pulled out of the bay.
He could take care of himself. He wasn’t worried.
His heart scrambled in his chest like a mouse in a cage.
“What?” The single word was ripe with defiance and challenge. Seth stood, his legs locked, and waited for a reaction.
Cam only continued to frown and sip his doctored coffee. With one hand, he absently stroked the puppy, who was trying valiantly to climb into his lap. He saw a scrawny boy wearing jeans still stiff and obviously new, a screw-you sneer, and Ray Quinn’s eyes. “Sit down.”
“I can stand.”
“I didn’t ask you what you could do, I told you to sit down.”
On cue, Foolish obediently plopped his fat butt on the floor and grinned. But boy and man stared at each other. The boy gave way first. It was the quick jerk of the shoulders that had Cam setting his mug down with a click. It was a Quinn gesture, through and through. Cam took a moment to settle, tried to gather his thoughts. But they remained scattered and elusive. What the hell was he supposed to say to the boy?
“You get anything to eat?”
Seth watched him warily from under girlishly thick lashes. “Yeah, there was stuff.”
“Ah, Ray, did he talk to you about . . . things. Plans for you?”
The shoulders jerked again. “I don’t know.”
“He was working on adopting you, making it legal. You knew about that.”
“Yeah.” Cam picked up his coffee again, let the pain roll through. “He’s dead.”
“I’m going to Florida,” Seth burst out as the idea slammed into his mind.
Cam sipped coffee, angled his head as if mildly interested. “Oh, yeah?”
“I got some money. I figured I’d leave in the morning, catch a bus south. You can’t stop me.”
“Sure I can.” More comfortable now, Cam leaned back in his chair. “I’m bigger than you. What do you plan to do in Florida?”
“I can get work. I can do lots of things.”
“Pick some pockets, sleep on the beach.”
Cam nodded. That had been his plan when his destination had been Mexico. For the first time he thought he might be able to connect with the boy after all. “I guess you can’t drive yet.”
“I could if I had to.”
“Harder to boost a car these days unless you’ve got some experience. And you need to be mobile to keep ahead of the cops. Florida’s a bad idea.”
“That’s where I’m going.” Seth set his jaw.
“No, it isn’t.”
“You’re not sending me back.” Seth lurched up from the chair, his thin frame vibrating with fear and rage. The sudden move and shout sent the puppy racing fearfully from the room. “You got no hold over me, you can’t make me go back.”
“To her. I’ll go right now. I’ll get my stuff and I’m gone. And if you think you can stop me, you’re full of shit.”
Cam recognized the stance—braced for a blow but ready to fight back. “She knock you around?”
“That’s none of your fucking business.”
“Ray made it my fucking business. You head for the door,” he added as Seth shifted to the balls of his feet, “I’ll just haul you back.” Cam only sighed when Seth made his dash.
Even as he caught him three feet before the front door, he had to give Seth credit for speed. And when he caught the boy around the waist, took the backhanded fist on his already tender jaw, he gave him credit for strength.
“Get your goddamn hands off me, you son of a bitch. I’ll kill you if you touch me.”
Grimly, Cam dragged Seth into the living room, pushed him into a chair, and held him there with their faces close. If it had just been anger he saw in the boy’s eyes, or defiance, he wouldn’t have cared. But what he saw was raw terror.
“You got balls, kid. Now try to develop some brains to go with them. If I want sex, I want a woman. Understand me?”
He couldn’t speak. All he’d known when that hard, muscled arm had wrapped around him was that this time he wouldn’t be able to escape. This time he wouldn’t be able to fight free and run.
“There’s nobody here who’s going to touch you like that. Ever.” Without realizing it, Cam had gentled his voice. His eyes remained dark, but the hardness was gone. “If I lay hands on you, the worst it means is I might try to knock some sense into you. You got that?”
“I don’t want you to touch me,” Seth managed. His breath was gone. Panic sweat slicked his skin like oil. “I don’t like being touched.”
“Okay, fine. You sit where I put you.” Cam eased back, then pulled over a footstool and sat. Since Foolish was now shivering in terror, Cam plucked him up and dumped him in Seth’s lap. “We got a problem,” Cam began, and prayed for inspiration on how to handle it. “I can’t watch you twenty-four hours a day. And if I could, I’m damned if I would. You take off for Florida, I’m going to have to go find you and haul you back. That’s really going to piss me off.”
Because the dog was there, Seth stroked him, gaining comfort while giving it. “What do you care where I go?”
“I can’t say I do. But Ray did. So you’re going to have to stay.”
“Stay?” It was an option Seth had never considered. Certainly hadn’t allowed himself to believe. “Here? When you sell the house—”
“Who’s selling the house?”
“I—” Seth broke off, decided he was saying too much. “People figured you would.”
“People figured wrong. Nobody’s selling this house.” It surprised Cam just how firm his feelings were on that particular point. “I don’t know how we’re going to manage it yet. I’m still working on that. But in the meantime, you’d better get this into your head. You’re staying put.” Which meant, Cam realized with a jolt, so was he.
It appeared his luck was still running bad.
“We’re stuck with each other, kid, for the next little while.”
CAM FIGURED THIS had to be the weirdest week of his life. He should have been in Italy, prepping for the motocross he’d planned to treat himself to. Most of his clothes and his boat were in Monte Carlo, his car was in Nice, his motorcycle in Rome.
And he was in St. Chris, baby-sitting a ten-year-old with a bad attitude. He hoped to Christ the kid was in school where he belonged. They’d had a battle royal over that little item that morning. But then, they were at war over most everything.
Kitchen duty, curfews, laundry, television picks. Cam shook his head as he pried off the rotting treads on the back steps. He’d swear the boy would square up for a bout if you said good morning.
And maybe he wasn’t doing a fabulous job as guardian, but damn it, he was doing his best. He had the tension headache to prove it. And mostly, he was on his own. Phillip had promised weekends, and that was something. But it also left five hideous days between. Ethan made a point of coming by and staying a few hours every evening after he pulled in the day’s catch.
But that left the days.
Cam would have traded his immortal soul for a week in Martinique. Hot sand and hotter women. Cold beer and no hassles. Instead he was doing laundry, learning the mysteries of microwave cooking, and trying to keep tabs on a boy who seemed hell-bent on making life miserable.
“You were the same way.”
“Hell I was. I wouldn’t have lived to see twelve if I’d been that big an idiot.”
“Most of that first year Stella and I used to lie in bed at night and wonder if you’d still be here in the morning.”
“At least there were two of you. And . . .”
Cam’s hand went limp on the hammer. His fingers simply gave way until it thudded on the ground beside him. There in the old, creaking rocker on the back porch sat Ray Quinn. His face was wide and smiling, his hair a tousled white mane that grew long and full. He wore his favored gray fishing pants, a faded gray T-shirt with a red crab across the chest. His feet were bare.
“Dad?” Cam’s head spun once, sickly, then his heart burst with joy. He leaped to his feet.
“You didn’t think I’d leave you fumbling through this alone, did you?”
“But—” Cam shut his eyes. He was hallucinating, he realized. It was stress and fatigue, grief tossed in.
“I always tried to teach you that life’s full of surprises and miracles. I wanted you to open your mind not just to possibilities, Cam, but to impossibilities.”
“Why not?” The idea seemed to cheer Ray immensely as he let loose with one of his deep, rumbling laughs. “Read your literature, son. It’s full of them.”
“Can’t be,” Cam mumbled to himself.
“I’m sitting right here, so it looks like it can. I left too many things unfinished around here. It’s up to you and your brothers now, but who says I can’t give you a little help now and again?”
“Help. Yeah, I’m going to need some serious help. Starting with a psychiatrist.” Before his legs gave out on him, Cam picked his way through the broken stairs and sat down on the edge of the porch.
“You’re not crazy, Cam, just confused.”
Cam took a steadying breath and turned his head to study the man who lazily rocked in the old wooden chair. The Mighty Quinn, he thought while the air whooshed out of his lungs. He looked solid and real. He looked, Cam decided, there.
“If you’re really here, tell me about the boy. Is he yours?”
“He’s yours now. Yours and Ethan’s and Phillip’s.”
“That’s not enough.”
“Of course it is. I’m counting on each of you. Ethan takes things as they come and makes the best of them. Phillip wraps his mind around details and ties them up. You push at everything until it works your way. The boy needs all three of you. Seth’s what’s important. You’re all what’s important.”
“I don’t know what to do with him,” Cam said impatiently. “I don’t know what to do with myself.”
“Figure out one, you’ll figure out the other.”
“Damn it, tell me what happened. Tell me what’s going on.”
“That’s not why I’m here. I can’t tell you if I’ve seen Elvis either.” Ray grinned when Cam let out a short, helpless laugh. “I believe in you, Cam. Don’t give up on Seth. Don’t give up on yourself.”
“I don’t know how to do this.”
“Fix the steps,” Ray said with a wink. “It’s a start.”
“The hell with the steps,” Cam began, but he was alone again with the sound of singing birds and gently lapping water. “Losing my mind,” he murmured, rubbing an unsteady hand over his face. “Losing my goddamn mind.”
And rising, he went back to fix the steps.
• • •
ANNA SPINELLI HAD the radio blasting. Aretha Franklin was wailing out of her million-dollar pipes, demanding respect. Anna was wailing along with her, deliriously thrilled with her spanking-new car.
She’d worked her butt off, budgeted and juggled funds to afford the down payment and the monthly installments. And as far as she was concerned it would be worth every carton of yogurt she ate rather than a real meal.
Despite the chilly spring air, she’d have preferred to have the top down as she sped along the country roads. But it wouldn’t have looked professional to arrive windblown. Above all else, it was essential to appear and behave in a professional manner.
She’d chosen a plain and proper navy suit and white blouse for this home visit. What she wore under it was nobody’s business but her own. Her affection for silk strained her ever beleaguered budget, but life was for living, after all.
She’d fought her long, curling black hair into a tidy bun at the nape of her neck. She thought it made her look a bit more mature and dignified. Too often when she wore her hair down she was dismissed as a hot number rather than a serious-minded social worker.
Her skin was pale gold, thanks to her Italian heritage. Her eyes, big and dark and almond-shaped. Her mouth was full, with a ripe bottom lip. The bones in her face were strong and prominent, her nose long and straight. She wore little makeup during business hours, wary of drawing the wrong kind of attention.
She was twenty-eight years old, devoted to her work, satisfied with the single life, and pleased that she’d been able to settle in the pretty town of Princess Anne.
She’d had enough of the city.
As she drove between long, flat fields of row crops with the scent of water a hint on the breeze through her window, she dreamed of one day moving to such a place. Country lanes and tractors. A view of the bay and boats.
She’d need to save up, to plan, but one day she hoped to manage to buy a little house outside of town. The commute wouldn’t be so hard, not when driving was one of her greatest personal pleasures.
The CD player shifted, the Queen of Soul to Beethoven. Anna began to hum the “Ode to Joy.”
She was glad the Quinn case had been assigned to her. It was so interesting. She only wished she’d had the chance to meet Raymond and Stella Quinn. It would take very special people to adopt three half-grown and troubled boys and make it work.
But they were gone, and now Seth DeLauter was her concern. Obviously the adoption proceedings couldn’t go forward. Three single men—one living in Baltimore, one in St. Chris, and the other wherever he chose to at the moment. Well, Anna mused, it didn’t appear to be the best environment for the child. In any case, it was doubtful they would want guardianship.
So Seth DeLauter would be absorbed back into the system. Anna intended to do her best by him.
When she spotted the house through the greening leaves, she stopped the car. Deliberately she turned the radio down to a dignified volume, then checked her face and hair in the rearview mirror. Shifting back into first, she drove the last few yards at a leisurely pace and turned slowly into the drive.
Her first thought was that it was a pretty house in a lovely setting. So quiet and peaceful, she mused. It could have used a fresh coat of paint, and the yard needed tending, but the slight air of disrepair only added to the hominess.
A boy would be happy here, she thought. Anyone would. It was a shame he’d have to be taken away from it. She sighed a little, knowing too well that fate had its whims. Taking her briefcase, she got out of the car.
She hitched her jacket to make certain it fell in line. She wore it a bit loose, so it wouldn’t showcase distracting curves. She started toward the front door, noting that the perennial beds flanking the steps were beginning to pop.
She really needed to learn more about flowers; she made a mental note to check out a few gardening books from the library.
She heard the hammering and hesitated, then in her practical low heels cut across the lawn toward the back of the house.
He was kneeling on the ground when she caught sight of him. A black T-shirt tucked into snug and faded denim. From a purely female outlook, it was impossible not to react and approve of him. Muscles—the long and lean sort—rippled as he pounded a nail into wood with enough anger, Anna mused, enough force, to send vibrations of both into the air to simmer.
Phillip Quinn? she wondered. The advertising executive. Highly doubtful.
Cameron Quinn, the globe-trotting risk-taker? Hardly.
So this must be Ethan, the waterman. She fixed a polite smile on her face and started forward. “Mr. Quinn.”
His head came up. With the hammer still gripped in his hand, he turned until she saw his face. Oh, yes, the anger was there, she realized, full-blown and lethal. And the face itself was more compelling and certainly tougher than she’d been prepared for.
Some Native American blood, perhaps, she decided, would account for those sharp bones and bronzed skin. His hair was a true black, untidy and long enough to fall over his collar. His eyes were anything but friendly, the color of bitter storms.
On a personal level, she found the package outrageously sexy. On a professional one, she knew the look of an alley brawler when she saw one, and decided on the spot that whichever Quinn this was, he was a man to be careful with.
He took his time studying her. His first thought was that legs like that deserved a better showcase than a drab navy skirt and ugly black shoes. His second was that when a woman had eyes that big, that brown, that beautiful, she probably got whatever she wanted without saying a word.
He set the hammer down and rose. “I’m Quinn.”
“I’m Anna Spinelli.” She kept the smile in place as she walked forward, hand extended. “Which Quinn are you?”
“Cameron.” He’d expected a soft hand because of the eyes, because of the husky purr of her voice, but it was firm. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m Seth DeLauter’s caseworker.”
His interest evaporated, and his spine stiffened. “Seth’s in school.”
“I’d hope so. I’d like to speak with you about the situation, Mr. Quinn.”
“My brother Phillip’s handling the legal details.”
She arched a brow, determined to keep the small polite smile in place. “Is he here?”
“Well, then, if I could have a few moments of your time. I assume you’re living here, at least temporarily.”
She didn’t bother to sigh. Too many people saw a social worker as the enemy. She’d done so once herself. “My concern is Seth, Mr. Quinn. Now we can discuss this, or I can simply move forward with the procedure for his removal from this home and into approved foster care.”
“It’d be a mistake to try that, Miz Spinelli. Seth isn’t going anywhere.”
Her back went up at the way he drawled out her name. “Seth DeLauter is a minor. The private adoption your father was implementing wasn’t finalized, and there is some question about its validity. At this point, Mr. Quinn, you have no legal connection to him.”
“You don’t want me to tell you what you can do with your legal connection, do you, Miz Spinelli?” With some satisfaction he watched those big, dark eyes flash. “I didn’t think so. I can resist. Seth’s my brother.” The saying of it left him shaken. With a jerk of his shoulder, he turned. “I need a beer.”
She stood for a moment after the screen door slammed. When it came to her work, she simply didn’t permit herself to lose her temper. She breathed in, breathed out three times before climbing the half-repaired steps and going into the house.
“Still here?” He twisted the top off a Harp. “Want a beer?”
“No. Mr. Quinn—”
“I don’t like social workers.”
“You’re joking.” She allowed herself to flutter her lashes at him. “I never would have guessed.”
His lips twitched before he lifted the bottle to them. “Nothing personal.”
“Of course not. I don’t like rude, arrogant men. That’s nothing personal either. Now, are you ready to discuss Seth’s welfare, or should I simply come back with the proper paperwork and the cops?”
She would, Cam decided after another study. She might have been given a face suitable for painting, but she wasn’t a pushover. “You try that, and the kid’s going to bolt. You’d pick him up sooner or later, and he’d end up in juvie—then he’d end up in a cell. Your system isn’t going to help him, Miz Spinelli.”
“But you can?”
“Maybe.” He frowned into his beer. “My father would have.” When he looked up again, there were emotions storming in his eyes that pulled at her. “Do you believe in the sanctity of a deathbed promise?”
“Yes,” she said before she could stop herself.
“The day my father died I promised him—we promised him—that we’d keep Seth with us. Nothing and no one is going to make me break my word. Not you, not your system, not a dozen cops.”
The situation here wasn’t what she’d expected to find. So she would reevaluate. “I’d like to sit down,” Anna said after a moment.
She pulled out a chair at the table. There were dishes in the sink, she noted, and the faint smell of whatever had been burnt for dinner the night before. But to her that only meant someone was trying to feed a young boy. “Do you intend to apply for legal guardianship?”
“You, Mr. Quinn,” she interrupted. “I’m asking you if that is your intention.” She waited, watching the doubts and resistance sweep over his face.
“Then I guess it is. Yeah.” God help them all, he thought. “If that’s what it takes.”
“Do you intend to live in this house, with Seth, on a permanent basis?”
“Permanent?” It was perhaps the only truly frightening word in his life. “Now I have to sit down.” He did so, then pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger to relieve some of the pressure. “Christ. How about we use ‘for the foreseeable future’ instead of ‘permanent’?”
She folded her hands on the edge of the table. She didn’t doubt his sincerity, would have applauded him for his intentions. But . . . “You have no idea what you’re thinking of taking on.”
“You’re wrong. I do, and it scares the hell out of me.”
She nodded, considering the answer a point in his favor. “What makes you think you would be a better guardian for a ten-year-old boy, a boy I believe you’ve known for less than two weeks, than a screened and approved foster home?”
“Because I understand him. I’ve been him—or part of him. And because this is where he belongs.”
“Let me lay out some of the bigger obstacles to what you’re planning. You’re a single man with no permanent address and without a steady income.”
“I’ve got a house right here. I’ve got money.”
“Whose name is the house in, Mr. Quinn?” She only nodded when his brows knit. “I imagine you have no idea.”
“Good for Phillip. And I’m sure you have some money, Mr. Quinn, but I’m speaking of steady employment. Going around the world racing various forms of transportation isn’t stable employment.”
“It pays just fine.”
“Have you considered the risk to life and limb of your chosen lifestyle when you propose to take on a responsibility like this? Believe me, the court will. What if something happens to you when you’re trying to break land and speed records?”
“I know what I’m doing. Besides, there are three of us.”
“Only one of you lives in this house where Seth will live.”
“And the one who does isn’t a respected college professor with the experience of raising three sons.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t handle it.”
“No, Mr. Quinn,” she said patiently, “but it is a major obstacle to legal guardianship.”
“What if we all did?”
“What if we all lived here? What if my brothers moved in?” What a damn mess, Cam thought, but he kept going. “What if I got a . . .” Now he had to take a deep swallow of beer, knowing the word would stick in his throat. “A job,” he managed.
She stared at him. “You’d be willing to change your life so dramatically?”
