Inner harbor, p.14
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       Inner Harbor, p.14

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  "All right." She spooned it up slowly, telling herself it was just more medicine. "Thank you. I'm sure you're not in the mood to be kind."

  "It's harder for me to kick you when you're down. Eat up, Sybill, and we'll go a round or two."

  She sighed. The leading edge of the headache was dulling.

  She could handle it now, she thought. And him as well. "I hope you'll at least attempt to understand my point of view on this. Gloria called me a few weeks ago. She was desperate, terrified. She told me she'd lost Seth."

  "Lost him?" Phillip let out a short, sarcastic laugh. "Oh, that's rich."

  "I thought abduction at first, but I was able to get some of the details out of her. She explained that your family had him, had taken him from her. She was almost hysterical, so afraid she'd never get him back. She didn't have the money to pay her lawyer. She was fighting an entire family, an entire system all alone. I wired her the money for the lawyer, and I told her I'd help. That she should wait until I contacted her."

  As her system began to settle again, she reached for one of the rolls in the basket beside her bowl and broke it open. "I decided to come and see the situation for myself. I know Gloria doesn't always tell the entire truth, that she can slant things to suit her position. But the fact remains that your family had Seth and she didn't."

  "Thank God for that."

  She stared at the bread in her hand, wondered if she could manage to put it in her mouth and chew. "I know you're providing him with a good home, but she's his mother, Phillip. She has a right to keep her own son."

  He watched her face carefully, measured the tone of her voice. He didn't know whether to be furious or baffled by both. "You actually believe that, don't you?"

  Color was seeping back into her cheeks. Her eyes had cleared and now met his steadily. "What do you mean?"

  "You believe that my family took Seth, that we took advantage of some poor single mother down on her luck and snatched the kid, that she wants him back. That she even has a lawyer working on custody."

  "You do have him," Sybill pointed out.

  "That's right. And he's exactly where he belongs and is going to stay. Let me give you some facts. She blackmailed ray father, and she sold Seth to him."

  "I know you believe that, but—"

  "I said facts, Sybill. Less than a year ago, Seth was living in a set of filthy rooms on the Block in Baltimore, and your sister was on the stroll."

  "On the stroll?"

  "God, where do you come from? She was hooking. This isn't a whore with a heart of gold here, this isn't a desperate, down-on-her-luck unwed mother doing anything she has do to survive and keep her child fed. She was keeping her habit fed."

  She only shook her head, slowly, side to side, even as part of her mind accepted everything he said. "You can't know all this."

  "Yes, I can know it. Because I live with Seth. I've talked with him, I've listened to him."

  Her hands went icy. She lifted the pot of tea to warm them, poured some slowly into a cup. "He's just a boy. He could have misunderstood."

  "Sure. I bet that's it. He just misunderstood when she brought a john up to the place, when she got so stoned she sprawled on the floor and he wondered if she was dead. He just misunderstood when she beat the hell out of him when she was feeling testy."

  "She hit him." The cup rattled into the saucer. "She hit him?"

  "She beat him. No controversial yet civilized spanking, Dr. Griffin. Fists, belts, the back of the hand. Have you ever had a fist in the face?" He held his up to hers. "Figure it out. Proportionately, this would be about right, comparing a grown woman's fist to, say, a five-, six-year-old boy. Put liquor and drugs into that fist and it comes faster and harder. I've been there."

  He angled his fist away, studied it. "My mother preferred smack—to the uninitiated that's heroin. If she missed her fix, you learned to stay far out of her way. I know just what it is to have a vicious, fucked-up female take her fists to me." His gaze whipped back to Sybill's. "Your sister won't ever have the chance to use them on Seth again."

  "I—she needs to go into therapy. I never… He was fine when I saw him. If I'd known she was abusing him—"

  "I haven't finished. He's a good-looking kid, isn't he? Some of Gloria's clients thought so."

  The color that had come back to her cheeks fell away. "No." Shaking her head, she pushed away from him and staggered to her feet. "No, I don't believe that. That's hideous. That's impossible."

  "She didn't do anything to stop it." He ignored the pale cheeks and fragility now and pushed. Hard. "She didn't do a goddamn thing to protect him. Seth was on his own there. He fought them off or hid. Sooner or later, there would have been one he couldn't fight off or hide from."

  "That's not possible. She couldn't."

  "She could—especially if it earned her a few extra bucks. It took months with us before he could stand to be touched in even the most casual way. He has nightmares still. And if you say his mother's name, it makes you sick to see the fear that comes into his eyes. That's your situation, Dr. Griffin."

