Sea swept, p.11
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       Sea Swept, p.11
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         Part #1 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts

  Chapter Eight

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  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 where 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?"


  "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."

  "I know."

  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?"

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?"

  "Anna Spinelli."

  "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.

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