Sea swept, p.20
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       Sea Swept, p.20

         Part #1 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  Seth shifted his balance evenly. It would be two against one, he calculated, but he was prepared to fight. "So what?"

  "It was cool," was all Danny said and began to pick up torn shingles.

  Will grinned happily up into Seth's face. "Robert is a big, fat fart, and Danny said when you socked him he bled and bled."

  Seth found himself grinning back. "Like a stuck pig."

  "Oink, oink," Will said, delighted. "We can buy ice cream with the money up at Crawford's."

  "Yeah… maybe." Seth started to gather up trash, with Will cheerfully dogging his heels.

  anna wasn't having a good day. She'd started out the morning running her last pair of hose before she even got out her front door. She was out of bagels, and yogurt, and, she admitted, almost every damn thing, because she'd been spending too much time with Cam or thinking about Cam to keep to her usual marketing routine.

  When she stopped off to mail a letter to her grandparents, she chipped a nail on the mailbox. Her phone was already ringing when she walked into her office at eight-thirty, and the hysterical woman on the other end was demanding to know why she had yet to receive her medical card.

  She calmed the woman down, assured her she would see to the matter personally. Then, simply because she was there, the switchboard passed through a whining old man who insisted his neighbors were child abusers because they allowed their offspring to watch television every night of the week.

  "Television," he told her, "is the tool of the Communist left. Nothing but sex and murder, sex and murder, and subliminal messages. I read all about them."

  "I'm going to look into this, Mr. Bigby," she promised and opened her top drawer, where she kept her aspirin.

  "You'd better. I tried the cops, but they don't do nothing. Those kids're doomed. Going to need to deprogram them."

  "Thank you for bringing this to our attention."

  "My duty as an American."

  "You bet," Anna muttered after he'd hung up.

  Knowing that she was due in family court at two that afternoon, she booted up her computer, intending to call up the file to review her reports and notes. When the message flashed across her screen that her program had committed an illegal act, she didn't bother to scream. She simply sat back, closed her eyes, and accepted that it was going to be a lousy day.

  It got worse.

  She knew her testimony in court was key. The Higgins case file had come across her desk nearly a year ago. The three children, ages eight, six, and four, had all been physically and emotionally abused. The wife, barely twenty-five, was a textbook case of the battered spouse. She'd left her husband countless times over the years, but she always went back.

  Six months before, Anna had worked hard and long to get her and her children into a shelter. The woman had stayed less than thirty-six hours before changing her mind. Though Anna's heart ached for her, it had come down to the welfare of the children.

  Their pinched faces, the bruises, the fear—and worse, the dull acceptance in their eyes—tormented her. They were in foster care with a couple who was generous enough and strong enough to take all of them. And seeing those foster parents flanking the three damaged boys, she vowed she would do everything in her power to keep them there.

  "Counseling was recommended in January of last year when this case first came to my attention," Anna stated from the witness stand. "Both family and individual. The recommendation was not taken. Nor was it taken in May of that same year when Mrs. Higgins was hospitalized with a dislocated jaw and other injuries, or in September when Michael Higgins, the eldest boy, suffered a broken hand. In November of that year Mrs. Higgins and her two oldest sons were all treated in ER for various injuries. I was notified and assisted Mrs. Higgins and her children in securing a place in a women's shelter. She did not remain there two full days."

  "You've been caseworker of record on this matter for more than a year." The lawyer stood in front of her, knowing from experience it wasn't necessary to guide her testimony.

  "Yes, more than a year." And she felt the failure keenly.

  "What is the current status?"

  "On February sixth of this year, a police unit responding to the call from a neighbor found Mr. Higgins under the influence of alcohol. Mrs. Higgins was reported as hysterical and required medical treatment for facial bruises and lacerations. Curtis, the youngest child, had a broken arm. Mr. Higgins was taken into custody. At that time, as I was the caseworker of record, I was notified."

  "Did you see Mrs. Higgins and the children on that day?'' the lawyer asked her.

  "Yes. I drove to the hospital. I spoke with Mrs. Higgins. She claimed that Curtis had fallen down the stairs. Due to the nature of his injuries, and the history of the case, I didn't believe her. The attending physician in ER shared my opinion. The children were taken into foster care, where they have remained since that date."