  "God. How can you expect me to accept all that? To believe she's capable of that?" She pressed a hand to her heart. "I grew up with her. I've known you less than a week, and you expect me to accept this horror story, this vileness as fact?"

  "I think you believe it," he said after a moment. "I think, under it all, you're smart enough, and let's say observant enough to know the truth."

  She was terrified. "If it is the truth, why didn't the authorities do anything? Why wasn't he helped?"

  "Sybill, have you lived on that smooth plateau so long that you really don't know what life's like on the street? How many Seths there are out there? The system works some of the time, for the few and the lucky. It didn't work for me. It didn't work for Seth. Ray and Stella Quinn worked for me. And just under a year ago, my father paid your sister the first installment on a ten-year-old boy. He brought Seth home, he gave him a life, a decent one."

  "She said—she said he took Seth."

  "Yeah, he took him. Ten thousand the first time, a couple of other payments of about the same. Then last March she wrote him a letter demanding a lump-sum payment. A hundred fifty thousand, cash, and she'd walk away."

  "A hundred and—" Appalled, she broke off, struggled to concentrate on verifiable facts. "She wrote a letter?"

  "I've read it. It was in the car with my father when he was killed. He was on his way back from Baltimore. He'd cleaned out most of his bank accounts. I'd have to guess she's gone through a big chunk of it by now. She wrote us, demanding more money, just a few months ago."

  She turned away, walked quickly to the terrace doors, and flung them open. The need for air was urgent, and she gulped it in like water. "I'm supposed to accept that Gloria has done all of this, and her primary motive is money?"

  "You sent her money for her lawyer. What's his name? Why hasn't our lawyer been contacted by him?"

  She squeezed her eyes shut. It wouldn't help to feel betrayed, she reminded herself. "She evaded the question when I asked her. Obviously, she doesn't have a lawyer, and it's doubtful she ever intended to consult one."

  "Well, you're slow"—the sarcasm rang clearly—"but you do catch on."

  "I wanted to believe her. We were never close as children, and that has to be as much my fault as hers. I'd hoped I could help her, and Seth. I thought this was the way."

  "So, she played you."

  "I felt responsible. My mother is so unbending on this. She's angry that I came here. She has refused to acknowledge Gloria since she ran off at eighteen. Gloria claimed to have been molested by the counselor at our school. She was always claiming to have been molested. They had a terrible row, my mother and she, and Gloria was gone the next day. She'd taken some of my mother's jewelry, my father's coin collection, some cash. I didn't hear from her for nearly five years. Those five years were a relief.

  "She hated me," Sybill said quietly and continued to stare o
ut at the lights on the water. "Always, as long as I can remember. It didn't matter what I did, whether I fought with her or stepped back and let her have her way, she detested me. It was easier for me to keep my distance. I didn't hate her, I simply felt nothing. And when I brush everything else aside right now, it's exactly the same. I can't feel anything for her. It must be a flaw," she murmured. "Maybe it's genetic."

  With a weak smile, she turned around again. "It might make an interesting study one day."

  "You never had a clue, did you. Of what she was doing?"

  "No. So much for my renowned observational skills. I'm sorry, Phillip. I'm so terribly sorry for what I've done, and haven't done. I promise you I didn't come here to harm Seth. And I give you my word I'll do whatever I can to help. If I can go into Social Services in the morning, speak with Anna, your family. If you'll allow it, I'd like to see Seth, try to explain."

  "We won't be taking him to Anna's office. We're not letting Gloria near him."

  "She won't be there."

  His eyes flickered. "I beg your pardon?"

  "I don't know where she is." Defeated, she spread her hands. "I promised I'd bring her. I meant to."

  "You just let her walk? Goddamn it."

  "I didn't—not intentionally." She sank down onto the sofa again. "I took her to a restaurant. I wanted to get her a meal, talk to her. She was agitated and drinking too much. I was annoyed with her. I told her we were going to straighten everything out, that we were going to have a meeting in the morning. I made ultimatums. I should have known better. She didn't like it, but I didn't see what she could do about it."

  "What sort of ultimatums?"

  "That she would get counseling, go into rehab. That she would get help, get herself straightened out before she tried to gain custody of Seth. She went to the ladies' room, and when she didn't come back out, I went in looking for her."

  She lifted her hands, let them fall uselessly. "I found my wallet. She must have taken it out of my purse. She left me my credit cards," she added with a wry smile. "She'd know I would cancel them straight off. She only took the cash. It's not the first time she's stolen from me, but it always surprises me." She sighed, shrugged it off. "I drove around for nearly two hours, hoping I'd find her. But I didn't, and I don't know where she is. I don't know what she intends to do."