“Ray and Stella Quinn changed my life.”
Her face softened, making Cam blink in surprise as her generous mouth curved in a smile, as her eyes seemed to go darker and deeper. When her hand reached out, closed lightly over his, he stared down at it, surprised by a quick jolt of what was surely pure lust.
“When I was driving here, I was wishing I could have met them. I thought they must have been remarkable people. Now I’m sure of it.” Then she drew back. “I’ll need to speak with Seth, and with your brothers. What time does Seth get home from school?”
“What time?” Cam glanced at the kitchen clock without a clue. “It’s sort of . . . flexible.”
“You’ll want to do better than that if this gets as far as a formal home study. I’ll go by the school and see him. Your brother Ethan.” She rose. “Would I find him at home?”
“Not at this time of day. He’ll be bringing in his catch before five.”
She glanced at her watch, gauged her time. “All right, and I’ll contact your other brother in Baltimore.” From her briefcase she took a neat leather notebook. “Now, can you give me names and addresses of some neighbors. People who know you and Seth and who would stand for your character. The good side of your character, that is.”
“I could probably come up with a few.”
“That’s a start. I’ll do some research here, Mr. Quinn. If it’s in Seth’s best interest to remain in your home, under your care, I’ll do everything I can to help you.” She angled her head. “If I reach the opinion that it’s in his best interest to be taken out of your home, and out of your care, then I’ll fight you tooth and nail to make that happen.”
Cam rose as well. “Then I guess we understand each other.”
“Not by a long shot. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”
THE MINUTE SHE was out of the house, Cam was on the phone. By the time he’d been passed through a secretary and an assistant and reached Phillip, his temper had spilled over.
“There was a goddamn social worker here.”
“I told you to expect that.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did. You don’t listen. I’ve got a friend of mine—a lawyer—working on the guardianship. Seth’s mother took a hike; as far as we can tell, she’s not in Baltimore.”
“I don’t give a damn where the mother is. The social worker was making noises about taking Seth.”
“The lawyer’s putting through a temporary guardianship. It takes time, Cam.”
“We may not have time.” He shut his eyes, tried to think past the anger. “Or maybe I bought us some. Who owns the house now?”
“We do. Dad left it—well, everything—to the three of us.”
“Fine, good. Because you’re about to change locations. You’re going to need to pack up those designer suits of yours, pal, and get your butt down here. We’re going to be living together again.”
“And I’ve got to get a goddamn job. I’m going to expect you by seven tonight. Bring dinner. I’m sick to death of cooking.”
It gave him some satisfaction to hang up on Phillip’s vigorous cursing.
ANNA FOUND SETH sullen and smart-mouthed and snotty. And liked him immediately. The principal had given her permission to take him out of class and use a corner of the empty cafeteria as a makeshift office.
“It would be easier if you’d tell me what you think and feel, and what you want.”
“Why should you give a damn?”
“They pay me to.”
Seth shrugged and continued to draw patterns on the table with his finger. “I think you should mind your own business, I feel bored, and I want you to go away.”
“Well, that’s enough about me,” Anna said and had the pleasure of seeing Seth struggle to suppress a smile. “Let’s talk about you. Are you happy living with Mr. Quinn?”
“It’s a cool house.”
“Yes, I liked it. What about Mr. Quinn?”
“He thinks he knows everything. Thinks he’s a BFD because he’s been all over the world. He sure as hell can’t cook, let me tell you.”
She left her pen on the table and folded her hands over her notebook. He was much too thin, she thought. “Do you go hungry?”
“He ends up going to get pizza or burgers. Pitiful. I mean what’s it take to work a microwave?”
“Maybe you should do the cooking.”
“Like he’d ask me. The other night he blows up the potatoes. Forgets to poke holes in them, you know, and bam!” Seth forgot to sneer, laughing out loud instead. “What a mess! He swore a streak then, man, oh, man.”
“So the kitchen isn’t his area of expertise.” But, Anna decided, he was trying.
“You’re telling me. He’s better off when he’s going around hammering things or fiddling with that cool-ass car. Did you see that ’Vette? Cam said it was his mom’s and she had it for like ever. Drives like a rocket, too. Ray kept it in the garage. Guess he didn’t want to get it out.”
“Do you miss him? Ray?”
The shoulder shrugged again, and Seth’s gaze dropped. “He was cool. But he was old and when you get old you die. That’s the way it is.”
“What about Ethan and Phillip?”
“They’re okay. I like going out on the boats. If I didn’t have school, I could work for Ethan. He said I pulled my weight.”
“Do you want to stay with them, Seth?”
“I got no place to go, do I?”
“There’s always a choice, and I’m here to help you find the one that works best for you. If you know where your mother is—”
“I don’t know.” His voice rose, his head snapped up. His eyes darkened to nearly navy against a pale face. “And I don’t want to know. You try to send me back there, you’ll never find me.”
“Did she hurt you?” Anna waited a beat, then nodded when he only stared at her. “All right, we’ll leave that alone for now. There are couples and families who are willing and able to take children into their home, to care for them, to give them a good life.”
“They don’t want me, do they?” The tears wanted to come. He’d be damned if he’d let them. Instead his eyes went hot and burning dry. “He said I could stay, but it was a lie. Just another fucking lie.”
“No.” She grabbed Seth’s hand before he could leap up. “No, they do want you. As a matter of fact, Mr. Quinn—Cameron—was very angry with me for suggesting you should go into another home. I’m only trying to find out what you want. And I think you just told me. If living with the Quinns is what you want, and what’s best for you, I want to help you to get that.”
“Ray said I could stay. He said I’d never have to go back. He promised.”
“If I can, I’ll try to help him keep that promise.”
SINCE THERE SEEMED to be nothing cold to drink in the house but beer, carbonated soft drinks, and some suspicious-looking milk, Ethan put the kettle on to boil. He’d brew up some tea, ice it, and enjoy a tall glass out on the porch while evening moseyed in.
He was in hour fourteen of his day and ready to relax.
Which wasn’t going to be easy, he decided while he hunted up tea bags and overheard Cam and Seth holding some new pissing match in the living room. He figured they must enjoy sniping at each other or they wouldn’t spend so much time at it.
For himself, he wanted a quiet hour, a decent meal, then one of the two cigars he allowed himself per day. The way things sounded, he didn’t think the quiet hour was going to make the agenda.
As he dumped tea bags in the boiling water, he heard feet stomping up the stairs, followed by the bullet-sharp sound of a slamming door.
“The kid’s driving me bat-shit,” Cam complained as he stalked into the kitchen. “You can’t say boo to him without him squaring up for a fight.”
“Argumentative, smart-mouthed, troublemaker.” Feeling grossly put upon, Cam snagged a beer from the fridge.
“Must be like looking in a mirror.”
“Don’t know what I was thinking of. You’re such a peaceable soul.” Moving at his own relaxed pace, Ethan bent down to search out an old glass pitcher. “Let’s see, you were just about fourteen when I came along. First thing you did was pick a fight so you’d have the excuse to bloody my nose.”
For the first time in hours, Cam felt a grin spread. “That was just a welcome-to-the-family tap. Besides, you gave me a hell of a black eye as a thank-you.”
“There was that. Kid’s too smart to try to punch you,” Ethan continued and began to dump generous scoops of sugar into the pitcher. “So he razzes you instead. He sure as hell’s got your attention, doesn’t he?”
It was irritating because it was true. “You got him pegged so neatly, why don’t you take him on?”
“Because I’m on the water every morning at dawn. Kid like that needs supervision.” That, Ethan thought, was his story and he’d stick to it through all the tortures of hell. “Of the three of us, you’re the only one not working.”
“I’m going to have to fix that,” Cam muttered.
“Oh, yeah?” With a mild snort, Ethan finished making the tea. “That’ll be the day.”
“The day’s coming up fast. Social worker was here today.”
Ethan grunted, let the implications turn over in his mind. “What’d she want?”
“To check us out. She’s going to be talking to you, too. And Phillip. Already talked to Seth—which is what I was trying to diplomatically ask him about when he started foaming at the mouth again.”
Cam frowned now, thinking more of Anna Spinelli of the great legs and tidy briefcase than of Seth. “If we don’t pass, she’s going to work on pulling him.”
“He isn’t going anywhere.”
“That’s what I said.” He dragged his hand through his hair again, which for some reason reminded him he’d meant to get a haircut. In Rome. Seth wasn’t the only one not going anywhere. “But, bro, we’re about to make some serious adjustments around here.”
“Things are fine as they are.” Ethan filled a glass with ice and poured tea over it so that it crackled.
“Easy for you to say.” Cam stepped out on the porch, let the screen door slap shut behind him. He walked to the rail, watched Ethan’s sleek Chesapeake Bay retriever, Simon, play tag and tumble with the fat puppy. Upstairs, Seth had obviously decided to seek revenge by turning his radio up to earsplitting. Screaming headbanger rock blasted through the windows.
Cam’s jaw twitched. He’d be damned if he’d tell the kid to turn it down. Too clichéd, too terrifyingly adult a response. He sipped his beer, struggled to loosen the knots in his shoulders, and concentrated on the way the lowering sun tossed white diamonds onto the water.
The wind was coming up so that the marsh grass waved like a field of Kansas wheat. The drake of a pair of ducks that had set up house where the water bent at the edge of the trees flew by quacking.
Lucy, I’m home, was all Cam could think, and it nearly made him smile again.
Under the roar of music he heard the gentle rhythmic creak of the rocker. Beer fountained from the lip of the bottle when he whirled. Ethan stopped rocking and stared at him.
“What?” he demanded. “Christ, Cam, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Nothing.” Cam swiped a hand over his face, then carefully lowered himself to the porch so he could lean back against the post. “Nothing,” he repeated, but set the beer aside. “I’m a little edgy.”
“Usually are if you stay in one place more than a week.”
“Don’t climb up my back, Ethan.”
“Just a comment.” And because Cam looked exhausted and pale, Ethan reached in the breast pocket of his shirt, took out two cigars. It wouldn’t hurt to change his smoke-after-dinner routine. “Cigar?”
Cam sighed. “Yeah, why not?” Rather than move, he let Ethan light the first and pass it to him. Leaning back again, he blew a few lazy smoke rings. When the music shut off abruptly, he felt he’d achieved a small personal victory.
For the next ten minutes, there wasn’t a sound but the lap of water, the call of birds, and the talk of the breeze. The sun dropped lower, turning the western sky into a soft, rosy haze that bled into the water and blurred the horizon. Shadows deepened.
It was like Ethan, Cam mused, to ask no questions. To sit in silence and wait. To understand the need for quiet. He’d nearly forgotten that admirable trait of his brother’s. And maybe, Cam admitted, he’d nearly forgotten how much he loved the brother Ray and Stella had given him.
But even remembering, he wasn’t sure what to do about it.
“See you fixed the steps,” Ethan commented when he judged Cam was relaxing again.
“Yeah. The place could use a coat of paint, too.”
“We’ll have to get to that.”
They were going to have to get to a lot of things, Cam thought. But the quiet creak of the rocker kept taking his mind back to that afternoon. “Have you ever had a dream while you were wide awake?” He could ask because it was Ethan, and Ethan would think and consider.
After setting the nearly empty glass on the porch beside the rocker, Ethan studied his cigar. “Well . . . I guess I have. The mind likes to wander when you let it.”
It could have been that, Cam told himself. His mind had wandered—maybe even gotten lost for a bit. That could have been why he’d thought he saw his father rocking on the porch. The conversation? Wishful thinking, he decided. That was all.
“Remember how Dad used to bring his fiddle out here? Hot summer nights he’d sit where you’re sitting and play for hours. He had such big hands.”
“He could sure make that fiddle sing.”
“You picked it up pretty well.”
Ethan shrugged, puffed lazily on his cigar. “Some.”
“You ought to take it. He’d have wanted you to have it.”
Ethan shifted his quiet eyes, locked them on Cam’s. Neither spoke for a moment, nor had to. “I guess I will, but not right yet. I’m not ready.”
“Yeah.” Cam blew out smoke again.
“You still got the guitar they gave you that Christmas?”
“I left it here. Didn’t want it banging around with me.” Cam looked at his fingers, flexed them as though he were about to lay them on the strings. “Guess I haven’t played in more than a year.”
“Maybe we should try Seth on some instrument. Mom used to swear playing a tune pumped out the aggression.” He turned his head as the dogs began to bark and race around the side of the house. “Expecting somebody?”
Ethan’s brows lifted. “Thought he wasn’t coming down till Friday.”
“Let’s just call this a family emergency.” Cam tapped out the stub of the cigar before he rose. “I hope to Christ he brought some decent food and none of that fancy pea pod crap he likes to eat.”
Phillip strode into the kitchen balancing a large bag on top of a jumbo bucket of chicken and shooting out waves of irritation. He dumped the food on the table, skimmed a hand through his hair, and scowled at his brothers.
“I’m here,” he snapped as they came through the back door. “What’s the damn problem?”
“We’re hungry,” Cam said easily, and peeling the top from the bucket, he grabbed a drumstick. “You got dirt on your ‘I’m an executive’ pants there, Phil.”
“Goddamn it.” Furious now, Phillip brushed impatiently at the pawprints on his slacks. “When are you going to teach that idiot dog not to jump on people?”
“You cart around fried chicken, dog’s going to see if he can get a piece. Makes him smart if you ask me.” Unoffended, Ethan went to a cupboard for plates.
“You get fries?” Cam poked in the bag, snagged one. “Cold. Somebody better nuke these. If I do it they’ll blow up or disintegrate.”
“I’ll do it. Get something to dish up that cole slaw.”
Phillip took a breath, then one more. The drive down from Baltimore was long, and the traffic had been ugly. “When you two girls have finished playing house, maybe you’ll tell me why I broke a date with a very hot-looking CPA—the third date by the way, which was dinner at her place with the definite possibility of sex afterward—and instead just spent a couple hours in miserable traffic to deliver a fucking bucket of chicken to a couple of boobs.”
“First off, I’m tired of cooking.” Cam heaped cole slaw on his plate and took a biscuit. “And even more tired of tossing out what I’ve cooked because even the pup—who drinks out of the toilet with regularity—won’t touch it. But that’s only the surface.”
He took another hefty bite of chicken as he walked to the doorway and shouted for Seth. “The kid needs to be here. We’re all in this.”
“Fine. Great.” Phillip dropped into a chair, tugged at his tie.
“No use sulking because your accountant isn’t going to be running your figures tonight, pal.” Ethan offered him a friendly smile and a plate.
“Tax season’s heating up.” With a sigh, Phillip scooped out slaw. “I’ll be lucky to get a warm look from her until after April fifteenth. And I was so close.”
“None of us is likely to be getting much action for the next little while.” Cam jerked a head as Seth’s feet pounded down the stairs. “The patter of little feet plays hell with the sex life.”
Cam tucked away the urge for another beer and settled on iced tea as Seth stepped into the kitchen. The boy scanned the room, his nose twitching at the scent of spicy chicken, but he didn’t dive into the bucket as he would have liked to.
“What’s the deal?” he demanded and tucked his hands in his pockets while his stomach yearned.
“Family meeting,” Cam announced. “With food. Sit.” He took a chair himself as Ethan put the freshly buzzed fries on the table. “Sit,” Cam repeated when Seth stayed where he was. “If you’re not hungry you can just listen.”
“I could eat.” Seth sauntered over to the table, slid into a chair. “It’s got to be better than the crud you’ve been trying to pass off as food.”
“You know,” Ethan said in his mild drawl before Cam could snarl, “seems to me I’d be grateful if somebody tried to put together a hot meal for me from time to time. Even if it was crud.” With his eyes on Seth, Ethan tipped down the bucket, contemplated his choices. “Especially if that somebody was doing the best he could.”
Because it was Ethan, Seth flushed, squirmed, then shrugged as he plucked out a fat breast. “Nobody asked him to cook.”
“All the more reason. Might work better if you took turns.”
“He doesn’t think I can do anything.” Seth sneered over at Cam. “So I don’t.”
“You know, it’s tempting to toss this little fish back into the pond.” Cam dumped salt on his fries and struggled to hold onto a simmering temper. “I could be in Aruba this time tomorrow.”
“So go.” Seth’s eyes flashed up, full of anger and defiance. “Go wherever the hell you want as long as it’s out of my face. I don’t need you.”
“Smart-mouthed little brat. I’ve had it.” Cam had a long reach and used it now to shoot a hand across the table and pluck Seth out of his chair. Even as Phillip opened his mouth to protest, Ethan shook his head.
“You think I’ve enjoyed spending the last two weeks baby-sitting some snot-nosed monster with a piss-poor attitude? I’ve put my life on hold to deal with you.”
“Big deal.” Seth had turned sheet-white and was ready for the blow he was sure would come. But he wouldn’t back down. “All you do is run around collecting trophies and screwing women. Go back where you came from and keep doing it. I don’t give a shit.”
Cam watched the edges of his own vision turn red. Fury and frustration hissed in his blood like a snake primed to strike.
He saw his father’s hands at the end of his arms. Not Ray’s, but the man who had used those hands on him with such casual violence throughout his childhood. Before he did something unforgivable, he dropped Seth back into his chair. His voice was quiet now, and the room vibrated with his control.
“If you think I’m staying for you, you’re wrong. I’m staying for Ray. Have you got any idea where the system will toss you if one of us decides you’re not worth the trouble?”
Foster homes, Seth thought. Strangers. Or worse, her. Because his legs were trembling badly, he locked his feet around the legs of his chair. “You don’t care what they do with me.”
“That’s just one more thing you’re wrong about,” Cam said evenly. “You don’t want to be grateful, fine. I don’t want your goddamn gratitude. But you’ll start showing some respect, and you’ll start showing it now. It’s not just me who’s going to be hounding your sorry ass, pal. It’s the three of us.”
Cam sat down again, waited for his composure to solidify. “The social worker who was here today—Spinelli, Anna Spinelli—has some concerns about the environment.”
“What’s wrong with the environment?” Ethan wanted to know. The nasty little altercation had cleared the air, he decided. Now they could get to the details. “It’s a good, solid house, a nice area. School’s good, crime’s low.”
“I got the impression I’m the environment. At the moment, I’m the only one here, supervising things.”
“The three of us will go down as guardians,” Phillip pointed out. He poured a glass of iced tea and set it casually next to the hand Seth had fisted on the table. He imagined the boy’s throat would be burning dry right about now. “I checked with the lawyer after you called. The preliminary paperwork should go through by the end of the week. There’ll be a probationary period—regular home studies and meetings, evaluations. But unless there’s a serious objection, it doesn’t look like a problem.”
“Spinelli’s a problem.” Cam refused to let the altercation spoil his appetite and reached for more chicken. “Classic do-gooder. Great legs, serious mind. I know she talked to the kid, but he’s not inclined to share their conversation, so I’ll share mine. She had doubts about my qualifications as guardian. Single man, no steady means of employment, no permanent residence.”
“There are three of us.” Phillip frowned and poked at his slaw. A trickle of guilt was working through, and he didn’t care for it.
