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Inner Harbor, Page 11

Nora Roberts

  was a geek."

  Seth angled his head, narrowing his eyes as he studied her face. A looker, Phillip had called her, he remembered. He guessed she was. She had nice eyes, the light color a sharp contrast to the dark lashes. Her hair wasn't as dark as Anna's, nor light like Grace's. It was really shiny, he noted, and the way she pulled it back all smooth and stuff left her face right out there.

  She might be cool to draw sometime.

  "You don't look like a geek," Seth announced just as Sybill felt heat begin to rise into her cheeks under his long, intense study. "Anyway, that would be a nerd."

  "Oh." She wasn't sure if she'd just qualified for nerd status and decided not to ask. "What do you like studying best?"

  "I don't know. Mostly it's just a bunch of—stuff," he decided, quickly censoring his opinion. "I guess I like it better when we get to read about people instead of things."

  "I've always liked to study people." She stopped and gestured toward a small two-story gray house with a trim front yard. "My theory would be that a young family lives there. Both husband and wife work outside the home and they have a preschooler, most likely a boy. Odds are that they've known each other a number of years and have been married less than seven."

  "How come?"

  "Well, it's the middle of the day and no one's home. No cars in the drive, and the house looks empty. But there's a tricycle there and several large toy trucks. The house isn't new, but it's well kept. Most young couples both work today in order to buy a home, have a family. They live in a small community. Younger people rarely settle in small towns unless one or both of them grew up there. So I'd theorize that this couple lived here, knew each other, eventually married. It's likely they had their first child within the first three years of marriage and the toys indicate he's three to five."

  "That's pretty cool," Seth decided after a moment.

  However foolish it was, she felt a surge of pride that she might have avoided nerddom after all. "But I'd want to know more, wouldn't you?"

  She'd caught his interest. "Like what?"

  "Why did they choose this particular house. What are their goals? What is the status of their relationship? Who handles the money, which indicates the disposition of power, and why? If you study people, you see the patterns."

  "How come it matters?"

  "I don't understand."

  "Who cares?"

  She considered. "Well, if you understand the patterns, the social picture on a large scale, you learn why people behave in certain manners."

  "What if they don't fit?"

  Bright boy, she thought on another, deeper wave of pride. "Everyone fits some pattern. You factor in background, genetics, education, social strata, religious and cultural roots."

  "You get paid for that?"

  "Yes, I suppose I do."


  Now, she concluded, she had definitely been relegated to nerd status. "It can be interesting." She racked her brain to come up with an example that would salvage his opinion of her. "I did this experiment once in several cities. I arranged for a man to stand on the street and stare up at a building."

  "Just stare at it?"

  "That's right. He stood there and stared up, shading his eyes from the sun when he had to. Before long someone stopped beside him and stared up at the same building. Then another and another, until there was a crowd of people, all looking up at that building. It took much longer for anyone to actually ask what was going on, what were they looking at. No one really wanted to be the first to ask because that was an admission that you didn't see what you assumed everyone else was seeing. We want to conform, we want to fit in, we want to know and see and understand what the person beside us knows and sees and understands."

  "I bet some of them thought someone was going to jump out of a window."

  "Very likely. The average time an individual stood, looking, interrupting their schedule, was two minutes." She believed she'd caught his imagination again, and so she hurried on. "That's actually quite a long time to stare at a perfectly ordinary building."

  "That's pretty cool. But it's still weird."

  They were coming to the point where he would have to veer off to go to the boatyard. She thought quickly and in a rare move went with impulse. "What do you think would happen if you conducted the same experiment in St. Christopher's?"

  "I don't know. The same thing?"

  "I doubt it." She sent him a conspirator's smile. "Want to try it?"


  "We can head over to the waterfront now. Will your brother worry if you're a few minutes late? Should you go tell him you're with me?"

  "Nah. Cam doesn't keep me on a leash. He cuts me some slack time."

  She wasn't sure how she felt about the loose discipline in that area, but at the moment she was happy to take advantage of it. "Let's try it, then. I'll pay you in ice cream."

  "You got a deal."

