Inner harbor, p.15
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       Inner Harbor, p.15

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  "I don't want to." His gaze flew to Cam's, pleaded. "I don't want to know. You said I could stay. You said nothing was going to change that."

  It made Cam sick to see that desperation, but he pointed to the chair. "You are staying. Nothing is going to change that. Sit down. You never solve anything by running."

  "Look around, Seth." Ethan's tone was soft, the voice of reason. "You've got five people here, standing with you."

  He wanted to believe it. He didn't know how to explain that it was so much easier to believe in lies and threats than in promises. "What are they going to do? How did they find me?"

  "Gloria called her sister a few weeks ago," Phillip began when Seth sat again. "You don't remember her sister?"

  "I don't remember anybody," Seth muttered and hunched his shoulders.

  "Well, it seems she spun a tale for the sister, told her that we'd stolen you from her."

  "She's full of shit."

  "Seth." Anna drilled him with a look that made him squirm.

  "She conned the sister out of some money for a lawyer," Phillip continued. "Said she was broke and desperate, that we'd threatened her. She needed the money to get you back."

  Seth wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "She bought it? She must be an idiot."

  "Maybe. Or maybe she's a soft touch. Either way, the sister didn't buy the whole package. She wanted to check things out for herself. So she came to St. Chris."

  "She's here?" Seth's head whipped up. "I don't want to see her. I don't want to talk to her."

  "You already have. Sybill is Gloria's sister."

  Seth's dark-blue eyes widened, and the angry flush faded from his cheeks. "She can't be. She's a doctor. She writes books."

  "Nonetheless, she is. When Cam and Ethan and I drove down to Hampton, we saw her."

  "You saw her? You saw Gloria?"

  "Yeah, we saw her. Hold on." Phillip laid a hand over Seth's rigid one. "Sybill was there, too. She was posting bail. So it all came out."

  "She's a liar." Seth's voice began to hitch. "Just like Gloria. She's a damn liar."

  "Let me finish. We agreed to meet them both in the morning, in Anna's office. We have to get the facts, Seth," he added when the boy snatched his hands free. "It's the only way we're going to fix this for good."

  "I'm not going."

  "You can decide that for yourself. We don't think Gloria's going to show. I saw Sybill just a little while ago. Gloria had given her the slip."

  "She's gone." Relief and hope struggled to beat back fear. "She's gone again?"

  "It looks that way. She took money out of Sybill's wallet and split." Phillip glanced over at Ethan, judged his brother's reaction to the news as angry resignation. "Sybill will be in Anna's office in the morning. I think it would be better if you went in with us, talked to her there."

  "I don't have anything to say to her. I don't know her. I don't care about her. She should just go away and leave me alone."

  "She can't hurt you, Seth."

  "I hate her. She's probably just like Gloria, only she pretends to be different."

  Phillip thought of the fatigue, the guilt, the misery he'd seen on Sybill's face. But he said, "That's for you to decide, too. But you need to see her and hear what she has to say to do that. She said she'd only seen you once. Gloria came to New York and you stayed at Sybill's place for a little while. You were about four."

  "I don't remember." His face went stony with stubbornness. "We stayed in a lot of places."

  "Seth, I know it doesn't seem fair." Grace reached over to give the hands he had balled into fists on the table a quick, reassuring squeeze. "But your aunt may be able to help. We'll all be there with you."

  Cam saw the refusal in Seth's eyes and leaned forward. "Quinns don't walk away from a fight." He paused until Seth's gaze shifted to his. "Until they win it."

  It was pride and the fear of not living up to the name they'd given him that stiffened his shoulders. "I'll go, but nothing she says is going to mean dick to me." With eyes hot and brooding, he turned to Phillip. "Did you have sex with her?"

  "Seth!" Anna's voice was sharp as a slap, but Phillip only raised a hand.

  Maybe his first instinct was to tell the boy it was none of his business, but he knew how to think past the quick retort and study the whole. "No, I didn't."

  Seth gave a stiff shrug. "That's something, then."

  "You come first." Phillip saw the surprise flicker in Seth's eyes at the statement. "I made a promise that you would, so you do. Nothing and no one changes that."

  Beneath the warm thrill, Seth felt a greasy tug of shame. "Sorry," he mumbled it and stared down at his own hands.

  "Fine." Phillip sipped at the coffee that had gone cold in his cup. "We'll hear what she has to say in the morning, then she'll hear what we have to say. What you have to say. We'll go from there."

  she didn't know what she was going to say. She felt sick inside. The dregs of a migraine hangover fuzzed her brain, and her nerves were stretched to the breaking point at the prospect of facing the Quinns. And Seth.