“Which I pointed out. Miz Spinelli of the gorgeous Italian eyes countered with the sad fact that I happen to be the only one of the three of us actually living here with the kid. And it was tactfully implied that of the three of us I’m the least likely candidate for guardian. So I tossed out the idea of all of us living here.”
“What do you mean living here?” Phillip dropped his fork. “I work in Baltimore. I’ve got a condo. How the hell am I supposed to live here and work there?”
“That’ll be a problem,” Cam agreed. “Bigger one will be how you’ll fit all your clothes into that closet in your old room.”
While Phillip tried to choke out a response, Ethan tapped a finger on the edge of the table. He thought of his small, and to him perfect, house. The quiet and solitude of it. And he saw the way Seth stared down at his plate with dark, baffled eyes. “How long you figure it would take?”
“I don’t know.” Cam dragged both hands back through his hair. “Six months, maybe a year.”
“A year.” All Phillip could do was close his eyes. “Jesus.”
“You talk to the lawyer about it,” Cam suggested. “See what’s what. But we present a united front to Social Services or they’re going to pull him. And I’ve got to find work.”
“Work.” Phillip’s misery dissolved in a grin. “You? Doing what? There aren’t any racetracks in St. Chris. And the Chesapeake, God bless her, sure ain’t the Med.”
“I’ll find something. Steady doesn’t mean fancy. I’m not looking at something I’ll need an Armani suit for.”
He was wrong, Cam realized. This damn business was going to spoil his appetite. “The way I figure it, Spinelli’s going to be back tomorrow, the next day at the latest. We have to hammer this out, and it has to look like we know what the hell we’re doing.”
“I’ll take my vacation time early.” Phillip bid farewell to the two weeks he’d planned to spend in the Caribbean. “That buys us a couple of weeks. I can work with the lawyer, deal with the social worker.”
“I’ll deal with her.” Cam smiled a little. “I liked the looks of her, and I ought to get some perks out of this. Of course, all this depends on what the kid said to her today.”
“I told her I wanted to stay,” Seth mumbled. Tears were raw in his stomach. The food sat untouched on his plate. “Ray said I could. He said I could stay here. He said he’d fix it so I could.”
“And we’re what’s left of him.” Cam waited until Seth lifted his gaze. “So we’ll fix it.”
• • •
LATER, WHEN THE moon was up and the dark water was slashed by its luminous white beam, Phillip stood on the dock. The air was cold now, the damp wind carrying the raw edge of the winter that fought not to yield to spring.
It suited his mood.
There was a war raging inside him between conscience and ambition. In two short weeks, the life he had planned out, plotted meticulously, and implemented with deliberation and simple hard work had shattered.
Now, still numb with grief for his father, he was being asked to transplant himself, to compromise those careful plans.
He’d been thirteen when Ray and Stella Quinn took him in. Most of those years he’d spent on the street, dodging the system. He was an accomplished thief, an enthusiastic brawler who used drugs and liquor to dull the ugliness. The projects of Baltimore were his turf, and when a drive-by shooting left him bleeding on those streets, he was prepared to die. To simply end it.
Indeed, the life he’d led up to the point when he wound up in a gutter choked with garbage ended that night. He lived, and for reasons he never understood, the Quinns wanted him. They opened a thousand fascinating doors for him. And no matter how often, how defiantly he tried to slam them shut again, they didn’t allow it.
They gave him choices, and hope, and a family. They offered him a chance for an education that had saved his soul. He used what they’d given him to make himself into the man he was. He studied and worked, and he buried that miserable boy deep.
His position at Innovations, the top advertising firm in the metropolitan area, was solid. No one doubted that Phillip Quinn was on the fast track to the top. And no one who knew the man who wore the elegant tailored suits, who could order a meal in perfect French and always knew the proper wine, would have believed he had once bartered his body for the price of a dime bag.
He had pride in that, perhaps too much pride, but he considered it his testament to the Quinns.
There was enough of that selfish, self-serving boy still inside him to rebel at the thought of giving up one inch of it. But there was too much of the man Ray and Stella had molded to consider doing otherwise.
Somehow he had to find the compromise.
He turned, looked back at the house. The upstairs was dark. Seth was in bed by now, Phillip mused. He didn’t have a clue how he felt about the boy. He recognized him, understood him, and he supposed resented just a bit those parts of himself he saw in young Seth DeLauter.
Was he Ray Quinn’s son?
There, Phillip thought as his teeth clenched—more resentment at even the possibility of it. Had the man he’d all but worshiped for more than half his life really fallen off his pedestal, succumbed to temptation, betrayed wife and family?
And if he had, how could he have turned his back on his own blood? How could this man who had made strangers his own ignore for more than a decade a son who’d come from his own body?
We’ve got enough problems, Phillip reminded himself. The first was to keep a promise. To keep the boy.
He walked back, using the back porch light to guide him. Cam sat on the steps, Ethan in the rocker.
“I’ll go back into Baltimore in the morning,” Phillip announced. “I’ll see what the lawyer can firm up. You said the social worker was named Spinelli?”
“Yeah.” Cam nursed a cup of black coffee. “Anna Spinelli.”
“She’d be county, probably out of Princess Anne. I’ll pass that on.” Details, he thought. He’d concentrate on the facts. “The way I see it, we’re going to have to come off as three model citizens. I already pass.” Phillip smiled thinly. “The two of you are going to have to work on your act.”
“I told Spinelli I’d get a job.” Even the thought of it disgusted Cam.
“I’d hold off on that a while.” This came from Ethan, who rocked quietly in the shadows. “I got an idea. I want to think on it a while more. Seems to me,” he went on, “that with Phil and me around, both of us working, you could be running the house.”
“Oh, Jesus” was all Cam could manage.
“It goes like this.” Ethan paused, rocked, continued. “You’d be what they’d call primary caregiver. You’re available if the school calls with a problem, if Seth gets sick or whatever.”
“Makes sense,” Phillip agreed and, feeling better, he grinned at Cam. “You’re Mommy.”
“That’s no way for Mommy to talk.”
“If you think I’m going to be stuck washing your dirty socks and swabbing the toilet, you wasted that fine education you’re so proud of.”
“Just temporarily,” Ethan said, though he enjoyed the image of his brother wearing an apron and hunting up cobwebs with a feather duster. “We’ll work out shifts. Seth ought to have some regular chores too. We always did. But it’s going to fall to you for the next few days anyway, while Phillip figures out how we handle the legal end and I see how I can juggle my time.”
“I’ve got business of my own to deal with.” The coffee was beginning to burn a hole in his gut, but Cam drank it down anyway. “My stuff’s scattered all over Europe.”
“Well, Seth’s in school all day, isn’t he?” Absently Ethan reached down to stroke the dog snoring beside his chair.
“Fine. Great.” Cam gave up. “You,” he said, pointing at Phillip, “bring some groceries back with you. We’re out of damn near everything. And Ethan can throw whatever you bring in together into a meal. Everybody makes their own bed, goddamn it. I’m not a maid.”
“What about breakfast?” Phillip said dryly. “You’re not going to send your men off in the morning without a hot meal, are you?”
Cam eyed him balefully. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Might as well.” He sat on the steps beside Cam, leaned back on his elbows. “Somebody ought to talk to Seth about cleaning up his language.”
“Oh, yeah.” Cam merely snorted. “That’ll work.”
“He swears that way in front of the neighbors, the social worker, his teachers, it’s going to give a bad impression. How’s his schoolwork anyway?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“Now, Mother—” Phillip grunted, then laughed when Cam’s elbow jabbed his ribs.
“Keep it up and you’re going to end up with another ruined suit, ace.”
“Let me change and we can go a couple rounds. Or better yet . . .” Phillip arched a brow, slid his gaze over toward Ethan, then back to Cam.
Approving the plan, Cam scratched his chin, set down his empty cup. They shot off the steps in tandem, so fast that Ethan barely had a chance to blink.
His fist shot out, was blocked, and he was hauled out of the chair by armpits and ankles, cursing all the way. Simon leaped up to bark delightedly and raced circles around the men who hauled his struggling master off the porch.
Inside the kitchen, the pup wiggled madly and yipped in answer. To keep him close, Seth pulled off a chunk of the chicken he’d come down to forage and dropped it on the floor. While Foolish gobbled, Seth watched in puzzled amazement as the silhouettes headed for the dock.
He’d come down to fill his empty belly. He was used to moving quietly. He’d stuffed his mouth with chicken and listened to the men talk.
They acted like they were going to let him stay. Even when they didn’t know he was there to hear, they talked as if it was a simple fact. At least for now, he decided, until they forgot they’d made a promise, or no longer cared.
He knew promises didn’t mean squat.
Except Ray’s. He’d believed Ray. But then he’d gone and died and ruined everything. Still, every night he spent in this house, between clean sheets with the puppy curled beside him, was an escape. Whenever they decided to ditch him, he’d be ready to run.
Because he’d die before he went back to where he’d been before Ray Quinn.
The pup was nosing at the door, drawn by the sound of laughter and barking and the shouts. Seth fed him more chicken to distract him.
He wanted to go out too, to run across the lawn and join in that laughter, that fun . . . that family. But he knew he wouldn’t be welcome. They’d stop and they’d stare at him as if they wondered where the hell he’d come from and what the hell they were supposed to do about it.
Then they’d tell him to get back to bed.
Oh, God, he wanted to stay. He just wanted to be here. Seth pressed his face against the screen, yearning with all his heart to belong.
When he heard Ethan’s long, laughing oath, the loud splash that followed it, and the roars of male satisfaction that came next, he grinned.
And he stayed there, grinning even as a tear escaped and trickled unnoticed down his cheek.
ANNA GOT IN to work early. Odds were her supervisor would already be at her desk. You could always count on Marilou Johnston to be at her desk or within hailing distance.
Marilou was a woman Anna both admired and respected. When she needed advice, there was no one whose opinion she valued more.
When she poked her head around the open office door, Anna smiled a little. As expected, Marilou was there, buried behind the files and paperwork on her cluttered desk. She was a small woman, barely topping five feet. She wore her hair close-cropped for convenience as much as style. Her face was smooth, like polished ebony, and the expression on it could remain composed even during the worst crises.
A calm center was how Anna often thought of Marilou. Though how she could be calm when her life was filled with a demanding career, two teenage boys, and a house that Anna had seen for herself was constantly crowded with people was beyond her.
Anna often thought she wanted to be Marilou Johnston when she grew up.
“Got a minute?”
“Sure do.” Marilou’s voice was quick and lively, ripe with that Southern Shore accent that caught words between a drawl and a twang. She waved Anna to a chair with one hand and fiddled with the round gold ball in her left ear. “The Quinn-DeLauter case?”
“Right the first time. There were a couple of faxes waiting for me yesterday from the Quinns’ lawyer. A Baltimore firm.”
“What did our Baltimore lawyer have to say?”
“The gist of it is they’re pursuing guardianship. He’ll be pushing through a petition to the court. They’re very serious about keeping Seth DeLauter in their home and under their care.”
“It’s an unusual situation, Marilou. Up ’til now I’ve only spoken with one of the brothers. The one who lived in Europe until recently.”
“He certainly makes one.” And because Marilou was also a friend, Anna allowed herself a grin and a roll of her eyes. “A treat to look at. I came across him when he was repairing the back porch steps. I can’t say he looked like a happy man, but he was certainly a determined one. There’s a lot of anger there, and a lot of grief. What impressed me the most—”
“Other than his looks?”
“Other than his looks,” Anna agreed with a chuckle, “was the fact that he never questioned keeping Seth. It was simply fact. He called Seth his brother. He meant it. I’m not sure he knows exactly how he feels about it, but he meant it.”
She went on, while Marilou listened without comment, detailing the conversation, Cam’s willingness to change his life, and his lifestyle, his concerns that Seth would bolt if he were taken out of the home.
“And,” she continued, “after speaking with Seth, I tend to agree with him.”
“You think the boy’s a runner?”
“When I suggested foster care, he became angry, resentful. And afraid. If he feels threatened, he’ll run.” She thought of all the children who ended up on the mean streets of inner cities, homeless, desperate. She thought of what they did to survive. And she thought of how many didn’t survive at all.
It was her job to keep this one child, this one boy, safe.
“He wants to stay there, Marilou. Maybe he needs to. His feelings about his mother are very strong, and very negative. I suspect abuse, but he’s not ready to discuss it. At least not with me.”
“Is there any word on the mother’s whereabouts?”
“No. We have no idea where she is, or what she’ll do. She signed papers allowing Ray Quinn to begin adoption proceedings, but he died before they were finalized. If she comes back and wants her son . . .” Anna shook her head. “The Quinns would have a fight on their hands.”
“You sound as though you’d be in their corner.”
“I’m in Seth’s,” Anna said firmly. “And I’m going to stay there. I spoke with his teachers.” She pulled out a file as she spoke. “I have my report on that. I’m going back today to speak with some of the neighbors, and hopefully to meet with all three of the Quinns. It may be possible to stop the temporary guardianship until I complete the initial study, but I’m inclined against it. That boy needs stability. He needs to feel wanted. And even if the Quinns only want him because of a promise, it’s more than he’s had before, I believe.”
Marilou took the file, set it aside. “I assigned this case to you because you don’t look just at the surface. And I sent you in cold because I wanted your take. Now I’ll tell you what I know about the Quinns.”
“You know them?”
“Anna, I was born and raised on the Shore.” She smiled, beautifully. It was a simple fact, but one she had great pride in. “Ray Quinn was one of my professors at college. I admired him tremendously. When I had my two boys, Stella Quinn was their pediatrician until we moved to Princess Anne. We adored her.”
“When I was driving out there yesterday I kept wishing I’d had the chance to meet them.”
“They were exceptional people,” Marilou said simply. “Ordinary, even simple in some ways. And exceptional. Here’s a case in point,” she added, leaning back in her chair. “I graduated from college sixteen years ago. The three Quinns were teenagers. You heard stories now and again. Maybe they were a little wild, and people wondered why Ray and Stella had taken on half-grown men with bad tendencies. I was pregnant with Johnny, my first, working my butt off to get my degree, and help my husband, Ben, pay the rent. He was working two jobs. We wanted a better life for ourselves, and we sure as hell wanted one for the baby I was carrying.”
She paused, turned the double picture frame on her desk to a closer angle so that she could see her two young men smile out at her. “I wondered too. Figured they were crazy, or just playing at being Samaritans. Professor Quinn called me into his office one day. I’d missed a couple of classes. Had the worst case of morning sickness known to woman.”
It still made her grimace. “I swear I don’t understand how some women reminisce over that kind of thing. In any case, I thought he was going to recommend me dropping his class, which meant losing the credits toward my degree. With me an inch away—an inch away and I would be the first in my family with a college degree. I was ready to fight. Instead, he wanted to know what he could do to help. I was speechless.”
She smiled, remembering, then beamed over at Anna. “You know how impersonal college can be—the huge lectures where a student is just one more face in the crowd. But he’d noticed me. And he’d taken the time to find out something about my situation. I burst into tears. Hormones,” she said with a wry grin. “Well, he patted my hand, gave me some tissues, and let me cry it out. I was on a scholarship, and if my grades dropped or I blew a class, I could lose it. I only had one more semester. He said for me not to worry, we’d work it all out, and I was going to get my degree. He started talking, about this and that, to calm me down. He was telling me some story about teaching his son to drive. Made me laugh. It wasn’t until later, I realized he hadn’t been talking about one of the boys he’d taken in. Because that’s not what they were to him. They were his.”
A sucker for a happy ending, Anna sighed. “And you got your degree.”
“He made sure I did. I owe him for that. Which is why I didn’t tell you about this until you’d formed some impressions of your own. As for the three Quinns, I don’t really know them. I’ve seen them at two funerals. Saw Seth DeLauter with them at Professor Quinn’s. For personal reasons I’d like to see them have a chance to be a family. But . . .” She laid her hands palm to palm. “The best interest of the boy comes before that—and the structure of the system. You’re thorough, Anna, and you believe in structure and in the system. Professor Quinn would have wanted what’s best for Seth, and to repay an old debt, I gave him you.”
Anna blew out a long breath. “No pressure, huh?”
“Pressure’s all we’ve got around here.” As if on cue, her phone began to ring. “And the clock’s running.”
Anna rose. “I’d better get to work, then. Looks like I’ll be in the field most of today.”
IT WAS NEARLY one P.M. when Anna pulled up in the Quinns’ drive. She’d managed to conduct interviews with three of the five names Cam had given her the day before, and she hoped to expand on that before too much more time passed.
Her call to Phillip Quinn’s office in Baltimore had given her the information that he was on leave for the next two weeks. She was hoping she would find him here and be able to file an impression of another Quinn.
But it was the pup who greeted her. He barked ferociously even as he backed rapidly away from her. Anna watched with amusement as he peed on himself in terror. With a laugh, she crouched down, held out a hand.
“Come on, cutie, I won’t hurt you. Aren’t you sweet, aren’t you pretty?” She kept murmuring to him until he bellied over to sniff her hand, then rolled over in ecstasy as she scratched him.
“For all you know, he’s got fleas and rabies.”
Anna glanced up and saw Cam in the front doorway. “For all I know, so do you.”
With a snort of a laugh and his hands tucked in his pockets, he came out on the porch. It was a brown suit today, he noted. For the life of him he couldn’t figure why she’d pick such a dull color. “I guess you’re willing to risk it, since you’re back. Didn’t expect you so soon.”
“A boy’s welfare is at stake, Mr. Quinn. I don’t believe in taking my time under the circumstances.”
Obviously charmed by her voice, the puppy leaped up and bathed her face. The giggle escaped before she could stop it—a sound that made Cam raise his eyebrows—and defending herself from the puppy’s eager tongue, she rose. Tugged down her jacket. And her dignity.
“May I come in?”
“Why not?” This time he waited for her, even opened the door and let her go in ahead of him.
She saw a large and fairly tidy living area. The furniture showed some wear but appeared comfortable and colorful. The spinet in the corner caught her eye. “Do you play?”
“Not really.” Without realizing it, Cam ran a hand over the wood. He didn’t notice that his fingers left streaks in the dust. “My mother did, and Phillip’s got an ear for it.”
“I tried to reach your brother Phillip at his office this morning.”
“He’s out buying groceries.” Because he was pleased to have won that battle, Cam smiled a little. “He’s going to be living here. . . for the foreseeable future. Ethan, too.”
“You work fast.”
“A boy’s welfare is at stake,” he said, echoing her.
Anna nodded. At a distant rumble of thunder, she glanced outside, frowned. The light was dimming, and the wind beginning to kick. “I’d like to discuss Seth with you.” She shifted her briefcase, glanced at a chair.
“Is this going to take long?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Then let’s do it in the kitchen. I want coffee.”
She followed him, using the time to study the house. It was just neat enough to make her wonder if Cam had been expecting her. They passed a den where the dust was layered over tables, the couch was covered with newspapers, and shoes littered the floor.
Missed that, didn’t you? she thought with a smirk. But she found it endearing.
Then she heard his quick and vicious oath and nearly jumped out of her practical shoes.