  She continued to answer questions about the status of the case file and the children themselves. Once, she drew a smile out of the middle boy when she spoke of the T-ball team he'd been able to join.

  Then Anna prepared herself for the irritation and tedium of cross-examination.

  "Are you aware that Mr. Higgins has voluntarily entered an alcohol rehabilitation program?"

  Anna spared one glance at the Higginses' pro bono lawyer, then looked directly into the father's eyes. "I'm aware that over the past year, Mr. Higgins has claimed to have entered a rehabilitation program no less than three times."

  She saw the hate and fury darken his face. Let him hate me, she thought. She'd be damned if he would lay hands on those children again. "I'm aware that he's never completed a program."

  "Alcoholism is a disease, Ms. Spinelli. Mr. Higgins is now seeking treatment for his illness. You would agree that Mrs. Higgins has been a victim of her husband's illness?"

  "I would agree that she has suffered both physically and emotionally at his hands."

  "And can you possibly believe that she should suffer further, lose her children and they her? Can you possibly believe that the court should take these three little boys away from their mother?"

  The choice, Anna thought, was hers. The man who beat her and terrorized their children, or the health and safety of those children. "I believe she will suffer further, until she makes the decision to change her circumstances. And it's my professional opinion that Mrs. Higgins is incapable of caring for herself, much less her children, at this time."

  "Both Mr. and Mrs. Higgins now have steady employment," the lawyer continued. "Mrs. Higgins has stated, under oath, that she and her husband are reconciled and continuing to work on their marital difficulties. Separating the family will, as she stated, only cause emotional pain for all involved."

  "I know she believes that." Her steady look at Mrs. Higgins was compassionate, but her voice was firm. "I believe that there are three children whose welfare and safety are at stake. I'm aware of the medical reports, the psychiatric reports, the police reports. In the past fifteen months, these three children have been treated in the emergency room a combined total of eleven times."

  She looked at the lawyer now, wondering how he could stand in a court of law and fight for what was surely the destruction of three young boys. "I'm aware that a four-year-old boy's arm was snapped like a twig. I strongly recommend that these children remain in licensed and supervised foster care to ensure their physical and emotional safety."

  "No charges have been filed against Mr. Higgins."

  "No, no charges have been filed." Anna shifted her gaze to the mother, let it rest on that tired face. "That's just another crime," she murmured.

  When she was finished, Anna passed by the Higginses without a glance. But behind the rail, little Curtis reached out for her hand. "Do you have a lollipop?" he whispered, making her smile.

  She made a habit of carrying them for him. He had a weakness for cherry Tootsie Roll Pops. "Maybe I do. Let's see."

  She was reaching into her purse when the explosion came from behind
her. "Get your hands off what's mine, you bitch."

  As she started to turn, Higgins hit her full force, knocking her sprawling and sending Curtis to the floor with her in a heap of screams and wails. Her head rang like church bells and stars dazzled her eyes. She could hear screams and curses as she managed to push herself up to her hands and knees.

  Her cheek ached fiercely where it had connected with the seat of a wooden chair. Her palms sang from skidding on the tile floor. And damn it, the new hose she had bought to replace the ones she'd run were torn at the knees.

  "hold still." marilou ordered. She was crouched in Anna's office, grimly doctoring the scrapes.

  "I'm all right." Indeed, the injuries were minor. "It was worth it. That little demonstration in open court ensures that he won't get near those kids for quite a while."

  "You worry me, Anna." Marilou looked up with those dark, gleaming eyes. "I'd almost think you enjoyed being tackled by that two-hundred-pound putz."

  "I enjoyed the results. Ouch, Marilou." She blew out a breath as her supervisor rose to examine the bruise on Anna's cheek. "I enjoyed filing charges for assault, and most of all I enjoyed seeing those kids go home with their foster family."

  "A good day's work?" With a shake of her head, Marilou stepped back. "It worries me, too, that you let yourself get too close."

  "You can't help from a distance. So much of what we do is just paperwork, Marilou. Forms and procedures. But every now and again you get to do something—even if it's only getting tackled by a two-hundred-pound putz. And it's worth it."

  "If you care too much, you end up with more than a couple of bruises and a skinned knee."

  "If you don't care enough, you should find another line of work."