  "She messed you over pretty good, didn't she?"

  "I'm an adult. I can take care of myself, and I'm responsible for myself. But Seth… if even a part of what you've told me is true… he'll hate me. I understand that and I'll have to accept it. I'd like the chance to talk to him."

  "That'll be up to him."

  "Fair enough. I need to see the files, the paperwork." She linked her fingers together. "I realize you can require me to get a court order, but I'd like to avoid that. I'd process this better if I had it all in black and white."

  "It's not as simple as black and white when you're dealing with people's lives and feelings."

  "Maybe not. But I need facts, documentation, reports. Once I have them, if I'm persuaded that Seth's best interest is to remain with your family, through legal guardianship or adoption, I'll do whatever I can to help that happen."

  She had to push now, she told herself. She had to push to make him give her another chance. Just one more chance. "I'm a psychologist, and I'm the birth mother's sister. I'd think my opinion would bear weight in court."

  He studied her objectively. Details, he thought. He was the man who handled the details, after all. Those she was adding would only help settle everything the way he wanted it settled. "I imagine it would, and I'll discuss it with my family. But I don't think you get it, Sybill. She isn't going to fight for Seth. She's never intended to fight for him. She's just trying to use him to get more money. She's not going to get that, either, not another dime."

  "So I'm superfluous."

  "Maybe. I haven't decided." He rose, jingling the change in his pockets as he paced. "How are you feeling?"

  "Better. Fine. Thank you. I'm sorry to have fallen apart like that, but the migraine was a full-blown one."

  "You get them often?"

  "A few times a year. I'm usually able to get to the medication at onset, so they're not too bad. When I left this evening I was distracted."

  "Yeah, bailing your sister out of jail would be a distraction." He glanced back at her with mild curiosity. "How much did it take to spring her?"

  "Bail was set at five thousand."

  "Well, I'd say you can kiss that good-bye."

  "Most likely. The money isn't important."

  "What is?" He stopped, turned toward her. She looked exhausted and disconcertingly fragile still. An unfair advantage was still an advantage, he decided, and pressed. "What is important to you, Sybill?"

  "Finishing what I've started. You may not need my help, but I don't intend to walk away until I've done what I can."

  "If Seth doesn't want to see you or speak to you, he won't. That's bottom line. He's had enough."

  She straightened her shoulders before they could slump. "Regardless of whether he agrees to see or speak with me, I intend to stay until the legalities are settled. You can't force me to leave, Phillip. You can make it difficult for me, uncomfortable, but you can't make me leave until I'm satisfied."

  "Yeah, I can make it difficult for you. I can make it damn near impossible for you. And I'm considering just that." He leaned over, ignoring her instinctive jerk, and caught her chin firmly in his hand. "Would you have slept with me?"

  "Under the circumstances, I believe that's moot."

  "Not to me it isn't. Answer the question."

  She kept her eyes level with his. That was a matter of pride, though she felt she had little of that or her dignity left intact. "Yes." When his eyes flared, she jerked her chin away. "But not because of Seth or Gloria. I would have slept with you because I wanted you. Because I was attracted to you and when I was around you for any length of time my priorities became blurred."

  "Your priorities became blurred." He rocked back on his heels, dipped his hands into his pockets. "Jesus, you're a case. Why do I find that snotty attitude intriguing?"

  "I don't have a snotty attitude. You asked a question, I answered it honestly. And, you'll note, in the past tense."

  "Now I've got something else to consider. If I want to change that to present tense. Don't say it's moot, Sybill," he warned when she opened her mouth. "I'm bound to take that as a dare. If we end up in bed tonight, neither one of us is going to like ourselves in the morning."

  "I don't like you very much right now."

  "We're on the same curve there, honey." He jingled his change again, then shrugged. "We'll keep the meeting at Anna's office in the morning. As far as I'm concerned, you can see all the paperwork, including your sister's blackmail letters. As far as Seth goes, I don't make any promises. If you try to go around me and my family to get to him, you'll regret it."

  "Don't threaten me."

  "I'm not. I'm giving you facts. It's your family who likes threats." His smile was sharp, dangerous, and without an ounce of humor. "The Quinns make promises, and they keep them."

  "I'm not Gloria."

  "No, but we still have to see just who you are. Nine o'clock," he added. "Oh, and Dr. Griffin, you may want to look over your own notes again. When you do it might be interesting, psychologically speaking, to ask yourself why you find it so much more rewarding to observe than to participate. Get some sleep," he suggested as he walked to the door. "You're going to want to be sharp tomorrow."