“Goddamn it. Shit. What the hell is this? What next? Jesus Christ.” He was already sloshing through the water and suds flowing over the kitchen floor to slap at the dishwasher.
Anna stepped back to avoid the flood. “I’d turn that off if I were you.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now I’ve got to take the bitch apart.” He dragged the door open. An ocean of snowy-white suds spewed out.
Anna bit the inside of her cheek, cleared her throat. “Ah, what kind of soap did you use?”
“Dish soap.” Vibrating with frustration, he yanked a bucket out from under the sink.
“Dishwasher soap or dish-washing soap?”
“What the hell’s the difference?” Furious, he started to bail. Outside, the rain began to fall in hard, driving sheets.
“This.” Keeping her face admirably sober, she gestured to the river running over the floor. “This is the difference. If you use the liquid for hand-washing dishes in a dishwasher, this is the inevitable result.”
He straightened, the bucket in his hand, and a look of such pained irritation on his face, she couldn’t hold back the laugh. “Sorry, sorry. Look, turn around.”
“Because I’m not willing to ruin my shoes or my hose. So turn around while I take them off and I’ll give you a hand.”
“Yeah.” Pathetically grateful, he turned his back, and even did his best not to imagine her peeling off her stockings. His best wasn’t quite good enough, but it was the effort that counted. “Ethan handled most of the kitchen chores when we were growing up. I did my share, but it doesn’t seem to have stuck with me.”
“You seem to be out of your element.” She tucked her hose neatly in her shoes, set them aside. “Get me a mop. I’ll swab, you get the coffee.”
He opened a long, narrow closet and handed her a string mop. “I appreciate it.”
Her legs, he noted as he sloshed over for mugs, didn’t need hose. They were a pale and fascinating gold in color, and smooth as silk. When she bent over, he ran his tongue over his teeth. He’d had no idea a woman with a mop would be quite so . . . attractive.
It’s so amazingly pleasant, he realized, to be here, with the rain drumming, the wind howling, and a pretty, barefoot woman keeping him kitchen company. “You seem to be in your element,” he commented, then grinned when she turned her head and eyed him balefully. “I’m not saying it’s woman’s work. My mother would have skinned me for the thought. I’m just saying you seem to know what you’re doing.”
As she’d worked her way through college cleaning houses, she knew very well. “I can handle a mop, Mr. Quinn.”
“Since you’re mopping my kitchen floor, you ought to make it Cam.”
“Yeah, about Seth. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Go ahead.” She caught herself before she began to hum. The mindless chore, the rain, the isolation were just a tad too relaxing. “I’m sure you know I spoke with him yesterday.”
“Yeah, and I know he told you he wanted to stay here.”
“He did, and it’s in my report. I also spoke with his teachers. How much do you know about his schoolwork?”
Cam shifted. “I haven’t had a lot of time to get into that yet.”
“Mmm-hmm. When he was first enrolled, he had some trouble with the other students. Fistfights. He broke one boy’s nose.”
Good for him, Cam thought with a surprising tug of pride, but he did his best to look disapproving. “Who started it?”
“That’s not the point. However, your father handled the situation. At this point I’m told that Seth keeps mostly to himself. He doesn’t participate in class, which is another problem. He rarely turns in his homework assignments, and those he does bother to turn in are most often sloppily done.”
Cam felt a new headache begin to brew. “So the kid’s not a scholar—”
“On the contrary.” Anna straightened up, leaned on the mop. “If he participated even marginally in class, and if his assignments were done and turned in on time, he would be a straight A student. He’s a solid B student as it is.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Anna closed her eyes a moment. “The problem is that Seth’s IQ and evaluation tests are incredibly high. The child is brilliant.”
Though he had his doubts about that, Cam nodded. “So, that’s a good thing. And he’s getting decent grades and staying out of trouble.”
“Okay.” She would try this a different way. “Suppose you were in a Formula One race—”
“Been there,” he said with wistful reminiscence. “Done that.”
“Right, and you had the finest, fastest, hottest car in the field.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I did.”
“But you never tested its full capabilities, you never went full-out, you never punched it on the turns or popped it into fifth and poured down the straights.”
His brow lifted. “You follow racing?”
“No, but I drive a car.”
“Nice car, too. What have you had it up to?”
Eighty-eight, she thought with secret glee, but she would never admit it. “I consider a car transportation,” she said, lying primly. “Not a toy.”
“No reason it can’t be both. Why don’t I take you out in the ’Vette? Now that’s a fine mode of entertaining transportation.”
While she would have loved to indulge in the fantasy of sliding behind the wheel of that sleek white bullet, she had a point to make. “Try to stick with the analogy here. You’re racing a superior machine. If you didn’t drive that car the way it was meant to be driven, you’d be wasting its potential, and maybe you’d still finish in the money, but you wouldn’t win.”
He got her point, but couldn’t help grinning. “I usually won.”
Anna shook her head. “Seth,” she said with admirable patience. “We’re talking about Seth. He’s socially stunted, and he defies authority consistently. He’s regularly given in-school suspension. He needs supervision here at home when it comes to this area of his life. You’re going to have to take an active roll in his schoolwork and his behavior.”
“Seems to me a kid gets B’s he ought to be left the hell alone.” But he held up a hand before she could speak. “Potential. I had potential drummed into my head by the best. We’ll work on it.”
“Good.” She went back to mopping. “I had communications from your lawyer in regard to the guardianship. It’s likely you’ll be granted that, at least temporarily. But you can expect regular spot checks from Social Services.”
Cam paused a moment. “Do you do windows?”
She couldn’t help it, she laughed as she dumped sudsy water into the sink. “I’ve also talked to some of your neighbors and will talk to more.” She turned back. “From this point on, your life’s an open book for me.”
He rose, took the mop, and to please himself stood just an inch closer than was polite. “You let me know when you get to a chapter that interests you, on a personal level.”
Her heart gave two hard knocks against her ribs. A dangerous man, she thought, on a personal level. “I don’t have time for much fiction.”
She started to step back, but he took her hand. “I like you, Miz Spinelli. I haven’t figured out why, but I do.”
“That should make our association simpler.”
“Wrong.” He skimmed his thumb over the back of her hand. “It’s going to make it complicated. But I don’t mind complications. And it’s about time my luck started back on an upswing. You like Italian food?”
“With a name like Spinelli?”
He grinned. “Right. I could use a quiet meal in a decent restaurant with a pretty woman. How about tonight?”
“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t have a quiet meal in a decent restaurant with a pretty woman tonight.” Deliberately, she eased her hand free. “But if you’re asking me for a date, the answer’s no. First, it wouldn’t be smart; second, I’m booked.”
“Damn it, Cam, didn’t you hear me honking?”
Anna turned and saw a soaking wet and bitterly angry man cart two heaping bags of groceries into the room. He was tall, bronzed, and very nearly beautiful. And spitting mad.
Phillip shook the hair out of his eyes and focused on Anna. The shift of expression was quick and smooth—from snarling to charming in the space of a single heartbeat.
“Hello. Sorry.” He dumped the bags on the table and smiled at her. “Didn’t know Cam had company.” He spied the bucket, the mop held between them, and leaped to the wrong conclusion. “I didn’t know he was going to hire domestic help. But thank God.” Phillip grabbed her hand, kissed it. “I already adore you.”
“My brother Phillip,” Cam said dryly. “This is Anna Spinelli, with Social Services. You can take your Ferragamo out of your mouth now, Phil.”
The charm didn’t shift or fade. “Ms. Spinelli. It’s nice to meet you. Our lawyer’s been in touch, I believe.”
“Yes, he has. Mr. Quinn tells me you’ll be living here now.”
“I told you to call me Cam.” He walked to the stove to top off his coffee. “It’s going to be confusing if you’re calling all of us Mr. Quinn.” Cam heard the rattle at the back door and got out another mug. “Especially now,” he said as the door burst open and let in a dripping dog and man.
“Christ, this bitch blew in fast.” Even as Ethan dragged off his slicker, the dog set his feet and shook furiously. Anna only winced as water sprayed her suit. “Barely smelled her before—”
He spotted Anna and automatically pulled off his soaked cap, then scooped a hand through his damp, curling hair. Seeing woman, bucket, mop, he thought guiltily about his muddy boots. “Ma’am.”
“My other brother, Ethan.” Cam handed Ethan a steaming cup of coffee. “This is the social worker your dog’s just sprayed water and dog hair all over.”
“Sorry. Simon, go sit.”
“It’s all right,” Cam went on. “Foolish already slobbered all over her, and Phillip just got finished hitting on her.”
Anna smiled blandly. “I thought you were hitting on me.”
“I asked you to dinner,” Cam corrected. “If I’d been hitting on you, I wouldn’t have been subtle.” Cam sipped his coffee. “Well, now you know all the players.”
She felt outnumbered, and more than a little unprofessional standing there in the dimly lit kitchen in her bare feet, facing three big and outrageously handsome men. In defense, she pulled out every scrap of dignity and reached for a chair.
“Gentlemen, shall we sit down? This seems to be an ideal time to discuss how you plan to care for Seth.” She angled her head at Cam. “For the foreseeable future.”
“WELL,” PHILLIP SAID an hour later. “I think we pulled that off.”
Cam stood at the front door, watching the neat little sports car drive away in the thinning rain. “She’s got our number,” Cam muttered. “She doesn’t miss a trick.”
“I liked her.” Ethan stretched out in the big wing chair and let the puppy climb into his lap. “Get your mind out of the sewer, Cam,” he suggested when Cam snickered. “I mean I liked her. She’s smart, and she’s professional, but she’s not cold. Seems like a woman who cares.”
“And she’s got great legs,” Phillip added. “But regardless of all that, she’s going to note down every time we screw up. Right now, I figure we’ve got the upper hand. We’ve got the kid, and he wants to stay. His mother’s run off to God knows where and isn’t making any noises—at the moment. But if pretty Anna Spinelli talks to too many people around St. Chris, she’s going to start hearing the rumors.”
He dipped his hands in his pockets and started to pace. “I don’t know if they’re going to count against us or not.”
“They’re just rumors,” Ethan said.
“Yeah, but they’re ugly. We’ve got a good shot at keeping Seth because of Dad’s reputation. That reputation gets smeared, and we’ll have battles to fight on several fronts.”
“Anyone tries to smear Dad’s rep, they’re going to get more than a fight.”
Phillip turned to Cam. “That’s just what we have to avoid. If we start going around kicking ass, it’s only going to make things worse.”
“So you be the diplomat.” Cam shrugged and sat on the arm of the sofa. “I’ll kick ass.”
“I’d say we’re better off dealing with what is than what might be.” Thoughtfully, Ethan stroked the puppy. “I’ve been thinking about the situation. It’s going to be rough for Phillip to live here and commute back and forth to Baltimore. Sooner rather than later, Cam’s going to get fed up with playing house.”
“Sooner’s already here.”
“I was thinking we could pay Grace to do some of the housework. Maybe a couple days a week.”
“Now that’s an idea I can get behind one hundred percent.” Cam dropped onto the sofa.
“Trouble with that is it leaves you with nothing much to do. The idea is for the three of us to be here, share responsibility for Seth. That’s what the lawyer says, that’s what the social worker says.”
“I said I’d find work.”
“What are you going to do?” Phillip asked. “Pump gas? Shuck oysters? You’d put up with that for a couple of days.”
Cam leaned forward. “I can stick. Can you? Odds are, after the first week of commuting, you’ll be calling from Baltimore with excuses about why you can’t make it back. Why don’t you stay here and try pumping gas or shucking oysters for a while?”
The argument was inevitable. In minutes they were both up and nose to nose. It took several attempts before Ethan’s voice got through. Cam stepped back and with a puzzled frown turned. “What?”
“I said I think we ought to try building boats.”
“Building boats?” Cam shook his head. “For what?”
“For business.” Ethan took out a cigar, but ran it through his fingers rather than lighting it. His mother hadn’t allowed smoking in the house. “We got a lot of tourists coming down this way in the last few years. And a lot more people moving down to get out of the city. They like to rent boats. They like to own boats. Last year I built one in my spare time for this guy out of D.C. Little fourteen-foot skiff. Called me a couple months ago to see if I’d be interested in building him another one. Wants a bigger boat, with a sleep cabin and galley.”
Ethan tucked the cigar back in his pocket. “I’ve been thinking on it. It’d take me months to do it alone, in my spare time.”
“You want us to help you build a boat?” Phillip pressed his fingers to his eyes.
“Not one boat. I’m talking about going into business.”
“I’m in business,” Phillip muttered. “I’m in advertising.”
“And we’d be needing somebody who knew about that kind of thing if we were starting a business. Boat building’s got a history in this area, but nobody’s doing it anymore on St. Chris.”
Phillip sat. “Did it occur to you that there might be a reason for that?”
“Yeah, it occurred to me. And I thought about it, and I figure it’s because nobody’s taking the chance. I’m talking wooden boats. Sailing vessels. A specialty. And we already got one client.”
Cam rubbed his chin. “Hell, Ethan, I haven’t done that kind of work seriously since we built your skipjack. That’s been—Jesus—almost ten years.”
“And she’s holding, isn’t she? So we did a good job with her. It’s a gamble,” he added, knowing that single word was the way to Cam’s heart.
“We’ve got money for start-up costs,” Cam murmured, warming up to the idea.
“How do you know?” Phillip demanded. “You don’t have a clue how much money you need for start-up costs.”
“You’ll figure it out.” A roll of the dice, Cam thought. He liked nothing better. “Christ knows, I’d rather be swinging a hammer than a damn vacuum hose. I’m in.”
“Just like that?” Phillip threw up his hands. “Without a thought to overhead, profit and loss, licenses, taxes, insurance. Where the hell are you going to set up shop? How’re you going to run the business end?”
“That’s not my problem,” Cam said with a grin. “That would be yours.”
“I have a job. In Baltimore.”
“I had a life,” Cam said simply, “in Europe.”
Phillip paced away, back, away again. Trapped, was all he could think. “I’ll do what I can to get things started. This could be a huge mistake, and it’s going to cost a lot of money. And you’d both better consider that the social worker might take a dim view of us starting a risky business at this point. I’m not giving up my job. At least that’s one steady income.”
“I’ll talk to her about it,” Cam decided on impulse. “See how she reacts. You’ll talk to Grace about pitching in around the house?” he asked Ethan.
“Yeah, I’ll go down to the pub and run it by her.”
“Fine. That leaves you to deal with Seth tonight.” He smiled thinly at Phillip. “Make sure he does his homework.”
“Now that that’s settled,” Cam eased back, “who’s cooking dinner?”
TRACKING DOWN Anna Spinelli was the perfect excuse to escape the post-dinner chaos at home. It meant the dishes were someone else’s problem—and that he couldn’t be pulled into the homework argument that had just begun to heat up between Phillip and Seth.
In fact, as far as Cam was concerned, a rainy evening drive to Princess Anne was high entertainment. And that was pretty pitiful for a man who’d grown accustomed to jetting from Paris to Rome.
He tried not to think about it.
He’d arranged to have his hydrofoil stored, his clothes packed up and sent. He had yet to have his car shipped over, though. It was just a bit too permanent a commitment. But between the time spent repairing steps and doing laundry, he’d entertained himself by tuning up and tinkering with his mother’s prized ’Vette.
It gave him a great deal of pleasure to drive it—so much that he accepted the speeding ticket he collected just outside of Princess Anne without complaint.
The town wasn’t the hive of activity it had been during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when tobacco had been king and wealth poured into the area. But it was pretty enough, Cam supposed, with the old homes restored and preserved, the streets clean and quiet. Now that tourism was becoming the newest deity for the Shore, the charm and grace of historic towns were a huge economic draw.
Anna’s apartment was less than half a mile from the offices of Social Services. Easy walking distance to work, to the courts. Shopping was convenient. He imagined she’d chosen the old Victorian house for those reasons as well as for the ambience.
The building was tucked behind big trees, their branches now hazed with new leaves. The walkway was cracked but flanked by daffodils that were ready to pop out with sunny yellow. Steps led to a covered veranda. The plaque beside the door stated that the house was on the historic register.
The door itself was unlocked and led Cam into a hallway. The wood floor was a bit worn, but someone had troubled to polish it to a dull gleam. The mail slots on the wall were brass, again polished, and indicated that the building had been converted to four apartments. A. Spinelli occupied 2B.
Cam trooped up the creaking stairs to the second floor. The hallway was more narrow here, the lights dimmer. The only sound he heard was the muffled echo of what sounded like a riotous sitcom from the television of 2A.
He knocked on Anna’s door and waited. Then he knocked again, tucked his hands in his pockets, and scowled. He’d expected her to be home. He’d never considered otherwise. It was nearly nine o’clock, a weeknight, and she was a civil servant.
She should have been quietly at home, reading a book or filling out forms and reports. That was how practical career women spent their evenings—though he hoped eventually to show her a more entertaining way to pass the time.
Probably at some women’s club meeting, he decided, annoyed with her. He searched the pockets of his black leather bomber jacket for a scrap of paper and was about to disturb 2A in hopes of borrowing something to write on and with when he heard the quick, rhythmic click that an experienced man recognized as a woman’s high heels against wood.
He glanced down the hall, pleased that his luck had changed.
He barely noticed that his jaw dropped.
The woman who walked toward him was built like a man’s darkest fantasy. And she was generous enough to showcase that killer body in a snug electric-blue dress scooped low at the breasts and cut high on the thighs. It left nothing—and everything to a male’s imagination.
The click of heels on wood was courtesy of ice pick heels in the same shocking color, which turned her legs into endless fascination.
Her hair, dewy with rain, curled madly to her shoulders, a thick ebony mane that brought images of gypsies and campfire sex to mind. Her mouth was red and wet, her eyes huge and dark. The scent of her reached him ten seconds before she did and delivered a breathtaking punch straight to the loins.
She said nothing, only narrowed those amazing eyes, cocked one glorious hip, and waited.
“Well.” He had to work on getting his breath back. “I guess you’ve never heard the one about hiding your light under a bushel.”
“I’ve heard it.” She was furious to find him on her doorstep, furious that she was without her professional armor. And even more furious that he’d been on her mind throughout the evening a great deal more than her date. “What do you want, Mr. Quinn?”
Now he grinned, fast and sharp as a wolf baring fangs. “That’s a loaded question at the moment, Miz Spinelli.”
“Don’t be ordinary, Quinn. You’ve avoided that so far.”
“I promise you, I don’t have a single ordinary thought in my mind.” Unable to resist, he reached out to toy with the ends of her hair. “Where ya been, Anna?”
“Look, it’s well after business hours, and my personal life isn’t—” She broke off, struggled not to curse or moan as the door across the hall opened.
“You’re back from your date, Anna.”
“Yes, Mrs. Hardelman.”
The woman of about seventy was wrapped in a pink chenille robe and peered over the glasses perched on her nose. Heat and canned laughter poured out into the hall. She beamed at Cam, the smile lighting her pleasant face. “Oh, he’s much better-looking than the last one.”
“Thanks.” Cam stepped over and smiled back. “Does she have a lot of them?”