  Marilou blew out a breath. It was difficult to argue when she felt exactly the same way. "Go home, Anna."

  "I've got another hour on the clock."

  "Go home. Consider it combat pay."

  "Since you put it that way. I could use the hour. I don't have anything in the house to eat. If you hear any more on—" She broke off and looked up at the knock on her doorjamb. Her eyes widened. "Cameron."

  "Miz Spinelli, I wonder if you have a minute to—" His smile of greeting transformed into a snarl. The light in his eyes turned hot and sharp as a flaming sword. "What the hell happened to you?" He was in the room like a shot, filling it, nearly barreling over Marilou to get to Anna. "Who the hell hit you?"

  "No one, exactly, I was—"

  Instead of giving her a chance to finish, he whirled on Marilou. Torn between fascination and amusement, Marilou backed up a step and held her hands up, palms out. "Not me, champ. I only browbeat my staff. Never lay a finger on them."

  "There was a ruckus in court, that's all." Struggling to be brisk and professional despite her bare legs and feet, Anna rose. "Marilou, this is Cameron Quinn. Cameron, Marilou Johnston, my supervisor."

  "It's a pleasure to meet you, even under the circumstances." Marilou held out a hand. "I was a student of your father's a million years ago. I quite simply adored him."

  "Yeah, thanks. Who hit you?" he demanded again of Anna.

  "Someone who is even now on the wrong side of a locked cell." Quickly, Anna worked her bare feet back into her low-heeled pumps. "Marilou, I'm going to take you up on the hour off." Her only thought now was to get Cam out, away from Marilou's curious and all-too-observant eyes. "Cameron, if you need to speak with me about Seth, you could give me a ride home." She slipped on her dove-gray jacket, smoothed it into place. "It's not far. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

  "Fine. Sure." When he caught her chin in his hand, a tug-of-war of pleasure and alarm raged inside her. "We'll talk."

  "I'll see you tomorrow, Marilou."

  "Oh, yes." Marilou smiled easily while Anna hurriedly gathered her briefcase. "We'll talk, too."

  Chapter Fifteen

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  anna kept her mouth firmly shut until they were out of the building and safely alone in the parking lot. "Cam, for God's sake."

  "For God's sake, what?"

  "This is where I work." She stopped at his car, turned to face him. "Where I work, remember? You can't come storming into my office like an outraged lover."

  He took her chin in hand again, leaned his face close. "I am an outraged lover, and I want the name of the son of a bitch who put his hands on you."

  She wouldn't allow herself to be thrilled by the violence sparking around him. It would be, she reminded herself as her stomach gave a delicious little hop, completely unprofessional.

  "The person in question is being dealt with by the proper authorities. And you're not allowed to be a lover, outraged or otherwise, during business hours."

  "Yeah? Try and stop me," he challenged and leading with his temper, crushed his mouth to hers.

  She wiggled for a moment. Anyone could peek out an office window and see. The kiss was too hot, too heady for a daylight embrace in an office parking lot.

  The kiss was also too hot, too heady to resist. She gave in to it, to him, to herself, and wrapped her arms around him. "Will you cut it out?" she said against his mouth.


  "Okay, then, let's take this indoors."

  "Good idea." With his mouth still on hers, he reached back to open the car door.

  "I can't get in until you let me go."

  "Good point." He released her, then surprised her by gently, tenderly brushing his lips over the bruise on her cheek. "Does it hurt?"

  Her heart was still flopping. "Maybe a little." She got inside, deliberately reaching for her seat belt, keeping her moves efficient and casual.

  "What happened?" he asked as he slid in beside her.

  "Abusive father of three, wife beater, didn't care for my testimony in family court today. He shoved me. I had my back turned or he'd have gotten a hard knee to the groin, but as it was I was off balance. Did a nosedive—which would have been embarrassing but for the fact that he's now in lockup and the kids are with their foster family."

  "And the wife?"

  "I can't help her." Anna let her aching head fall back. "You have to pick your battles."

  He said nothing to that. He'd been thinking the same thing. It was why he'd decided to dump three kids on Ethan and come to see her. He'd made up his mind to tell her about the insurance investigation, the speculations about Seth's connection to his father, the search that Phillip had instigated for Seth's mother.