  They had to hate her. She doubted very much they could feel more contempt for her than she felt for herself. If what Phillip had told her was true—the drugs, the beatings, the men—she had by the sin of omission left her own nephew in hell.

  There was nothing they could say to her that was worse than what she had said to herself during the endless, sleepless night. But she was sick with anticipation of what was to come as she pulled into the small parking lot attached to Social Services.

  It was bound to become ugly, she thought, as she tilted her rearview mirror and carefully applied lipstick. Hard words, cold looks—and she was so pitifully vulnerable to both.

  She could stand against them, she told herself. She could maintain that outward calm no matter what was happening to her insides. She'd learned that defense over the years. Remain aloof and detached, and survive.

  She would survive this. And if she could somehow ease Seth's mind, whatever wounds she suffered would be worth it.

  She stepped out of the car, a cool and composed woman in a elegantly simple silk suit the color of mourning. Her hair was swept up in a sleek twist, her makeup was subtle and flawless.

  Her stomach was raw and burning.

  She stepped inside the lobby. Already the waiting area contained a scattering of people. An infant whimpered restlessly in the arms of a woman whose eyes were glazed with fatigue. A man in a flannel shirt and jeans sat with his face grim and his fisted hands dangling between his knees. Two other women sat in a corner. Mother and daughter, Sybill deduced. The younger woman had her head cradled on the other's shoulder and wept silently out of eyes blackened by fists.

  Sybill turned away.

  "Dr. Griffin," she told the receptionist. "I have an appointment with Anna Spinelli."

  "Yes, she's expecting you. Down this hall, second door on your left."

  "Thank you." Sybill closed her hand around the strap of her purse and walked briskly to Anna's office.

  Her heart plummeted to her stomach when she reached the doorway. They were all there, waiting. Anna sat behind the desk, looking professional in a navy blazer, her hair pinned up. She was scanning an open file.

  Grace sat with her hand swallowed by Ethan's. Cam stood at the narrow window, scowling, while Phillip sat, flipping through a magazine.

  Seth sat between them, staring down at the floor, his eyes curtained by his lashes, his mouth set, his shoulders hunched.

  She gathered her courage, started to speak. But Phillip's eyes flicked up and found hers. The one long look warned her he hadn't softened overnight. She ignored her trembling pulse and angled her head in acknowledgment.

  "You're prompt, Dr. Griffin," he said, and instantly all eyes were on her.

  She felt scalded and pinned all at once, but she took the last step over the threshold into what she fully understood was Quinn turf. "Thank you for seeing me."

  "Oh, we're looking forward to it." Cam's voic
e was dangerously soft. His hand, Sybill noted, had gone to Seth's shoulder in a gesture that was both possessive and protective.

  "Ethan, would you close the door?" Anna folded her hands on the open file. "Please sit down, Dr. Griffin."

  It wouldn't be Sybill and Anna here. All the friendly female connection that came from cozy kitchens and simmering pots was gone.

  Accepting that, Sybill took the vacant seat facing Anna's desk. She set her purse in her lap, clutched it with boneless fingers, and smoothly, casually, crossed her legs.

  "Before we begin, I'd like to say something." She took a slow breath when Anna nodded in agreement. Sybill shifted and looked directly at Seth. He kept his eyes on the floor. "I didn't come here to hurt you, Seth, or to make you unhappy. I'm sorry that I seem to have done both. If living with the Quinns is what you want, what you need, then I want to help see that you stay with them."

  Seth lifted his head now and stared at her with eyes that were stunningly adult and harsh. "I don't want your help."

  "But you may need it," she murmured, then turned back to Anna. Sybill saw speculation there, and what she hoped was an open mind. "I don't know where Gloria is. I'm sorry. I gave my word I would bring her here this morning. It's been a very long time since I'd seen her, and I… I hadn't realized how much she'd… how unstable she is."

  "'Unstable.' " Cam snorted at the term. "That's a rich one."

  "She contacted you," Anna began, shooting her husband one warning look.

  "Yes, a few weeks ago. She was very upset, claimed that Seth had been stolen from her and that she needed money for her lawyer, who was going to fight a custody case. She was crying, nearly hysterical. She begged me to help her. I got as much information as I could. Who had Seth, and where he was living. I sent her five thousand dollars."

  Sybill lifted her hands. "I realized yesterday when I spoke with her that there was no lawyer. Gloria has always been a clever actress. I'd forgotten that, or I chose to forget that."

  "Were you aware that she had a drug problem?"