“Oh, they come and they go.” Mrs. Hardelman chuckled and fluffed at her thin white hair. “She never keeps them.”
Cam leaned companionably on the doorjamb, enjoying the sounds of frustration Anna made behind him. “Guess she hasn’t found one worth keeping yet. She sure is pretty.”
“And such a nice girl. She picks up things at the market for us if Sister and I aren’t feeling up to going out. Always offers to drive us to church on Sunday. And when my Petie died, Anna took care of the burial herself.”
Mrs. Hardelman looked over at Anna with such affection and sweetness, Anna could only sigh. “You’re missing your show, Mrs. Hardelman.”
“Oh, yes.” She glanced back into the apartment, where the television blasted. “I do love my comedies. You come back now,” she told Cam and gently closed the door.
And because Anna was perfectly aware that her neighbor wouldn’t be able to resist peeping through the security hole hoping to catch a romantic good-night kiss, she dug out her keys.
“You might as well come in since you’re here.”
“Thanks.” He crossed the hall, waiting while she unlocked her door. “You buried your neighbor’s husband.”
“Her parakeet,” Anna corrected. “Petie was a bird. She and her sister have both been widows for about twenty years. And all I did was get a shoe box and dig a hole out back next to a rosebush.”
He brushed a hand over her hair again as she pushed the door open. “It meant something to her.”
“Watch your hands, Quinn,” she warned and flicked on the lights.
To indicate that he was willing to oblige, he held them out, then tucked them into his pockets while he studied the room. Soft, deep cushions, bright, bold colors. He decided the choices meant she had a deep-rooted sensual side.
He liked to think that.
The room was spacious, and she’d furnished it sparingly. The sofa was big and plush enough for sleeping, but there was only a wide upholstered chair and two tables to keep it company.
Yet she’d covered the walls with art. Prints, posters, pen-and-ink sketches. They were of places rather than people, and many of the scenes he recognized. The narrow streets of Rome, the wild cliffs of western Ireland, the classy little cafes of Paris.
“I’ve been here.” He tapped the frame of the Paris cafe.
“How nice for you.” She said it dryly, trying not to resent the fact that her pictures were the only way she could afford to travel. For now. “Now, what are you doing here?”
“I wanted to talk to you about—” He made the mistake of turning, looking at her again. She was obviously a very annoyed woman, but it only added to her appeal. Her eyes and mouth were sulky, her body braced in challenge. “Christ, you’re a looker, Anna. I was attracted to you before—I imagine you caught that—but . . . who knew?”
She didn’t want to be flattered. She certainly didn’t want her heartbeat to pick up speed and lose its steady rhythm. But it was difficult to control either reaction when a man like Cameron Quinn was standing there looking at her as if he’d like to start nibbling at any single part of her body and keep going till he’d devoured it all.
She took a careful breath. “You wanted to talk to me about . . . ?” she prompted.
“The kid, stuff. How about some coffee? That’s civilized, right?” He decided to test them both by walking to her. “I figure you expect me to act civilized. I’m willing to give it a shot.”
She brooded a moment, then pivoted on those sexy blue heels. Cam appreciated the rear view, rolled his eyes toward heaven, then followed her to the spotless counter that separated living room and kitchen. He leaned on it, pleased that the location gave him a perfect view of her legs.
Then he heard the electric rumble and caught the amazing scent of fresh coffee. “You grind your own beans?”
“If you’re going to make coffee, you might as well make good coffee.”
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes to better appreciate the aroma. “Oh, yeah. Do I have to marry you to get you to make my coffee every day, or can we just live together?”
She looked over her shoulder, lifted her brows at his wide, winning grin, then got back to the task at hand.
“I bet you’ve used that look to shut men down with enormous success. But me, I like it. So where were you tonight?”
“I had a date.”
He moved around the counter. The kitchen area was small, no more than a narrow passageway. He liked being close enough so that her scent mixed with the smell of coffee. “Early evening,” he commented.
“It was going to be.” She felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. He was too damn close. Instinctively she employed her usual method with men who crowded her space. She rammed her elbow into his gut.
“Practiced move,” he murmured and, rubbing his stomach, backed off an inch. “Do you ever have to use it in your social worker mode?”
“Rarely. How do you want your coffee?”
“Strong and black.”
She set it to brew, turned around, and bumped solidly into him. Her radar, she decided as his hands came up to take her arms, had definitely been off. Or, she was forced to admit, she’d ignored it because she’d wondered how they might fit.
Well, now she knew.
He deliberately kept his eyes on her face, didn’t let them dip down to the small gold cross nestled between her breasts. He wasn’t particularly devout, but he was afraid he would go to hell for having lascivious thoughts about the framework for a religious symbol.
Besides, he liked her face.
“Quinn,” she said with a long, irritated sigh. “Back off.”
“You dropped the Mister Quinn. Does that mean we’re pals?”
Because he smiled when he said it, and because he did step back, she found herself chuckling. “Jury’s still out.”
“I like the way you smell, Anna. Lusty, provocative. Challenging. Of course, I like the way Miz Spinelli smells, too. Quiet and practical and subtle.”
“All right . . . Cam.” She turned, took out two pretty, deep cups from the cupboard. “Let’s stop dancing and agree that we’re attracted to each other.”
“I was hoping once we agreed to that we’d start dancing.”
“Wrong.” She tossed her hair back and poured coffee. “I’m Seth’s caseworker. You’re proposing to be his guardian. It would be incredibly unwise for either of us to act on a physical attraction.”
He picked up the cup, leaned back against the counter. “I don’t know about you, but I love doing stuff that’s unwise. Especially if it feels good.” He brought the cup to his lips, then smiled slowly. “And I bet acting on that physical attraction would feel damn good.”
“It’s fortunate that I happen to be very wise.” With a mirroring smile, she leaned back on the opposite counter. “Now, you wanted to discuss Seth—and stuff, as I believe you put it.”
Seth, the rest of his brothers, and the situation had gone completely out of his mind. He supposed he’d used it as an excuse to see her. That was something to consider later. “I have to admit, coming into Princess Anne to talk to you was a great reason to escape. I was about to get stuck with dish duty, and Phil and the kid were already into round one on the homework issue.”
“I’m glad someone’s dealing with his schoolwork. And why don’t you ever refer to Seth by his name?”
“I do. Sure I do.”
“No, not as a rule.” She cocked her head. “Is that a habit of yours, Cameron, to avoid the personal contact of names with people you don’t intend to have an important or permanent relationship with?”
Her point, he was forced to admit, but he lifted a brow. “I use your name.”
He saw her blink, heard her sigh, then she waved the issue away. “What about Seth?”
“It’s not about him, directly. Except I figure we’re starting to divvy things up more evenhandedly. Phil’s the best to keep on him—keep on Seth,” he corrected with emphasis, “about school because for some reason Phil actually liked school. And we decided to get somebody to come in and deal with most of the housework a couple of days a week.”
She still had a picture of him standing in a puddle of suds with a look of baffled fury on his face. Her lips wanted badly to twitch into a smile. “You’ll be happier.”
“I hope never to see another vacuum cleaner bag. Ever had one rip on you?” He shuddered deliberately and made her laugh. “Anyhow, Ethan had this brainstorm. I’m at loose ends, Phillip needs something to occupy him if he’s going to be staying here—though he figures on commuting to Baltimore for now. So we’re going into business.”
“Into business? What kind of business?”
She lowered her cup. “You’re going to build boats?”
“I’ve built plenty—so has Ethan. And actually, though Phil went over to the suit-and-tie life, he’s done some himself. The three of us worked on the skipjack that Ethan still sails.”
“That’s fine for recreation, for personal use, for a hobby. But to consider starting a business, a risky one, at the very time when you’re trying to take on a minor dependent . . .”
“He won’t go hungry. For Christ’s sake, Ethan holds his own on the bay, and Phil’s got that desk job in Baltimore. I could get busywork, but what’s the point?”
“I’m only pointing out that a venture of this nature would consume a great deal of money and time, particularly during the first months. Stability—”
“Isn’t every damn thing.” Annoyed, he set his coffee down and began to pace. “Shouldn’t the kid learn there’s more to life than nine-to-fiving it? That there can be choices, that you can take a chance? How good is it for him if I’m stuck in that house dusting furniture and hating every goddamn minute of it? Ethan’s already got one client, and if Ethan brought this up you can believe he’s weighed it from every angle. Nobody thinks things through as much as he does.”
“And since you felt you wanted to discuss this with me, I’m simply trying to do the same. Weigh it from every angle.”
“And you think it would be better if I went out and got some nice, stable, time-clock job that brings in a nice, stable, time-clock paycheck every week.” He stopped in front of her. “Is that the kind of man who appeals to you? The kind who reports in at nine five days a week, who takes you out to dinner on a rainy night and lets you get away at a reasonable hour without even trying to convince you to take off what there is of that dress?”
She took a minute, reminding herself it wouldn’t solve anything if both of them lost the battle with temper. “What appeals to me, what I wear, and how I choose to spend my evenings aren’t the issues here. As Seth’s caseworker, I’m concerned that his home life be as stable and happy as possible.”
“Why should me building boats make him unhappy?”
“My question regarding this idea of yours is whether your attention will be taken away from him and turned toward this new business. A business that you would, I imagine, find exciting, challenging, and interesting, at least for a time.”
His eyes narrowed. “You just don’t think I can stick, do you?”
“That’s yet to be proved. But I do think you’ll try. What worries me is that you’re not trying for Seth, you’re trying for your father. For your parents. I don’t think that’s a count against you, Cam,” she said more gently. “But it’s not a point in Seth’s favor.”
How the hell did you argue with a woman who insisted on dotting every i? he wondered. “So you think he’s better off with strangers?”
“No, I think he’s better off with you and your brothers.” She smiled, satisfied that she had shut him up for the moment. “And that’s what went into my report. This idea of starting a boat-building business is something new to think about, and I hope none of you intends to rush into it.”
“Do you sail?”
“No, I’ve never tried it. Why?”
“I’d never been on a boat in my life until Ray Quinn took me out.”
Because he remembered how those eyes of hers could warm with compassion, he decided to tell her how it had been for him. “I was scared to death, but too tough to admit it. I’d only been with them a few days, never figured I’d stay. He took me out on this little Sunfish he had back then. Told me the air would do me good.”
All he had to do was think, and the image of that morning came clear as sunlight in his head. “My father was a big man. The Mighty Quinn. Built like a bull. I knew that little boat was going to tip over, and I’d probably drown, but he had a way of getting you to do things.”
Love, Anna thought. It was pure and simple love in his voice. It attracted her, she admitted, every bit as much as that toughly handsome face. “Could you swim?”
“No—but I still hated it that he made me wear a PFD. Personal flotation device,” he explained. “Life jacket. Figured it was for sissies.”
“You’d rather have drowned?”
“Hell, no, but I had to make him think so. Anyway, I sat in the stern, my stomach clutched. I was wearing these sunglasses my mother—Stella,” he corrected, for she’d been Stella then—“had dug up somewhere because my eye was pretty banged up and the sunlight hurt.”
He’d been beaten, abused, neglected, she remembered, when the Quinns had found him. Her heart went out to the little boy. “You must have been terrified.”
“Down to the bone, but I’d have choked on my tongue before I’d have admitted it. He must have known that,” Cam said quietly. “He always knew what was in my head. It was hot, and the humidity was up so that every time you took a breath it was like swallowing water. He said it would be cooler when we moved out of the gut and onto the river, but I didn’t believe him. I figured we’d just sit there and fry. The boat didn’t even have a motor. Christ, he laughed when I said that. He told me we had something better than a motor.”
He’d forgotten his coffee, and even the point of the story drifted away in the memory. “We headed out across the water, slow and easy at first, the boat rocked when we turned into the bend, and I figured that was it. Game over. This heron came out of the trees. I’d seen it once before. At least I like to think it was the same one. It winged right over the boat, wings spread to trap the air. And then we caught the wind and that little sail filled. We started to fly. He turned around and grinned at me. I didn’t even know I was grinning back until I split my lip open again. I’d never felt like that before in my life. Not once.”
Without thinking, he lifted his hand and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Not once in my life.”
“It changed you.” She knew that single moments, both simple and dramatic, could alter courses forever.
“It started to. A boat on the water, and people who were giving me a chance. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. It doesn’t have to be that much more complicated here. We’ll have the kid swing the hammer, put some sweat and effort into building a boat. If it’s going to be a Quinn operation, that includes him.”
Her smile came quickly, fully, and to his surprise, she patted him on the cheek. “That last part said it all. It’s a gamble. I’m not sure if it’s the time or the place for one, but . . . it should be interesting to watch.”
“Is that what you’re going to do?” He eased forward, nudging her back against the counter. “Watch me?”
“I don’t intend to take my eyes off you—on a professional level—until I’m assured that you and your brothers provide Seth with the proper home and guardianship.”
“Fair enough.” He moved in just a little closer, just a fraction till two well-toned bodies brushed. “And how about on a personal level?”
She weakened enough to let her gaze skim down, linger. His mouth was definitely tempting—dangerous and very close. “Keeping my eyes on you on a personal level isn’t a hardship. A mistake, maybe—but not a hardship.”
“I always figure if you’re going to make a mistake . . .” He put his hands on the counter, caging her. “Make it a big one. What do you say, Anna?” He dipped his head a little lower, hovered.
She tried to think, to consider the consequences. But there were times when needs, desire, and lust simply overpowered logic. “Hell,” she muttered and, cupping her hand at the back of his neck, dragged his mouth down on hers.
It was exactly as she wanted. Hungry and fierce and mindless. His mouth was hot, and it was hard, and it was almost heathen as he crushed down to devour hers. She gave in to it, gave all to it, a moment’s madness where body ruled mind and blood roared over reason.
And the thrill snapped through her like a whip, sharp, painful, and with a quick, shocking burn.
“Christ.” His breath was gone, his mind was reeling. Reflexively, his hands dug into the counter before he jerked them away and filled them with her.
Whatever he’d expected, whatever he’d imagined didn’t come close to the volcano that had so suddenly erupted in his arms. He dragged a hand through her hair, the wild, curling mass of it, fisted it there, then plundered as if his life depended on it.
“Can’t,” she managed, but her arms wound around him, banded around him until it seemed his heart wasn’t merely thundering against hers but inside hers. Her moan was a rumble of desperate, delirious pleasure that sounded in her throat exactly where his teeth nipped, then scraped, then dug greedily into flesh.
The counter bit into her back, her fingers bit into his hips as she dragged him closer. Oh, God, she wanted contact, friction, more. She found his mouth with hers again, plunged blindly into the next kiss.
Just one more, she promised herself, meeting, matching his reckless demand.
Her scent seduced his senses. Her name was a murmur on his lips, a whisper in his mind. Her body was a glorious banquet melded to his. No woman had ever filled him so quickly, so completely, so utterly to the exclusion of all else.
“Let me.” It was a plea, and he’d never in his life begged for a woman. “For God’s sake, Anna, let me have you.” His hands ran up her legs, those endless thighs. “Now.”
She wanted. It would be so easy to take, and be taken. But easy, she knew, was rarely right.
“No. Not now.” Regret smothered her even as she lifted her hands to frame his face. For a moment longer, her mouth stayed on his. “Not yet. Not like this.”
Her eyes were dark, clouded. He knew enough of a woman’s pleasures and his own skills to believe he could make them go blind. “It’s perfect like this.”
“The timing’s wrong, the circumstances. Wait.” Someone had to move, she decided. To break that contact. She sidestepped, let out a shaky breath. She closed her eyes, lifted a hand to hold him off. “Well,” she managed after another moment, “that was insane.”
He took the hand she’d raised, brought it to his lips and nipped his teeth into her forefinger. “Who needs sanity?”
“I do.” She nearly managed a genuine smile as she tugged her hand free. “Not that I don’t regret that deeply at this moment, but I do need it. Wow.” She drew in another long breath, pushed her hands up through her hair. “Cameron. You’re every bit as potent as I expected.”
“I haven’t even started.”
The smile widened. “I bet. I just bet.” She eased back a little more, picked up her rapidly cooling coffee. “I don’t know as that episode’s going to make either one of us sleep easier tonight, but it was bound to happen.” She angled her head when his eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Most women, especially in your position, would make excuses.”
“For what?” She lifted a shoulder and promised herself her system would level again eventually. “That was as much my doing as yours. I wondered what it might be like to get my hands on you from the first time I saw you.”
Cam decided he might never be the same again. “I think I’m crazy about you.”
“No, you’re not.” She laughed and handed him his coffee. “You’re intrigued, you’re attracted, you’ve got a good healthy case of lust, but those are entirely different matters. And you don’t even know me.”
“I want to.” He let out a short laugh. “And that’s a big surprise to me. I don’t usually care one way or the other.”
“I’m flattered. I’m not sure if that’s a tribute to your charm or my own stupidity, but I’m flattered. But—”
“Damn, I knew that was coming.”
“But,” she repeated and set her cup in the sink. “Seth is my priority. He has to be.” The warmth that was both compassion and understanding came into her eyes, and it touched something in him that was buried under that healthy lust. “And he should be yours. I hope I’m around if and when that happens.”
“I’m doing everything I can think of.”
“I know you are. And you’re doing more than most would.” She touched his arm briefly, then moved away. “I have a feeling you’ve got more inside you yet. But . . .”
“There it is again.”
“You’d better go now.”
He wanted to stay, even if it was just to stand there and talk to her, to be. “I haven’t finished my coffee.”
“It’s cold. And it’s getting late.” She glanced toward the window where raindrops ran like tears. “And the rain makes me wonder about things I shouldn’t be wondering about.”
He winced. “I don’t suppose you said that to make me suffer.”
“Sure I did.” She laughed again and moved to the door, opened it wide to make her point. “If I’m going to, why shouldn’t you?”
“Oh, I like you, Anna Spinelli. You’re a woman after my own heart.”
“You’re not interested in a woman going for your heart,” she said as he crossed the room. “You want one who’s after your body.”
“See, we’re getting to know each other already.”
“Good night.” She didn’t evade when he pulled her in for another kiss as he walked out the door. Evading would have been a pretense, and she wasn’t one to delude herself.
So she met the kiss with teasing heat and honest enthusiasm. Then she shut the door in his face.
And then she leaned back against it weakly.
Potent? That wasn’t the half of it. Her pulse was likely to stay on overdrive for hours. Maybe days.
She wished she didn’t feel so damn happy about it.
Cam was scowling at a basket full of pink socks and Jockey shorts when the phone rang. He knew damn well the socks and underwear had been white—or close to it—when he’d dumped them in the machine. Now they were Easter-egg pink.
Maybe they just looked that way because they were wet.
He pulled them out to stuff them in the dryer, saw the red sock hiding among the pink. And bared his teeth.
Phillip, he vowed, was a dead man.
“Fuck it.” He dumped them inside, slapped the dryer on what he hoped was broil and went to answer the phone.
He remembered, just in time, to turn down the little portable TV tucked in the corner of the counter. It wasn’t as if he was actually watching it, it certainly wasn’t that he was paying any attention at all to the passion and betrayals of the late-morning soap opera.