  "Phillip." Going with the impulse of temper, she rose and waited for him to turn around, with the door open at his back. "Isn't it fortunate that circumstances changed before we made the mistake of sex?"

  He angled his head, both impressed and amused that she'd dared such a dangerous parting shot. "Darling, I'm counting my blessings."

  He closed the door with a quiet snap.

  Chapter Eleven

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th needed to be told. There was only one way to do it, and that was straight out, as a family. Ethan and Grace would bring him home as soon as Aubrey was settled with the baby-sitter.

  "We shouldn't have let her out of our sight." Cam paced the kitchen, hands jammed in his pockets, gray eyes hard as flint. "God knows where she took off to, and instead of having answers, instead of straightening her ass out, we've got nothing."

  "That's not entirely true." Anna brewed coffee. It wouldn't help to settle nerves, she thought, but everyone would want it. "I'll have a police report for the file. You couldn't very well drag her out of the station house, Cameron, and force her to talk to you."

  "It would've been a hell of a lot more satisfying than watching her walk."

  "Momentarily, perhaps. But it remains in Seth's best interest, and ours, to handle everything in an official, by-the-book manner."

  "How do you think Seth's going to feel about that?" He whirled, and the leading edge of his temper whipped out at his wife and his brother. "Do you think he's going to feel it's in his best interest that we had Gloria and did nothing?"

  "You did do something." Because she understood his frustration, Anna kept her voice calm. "You agreed to meet her in my office. If she doesn't keep the appointment, it's another strike against her."

  "She won't be anywhere near Social Services tomorrow," Phillip began, "but Sybill will."

  "And we're supposed to trust her?" Cam snapped out. "All she's done so far is lie."

  "You didn't see her tonight," Phillip said evenly. "I did."

  "Yeah, and we know what part of your anatomy you're looking with, bro."

  "Stop it." Anna stepped quickly between them as two pairs of fists curled, two pairs of eyes flashed. "You're not going to beat each other brainless in this house." She slapped a hand on Cam's chest, then Phillip's, found them both immovable. "It's not going to help anyone if you rip pieces off each other. We need a united front. Seth needs it," she added, pushing harder when she heard the front door open. "Now, both of you sit down. Sit down!" She hissed it, the image of those ready fists swinging over her head, adding both urgency and authority to her voice.

  With their gazes still heated and locked, both men dragged out chairs and sat. Anna had time for one relieved breath before Seth came in, trailed by two dogs with cheerfully swatting tails.

  "Hey, what's up?" His cheerful grin vanished immediately. A lifetime of living with Gloria's wildly swinging moods had taught him to gauge atmosphere. The air in the kitchen was simmering with tension and temper.

  He took a step back, then froze as Ethan came in behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Coffee smells good." he said mildly, and the hand on Seth's shoulder remained, part restraint, part support.

  "I'll get some cups." Grace hurried past them to the cupboard. She knew she'd be better off with her hands busy. "Seth, do you want a Coke?"

  "What happened?" His lips felt stiff and his hands cold.

  "It's going to take a little while to explain it all." Anna walked to him, put her hands on his cheeks. The first order of business, she determined, was to erase the fear that had come into his eyes. "But you don't have to worry."

  "Did she ask for more money again? Is she coming here? Did they let her out of jail?"

  "No. Come sit down. We'll explain everything." She shook her head at Cam before he could speak and locked her eyes with Phillip's as she guided Seth toward the table. He had more firsthand information, she decided. It was best that it come from him.

  Where the hell was he supposed to start? Phillip dragged a hand through his hair. "Seth, do you know anything about your mother's family?"

  "No. She used to tell me stuff. One day she'd say how her parents were rich, really rolling in it, but they died and some slick lawyer stole all the money. Another day she'd say how she was an orphan and she'd run away from this foster home because the father tried to rape her. Or how her mother was this movie star who gave her up for adoption so she wouldn't lose her career. She was always changing it."

  His gaze shifted around the room as he spoke, trying to read faces. "Who cares?" he demanded, ignoring the soft drink Grace set in front of him. "Who the hell cares, anyway? There wasn't anybody or she'd've tapped them for money."

  "There is somebody, and it seems she did tap them for money off and on." Phillip kept his voice quiet and calm, as a person would when soothing a frantic puppy. "We found out today that she has parents, and a sister."

  "I don't have to go with them." Alarm rang in his head as he surged out of his chair. "I don't know them. I don't have to go with them."

  "No, you don't." Phillip took Seth's arm. "But you need to know about them."

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