  "No—again, not until yesterday. When I saw her, and spoke with her, it became clear that she's not capable at this time of handling the responsibility of a child."

  "She doesn't want the responsibility of a child," Phillip commented.

  "So you said," Sybill responded coolly. "You indicated that she wanted money. I'm aware that money is important to Gloria. I'm also aware that she's not stable. But it's difficult for me to believe, without proof, that she's done all that you claim."

  "You want proof?" Cam stepped forward, fury all but visible in waves around him. "You got it, sugar. Show her the letters, Anna."

  "Cam, sit down." Anna's order was firm before she turned back to Sybill. "Would you recognize your sister's handwriting?"

  "I don't know. I suppose I might."

  "I have a copy of the letter found in Raymond Quinn's car when he was killed, and one of the letters sent to us more recently."

  She took them out of the file and passed them over the desk into Sybill's hands.

  Words and phrases leaped out at her, burned into her mind.

  Quinn, I'm tired of playing nickel and dime. You want the kid so bad, then it's time to pay for him… A hundred and fifty grand's a pretty good bargain for a good-looking boy like Seth.

  Oh, God, was all Sybill could think. Dear God.

  The letter to the Quinns after Ray's death was no better.

  Ray and me had an agreement.

  If you're set on keeping him… I'm going to need some money…

  Sybill willed her hands to remain steady.

  "She took this money?"

  "Professor Quinn drew out cashier's checks to Gloria DeLauter, twice for ten thousand dollars, once for five." Anna spoke clearly and without emotion. "He brought Seth DeLauter to St. Christopher's late last year. The letter you have is postmarked March tenth. The following day Professor Quinn arranged to cash out his bonds, some stock, and he drew large sums of cash out of his bank account. On March twelfth, he told Ethan he had business in Baltimore. On his return, he was killed in a single-car accident. There were just over forty dollars in his wallet. No other money was found."

  "He promised I wouldn't have to go back," Seth said dully. "He was decent. He promised, and she knew he'd pay her."

  "She asked for more. From you. From all of you."

  "And miscalculated." Phillip leaned back, studying Sybill. Nothing showed, he noted, but her pallor. "She won't bleed us, Dr. Griffin. She can threaten all she wants, but she won't bleed us, and she won't get Seth."

  "You also have a copy of the letter I wrote to Gloria DeLauter," Anna stated. "I informed her that Seth was under the protection of Social Services, that an investigation by this office was under way on charges of child abuse. If she comes into the county, she'll be served with a restraining order and a warrant."

  "She was furious," Grace spoke up. "She called the house right after she got Anna's letter. She threatened and demanded. She said she wanted money or she'd take Seth. I told her she was wrong." Grace looked over, held Seth's gaze. "He's ours now."

  She'd sold her son, was all Sybill could think. It was just as Phillip had said. All of it was just as he'd said. "You have temporary guardianship."

  "It'll be permanent shortly," Phillip informed her. "We intend to see to that."

  Sybill laid the papers back on Anna's desk. Inside she was cold, brutally cold, but she linked her fingers lightly on top of her purse and spoke evenly to Seth. "Did she hit you?"

  "What the hell do you care?"

  "Answer the question, Seth," Phillip ordered. "Tell your aunt what life was like with her sister."

  "Okay, fine." He bit the words off, but his sneer was wobbly around the edges. "Sure, she knocked me around when she felt like it. If I was lucky, she was too drunk or stoned for it to hurt much. I could usually get away, anyhow." He shrugged as if it didn't matter in the least. "Sometimes she got me by surprise. Maybe she hadn't been able to turn enough tricks to score. So she'd wake me up and pound on me a while. Or she'd cry all over me."

  She wanted to turn away from that image, as she'd turned away from the desperate strangers in the waiting area. Instead she kept her gaze steady on Seth's face. "Why didn't you tell anyone, find someone to help you?"

  "Like who?" Was she stupid, Seth thought? "The cops? She told me what the cops would do. I'd end up in juvie and some guy would use me like some of her Johns wanted to. They could do whatever they wanted once I was inside. As long as I was out, I could get away."

  "She lied to you," Anna said softly while Sybill tried to find words, any words. "The police would have helped."

  "She knew?" Sybill managed. "About the men who tried to… touch you?"

  "Sure, she thought it was funny. Hell, when she's stoned, she thinks most everything is funny. It's when she's drunk that she gets mean."

  Could this monster the boy spoke of so casually be her sister? "How… Do you know why she decided to contact Professor Quinn?"