  They turned away from the boatyard. "You can pick a spot," she began. "It's necessary to stand. People don't generally pay attention to someone who's sitting and looking. They often assume the person is simply daydreaming or resting."

  "I get it."

  "It's more effective if you look up at something. Is it okay if I videotape?"

  He raised his eyebrows as she took a neat compact video recorder out of her bag. "Yeah, I guess. You carry that around all the time?"

  "When I'm working, I do. And a notebook, and a micro audio tape recorder, backup batteries and tapes, extra pencils. My cell phone." She laughed at herself. "I like being prepared. And the day they make a computer small enough to fit in a purse, I'm going to be the first in line."

  "Phil likes all that electronic stuff, too."

  "The baggage of the urbanite. We're desperate not to waste a minute. Then, of course, we can't get away from anything because we're plugged in every second of the day."

  "You could just turn everything off."

  "Yes." Oddly she found the simplicity of his statement profound. "I suppose I could."

  Pedestrian traffic was light on the waterfront. She saw a workboat unloading the day's catch and a family taking advantage of the balmy afternoon by splurging on ice cream sundaes at one of the little outdoor tables. Two old men, their faces nut brown and deeply seamed, sat on an iron bench with a checkerboard between them. Neither seemed inclined to make a move. A trio of women chatted in the doorway of one of the shops, but only one of them carried a bag.

  "I'm going to stand over there." Seth pointed to his spot. "And look up at the hotel."

  "Good choice." Sybill stayed where she was as he strolled off. Distance was necessary to keep the experiment pure. She lifted the camera, zoomed in as Seth moved away. He turned once, shot her a quick, cocky smile.

  And when his face filled her view screen, emotions she hadn't been prepared for flooded her. He was so handsome, so bright. So happy. She struggled to pull herself back from a dangerous edge that she was afraid was despair.

  She could walk away, she thought, pack up and leave, never see him again. He would never know who she was or what they were to each other. He would never miss whatever she could bring into his life. She was nothing to him.

  She'd never really tried to be.

  It was different now, she reminded herself. She was making it different now. Deliberately she ordered her fingers to relax, her neck, her arms. She was causing no harm by getting to know him, spending some time studying his situation.

  She taped him as he settled on his spot, lifted his face. His profile was finer, more angled than Gloria's, Sybill decided. Perhaps his bone structure had come from his father.

  His build wasn't Gloria's either, as she'd first assumed, but more like her own, and her mother's. He would be tall when he finished growing, mostly leg, and on the slim side.

  His body language, she saw with a slight jolt, was typical Quinn. Already, he'd taken on some of the traits of his foster family. That hip-shot stance, hands tucked into pockets, head angled.
/>   She fought back an annoying spurt of resentment and ordered herself to focus on the experiment.

  It took just over a minute for the first person to stop beside Seth. She recognized the big woman with the gray-streaked hair who manned the counter at Crawford's. Everyone called her Mother. As expected, the woman shifted her gaze, tilted her face up to follow Seth's line of sight. But after a quick scan, she patted Seth on the shoulder.

  "What're you looking at, boy?"


  He muttered it so that Sybill edged closer to try to pick up his voice on the tape.

  "Well, hell, you stand there for long looking at nothing, people're going to think you're pixilated. Why aren't you down to the boatyard?"

  "I'm going in a minute."

  "Hey, Mother. Hi, Seth." A pretty young woman with dark hair stepped into the frame, glanced up at the hotel. "Something going on up there? I don't see anything."

  "Nothing to see," Mother informed her. "Boy's just standing looking at nothing. How's your mama, Julie?"

  "Oh, she's a little under the weather. She's got a sore throat and a little cough."

  "Chicken soup, hot tea and honey."

  "Grace brought some soup over this morning."

  "You see she eats it. Hey, there, Jim."

  "Afternoon." A short, stocky man in white rubber boots clumped over, gave Seth a friendly swat on the head. "What you staring at up there, boy?"

  "Jeez, can't a guy just stand around?" Seth turned his face to the camera, rolled his eyes for Sybill and made her chuckle.