He’d just switched it on for the noise.
“Hey, Cam. Took some doing to track you down, hoss. Tod Bardette here.”
Cam reached into an open bag of Oreos on the counter and took out a handful. “How’s it going, Tod?”
“Well, I have to tell you it’s going pretty damn good. I’ve been spending some time anchored off the Great Barrier Reef.”
“Nice spot,” Cam muttered over a cookie. Then his brows shot up as an impossibly gorgeous woman tumbled into bed with a ridiculously handsome man on the tiny screen across the kitchen.
Maybe there was something to this daytime TV after all.
“It’ll do. Heard you kicked ass in the Med a few weeks ago.”
A few weeks? Cam thought while he munched on a second cookie. Surely it had been a few years ago that he’d flown across the finish line in his hydrofoil. Blue water, speed, cheering crowds, and money to burn.
Now he was lucky if he found enough milk in the fridge to wash down a stale Oreo.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard too.”
Tod gave a rich chuckle. “Well, the offer to buy that toy from you still holds. But I got another proposition coming at you.”
Tod Bardette always had another proposition coming at you. He was the rich son of a rich father from East Texas who used the world as his playground. And he was boat happy. He raced them, sponsored races, bought and sold them. And collected wives, trophies, and his share of the purse with smooth regularity.
Cam had always felt Tod’s luck had run hot since conception. Since it never hurt to listen—and the bedroom scene had just been displaced by a commercial featuring a giant toilet brush, he switched off the set.
“I’m always ready to hear one.”
“I’m setting up a crew for La Coupe Internationale.”
“The One-Ton Cup?” Cam felt his juices begin to flow, and he lost all interest in cookies and milk. The international race was a giant in the sailing world. Five legs, he thought, the final one an ocean race of three hundred grueling miles.
“You got it. You know the Aussies took the cup last year, so it’s being held down here in Australia. I want to whip their butts, and I’ve got a honey of a boat. She’s fast, hoss. With the right crew she’ll bring the cup back to the U S of A. I need a skipper. I want the best. I want you. How soon can you get Down Under?”
Give me five minutes. That’s what he wanted to say. He could have a bag packed in one, hop a plane and be on his way. For men who raced, it was one of life’s golden opportunities. Even as he opened his mouth, his gaze landed on the rocker outside the kitchen window.
So he closed his eyes, listened resentfully to the hum of the pink socks drying in the utility room behind him.
“I have to pass, Tod. I can’t get away now.”
“Lookie here, I’m willing to give you some time to put your affairs—pun intended,” he said with a snorting laugh, “in order. Take a couple weeks. If you’ve got another offer, I’ll beat it.”
“I can’t do it. I’ve got—” Laundry to do? A kid to raise? Damn if he was going to humiliate himself with that piece of information. “My brothers and I started a business,” he said on impulse. “I’ve got a commitment here.”
“A business.” This time Tod’s laugh was long and delighted. “You? Don’t pull my leg so hard, it hurts.”
Now Cam’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t doubt Tod Bardette of East Texas would be joined by others of his friends and acquaintances in laughing at the idea of Cameron Quinn, businessman.
“We’re building boats,” he said between his teeth. “Here on the Eastern Shore. Wooden boats. Custom jobs,” he added, determined to play it to the hilt. “One of a kinds. In six months, you’ll be paying me top dollar to design and build you a boat by Quinn. Since we’re old friends, I’ll try to squeeze you in.”
“Boats.” The interest in Tod’s voice picked up. “Well now, you know how to sail them, guess maybe you’d know how to build them.”
“There’s no maybe about it.”
“That’s an interesting enterprise, but come on, Cam, you’re not a businessman. You’re not going to stay stuck on some pretty little bay in Maryland eating crabs and nailing planks. You know I’ll make this race worth your while. Money, fame and fortune.” And he chuckled. “After we win, you can go back and put a couple of little sloops together.”
He could handle it, Cam promised himself. He could handle the insults, the frustration of not being able to pack and go as he chose. What he wouldn’t do was give Bardette the satisfaction of knowing he was ruffled. “You’re going to have to find another skipper. But if you want to buy a boat, give me a call.”
“If you actually get one finished, give me a call.” A sigh came through the receiver. “You’re missing the chance of a lifetime here. You change your mind in the next couple hours, get in touch. But I need to nail down my crew this week. Talk to you.”
And Cam was listening to a dial tone.
He didn’t hurl the receiver through the window. He wanted to, considered it, then figured he’d be the one sweeping up the glass, so what would be the point?
So he hung up the phone, with careful deliberation. He even took a deep breath. And if whatever he’d put in the washing machine hadn’t chosen that moment to spin out of balance and send the machine hopping, he wouldn’t have slammed his fist into the wall.
“I thought for a minute there you were going to pull it off.”
He whirled, and saw his father sitting at the kitchen table, chuckling. “Oh, God, this caps it.”
“Why don’t you get some ice for your knuckles?”
“It’s all right.” Cam glanced down at them. A couple of scrapes. And the sharp pain was a good hold on reality. “I thought about this, Dad. Really thought about it. I just don’t believe you’re here.”
Ray continued to smile. “You’re here, Cam. That’s what matters. It was tough turning down a race like that. I’m grateful to you. I’m proud of you.”
“Bardette said he had a honey of a boat. With his money behind it. . .” Cam pressed his hands on the counter and stared out the window toward the quiet water. “I could win that bastard. I captained a crew to second in the Little America’s Cup five years ago, and I took the Chicago-Mackinac last year.”
“You’re a fine sailor, Cam.”
“Yeah.” He curled his fingers into fists. “What the hell am I doing here? If this keeps up I’m going to get hooked on soap operas. I’ll start thinking Lilac and Lance are not only real people but close personal friends. I’ll start obsessing that my whites aren’t white enough. I’ll clip coupons and collect recipes and go the rest of the way out of my fucking mind.”
“I’m surprised at you, thinking of tending a home in those terms.” Ray’s voice was sharp now, with disappointment around the edges. “Making a home, caring for family is important work. The most important work there is.”
“It’s not my work.”
“It seems it is now. I’m sorry for that.”
Cam turned back. If you were going to have a conversation with a hallucination, you might as well look at it. “For what? For dying on me?”
“Well, that was pretty inconvenient all around.”
He would have laughed, the comment and the ironic tone were so typically Ray Quinn. But he had to get out what was nibbling at his mind. “Some people are saying you aimed for the pole.”
Ray’s smile faded, and his eyes turned sober and sad. “Do you believe that?”
“No.” Cam let out a breath. “No, I don’t believe that.”
“Life’s a gift. It doesn’t always fit comfortably, but it’s precious. I wouldn’t have hurt you and your brothers by throwing mine away.”
“I know that,” Cam murmured. “It helps to hear you say it, but I know that.”
“Maybe I could have stopped things. Maybe I could have done things differently.” He sighed and turned the gold wedding band around and around on his finger. “But I didn’t. It’s up to you now, you and Ethan and Phillip. There was a reason the three of you came to me and Stella. A reason the three of you came together. I always believed that. Now I know it.”
“And what about the kid?”
“Seth’s place is here. He needs you. He’s in trouble right now, and he needs you to remember what it was like to be where he is.”
“What do you mean, he’s in trouble?”
Ray smiled a little. “Answer the phone,” he suggested seconds before it rang.
And then he was gone.
“I’ve got to start getting more sleep,” Cam decided, then yanked the receiver off the hook. “Yeah, yeah.”
“Hello? Mr. Quinn?”
“Right. This is Cameron Quinn.”
“Mr. Quinn, this is Abigail Moorefield, vice principal of St. Christopher Middle School.”
Cam felt his stomach sink to his toes. “Uh-huh.”
“I’m afraid there’s been some trouble here. I have Seth DeLauter in my office.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Seth was in a fight with another student. He’s being suspended. Mr. Quinn, I’d appreciate it if you could come to my office so matters can be explained to you and you can take Seth home.”
“Great. Wonderful.” At his wits’ end, Cam dragged a hand through his hair. “On my way.”
The school hadn’t changed much, Cam noted, since he’d done time there. The first morning he’d passed through those heavy front doors, Stella Quinn had all but dragged him.
He was nearly eighteen years older now, and no more enthusiastic.
The floors were faded linoleum, the light bright from wide windows. And the smell was of contraband candy and kid sweat.
Cam jammed his hands in his pockets and headed for the administration offices. He knew the way. After all he’d beaten a path to those offices countless times during his stay at St. Chris Middle.
It wasn’t the same old eagle-eyed secretary manning the desk in the outer room. This one was younger, perkier, and beamed smiles all over him. “May I help you?” she asked in a bouncing voice.
“I’m here to post bail for Seth DeLauter.”
She blinked at that, and her smile turned puzzled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Cameron Quinn to see the VP.”
“Oh, you mean Mrs. Moorefield. Yes, she’s expecting you. Second door down the little hallway there. On the right.” Her phone rang and she plucked it up. “Good morning,” she sang, “St. Christopher’s Middle School. This is Kathy speaking.”
Cam decided he preferred the battle-ax who had guarded the offices in his day to this terminally pert newcomer. Even as he started toward the door, his back went up, his jaw set—and his palms went damp.
Some things, he supposed, never changed.
Mrs. Moorefield was sitting behind her desk, calmly entering data into a computer. Cam thought her fingers moved efficiently. And the movement suited her. She was neat and trim, probably early fifties. Her hair was short and sleek and light brown, her face composed and quietly attractive.
Her gold wedding band caught the light as her fingers moved over the keys. The only other jewelry she wore were simple gold shells at her ears.
Across the room, Seth was slumped in a chair, staring up at the ceiling. Trying to look bored, Cam assumed, but coming off as sulky. Kid needed a haircut, he realized and wondered who was supposed to deal with that. He was wearing jeans frayed to strings at the cuffs, a jersey two sizes too big, and incredibly dirty high-tops.
It looked perfectly normal to Cam.
He rapped on the doorjamb. Both the vice principal and Seth glanced over, with two dramatically different expressions. Mrs. Moorefield smiled in polite welcome. Seth sneered.
“Yeah.” Then he remembered he was supposed to be here as a responsible guardian. “I hope we can straighten this out, Mrs. Moorefield.” He stuck his own polite smile into place as he stepped to her desk and offered a hand.
“I appreciate your coming in so quickly. When we have to take regrettable disciplinary action such as this against a student, we want the parents or responsible parties to have the opportunity to understand the situation. Please, Mr. Quinn, sit down.”
“What is the situation?” Cam took his seat and found he didn’t like it any more than he used to.
“I’m afraid Seth physically attacked another student this morning between classes. The other boy is being treated by the school nurse, and his parents have been informed.”
Cam lifted a brow. “So where are they?”
“Both of Robert’s parents are at work at the moment. But in any case—”
Her smile returned, small, attentive, questioning. “Why, Mr. Quinn?”
“Why did Seth slug Robert?”
Mrs. Moorefield sighed. “I understand you’ve only recently taken over as Seth’s guardian, so you may not be aware that this isn’t the first time he’s fought with other students.”
“I know about it. I’m asking about this incident.”
“Very well.” She folded her hands. “According to Robert, Seth demanded that Robert give him a dollar, and when Robert refused to pay him, Seth attacked him. At this point,” she added, shifting her gaze to Seth, “Seth has neither confirmed nor denied. School policy requires that students be suspended for three days as a disciplinary action when involved in a fight on school premises.”
“Okay.” Cam rose, but when Seth started to get up, he pointed a finger. “Stay,” he ordered, then crouched until they were eye to eye. “You try to shake this kid down?”
Seth jerked a shoulder. “That’s what he says.”
“You slugged him.”
“Yeah, I slugged him. Went for the nose,” he added with a thin smile, and shoved at the straw-colored hair that flopped into his eyes. “It hurts more.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“Maybe I didn’t like his fat face.”
With his patience as frayed as Seth’s jeans, Cam gripped Seth by the shoulders. When Seth winced and hissed in a breath, alarm bells went off. Before Seth could evade him, Cam tugged the arm of the oversized jersey down. Nasty little bruises—knuckle rappers, Cam would have called them—ran from Seth’s shoulder to his elbow.
“Get off me.” His face heated with shame, Seth squirmed, but Cam merely shifted him. Scrapes were scored high on Seth’s back, red and raw.
“Hold still.” Cam moved his grip and laid his hands on the arms of the chair. His eyes stayed on Seth. “You tell me what went down. And don’t even think about lying to me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I didn’t ask you what you wanted. I’m telling you to spill it. Or,” he said, lowering his voice so only Seth could hear, “are you going to let that punk get away clean?”
Seth opened his mouth, closed it again. He had to set his jaw so it wouldn’t wobble. “He was pissed off. We had this history test the other day and I aced it. An idiot could’ve gotten an ace, but he’s less than an idiot and he flunked. So he kept hassling me, dogged me down the hall, jabbing at me. I walked away because I’m sick to death of ISS.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “In-School Suspension. It’s boring. I didn’t want to do more time, so I walked. But he kept jabbing and calling me names. Egghead, teacher’s pet, and all that shit. Didn’t let it bother me. But then he shoved me back against the lockers and he said I was just a son of a whore and everybody knew it, so I decked him.”
Shamed and sick, he jerked a defiant shoulder. “So I get a three-day vacation. Big deal.”
Cam nodded and rose. When he turned around his eyes were nearly black with fury. “You’re not suspending this kid for defending himself against an ignorant bully. And if you try, I’ll go over your head to the Board of Education.”
Shocked to the core, Seth stared up at Cam. Nobody had ever stood up for him. He’d never expected anyone to stand up for him.
“Nobody calls my brother a son of a whore, Mrs. Moorefield. And if you don’t have a school policy against vicious name-calling and harassment, you damn well should. So I’m telling you, you better take another look at this situation. And you better rethink just who gets suspended here. And you can tell little Robert’s parents that if they don’t want their kid crying over a bloody nose, they better teach him some manners.”
She took a moment before speaking. She’d been teaching and counseling children for nearly thirty years. What she saw on Seth’s face at that moment was hope, stunned and wary, but hope nonetheless. It was a look she didn’t want to extinguish.
“Mr. Quinn, you can be certain that I will investigate this matter further. I wasn’t aware that Seth had been injured. If you’d like to take him down to the nurse while I speak with Robert and . . . others—”
“I can take care of him.”
“As you wish. I’ll hold the suspension in abeyance until I’ve satisfied myself with the facts.”
“You do that, Mrs. Moorefield. But I’m satisfied with the facts. Now I’m taking Seth home for the rest of the day. He’s had enough.”
“I agree with you.”
The child hadn’t looked shaken when he’d come into her office, she thought. He’d looked cocky. He hadn’t looked shaken when she’d told him to sit down and called his home. He’d looked belligerent.
But he looked shaken now, finally, with his eyes wide and stunned and his hands gripping the arms of the chair. The thin, hard shield he’d kept tight around him, a shield neither she nor any of his teachers had been able to so much as scratch, appeared to be deeply dented.
Now, she decided, they would see what they could do for him.
“If you will bring Seth into school in the morning and meet with me here, we’ll resolve the matter.”
“We’ll be here. Let’s go,” he said to Seth and headed out.
As they walked down the hall toward the front doors, their footsteps echoed hollowly. Cam glanced down, noted that Seth was staring at his shoes.
“Still gives me the creeps,” he said.
Seth shoved at the door. “What?”
“The way it sounds when you take the long walk to the VP’s office.”
Seth snorted, hunched his shoulders and kept walking. His stomach felt as if a thousand butterflies had gone to war inside it.
The American flag on the pole near the parking lot snapped in the wind. From an open window behind them, the pathetically off-key sounds of a mid-morning music class clamored. The elementary school was separated from the middle by a narrow swatch of grass and a few sad-looking evergreen bushes.
Across the small outdoor track stood the brown brick of the high school. It seemed smaller now, Cam noted, almost quaint, and not at all like the prison he’d once imagined it to be.
He remembered leaning lazily against the hood of his first secondhand car in the parking lot and watching girls. Walking through those noisy hallways from class to class, and watching girls. Sitting in the butt-numbing chairs during brain-numbing classes. And watching girls.
The fact that his high school experience came back to him in a parade of varying female forms made him almost sentimental.
Then a bell rang shrilly, and the noise level through the open windows behind him erupted. Sentiment dried up quickly. Thank God, was all he could think, that chapter of his life was over.
But it wasn’t over for the kid, he remembered. And since he was here, he could try to help him through it. They opened opposite doors of the ’Vette, and Cam paused, waited for their eyes to meet. “So, do you figure you broke the asshole’s nose?”
A glimmer of a smile worked around Seth’s mouth. “Maybe.”
“Good.” Cam got in, slammed the door. “Going for the nose is fine, but if you don’t want a lot of blood messing things up, go for the belly. A good, solid short arm punch to the gut won’t leave as much evidence.”
Seth considered the advice. “I wanted to see him bleed.”
“Well, you make your choices in life. Pretty good day for a sail,” he decided as he started the engine. “Might as well.”
“I guess.” Seth picked at the knee of his jeans. Someone had stood up for him, was all his confused mind could think. Had believed him, defended him and taken his part. His arm hurt, his shoulders ached, but someone had taken his part. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“No problem. You mess with one Quinn, you mess with them all.” He glanced over as he drove out of the lot and saw Seth staring at him. “That’s how it shakes down. Anyway, let’s get some burgers or something to take on the boat.”
“Yeah, I could eat.” Seth swiped a hand under his nose. “Got a dollar?”
When Cam laughed and punched the accelerator it was one of the best moments of Seth’s life.
THE WIND WAS out of the southwest and steady so that the marsh grasses waved lazily. The sky was clear and cheerfully blue, the perfect frame for the heron that rose up, out of the waving grass over the glinting water, then down like a flashing white kite to catch an early lunch.
On impulse, Cam had tossed some fishing gear into the boat. With any luck they’d have fried fish for dinner.
Seth already knew more about sailing than Cam had expected. He shouldn’t have been surprised by it, he realized. Anna had said the boy had a quick mind, and Ethan would have taught him well, and patiently.
When he saw how easily Seth handled the lines, he trusted him to trim the jib. The sails caught the wind, and Cam found speed.
God, he had missed it. The rush, the power, the control. It poured through him, clearing his mind of worries, obligations, disappointments, even grief. Water below and sky above, and his hands on the helm coaxing the wind, daring it, tricking it into giving more.
Behind him, Seth grinned and caught himself just before he yelled out in delight. He’d never gone so fast. With Ray it had been slow and steady, with Ethan work and wonder. But this was a wild, free ride, rising and falling with the waves, shooting like a long white bullet to anywhere.
The wind nearly took his cap, so he turned the bill backward so the breeze wouldn’t catch it and flip it away.
They skimmed across the shoreline, passed the waterfront docks that were the hub of St. Chris before they finally slowed. An old skipjack no longer in use was docked there, a symbol to the waterman’s way of life.
The men and women who harvested the bay brought their day’s catch there. Flounder and sea trout and rockfish at this time of year, and . . .
