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Chesapeake Bay Saga 1-4, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  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. Cameron.”

  “Cam, who did this to you?”

  “I don’t—”

  “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.”