Inner harbor, p.21
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       Inner Harbor, p.21

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  "I really have to go." She was already being drawn into his arms. "Before it gets too late."

  "It's already too late." He brushed his lips over hers once, twice. "You really have to stay. It's dark, it's cold, it's raining," he murmured, nibbling on, toying with her lips. "And you're a terrible driver."

  "I'm just…" The nail file slipped out of her fingers. "Out of practice."

  "I want to take you to bed. I want to take you to my bed." The next kiss was deeper, longer, wetter. "I want to slip you out of that lovely little suit, piece by piece, and see what's going on under it."

  "I don't know how you do this." Her breath was already coming too fast, her body going too soft. "I can't keep my thoughts aligned when you're touching me."

  "I like them scattered." He slid his hands under her trim jacket until his thumbs skimmed the sides of her breasts. "I like you scattered. And trembling. It makes me want to do all sorts of things to you when you tremble."

  Quick flares of heat, sharp stabs of ice were already racing over her. "What sorts of… things?"

  He made a low, delighted sound against the side of her throat. "I'll show you," he offered, and picked her up.

  "I don't do this." She pushed back her hair, staring at him as he carried her into the bedroom.

  "Do what?"

  "Go to a man's apartment, let him carry me to bed. I don't do this."

  "We'll just consider it a change in behavioral patterns then." He kissed her thoroughly before laying her down on the bed. "Caused by…" He paused to light a trio of candles on an iron stand in the corner. "Direct stimulation."

  "That could work." The candlelight did wonders for an already impossibly handsome face. "It's just that you're so attractive."

  He chuckled and slid onto the big bed to nip at her chin. "And you're so weak."

  "Not usually. Actually, my sexual appetites are slightly below average, ordinarily."

  "Is that so?" He lifted her just enough to slip the jacket away.

  "Yes. I've found, for myself… oh… that while a sexual interlude can be pleasant…" Her breath caught as his fingers slowly released the buttons of her blouse.

  "Pleasant?" he prompted.

  "It rarely, if ever, has more than a momentary impact. Of course, that's due to my hormonal makeup."

  "Of course." He lowered his mouth to the soft swell of her breasts that rose temptingly above the cups of her bra. And licked.

  "But—but—" She clenched her fists at her sides as his tongue swept under the fabric and shot off shock waves.

  "You're trying to think."

  "I'm trying to see if I can."

  "How's it going?"

  "Not very well."

  "You were telling me about your hormonal makeup," he reminded her, watching her face as he tugged her skirt down over her hips.

  "I was? Oh, well… I had a point." Somewhere, she thought vaguely, a shiver going through her as he traced a fingertip over her midriff.

  He saw with delight that she wore those sexy thigh-hugging stockings again, this time in sheer smoky-black. He imagined she'd considered that the black bra and panties were proper coordinates.

  He thanked God for her practical mind.

  "Sybill, I love what goes on under your clothes."

  He moved his mouth to her belly, tasted heat and woman, felt her muscles quiver. She made a helpless little sound in her throat as her body shifted under him.

  He could take her anywhere. The power of knowing that flooded him like wine. As he took her, slowly now, wanting them both to linger at each stage, he let himself sink.

  He peeled those stockings down those lovely, long thighs, following the path with his mouth all the way to her toes. Her skin was creamy, smooth, fragrant. Perfect. And only more alluring when it quivered lightly under his.

  He slipped fingertips and tongue beneath that silky fantasy snug over her hips in teasing strokes so that she arched, shuddered, and moaned. Heat was there. Centered just there. Wet, arousing heat.

  And when the teasing drove them both mad, he stripped that barrier aside and plunged into the hot taste of her. She cried out, her body rising, her hands fisting in his hair as he spun her to peak. When she was limp and gasping he took more.

  And showed her more.

  He could have anything. Everything. She was powerless to deny him, to stem the tidal wave of sensations that swamped her. The world had become him, only him. The flavor of his skin in her mouth, the texture of his hair against her flesh or in her hands, the movement of his muscle beneath her fingers.

  Murmurs, his murmurs, echoed in her spinning head. The sound of her own name, a whisper of pleasure. Her breath sobbed out as she found his mouth with hers, poured everything she was into that hot flood of emotion.