“What’s the date?” Cam demanded as he glanced over his shoulder.
“Like the thirty-first.” Seth shoved up his wraparound sunglasses and stared at the dock. He was hoping for a glimpse of Grace. He wanted to wave to someone he knew.
“Crab season starts tomorrow. Hot damn. Guarantee you tomorrow Ethan brings home a bushel of beauties. We’ll eat like kings. You like crabs, right?”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Cam popped the top of a Coke and guzzled. “Haven’t you had crab before?”
“You’d better prepare your mouth for a treat, then, kid, because you’ll have it tomorrow.”
Mirroring Cam’s move, Seth reached for a soft drink himself. “Nothing you cook’s a treat.”
It was said with a grin and received with one. “I can do crab just fine. Nothing to it. Boiling water, lots of spices, then you pop those snapping bastards into the pot—”
“It’s the only way.”
Cam merely shifted his stance. “They aren’t alive for long. Then they’re dinner. Add a six-pack of beer and you got a feast. Another few weeks, and we’re talking soft-shell blues. You plop ’em between a couple pieces of bread and bite in.”
This time Seth actually felt his stomach roll. “Not me.”
“Shit. Sometimes on Saturday in the summer Mom and Dad used to bring us down to the docks. We’d get us some soft-shell crab sandwiches, a tub of peanut oil fries, and watch the tourists try to figure out what to eat. Laughed our asses off.”
The memory made him suddenly sad, and he tried to shake off the mood. “Sometimes we sailed down like this. Or we’d cruise down to the river and fish. Mom wasn’t much on fishing, so she’d swim, then she’d head to shore and sit on the bank and read.”
“Why didn’t she just stay home?”
“She liked to sail,” Cam said softly. “And she liked being there.”
“Ray said she got sick.”
“Yeah, she got sick.” Cam blew out a breath. She had been the only woman he’d ever loved, the only woman he’d ever lost. The missing of her could still creep up and cut him off at the knees.
“Come about,” he ordered. “Let’s head down the Annemessex and see if anything’s biting.”
It didn’t occur to either of them that the three hours they spent on the water was the most peaceful interlude either had experienced in weeks.
And when they returned home with six fat striped bass in the cooler, they were for the first time in total harmony.
“Know how to clean them?” Cam asked.
“Maybe.” Ray had taught him, but Seth was no fool. “I caught four of the six, that ought to mean you clean them.”
“That’s the beauty of being boss,” Cam began, then stopped dead when he saw sheets snapping on the ancient clothesline. He hadn’t seen anything hanging out on the line since his mother had gotten sick. For a moment he was afraid he was having another hallucination, and his mouth went dry.
Then the back door opened, and Grace Monroe stepped out on the porch.
It was the first time Cam had heard Seth’s voice raised in happiness and pure boyish pleasure. It surprised him enough to make him look over sharply, then nearly drop the cooler on his foot as Seth let go of his end and dashed forward.
“Hey, there.” She had a warm voice that contrasted with cool looks. She was tall and slim, with long limbs she’d once dreamed of using as a dancer.
But Grace had learned to put most of her dreams aside.
Her hair was boyishly short, and that was for convenience. She didn’t have the time or energy to worry about style. It was a dark, honey blond that was often streaked with paler color during the summer. Her eyes were a quiet green and all too often had shadows dogging them.
But her smile was pure and sunny and never failed to light up her face, or to set the dimple just beside her mouth winking.
A pretty woman, Cam thought, with the face of a pixie and the voice of a siren. It amazed him that men weren’t throwing themselves at her feet.
The boy all but did, Cam noted, surprised when Seth just about ran into her open arms. He hugged and was hugged—this prickly kid who didn’t like to be touched. Then he flushed and stepped back and began to play with the puppy, who’d followed Grace out of the house.
“Afternoon, Cam.” Grace shielded her eyes from the sun with the flat of her hand. “Ethan came by the pub last night and said y’all could use a hand around here.”
“You’re taking over the housework.”
“Well, I can give you three hours two days a week until—”
She got no farther, for Cam dumped the cooler, took the steps three at a time, and grabbed her into a loud, enthusiastic kiss. It set Seth’s teeth on edge to see it, even as Grace stuttered and laughed.
“That’s nice,” she managed, “but you’re still going to have to pay me.”
“Name your price. I adore you.” He snatched her hands and planted more kisses there. “My life for you.”
“I can see I’m going to be appreciated around here—and needed. I’ve got those pink socks soaking in some diluted bleach. Might do the trick.”
“The red sock was Phil’s. He’s responsible. I mean, what reasonable guy even owns a pair of red socks?”
“We’ll talk more about sorting laundry—and checking pockets. Someone’s little black book went through the last cycle.”
“Shit.” He caught her arched-brow look down at the boy and cleared his throat. “Sorry. I guess it was mine.”
“I made some lemonade, and I was going to put a casserole together, but it looks like you may have caught your supper.”
“Tonight’s, but we could do with a casserole too.”
“Okay. Ethan wasn’t really clear about what you’d need or want done. Maybe we should go over things.”
“Darling, you do whatever you think we need, and it’ll be more than we can ever repay.”
She’d already seen that for herself. Pink underwear, she mused, dust an inch thick on one table and unidentified substances sticking to another. And the stove? God only knew when it had last been cleaned.
It was good to be needed, she thought. Good to know just what had to be done. “We’ll take it as it goes, then. I may have to bring the baby along sometimes. Julie minds her at night when I’m working at the pub, but I can’t always find somebody to take her otherwise. She’s a good girl.”
“I can help you watch her,” Seth offered. “I get home from school at three-thirty.”
“Since when?” Cam wanted to know, and Seth shrugged.
“When I don’t have ISS.”
“Aubrey loves playing with you. I’ve got another hour here today,” she said because she was a woman constantly forced to budget time. “So I’ll make up that casserole and put it in the freezer. All you have to do is heat it up when you want it. I’ll leave you a list of cleaning supplies you’re low on, or I can pick them up for you if you like.”
“Pick them up for us?” Cam could have knelt at her feet. “Want a raise?”
She laughed and started back inside. “Seth, you see that that pup stays out of the fish guts. He’ll smell for a week otherwise.”
“Okay, sure. I’ll be finished in a few minutes and I’ll be in.” He stood up, then stepped off the porch so Grace wouldn’t hear him through the door. Manfully, he sized up Cam. “You’re not going to start poking at her, are you?”
“Poking at her?” He was blank for a moment, then shook his head. “For God’s sake.” Hefting the ice chest, he started around the side of the house to the fish-cleaning table. “I’ve known Grace half my life, and I don’t poke at every woman I see.”
It was the boy’s tone that made Cam run his tongue around his teeth as he set the cooler down. Possessive, proprietary, and satisfied. “So . . . you got your eye on her yourself, huh?”
Seth colored a little, opened the drawer for the fish scaler. “I just look out for her, that’s all.”
“She sure is pretty,” Cam said lightly and had the pleasure of seeing Seth’s eyes flash with jealousy. “But as it happens I’m poking at another woman right now, and it gets sticky if you try that with more than one at a time. And this particular female is going to take a lot of convincing.”
HE DECIDED to get started on poking at Anna. Since she was on his mind, Cam left Seth to deal with the last couple of fish on his own and wandered inside. He made appreciative noises at whatever Grace was putting together over at the stove, then wandered upstairs.
He’d have a little more privacy on the phone in his room. And Anna’s business card was in his pocket.
At the door to his room, he stopped and could have wept with gratitude. Since his bed was freshly made, the plain green spread professionally smoothed, the pillows plumped, he knew some of the sheets hanging out on the line were his.
Tonight he would sleep on fresh, clean sheets he hadn’t even had to launder. It made the prospect of sleeping alone a little more tolerable.
The surface of his old oak dresser wasn’t just dust-free. It gleamed. The bookshelves that still held most of his trophies and some of his favorite novels had been tidied, and the overstuffed chair he’d taken to using as a catchall was now empty. He hadn’t a clue where she’d put his things, but he imagined he’d find them in their logical place.
He supposed he’d gotten spoiled living in hotels over the last few years, but it did his heart good to walk into his bedroom and not see a half a dozen testy little chores waiting for attention.
Things were looking up, so he plopped down on the bed, stretched out, and reached for the phone.
“Anna Spinelli.” Her voice was low, professionally neutral. He closed his eyes to better fantasize how she looked. He liked the idea of imagining her behind some bureaucratic desk wearing that tight little blue number she’d had on the night before.
“Miz Spinelli. How do you feel about crabs?”
“Ah . . .”
“Let me rephrase that.” He scooted down until he was nearly flat and realized he could be asleep in five minutes without really trying. “How do you feel about eating steamed crabs?”
“I feel favorable.”
“Good. How about tomorrow night?”
“Here,” he specified. “At the house. The house that’s never empty. Tomorrow’s the first day of crab season. Ethan’ll bring home a bushel. We’ll cook them up. You can see how the Quinns—what would you call it?—relate, interact. See how Seth’s getting along—acclimating to this particular home environment.”
“That’s very good.”
“Hey, I’ve dealt with social workers before. Of course, never one who wore blue high heels, but . . .”
“I was off the clock,” she reminded him. “However, I think dinner might be a workable idea. What time?”
“Six-thirty or thereabouts.” He heard the flap of papers and found himself slightly annoyed that she was checking her calendar.
“All right, I can do that. Six-thirty.”
She sounded entirely too much like a social worker making an appointment to suit him. “You alone in there?”
“In my office? Yes, at the moment. Why?”
“Just wondering. I’ve been wondering about you on and off all day. Why don’t you let me come into town and get you tomorrow, then I could drive you home. We could stop and—I’d say climb into the backseat, but the ’Vette doesn’t have one. Still, I think we could manage.”
“I’m sure we could. Which is why I’ll drive myself down.”
“I’m going to have to get my hands on you again.”
“I don’t doubt that’s going to happen. Eventually. In the meantime—”
“I want you.”
Because her voice had thickened and didn’t sound quite so prim, he smiled. “Why don’t I tell you just what I’d like to do to you? I can go step by step. You can even take notes in your little book for future reference.”
“I . . . think we’d better postpone that. Though I may be interested in discussing it at another time. I’m afraid I have an appointment in a few minutes. I’ll see you and your family tomorrow evening.”
“Give me ten minutes alone with you, Anna.” He whispered it. “Ten minutes to touch you.”
“I—we can try for that time frame tomorrow. I have to go. Good-bye.”
“ ’Bye.” Pleased that he’d rattled her, he slid the phone back on the hook and let himself drift off into a well-deserved nap.
HE WAS AWAKENED just over an hour later by the slamming of the front door and Phillip’s raised and furious voice.
“Home, sweet home,” Cam muttered and rolled out of bed. He stumbled to the door and down the hall to the steps. He was a lousy napper, and whenever he indulged he woke up groggy, irritable, and in desperate need of coffee.
By the time he got downstairs, Phillip was in the kitchen uncorking a bottle of wine. “Where the hell is everybody?” Phillip demanded.
“I dunno. Get out of my way.” Rubbing one hand over his face, Cam poured the dregs of the pot into a mug, stuck the mug in the microwave, and punched numbers at random.
“I’ve been informed by the insurance company that they’re holding the claim until such time as an investigation is complete.”
Cam stared at the microwave, willing those endless two minutes to pass so he could gulp caffeine. His bleary brain took in insurance, claim, investigation, and couldn’t correlate the terms. “Huh?”
“Pull yourself together, damn it.” Phillip gave him an impatient shove. “They won’t process Dad’s policy because they suspect suicide.”
“That’s bullshit. He told me he didn’t kill himself.”
“Oh, really?” Sick and furious, Phillip still managed to raise an ironic eyebrow. “Did you have this conversation with him before or after he died?”
Cam caught himself, but very nearly flushed. Instead he cursed again and yanked open the microwave door. “I mean, there’s no way he would have, and they’re just stalling because they don’t want to pay off.”
“The point is, they’re not paying off at this time. Their investigator’s been talking to people, and some of those people were apparently delighted to tell him the seamier details of the situation. And they know about the letter from Seth’s mother—the payments Dad made to her.”
“So.” He sipped coffee, scalded the roof of his mouth, and swore. “Hell with it. Let them keep their fucking blood money.”
“It’s not as simple as that. Number one is if they don’t pay, it goes down that Dad committed suicide. Is that what you want?”
“No.” Cam pinched the bridge of his nose to try to relieve some of the pressure that was building. He’d lived most of his life without headaches, and now it seemed he was plagued with them.
“Which means we’d have to accept their conclusions, or we’d have to take them to court to prove he didn’t, and it’d be one hell of a public mess.” Struggling to calm himself, Phillip sipped his wine. “Either way it smears his name. I think we’re going to have to find this woman—Gloria DeLauter—after all. We have to clear this up.”
“What makes you think finding her and talking to her is going to clear this up?”
“We have to get the truth out of her.”
“How, through torture?” Not that it didn’t have its appeal. “Besides, the kid’s scared of her,” Cam added. “She comes around, she could screw up the guardianship.”
“And if she doesn’t come around we might never know the truth, all of the truth.” He needed to know it, Phillip thought, so he could begin to accept it.
“Here’s the truth as I see it.” Cam slammed his mug down. “This woman was looking for an easy mark and figured she’d found one. Dad fell for the kid, wanted to help him. So he went to bat for him, just the way he did for us, and she kept hitting him up for more. I figure he was upset coming home that day, worried, distracted. He was driving too fast, misjudged, lost control, whatever. That’s all there is to it.”
“Life’s not as simple as you live it, Cam. You don’t just start in one spot, then finish in the other as fast as you can. Curves and detours and roadblocks. You better start thinking about them.”
“Why? That’s all you ever think about, and it seems to me we’ve ended up in exactly the same place.”
Phillip let out a sigh. It was hard to argue with that, so he decided a second glass of wine was in order. “Whatever you think, we’ve got a mess on our hands and we’re going to have to deal with it. Where’s Seth?”
“I don’t know where he is. Around.”
“Christ, Cam, around where? You’re supposed to keep an eye on him.”
“I’ve had my eye on him all damn day. He’s around.” He walked to the back door, scanned the yard, scowled when he didn’t see Seth. “Probably around front, or taking a walk or something. I’m not keeping the kid on a leash.”
“This time of day he should be doing his homework. You’ve only got to watch out for him on your own a couple of hours after school.”
“It didn’t work out that way today. There was a little holiday from school.”
“He hooked? You let him hook when we’ve got Social Services sniffing around?”
“No, he didn’t hook.” Disgusted, Cam turned back. “Some little jerk at school kept razzing him, poked bruises all over him and called him a son of a whore.”
Phillip’s stance shifted immediately, from mild annoyance to righteous fury. His gilt eyes glittered, his mouth thinned. “What little jerk? Who the hell is he?”
“Some fat-faced kid named Robert. Seth slugged him, and they said they were going to suspend him for it.”
“Hell they are. Who the hell’s principal now, some Nazi?”
Cam had to smile. When push came to shove, you could always count on Phillip. “She didn’t seem to be. After I went down and we got the whole story out of Seth, she shifted ground some. I’m taking him back in tomorrow for another little conference.”
Now Phillip grinned, wide and wicked. “You? Cameron Kick-Ass Quinn is going in for a parent conference at the middle school. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!”
“You won’t have to be, because you’re coming too.”
Phillip swallowed wine hastily before he choked. “What do you mean, I’m coming?”
“And so’s Ethan,” Cam decided on the spot. “We’re all going. United front. Yeah, that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
“I’ve got an appointment—”
“Break it. There’s the kid.” He spotted Seth coming out of the woods with Foolish beside him. “He’s just been fooling around with the dog. Ethan ought to be along any minute, and I’m tagging him for this deal.”
Phillip scowled into his wine. “I hate it when you’re right. We all go.”
“It should be a fun morning.” Satisfied, Cam gave Phillip a friendly punch on the arm. “We’re the big guys this time. And when we win this little battle with authority, we can celebrate tomorrow night—with a bushel of crabs.”
Phillip’s mood lightened. “April Fool’s Day. Crab season opens. Oh, yeah.”
“We got fresh fish tonight—I caught it, you cook it. I want a shower.” Cam rolled his shoulders. “Miz Spinelli’s coming to dinner tomorrow.”
“Uh-huh, well, you—what?” Phillip whirled as Cam started out of the room. “You asked the social worker to dinner? Here?”
“That’s right. Told you I like her looks.”
Phillip could only close his eyes. “For God’s sake, you’re hitting on the social worker.”
“She’s hitting on me, too.” Cam flashed a grin. “I like it.”
“Cam, not to put down your warped idea of romance, but use your head. We’ve got this problem with the insurance company. And we’ve got a problem with Seth at school. How’s that’s going to play to Social Services?”
“We don’t tell them about the first, and we give them the straight story on the second. I think that’s going to go over just fine with Miz Spinelli. She’s going to love it that the three of us went in to stand for Seth.”
Phillip opened his mouth, reconsidered, and nodded. “You’re right. That’s good.” Then as new thoughts began to play, he angled his head. “Maybe you could use your . . . influence on her to get her to move this case study along, get the system out of our hair.”
Cam said nothing for a moment, surprised at how angry even the suggestion of it made him. So his voice was quiet. “I’m not using anything on her, and it’s going to stay that way. One situation has nothing to do with the other. That’s staying that way too.”
When Cam strode off, Phillip pursed his lips. Well, he thought, wasn’t that interesting?
AS ETHAN GUIDED his boat toward the dock, he spotted Seth in the yard. Beside Ethan, Simon gave a high, happy bark. Ethan ruffled his fur. “Yeah, fella, almost home now.”
While he worked the sails, Ethan watched the boy toss sticks for the pup. There had always been a dog in this yard to chase sticks or balls, to wrestle in the grass with. He remembered Dumbo, the sweet-faced retriever he’d fallen madly in love with when he’d come to the Quinns.
He’d been the first dog to play with, to be comforted by, in Ethan’s life. From Dumbo he’d learned the meaning of unconditional love, had certainly trusted the dog long before he’d trusted Ray and Stella Quinn or the boys who would become his brothers.
He imagined Seth felt much the same. You could always depend on your dog.
When he’d come here all those years ago, damaged in body and soul, he had no hope that his life would really change. Promises, reassurances, decent meals and decent people meant nothing to him. So he’d considered ending that life.
The water had drawn him even then. He imagined himself walking out into it, drifting out until it was over his head. He didn’t know how to swim then, so it would have been simple. Just sinking down and down and down until there was nothing.
But the night he’d slipped out to do it, the dog had come with him. Licking his hand, pressing that warm, furry body against his legs. And Dumbo had brought him a stick, tail wagging, big brown eyes hopeful. The first time, Ethan threw the stick high and far and in fury. But Dumbo chased it happily and brought it back. Tail wagging.
He threw it again, then again, then dozens of times. Then he simply sat down on the grass, and in the moonlight cried his heart out, clutching the dog like a lifeline.
The need to end it had passed.
A dog, Ethan thought now as he rubbed a hand over Simon’s head, could be a glorious thing.