  "No, I don't know anything about it. She got wired up one day, started talking about hitting a gold mine. She took off for a few days."

  "She left you alone?" Why that should horrify her, after everything else she'd heard, Sybill couldn't say.

  "Hey, I can take care of myself. When she came back, she was flying. Said I was finally going to be of some use. She had some money—real money, because she went out and scored a lot of dope without hooking. She stayed stoned and happy for days. Then Ray came. He said I could come with him. At first I thought he was like the guys she brought home. But he wasn't. I could tell. He looked sad and tired."

  His voice had changed, she noted, softened. So, she thought, he grieves, too. Then she saw the ripe disgust come into his eyes.

  "She came on to him," Seth said shortly, "and he got real upset. He didn't yell or anything, but he got real hard in the eyes. He made her leave. He had money with him, and he said if she wanted it, to leave. So she took it and went. He told me he ha
d a house by the water, and a dog, and that I could live there if I wanted. And no one would mess with me."

  "You went with him."

  "He was old," Seth said with a shrug. "I figured I could get away from him if he tried anything. But you could trust Ray. He was decent. He said I'd never have to go back to the way things were. And I won't. No matter what, I won't go back. And I don't trust you." His eyes were adult again, his voice controlled and derisive. "Because you lied, you pretended to be decent. All you were doing was spying on us."

  "You're right." She thought it the hardest thing she'd ever done, or would ever have to do, to meet those scornful eyes in a child's face and admit her own sins. "You have no reason to trust me. I didn't help you. I could have, all those years ago when she brought you to New York. I didn't want to see. It was easier not to. And when I came home one day and both of you were gone, I didn't do anything about that, either. I told myself it wasn't my concern, that you weren't my responsibility. That wasn't just wrong, it was cowardly."

  He didn't want to believe her, didn't want to hear the regret and the apology in her voice. He balled his hands into fists on his knees. "It doesn't have anything to do with you now, either."

  "She's my sister. I can't change that." Because it hurt to see the contempt in his eyes, she turned back to Anna. "What can I do to help? Can I make a statement to you? Talk to your lawyer? I'm a licensed psychologist, and Gloria's sister. I would assume that my opinion might carry some weight toward the guardianship."

  "I'm sure it would," Anna murmured. "It won't be easy for you."

  "I have no feelings for her. I'm not proud to say that, but it's the simple truth. I feel nothing toward her whatsoever, and the sense of responsibility I thought I should feel to her is over. As much as he may wish it otherwise, I'm Seth's aunt. I intend to help."

  She rose and scanned the faces in the room while her stomach pitched and rolled. "I'm terribly sorry, for all of this. I realize an apology is useless. I have no excuse for what I did. Reasons, but no excuses. It's perfectly clear that Seth is where he belongs, where he's happy. If you'll give me a moment to gather my thoughts, I'll give you a statement."

  She walked out, without hurry, and continued to the outside, where she could find air.

  "Well, she went about it wrong, but she seems level right now." Cam got up, paced off some of his energy in the crowded office. "She sure doesn't shake easily."

  "I wonder," Anna murmured. She, too, was a trained observer, and instinct told her there was a great deal more going on under that placid surface than any of them might guess. "Having her on our side will, without question, help. It might be best if you left the two of us alone so I can talk with her. Phillip, you'll want to call the lawyer, explain the situation, and see if he wants to depose her."

  "Yeah, I'll take care of it." He frowned thoughtfully at the fingers drumming on his knee. "She had a picture of Seth in her Filofax."

  "What?" Anna blinked at him.

  "I went through her things before she got back to the hotel last night." He smiled a little, then shrugged as his sister-in-law closed her eyes. "Seemed like the thing to do at the time. She's got this snapshot of Seth when he was little, tucked in her Filofax."

  "So what?" Seth demanded.

  "So, it was the only picture I found anywhere. It's interesting." He lifted his hands, dropped them again. "On another path, it could be that Sybill knows something about Gloria's connection to Dad. Since we can't question Gloria, we ought to ask her."

  "Seems to me," Ethan said slowly, "that whatever she knows would've come from Gloria. Be tough to believe it. I think she'd tell us what she knows," he continued, "but what she knows might not be fact."

  "We don't know fact or fiction," Phillip pointed out, "until we ask her."

  "Ask me what?" Steadier, determined now to finish it out, Sybill stepped back into the room and closed the door quietly at her back.

  "The reason Gloria hit on our father." Phillip rose so their eyes were level. "The reason she knew he would pay to protect Seth."

  "Seth said he was a decent man." Sybill's gaze roamed the faces of the men. "I think you're proof of that."

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