  He'd decided to tell her everything, to ask her advice, to get her take. Now he found himself wondering if that was the wisest course—for her, for him, for Seth.

  It would wait, he told himself, and rationalized his postponement: she'd had a rough time, needed a little attention.

  "So, do you get knocked around much in your line of work?''

  "Hmm? No." She laughed a little as he pulled up in front of her building. "Now and again somebody takes a swing or throws something at you, but mostly it's just verbal abuse."

  "Fun job."

  "It has its moments." She took his hand, walked alongside him. "Did you know that television is the tool of the Communist left?"

  "I hadn't heard that."

  "I'm here to tell you." She used her key to check her mail slot, gathered letters and bills and a fashion magazine. "Sesame Street is just a front."

  "I always suspected that big yellow bird."

  "Nah, he's just a shill. The frog's the mastermind." She put her finger to her lips as they approached her door. They snuck in together like kids hooking school. "I just didn't want to have the sisters fussing over me."

  "Mind if I do?"

  "That depends on your definition of fussing."

  "We'll start here." He slipped his arms around her waist, touched his lips to hers.

  "I suppose I could tolerate that." She helped him deepen the kiss. "What are you doing here, Cam?"

  "I had a lot on my mind." His lips brushed over the bruise again, then lower, to her jawline. "You, mostly. I wanted to see you,
be with you, talk to you. Make love to you."

  Her lips curved against his. "All at the same time."

  "Why not? I did have this thought about taking you out to dinner… but now I'm thinking maybe we could order pizza."

  "Perfect." She said it with a sigh. "Why don't you pour us some wine, and I'll change?"

  "There's this other thing." He worked his way over to her ear. "Something I've been wanting to do. I've been wondering what it would be like to get Miz Spinelli out of one of her dedicated-public-servant suits."

  "Have you?"

  "Since the first time I saw you."

  She smiled wickedly. "Now's your chance."

  "I was hoping you'd say that." He brought his mouth back to hers, hungrier now, more possessive. This time her sigh caught on a trembling gasp as he jerked her jacket off her shoulders and trapped her arms. "I'm wanting the hell out of you. Day and night."

  Her voice was throaty now, dark with need. "I guess that makes it handy, since I want the hell out of you too."

  "It doesn't scare you?"

  "Nothing about you and me scares me."

  "And what if I said I want you to let me do anything I want to you? Everything?"

  Her heart fluttered to her throat, but her eyes stayed steady. "I'd say who's stopping you?"

  With desire dark and dangerous in his eyes, he skimmed his gaze down, then back to her face. "I wonder what Miz Spinelli wears under these prim little blouses."

  "I don't think a man like you is going to let a few buttons keep him from finding out."

  "You're right." He shifted his hands from her jacket to the crisply pressed cotton of her blouse. And ripped. He watched her eyes go wide and shocked. And aroused. "If you want me to stop, I will. I won't do anything you don't want."

  He'd torn her blouse. And it had thrilled her. He waited, watching, for her to say stop or go. And it thrilled her even more. She understood she hadn't been completely truthful when she'd told him nothing about them scared her. She was afraid of what might be happening to her heart.

  But here, in physical love, she knew she could match him.

  "I want everything. All."

  His blood leaped. Still, he kept his touch light, teasing, running the back of his hand above the slick white material of her demi-cut bra. "Miz Spinelli." He drawled it while his fingers slipped beneath the polished satin to rub against her stiffened nipple. "How much can you take?"

  His light tugs had heat spiraling through her system.

  Already the air was thick. "I think we're about to find out."

  Slowly, his eyes on her face, he backed her against the wall. "Let's start here. Brace yourself," he murmured, and his hand shot under her skirt and tore aside the lacy swatch she wore beneath. Her breath exploded out, and she nearly laughed. Then he plunged his fingers into her, lancing that hard, rough shock of pleasure through her unprepared system. The orgasm ripped through her, emptying her mind, stealing her breath. When her knees gave way, he simply held her against the wall.

  "Take more.'' He was desperate to watch her take more, to see the shocked excitement capture her face, to see those gorgeous eyes go wild and blind.

  She gripped his shoulders for balance. With her head tipped back he could see the pulse in her throat beat madly and was compelled to taste just there. She moaned against him, moved against him, her breath hitching when he yanked the jacket and what was left of her blouse away.

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