  Again, again, again. The urgent demand circled in her head, as she clung and gave, gave, gave.

  Now it was his hands that fisted, on either side of her head as the shock of feeling slammed into him, flashing against desire, melting into a need so urgent it was pain.

  She opened for him, a breathless invitation. And filling her, sinking inside her, he lifted his head and watched her face in the golden shaft of candlelight.

  Her eyes were on his, her lips parted as the breath trembled through them. Something clicked, a lock opening, a connection made. He found his hands groping for hers, fingers twining together.

  Slow, smooth, with each movement a fresh shock of pleasure. Soft, silky, a promise in the dark. He saw her eyes glaze, felt the tension, the ripple, and closed his mouth over hers to capture the gasp as she climaxed.

  "Stay with me." He murmured it as his lips roamed her face, as his body moved in hers. "Stay with me."

  What choice did she have? She was defenseless against what he brought to her, helpless to refuse what he demanded in return.

  The pressure built again, an internal demand that refused to be denied. When she tumbled free, he gathered her close and fell with her.

  "i was going to cook," he said sometime later when she lay over him, limp and speechless. "But I think we'll order in. And eat in bed."

  "All right." She kept her eyes closed, commanding herself to listen to the beat of his heart and pay no attention to the voice of her own.

  "You can sleep in tomorrow." Idly he toyed with her hair. He wanted her there in the morning, badly wanted her there in the morning. It was something to think about later. "Maybe do some sight-seeing or shopping. If you hang around for most of the day, you can follow me home."

  "All right." She simply didn't have the strength to assert herself. Besides, she told herself, it made sense. The Baltimore Beltway was confusing, unfamiliar ground. She would enjoy spending a few hours exploring the city. It was certainly foolish to drive all the way back tonight, in the rain, in the dark.

  "You're awfully agreeable."

  "You caught me in a weak moment. I'm hungry, and I don't want to face driving tonight. And I miss the city, any city."

  "Ah, so it's not my irresistible charm and awesome sexual prowess."

  She couldn't stop the smile. "No, but they don't hurt."

  "I'll make you an egg-white omelet in the morning, and you'll be my slave."

  She managed to laugh. "We'll see about that."

  She was afraid she was entirely too close to a slavish condition now. The heart she was desperately trying to ignore continued to insist that she'd fallen in love with him.

  That, she warned herself, would be a much bigger, more permanent mistake, than knocking on his door on a rainy evening.

  Chapter Sixteen

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  when a twenty-nine-year-old woman changed her clothes three times before attending an eleven-year-old boy's birthday party, she was in trouble.

  Sybill lectured herself on this simple fact even as she stripped off a white silk blouse—white silk, for Lord's sake, what had she been thinking of—and exchanged it for a teal turtleneck.

  She was going to a simple, informal family dinne
r party, she reminded herself, not a diplomatic reception. Which, she admitted with a sigh, wouldn't have posed nearly as much of a social or fashion dilemma. She knew exactly what to wear, how to behave, and what was expected of her at a formal reception, a state dinner, a gala, a charity ball.

  It was a pathetic statement on her narrow social experience, she concluded, that she knew neither how to dress nor how to behave at her own nephew's birthday dinner.

  She slipped a long chain of silver beads over her head, took it off, cursed herself and put it on again. Underdressed, overdressed, what did it matter? She wouldn't fit in anyway. She would pretend she did, the Quinns would pretend she did, and everyone would be desperately relieved when she said her good-byes and went away.

  Two hours, she told herself. She would only stay two hours. Surely she could survive that. Everyone would be polite, would avoid awkward or nasty scenes for Seth's sake.

  She picked up her brush to smooth her hair back, then secured it with a clip at the nape of her neck before critically studying herself in the mirror. She looked confident, she decided. Pleasant, nonthreatening.

  Except… maybe the color of the sweater was too vivid, too bold. Gray might be better, or brown.

  Good God.

  The ringing of the phone was such a welcome diversion, she all but leapt on it. "Yes, hello, Dr. Griffin."

  "Syb, you're still there. I was afraid you'd taken off."