  "Stand here long, gulls'll light on you." Jim winked at him. "Cap'n's in for the day," he added, referring to Ethan. "He gets to the boatyard before you, he's gonna want to know why."

  "I'm going, I'm going. Man." Shoulders rounded, head down, Seth stalked back to Sybill. "Nobody's falling for it."

  "Because everyone knows you." She switched off the camera, lowered it. "It changes the pattern."

  "You figured that would happen?"

  "I theorized," she corrected, "that in a closely knit area where the subject was known, the pattern would be that an individual would stop. They would probably look first, then question. There's no risk, no loss of ego when questioning a familiar person, and a young one at that."

  He frowned over toward where the trio continued to chat. "So, I still get paid."

  "Absolutely, and you'll likely rate a section in my book."

  "Cool. I'll take a cookie dough cone. I've got to get to the boatyard before Cam and Ethan hassle me."

  "If they're going to be angry with you, I'll explain. It's my fault you're late."

  "They won't be pissed or anything. Beside, I'll tell them it was, like, for science, right?" When he flashed that grin she had to resist an unexpected urge to hug him.

  "That's exactly right." She risked laying a hand on his shoulder as they started toward Crawford's. She thought she felt him stiffen and casually let her hand drop away. "And we can always call them on my cell phone."

  "Yeah? Way cool. Can I do it?"

  "Sure, why not?"

  twenty minutes later Sybill was at her desk, fingers racing over her keyboard.

  Though I spent less than an hour with him, I would conclude that the subject is extremely bright. Phillip informed me that he achieves high grades academically, which is admirable. It was satisfying to discover that he has a questioning mind. His manners are perhaps a bit rough, but not unpleasant. He appears to be considerably more outgoing socially than his mother or I were at his age. In that, I mean he seems quite natural with relative strangers without the polite formality that was stressed in my own upbringing. Part of this may be due to the influence of the Quinns. They are, as I have noted previously, informal, casual people.

  I would also conclude from watching both the children and the adults with whom he interacted today, that he is generally well liked in this community and accepted as part of it. Naturally I cannot, at this early stage, conclude whether or not his best interest would be served by remaining here.

  It's simply not possible to ignore Gloria's rights, nor have I attempted, as yet, to discover the boy's wishes as concern his mother.

  I would prefer that he grow accustomed to me, feel comfortable around me, before he learns of our family connection.

  I need more time to…

  She broke off as the phone rang and, scanning her hastily typed notes, picked up the receiver.

  "Dr. Griffin."

  "Hello, Dr. Griffin. Why do I suspect I've interrupted your work?"

  She recognized Phillip's voice, the amusement in it, and with a flare of guilt lowered the top of her computer. "Because you're a perceptive man. But I can spare a few minutes. How are things in Baltimore?"

  "Busy. How's this? The visual is a handsome young couple, beaming smiles as they carry their laughing toddler to a mid-size sedan. Caption: 'Myerstone Tires. Your family matters to us."

  "Manipulative. The consumer is led to believe that if he or she buys another brand, the family doesn't matter to that other company."

  "Yeah. It works. Of course, we're hitting the car mags with a different image. Screaming convertible in kick-ass red, long, winding road, sexy blonde at the wheel. 'Myerstone Tires. You can drive there, or you can BE there.'"


  "The client likes it, and that takes a load off. How's life in St. Chris?"

  "Quiet." She bit her lip. "I ran into Seth a bit ago. Actually, I drafted him to help me with an experiment. It went well."

  "Oh, yeah? How much did you have to pay him?"

  "An ice cream cone, double scoop."

  "You got off cheap. The kid's an operator. How about dinner tomorrow night, a bottle of champagne to celebrate our mutual successes?"

  "Speaking of operators."

  "I've been thinking about you all week."

  "Three days," she corrected and, picking up a pencil, began to doodle on her pad.

  "And nights. With this account settled, I can get out a little earlier tomorrow. Why don't I pick you up at seven?"

  "I'm not sure where we're going, Phillip."

  "Neither am I. Do you need to be?" She understood that neither of them was speaking of restaurants. "It's less confusing that way."