He saw Seth turn, catch sight of the boat. There was the briefest of hesitations, then the boy lifted a hand in greeting and with the pup raced to the dock.
“Secure the lines, mate.”
“Aye, aye.” Seth handled the lines Ethan tossed out competently enough, slipping the loop over the post. “Cam said how you’d be bringing crabs tomorrow.”
“Did he?” Ethan smiled a little, pushed back his fielder’s cap. Thick brown hair tickled the collar of his work-stained shirt. “Go on, boy,” he murmured to the dog, who was sitting, vibrating in place as he waited for the command to abandon ship. With a celebrational bark, Simon leaped into the water and swam to shore. “As it turns out, he’s right. Winter wasn’t too hard and the water’s warming up. We’ll pull in plenty. Should be a good day.”
Leaning over the side, he pulled up a crab pot that dangled from the dock. “No winter hair.”
“Hair, why would there be hair in an old chicken wire box?”
“Pot. It’s a crab pot. If I pulled this up and it was hairy—full of blond seaweed—it’d mean the water was too cold yet for crabs. Seen them that way, nearly into May, if there’s been a bad winter. That kind of spring, it’s hard to make a living on the water.”
“But not this spring, because the water’s warm enough for crabs.”
“Seems to be. You can bait this pot later—chicken necks or fish parts do the job fine—and in the morning we may just find us a couple of crabs sulking inside. They fall for it every time.”
Seth knelt down, wanting a closer look. “That’s pretty stupid. They look like big ugly bugs, so I guess they’re bug-dumb.”
“Just more hungry than smart, I’d say.”
“And Cam says you boil them alive. No way I’m eating those.”
“Suit yourself. Me, I figure on going through about two dozen come tomorrow night.” He let the pot slip back into the water, then leaped expertly from boat to dock.
“Grace was here. She cleaned the house and stuff.”
“Yeah?” He imagined the house would smell lightly of lemon. Grace’s house always did.
“Cam kissed her, right on the mouth.”
Ethan stopped walking, looked down at Seth’s face. “What?”
“Smackaroo. It made her laugh. It was like a joke, I guess.”
“Like a joke, sure.” He shrugged and ignored the hard, sick ball in his gut. None of his business who Grace kissed. Nothing to do with him. But he found his jaw clenched when Cam, hair dripping, stepped out on the back porch.
“How’s the crab business looking?”
“It’ll do,” Ethan said shortly.
Cam lifted his brows at the tone. “What, did one crawl out of the pot early and up your butt?”
“I want a shower and a beer.” Ethan moved past him and into the house.
“Woman’s coming for dinner tomorrow.”
That stopped Ethan again, and he turned, keeping the screen door between them. “Who?”
“Shit,” was Ethan’s only comment as he walked away.
“Why’s she coming? What does she want?” Panic rose up inside Seth like a fountain and spewed out in his voice before he could stop it.
“She’s coming because I asked her, and she wants a crab dinner.” Cam tucked his thumbs in his pockets, rocked back on his heels. Why the hell was he the one who always had to handle this white-faced fear? “I figure she wants to see if all we do around here is fart and scratch and spit. We can probably hold off on that for one evening. You gotta remember to put the toilet seat down, though. Women really hate when you don’t. They make it a social and political statement if you leave it up. Go figure.”
Some of the tension eased out of Seth’s face. “So, she’s just, like, coming to see if we’re slobs. And Grace cleaned everything up and you’re not cooking, so it’s mostly okay.”
“It’ll be more than mostly if you watch that foul mouth of yours.”
“Yours is just as foul.”
“Yeah, but you’re shorter than I am. And I don’t intend to ask you to pass the fucking potatoes in front of her.”
Seth snorted at that, and his rock-hard shoulders relaxed. “Are you going to tell her about that shit in school today?”
Cam blew out a breath. “Practice finding an alternate word for ‘shit,’ just for tomorrow night. Yeah, I’m going to tell her what happened in school. And I’m telling her that Phil and Ethan and I went in with you tomorrow to deal with it.”
This time all Seth could do was blink. “All of you? You’re all going?”
“That’s right. Like I said, you mess with one Quinn, you mess with them all.”
It shocked and appalled and terrified them both when tears sprang to Seth’s eyes. They swam there for a moment, blurring that deep, bright blue. Instantly both of them stuck their hands in their pockets and turned away.
“I have to do . . . something,” Cam said, groping. “You go . . . wash your hands or whatever. We’ll be eating pretty soon.”
Just as he worked up the nerve to turn, intending to lay a hand on Seth’s shoulder, to say something that would undoubtedly make them both feel like idiots, the boy darted inside and rushed through the kitchen.
Cam pressed his fingers to his eyes, massaged his temples, dropped his arms. “Jesus, I’ve got to get back to a race where I know what I’m doing.” He took a step toward the door, then shook his head and walked quickly away from it. He didn’t want to go inside with all that emotion, all that need, swirling in the air.
God, what he wanted was his freedom back, to wake up and find it had all been a dream. Better, to wake up in some huge, anonymous hotel bed in some exotic city with a hot, naked woman beside him.
But when he tried to picture it, the bed was the same one he slept in now, and the woman was Anna.
As a substitute it wasn’t such a bad deal, but . . . it didn’t make the rest of it go away. He glanced up at the windows of the second floor as he walked around the house. The kid was up there, pulling himself together. And he was out here, trying to do the same thing.
The look the kid had shot him, Cam thought, just before things got sloppy. It had stirred up his gut. He’d have sworn he’d seen trust there, and a pathetic, almost desperate gratitude that both humbled and terrified him.
What the hell was he going to do with it? And when things settled down and he could pick up his own life again . . . That had to happen, he assured himself. Had to. He couldn’t stay in charge like this. Couldn’t be expected to live like this forever. He had places to go, races to run, risks to take.
Once they had everything under control, once they did what needed to be done for the kid and got this business Ethan wanted established, he’d be free to come and go as he pleased again.
A few more months, he decided, maybe a year, then he was out of here. No one could possibly expect more from him.
Not even himself.
VICE PRINCIPAL MOORFIELD studied the three men who stood like a well-mortared wall in her office. The outward appearance would never indicate they were brothers. One wore a trim gray suit and perfectly knotted tie, another a black shirt and jeans, and the third faded khakis and a wrinkled denim work shirt.
But she could see that at the moment they were as united as triplets in the womb.
“I realize you have busy schedules. I appreciate all of you coming in this morning.”
“We want to get this straightened out, Mrs. Moorefield.” Phillip kept a mild, negotiating smile on his face. “Seth needs to be in school.”
“I agree. After Seth’s statement yesterday, I did some checking. It does appear as though Robert instigated the incident. There does seem to be some question over the motivation. The matter of the petty extortion—”
Cam held up a hand. “Seth, did you tell this Robert character to give you a dollar?”
“Nah.” Seth tucked his thumbs in his front pockets, as he’d seen Cam do. “I don’t need his money. I don’t even talk to him unless he gets in my face.”
Cam looked back at Mrs. Moorefield. “Seth says he aced that test and Robert flunked. Is that right?”
The vice principal folded her hands on her desk. “Yes. The test papers were handed back yesterday just before the end of class, and Seth received the highest grade. Now—”
“Seems to me,” Ethan interrupted in a quiet voice, “that Seth told you straight, then. Excuse me, ma’am, but if the other boy lied about some of it, could be he’s lying about all of it. Seth says the boy came after him, and he did. He said it was about this test, so I figure it is.”
“I’ve considered that, and I tend to agree with you, Mr. Quinn. I’ve spoken with Robert’s mother. She’s no happier than you are about this incident, or about the fact that both boys are to be suspended.”
“You’re not suspending Seth.” Cam planted his feet. “Not over this—not without a fight.”
“I understand how you feel. However, blows were exchanged. Physical violence can’t be permitted here.”
“I’d agree with you, Mrs. Moorefield, under most circumstances.” Phillip laid a hand on Cam’s arm to prevent him from stepping forward. “However, Seth was being physically and verbally attacked. He defended himself. There should have been a teacher monitoring the hallway during the change of classes. He should have been able to depend on an adult, on the system to protect him. Why didn’t one come forward to do so?”
Moorefield puffed out her cheeks, blew out a breath. “That’s a reasonable question, Mr. Quinn. I won’t start weeping to you about budget cuts, but it’s impossible, with a staff of our size, to monitor all the children at all times.”
“I sympathize with your problem, but Seth shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
“There’s been a rough time recently,” Ethan put in. “I don’t figure that kicking the boy out of school for a couple days is going to help him any. Education’s supposed to be more than learning—leastways that’s how we were taught. It’s supposed to help build your character and help teach you how to get on in the world. If it tells you that you get booted for doing what you had to, for standing up for yourself, then something’s wrong with the system.”
“You punish him the same way you punish the boy who started it,” Cam said, “you’re telling him there’s not much difference between right and wrong. That’s not the kind of school I want my brother in.”
Moorefield steepled her hands, looked over the tips of her fingers at the three men, then down at Seth. “Your evaluation tests were excellent, and your grades are well above average. However, your teachers say you rarely turn in homework assignments and even more rarely participate in class discussion.”
“We’re dealing with the homework.” Cam gave Seth a subtle nudge. “Right?”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t see why—”
“You don’t have to see.” Cam cut him off with one lowering glance. “You just have to do it. We can’t sit in the classroom with him and make him open his mouth, but he’ll turn in his homework.”
“I imagine he will,” she murmured. “This is what I’ll agree to do. Seth, because I believe you, you won’t be suspended. But you will go on a thirty-day probation. If there are no more disruptive incidents, and your teachers report that you have improved your at-home-assignment record—we’ll put this matter aside. However, your first homework assignment comes now and from me. You have one week to write a five-hundred-word essay on the violence in our society and the need for peaceful resolutions to problems.”
“Shut up,” Cam ordered mildly. “That’s fair,” he said to Mrs. Moorefield. “We appreciate it.”
“THAT WASN’T so bad.” Phillip stepped back into the sunlight and rolled his shoulders.
“Speak for yourself.” Ethan snugged his cap back on his head. “I was sweating bullets. I don’t want to have to do that again in this lifetime. Drop me off at the waterfront. I can get a ride out to the boat. Jim’s working her, and he ought to have pulled in a nice mess of crabs by now.”
“Just make sure you bring us home our share.” Cam piled into Phillip’s shiny navy blue Land Rover. “And don’t forget we’ve got company coming.”
“Not going to forget,” Ethan mumbled. “Principals in the morning, social workers in the evening. Christ Jesus. Every time you turn around, you have to talk to somebody.”
“I intend to keep Miz Spinelli occupied.”
Ethan turned around to look at Cam. “You just can’t leave females alone, can you?”
“What would be the point? They’re here.”
Ethan only sighed. “Somebody better pick up more beer.”
CAM VOLUNTEERED to get the beer late that afternoon. It wasn’t altruism. He didn’t think he could stand listening to Phillip another five minutes. Going to the market was the best way to get out of the house and away from the tension while Phillip drafted and perfected a letter to the insurance company on his snazzy little laptop computer.
“Get some salad stuff while you’re out,” Phillip shouted, causing Cam to turn back and poke his head in the kitchen where Phillip was typing away at the table.
“What do you mean, salad stuff?”
“Field greens—for God’s sake, don’t come back here with a head of iceberg and a couple of tasteless hothouse tomatoes. I made up a nice vinaigrette the other day, but there’s not a damn thing around here to put it on. Get some plum tomatoes if they look decent.”
“What the hell do we need all that for?”
Phillip sighed and stopped typing. “First, because we want to live long and healthy lives, and second because you invited a woman to dinner—a woman who’s going to look at how we deal with Seth’s nutritional needs.”
“Then you go to the goddamn store.”
“Fine. You write this goddamn letter.”
He’d rather be burned alive. “Field greens, for sweet Christ’s sake.”
“And get some sourdough bread. And we’re nearly out of milk. Since I’m going to be bringing my juicer the next time I get back to Baltimore, pick up some fresh fruit, some carrots, zucchini. I’ll just make a list.”
“Hold it, hold it.” Cam felt the controls slipping out of his hands and struggled to shift his grip. “I’m just going for beer.”
“Whole wheat bagels,” Phillip muttered, busily writing.
THIRTY MINUTES LATER, Cam found himself pondering the produce section of the grocery store. What the hell was the difference between green leaf and romaine lettuce, and why should he care? In defense, he began loading the cart at random.
Since that worked for him, he did the same thing through the aisles. By the time he reached checkout, he had two carts, overflowing with cans, boxes, bottles, and bags.
“My goodness, you must be having a party.”
“Big appetites,” he told the checkout clerk, and after a quick search of his brain pegged her. “How’s it going, Mrs. Wilson?”
“Oh, fair enough.” She ran items expertly over the belt and scanner and into bags, her quick, red-tipped fingers moving like lightning. “Too pretty a day to be stuck inside here, I can tell you that. I get off in an hour and I’m going out chicken-necking with my grandson.”
“We’re counting on having crab for dinner ourselves. Probably should have bought some chicken necks for the pot off our dock.”
“Ethan’ll keep you supplied, I imagine. I’m awful sorry about Ray,” she added. “Didn’t really get to tell you so after the funeral. We’re sure going to miss him. He used to come in here once or twice a week after Stella passed, buy himself a pile of those microwave meals. I’d tell him, ‘Ray, you got to do better for yourself than that. A man needs a good slab of meat now and then.’ But it’s a hard thing cooking for one when you’re used to family.”
“Yeah.” It was all Cam could say. He’d been family, and he hadn’t been there.
“Always had some story to tell about one of you boys. Showed me pictures and things from foreign newspapers on you. Racing here, racing there. And I’d say, ‘Ray, how do you know if the boy won or not when it’s written in Italian or Fran-say?’ We’d just laugh.”
She checked the weight on a bag of apples, keyed them in. “How’s that young boy? What’s his name, now? Sam?”
“Seth,” Cam murmured. “He’s fine.”
“Good-looking boy. I said to Mr. Wilson when Ray brought him home, ‘That’s Ray Quinn for you, always keeping his door open.’ Don’t know how a man of his age expected to handle a boy like that, but if anybody could, Ray Quinn could. He and Stella handled the three of you.”
Because she smiled and winked, he smiled back. “They did. We tried to give them plenty to handle.”
“I expect they loved every minute of it. And I expect the boy, Seth, was company for Ray after y’all grew up and lit out. I want you to know I don’t hold with what some people are saying. No, I don’t.”
Her mouth thinned as she rang up three jumbo boxes of cold cereal. With a cluck of her tongue and a shake of her head, she continued. “I tell them straight to their face if they do that nasty gossiping in my hearing that if they had a Christian bone in their body, they’d mind their tongues.”
Her eyes glittered with fury and loyalty. “Don’t you pay any mind to that talk, Cameron, no mind at all. Why the idea that Ray would have had truck with that woman, that the boy was his by blood. Not one decent mind’s going to believe that, or that he’d run into that pole on purpose. Makes me just sick to hear it.”
It was making Cam sick now. He wished to God he’d never come in the store. “Some people believe lies, Mrs. Wilson. Some people would rather believe them.”
“That they do.” She nodded her head twice, sharply. “And even if they don’t, they like to spread them around. I want you to know that Mr. Wilson and me considered Ray and Stella good friends and good people. Anybody says something I don’t like about them around me’s going to get their ears boxed.”
He had to smile. “As I remember, you were good at that.”
She laughed now, a kind of happy hoot. “Boxed yours that time you came sniffing too close to my Caroline. Don’t think I didn’t know what you were after, boy.”
“Caroline was the prettiest girl in tenth grade.”
“She’s still a picture. It’s her boy I’m going chicken-necking with. He’ll be four this summer. And she’s carrying her second into the sixth month now. Time does go right by.”
It seemed it did, Cam thought when he was back at home and hauling bags of groceries into the house. He knew Mrs. Wilson had meant everything she’d said for the best, but she had certainly managed to depress him.
If someone who’d been a staunch friend of his parents was being told such filthy lies, they were spreading more quickly, and more thickly, than he’d imagined. How long could they be ignored before denials had to be given and a stand taken?
Now he was afraid they would have no choice but to take Phillip’s advice and find Seth’s mother.
The kid was going to hate that, Cam knew. And what would happen to the trust he’d seen swimming in Seth’s eyes?
“Guess you want a hand with that stuff.” Phillip stepped into the kitchen. “I was on the phone. The lawyer. Temporary guardianship’s a lock. There’s step one anyway.”
“Great.” He started to relay the conversation in the grocery store, then decided to let it ride for the night. Goddamn it, they’d won two battles that day. He wasn’t going to see the rest of the evening spoiled by wagging tongues.
“More out in the car,” he told Phillip.
“More?” Phillip stared at the half dozen loaded brown bags. “Jesus, Cam, I didn’t have more than twenty items on that list.”
“So I added to it.” He pulled a box out, tossed it on the counter. “Nobody’s going to go hungry around here for a while.”
“You bought Twinkies? Twinkies? Are you one of the people who believe that white stuff inside them is one of the four major food groups?”
“The kid’ll probably go for them.”
“Sure he will. You can pay his next dentist bill.”
His temper dangerously close to the edge, Cam whirled around. “Look, pal, he who goes to the store buys what he damn well pleases. That’s a new rule around here. Now do you want to get that stuff out of the car or let it fucking rot?”
Phillip only lifted a brow. “Since shopping for food puts you in such a cheery mood, I’ll take that little chore from now on. And we’d better start a household fund to draw from for day-to-day incidentals.”
“Fine.” Cam waved him away. “You do that.”
When Phillip walked out, Cam began to stuff boxes and cans wherever they fit. He would let somebody else worry about organizing. In fact, he’d let anybody else worry about it. He was done for a while.
He started out, and when he hit the front door saw that Seth had arrived home. Phillip was passing him bags, and the two of them were talking as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
So, he’d go out the back, he decided, let the two of them handle things for a couple of hours. As he turned, the puppy yipped at him, then squatted and peed on the rug.
“I suppose you expect me to clean that up.” When Foolish wagged his tail and let his tongue loll, all Cam could do was close his eyes.
“I still say the essay’s a raw deal,” Seth complained as he walked into the house. “That kind of stuff’s crap. And I don’t see why—”
“You’ll do it.” Cam pulled the bag out of Seth’s arms. “And I don’t want to hear any bitching about it. You can get started right after you clean up the mess your dog just made on the rug.”
“My dog? He’s not mine.”
“He is now, and you better make sure he’s housebroken all the way or he stays outside.”
He stalked off toward the kitchen, with Phillip, who was trying desperately not to laugh, following.
Seth stood where he was, staring down at Foolish. “Dumb dog,” he murmured, and when he crouched down, the puppy launched himself into Seth’s arms, where he was welcomed with a fierce hug. “You’re my dog now.”
ANNA TOLD HERSELF she would and could be perfectly professional for the evening. She’d cleared the informal visit with Marilou, just to keep it official. And the truth was, she wanted to see Seth again. Every bit as much as she wanted to see Cam.