  "Gloria." Her stomach plummeted to her unsteady knees. Very carefully she lowered herself to the side of the bed. "Where are you?"

  "Oh, I'm around. Hey, I'm sorry I ditched you the other night. I was messed up."

  Messed up, Sybill thought. It was a good term for certain conditions. From the rapid pace of Gloria's speech, she assumed her sister was messed up even now. "You stole money out of my wallet."

  "I said I was messed up, didn't I? I panicked, you know, needed some cash. I'll pay you back. You talk to those Quinn bastards?"

  "I had a meeting with the Quinn family, as I promised I would." Sybill uncurled the hand she'd bunched into a fist and spoke evenly. "I'd given them my word, Gloria, that both of us would meet them to discuss Seth."

  "Well, I didn't give mine, did I? What'd they say? What're they going to do?"

  "They say you were working as a prostitute, that you abused Seth physically, that you allowed your clients to make sexual advances toward him."

  "Liars. Fucking liars. They just want to kick me around, that's all. They—"

  "They said," Sybill went on, coolly now, "that you accused Professor Quinn of molesting you nearly a dozen years ago, intimated that Seth was his. That you blackmailed him, that you sold Seth to him. That he gave you more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars."

  "All bullshit."

  "Not all, but part. Your part could be accurately described as bullshit. Professor Quinn didn't touch you, Gloria, not twelve years ago, not twelve months ago."

  "How do you know? How the hell do you know what—"

  "Mother told me that Raymond Quinn was your father."

  There was silence for a moment, then only Gloria's quick breathing. "Then he owed me, didn't he? He owed me. Big-deal college professor with his boring little life. He owed me plenty. It was his fault. It was all his fault. All those years, he didn't give me dick. He took in scum from the street, but he didn't give me dick."

  "He didn't know you existed."

  "I told him, didn't I? I told him what he'd done, and who I was and what he was going to do about it. And what does he do? He just stares at me. He wants to talk to my mother. He's not going to give me a fucking dollar until he talks to my mother."

  "So you went to the dean and claimed he'd molested you."

  "Put the fear of God into him. Tight-assed son of a bitch."

  She'd been right, Sybill thought. Her instincts when she'd walked into that room at the police station had been right after all. It was a mistake. This woman was a stranger. "And when that didn't work, you used Seth."

  "Kid's got his eyes. Anybody can see that." There was a sucking noise, a hiss, as Gloria dragged on a cigarette.

  "Changed his tune once he got a look at the kid."

  "He gave you money for Seth."

  "It wasn't enough. He owed me. Listen, Sybill…" Her voice shifted, whined and trembled. "You don't know what it's like. I've been raising that kid on my own since he was a baby and that prick Jerry DeLauter took off. Nobody was going to help me. Our dear mother wouldn't even accept a phone call from me, and that prissy freak she married and tried to pass off as my father wouldn't either. I could've dumped the kid, you know. I could've dumped him anytime. The money Social Services doles out for a kid is pitiful."

  Sybill stared out through her terrace doors. "Does it always come back to money?"

  "It's easy to look down when you've got plenty of it," Gloria snapped. "You never had to hustle, you never had to worry. Perfect daughter always had plenty of everything. Now it's my turn."

  "I would have helped you, Gloria. I tried to years ago when you brought Seth to New York."

  "Yeah, yeah, same old tune. Get a job, straighten up, get clean, get dry. Shit, I don't want to dance to that, get it? This is my life I'm living here, baby sister, not yours. You couldn't pay me to live yours. And that's my kid, not yours."

  "What's today, Gloria?"

  "What? What the hell are you talking about?"

  "Today is September twenty-eighth. Does that mean anything to you?"

  "What the hell's it supposed to mean? It's fucking Friday."

  And your son's eleventh birthday, Sybill thought and straightened her shoulders, took her stand. "You won't get Seth back, Gloria, though we're both aware that that's not your goal."

  "You can't—"

  "Shut up. Let's stop playing games. I know you. I haven't wanted to, I've preferred to pretend otherwise, but I know you.

  If you want help, I'm still willing to get you into a clinic, to pay the bill for rehab."

  "I don't need your goddamn help."