  "Then we'll talk about it, and maybe we'll get past the confusion. Seven o'clock."

  She glanced down, noticed that she'd unconsciously sketched his face on her notepad. A bad sign, she thought. A very dangerous sign. "All right." It was best to face complications head-on. "I'll see you tomorrow."

  "Do me a favor?"

  "If I can."

  "Think of me tonight."

  She doubted she had any choice in the matter. " 'Bye."

  in his office fourteen stories above the streets of Baltimore, Phillip pushed back from his slick black desk, ignored the beep on his computer that signaled an interoffice e-mail and turned toward his wide window.

  He loved his view of the city, the renovated buildings, the glimpses of the harbor, the hustle of cars and people below. But just now he didn't see any of it.

  He literally couldn't get Sybill out of his mind. It was a new experience for him, this continual tug on his thoughts and concentration. It wasn't as if she was interfering with his routine, he reflected. He could work, eat, brainstorm, do his presentations as skillfully as he had before he'd met her.

  But she was simply there, he decided. A tickle at the back of his mind through the day, that inched forward to the front when his energies weren't otherwise occupied.

  He wasn't quite sure if he enjoyed having a woman demand so much of his attention, particularly a woman who was doing very little to encourage him.

  Maybe he considered that light sheen of formality, that cautious distance she tried to maintain, a challenge. He thought he could live with that. It was just another of the entertaining and varied games men and women played.

  But he worried that something was happening on a level he'd never explored. And if he was any judge, she was just
as unsettled by it as he.

  "It's just like you," Ray said from behind him.

  "Oh, Jesus." Phillip didn't spin around, didn't goggle. He simply shut his eyes.

  "Pretty fancy office you got here. Been a while since I got in." Ray prowled the room casually, pursing his lips at a black-framed canvas splashed with reds and blues. "Not bad," he decided. "Brain stimulator. I'd guess that's why you put it in your office, get the juices going."

  "I refuse to believe that my dead father is standing in my office critiquing art."

  "Well, that wasn't what I wanted to talk about anyway." But he paused by a metal sculpture in the corner. "But I like this piece, too. You always had high-class taste. Art, food, women." He grinned cheerfully as Phillip turned. "The woman you've got on your mind now, for instance. Very high-class."

  "I need to take some time off."

  "I'd agree with you there. You've been up to and over your head for months. She's an interesting woman, Phillip. There's more to her than you see, or than she knows. I hope when the times comes you'll listen to her, really listen to her."

  "What are you talking about?" He held up a hand, palm out. "Why am I asking you what you're talking about when you're not here?"

  "I'm hoping that the pair of you will stop analyzing the steps and stages and accept what is." Ray shrugged, slipped his hands into the pockets of his Orioles fielder's jacket. "But you have to go your own way. It's going to be hard. There's not much time left before it gets a lot harder. You'll stand between Seth and what hurts him. I know that. I want to tell you that you can trust her. When it's down to the sticking point, Phillip, you trust yourself, and you trust her."

  A new chill skidded down his spine. "What does Sybill have to do with Seth?"

  "It's not for me to tell you that." He smiled again, but his eyes didn't match the curve of his lips. "You haven't talked to your brothers about me. You need to. You need to stop feeling you have to control all the buttons. You're good at it, God knows, but give a little."

  He drew in a deep breath, turned a slow circle. "Christ, your mother would've gotten a kick out of this place. You've done a hell of a job with your life so far." Now his eyes smiled. "I'm proud of you. I know you'll handle what comes next."

  "You did a hell of a job with my life," Phillip murmured. "You and Mom."

  "Damn right we did." Ray winked. "Keep it up." When the phone rang, Ray sighed. "Everything that happens needs to happen. It's what you do about it that makes the difference. Answer the phone, Phillip, and remember Seth needs you."

  Then there was nothing but the ringing of the phone and an empty office. With his gaze locked on where his father had been, Phillip reached for the phone.

  "Phillip Quinn."

  As he listened, his eyes hardened. He grabbed a pen, and began to take notes on the detective's report on the most recent movements of Gloria DeLauter.