  "Fine, that's your choice. You won't get another penny out of the Quinns, you won't come near Seth again. I've given my deposition to their lawyer and a notarized statement to Seth's caseworker. I've told them everything, and if necessary, I'll testify in court that Seth's wishes and his best interest are served by his remaining, permanently, with the Quinns. I'll do everything I can to see that you don't use him anymore."

  "You bitch." The hiss was filled with anger, but under ft was shock. "You think you can screw me this way? You think you can toss me off and side with those bastards against me? I'll ruin you."

  "You can certainly try, but you won't succeed. You made your deal, now it's done."

  "You're just like her, aren't you?" Gloria spit the words out like bullets. "You're just like our ice cunt of a mother. Perfect society princess, and underneath you're nothing but bitch."

  Maybe I am, Sybill thought wearily, maybe I'm going to have to be. "You blackmailed Raymond Quinn, who'd done nothing to harm you. It worked. At least it worked well enough for you to be paid. It won't work with his sons, Gloria. And it won't work with me. Not anymore."

  "Won't it? Well, try this. I want a hundred thousand. A hundred thousand, or I'm going to the press. National Enquirer, Hard Copy. Let's see how fast your lousy books sell once I tell my story."

  "Sales will likely increase twenty percent," Sybill said mildly. "I won't be blackmailed, Gloria. You do what you like. And think about this. You're facing criminal charges in Maryland, and there's a restraining order against you to keep you away from Seth. The Quinns have evidence. I've seen it," she continued, thinking of the letters Gloria had written. "Further criminal charges for extortion and child abuse may be brought. I'd cut my losses if I were you."

  She hung up on the spew of obscenities and, closing her eyes, lowered her head between her knees. The nausea was a greasy sea in her stomach, the sneaky edge of a migraine was creeping closer. She couldn't stop the trembling. She'd held it off duri
ng the phone call, but she couldn't stop it now.

  She stayed just as she was until she could control her breathing again, until the worst threat of sickness receded. Then she rose, took one of her pills to ward off the migraine and added blusher to her pale cheeks. She gathered her purse, Seth's gifts, a jacket against the chill, and left.

  the day had been endless. How was a guy supposed to sit through hours and hours of school on his birthday? I mean, he was double ones now, and everything. He was going to get pizza and french fries and chocolate cake and ice cream and probably even presents.

  He'd never actually had a birthday present before, Seth mused. Not that he could remember, anyway. He'd probably end up with clothes and shit, but it would still be a present.

  If anybody ever showed up.

  "What's taking them so long?" Seth demanded, again.

  Determined to be patient, Anna continued to slice potatoes for the homemade fries that Seth had requested as part of his birthday menu. "They'll be along."

  "It's almost six. How come I had to come home after school instead of going to the boatyard?"

  "Because," Anna said, and left it at that. "Stop poking into everything, will you?" she added as Seth opened the refrigerator, again. Shut it, again. "You're going to be stuffing your face soon enough."

  "I'm starving."

  "I'm making the fries right now, aren't I?"

  "I thought Grace was going to make them."

  Steely-eyed, Anna stared at him over her shoulder. "Are you suggesting that I can't make french fries?"

  He was bored and restless enough to be pleased that he'd jabbed her ego. "Well, she makes really good ones."

  "Oh." She turned completely around. "And I don't."

  "You do okay. Anyway, we'll have the pizza." He nearly pulled it off, but snorted out a chuckle.

  "Brat." Anna made a laughing dive at him. He danced away howling.

  "That's the door, that's the door. I'll get it!" He raced off, leaving Anna grinning after him.

  But the wicked laughter faded from his eyes when he yanked open the door and saw Sybill on the porch. "Oh. Hi."

  Her heart sank, but she fixed on a polite smile. "Happy birthday."

  "Yeah, thanks." Watching her cautiously, he opened the door.

  "I appreciate you inviting me." At a loss, she held out both shopping bags. "Are you allowed to have your gifts?"

  "Sure, I guess." Then his eyes widened. "All that?"

  She nearly sighed. He sounded so much like Phillip had. "It all sort of goes together."

  "Cool. Hey, it's Grace." Hampered by the bags, which he held now, he bumped
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