Inner harbor, p.22
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       Inner Harbor, p.22

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  past her onto the porch.

  The joy in his voice, the quick, delighted smile on his face was such a marked contrast from the way he'd looked at her, Sybill's sinking heart cracked.

  "Hey, Grace! Hey, Aubrey! I'll tell Anna you guys are here."

  He darted inside again, leaving Sybill standing by the open door without a clue how to proceed. Grace got out of the car and smiled. "Sounds like he's excited."

  "Yes, well…" She watched Grace set a bag on the hood of the car, followed by a large clear-plastic cake holder. Then she reached in to unstrap a babbling Aubrey from her car seat. "Do you need a hand?"

  "Actually, I could use two. Just a minute, baby. If you keep wriggling…" She tossed another smile over her shoulder as Sybill walked over. "She's been wired all day. Seth is Aubrey's favorite person."

  "Seth! He's got a birthday. We baked a cake."

  "We sure did." Grace hauled Aubrey out, then passed her to an astonished Sybill. "Would you mind? She wanted to wear that dress, but the run from here to the house is bound to be a disaster."

  "Oh, well…" Sybill found herself staring down into a beaming, angelic face and holding a bouncing little body dressed in party-pink ruffles.

  "We're having a party," Aubrey told her and put both her hands on Sybill's cheeks to ensure her full attention. "I'll have a party next time when I'm three. You can come."

  "Thank you."

  "You smell pretty. I do, too."

  "You certainly do." Sybill's initial stiffness couldn't stand up under that cheerfully charming smile. Phillip's Jeep pulled in behind Grace's, and most of the stiffness returned as Cam slid out of the passenger seat and shot her a cool, unmistakably warning look.

  Aubrey let out a shriek of greeting. "Hi! Hi!"

  "Hi, there, beautiful." Cam walked over, kissed Aubrey lightly on her comically pursed lips, then aimed those flinty eyes at Sybill. "Hello, Dr. Griffin."

  "Sybill." Well able to interpret the chilly exchange, Phillip strode over, laid a supporting hand on her shoulder, and leaned in for the kiss Aubrey was offering. "Hi, there, sweetie."

  "I have a new dress."

  "And you look stunning in it."

  In the way of females, Aubrey deserted Sybill without a glance and held out her arms to Phillip. He managed the transfer easily, settling her on his hip. "Been here long?" he asked Sybill.

  "No, I just got here." She watched Cam carry three large cardboard boxes of pizza into the house. "Phillip, I don't want to cause any—"

  "Let's go inside." He took her hand, pulling her along. "We've got to get this party going, don't we, Aub?"

  "Seth gets presents. They're secrets." She whispered it and leaned in close. "What are they?"

  "Uh-uh, I'm not telling." He set her down when they stepped into the house, gave her frilled bottom a friendly pat, and sent her off. She shouted for Seth and scrambled toward the kitchen. "She'll blab."

  Determined to make it work, Sybill put her smile back in place. "I won't."

  "Nope. You can just wait for it. I'm going to grab a fast shower before Cam beats me to it and uses all the hot water." He gave her a quick, absent kiss. "Anna'll get you a drink," he added as he headed upstairs.

  "Great." On a huff of breath, Sybill steeled herself to deal with the Quinns alone.

  The kitchen was pandemonium. Aubrey was squealing, Seth was talking a mile a minute. Potatoes were frying, with Grace manning the stove since Cam had Anna trapped against the refrigerator with a gleam of pure lust in his eyes.

  "You know how I get when I see you in an apron."

  "I know how you get when you see me breathe." And she hoped it would never change. Nonetheless, she narrowed her eyes at him. "Hands off, Quinn. I'm busy."

  "You've been slaving over a hot stove. You really ought to take a shower. With me."

  "I'm not going to—" She spotted the movement out of the corner of her eye. "There you are, Sybill." In a move that looked very practiced, and very effective to Sybill, Anna shifted and jammed her elbow into her husband's stomach. "What can I get you to drink?"

  "Ah… the coffee smells wonderful, thank you."

  "I'll take a beer." Cam snagged one out of the fridge. "And go clean up." He aimed that look at Sybill again, then strode out.

  "Seth, stay out of those bags," Anna ordered as she pulled down a mug. "No gifts yet." She'd made the decision to keep him from opening Sybill's gifts until after dinner. She calculated that his aunt would make her excuses and run as quickly as she could manage it after the little ritual was complete.

  "Man! Is it my birthday or what?"

  "Yes, if you live through it. Why don't you take Aubrey into the other room? Entertain her for a while. We'll eat as soon as Ethan gets here."

  "Well, where is he, anyway?" Grumbling, Seth stalked out with Aubrey on his heels and didn't catch the quick grin Grace and Anna exchanged.

  "That goes for you dogs, too." Anna gave Foolish a nudge with her foot and pointed her finger. With canine sighs, both dogs clipped out of the kitchen.

  "Peace." Anna closed her eyes to absorb it. "Momentary peace."

  "Is there anything I can do to help?"

  With a shake of her head, Anna passed over the mug of coffee. "I think we've got it under control. Ethan should be here any minute. In the big surprise." She walked to the window to look out through the gathering dark. "I hope you've brought an adolescent appetite," she added. "Tonight's menu consists of pepperoni-and-sausage pizza, peanut-oil fries, homemade hot fudge sundaes, and Grace's killer chocolate cake."

  "We'll all be in the hospital," Sybill commented before she thought it through. Even as she winced, Anna was laughing.

  "We who are about to die salute you. Uh-oh, there's Ethan." She'd lowered her voice to a stage whisper. At the stove, Grace dropped her slotted spoon with a clatter. "Did you burn yourself?"

  "No, no." Chuckling weakly, Grace stepped back. "No, I'm, ah… I'm just going to run out and… help Ethan."

  "All right but—hmmm," Anna finished when Grace hurried past her and out the door. "Jumpy," she muttered, then hit the outside lights. "It's not quite dark yet, but it will be by the time we finish this." She salvaged the last of the fries and switched off the stove. "Cam and Phillip better put a fire under it. Oh, God, it's cute! Can you see?"

  Too curious to resist, Sybill joined her at the kitchen window. She saw Grace standing on the dock, caught in the last light of the day, and Ethan just stepping onto it. "It's a boat," she murmured. "A little sailboat."

  "A ten-footer. They call it a pram." Anna's smile nearly split her face. "The three of them have been building it over at Ethan's old house—the one he rents out? The tenants let them use the shed over there so Seth wouldn't know about it."

  "They built it for him?"

  "Whenever they could steal an hour. Oh, he's going to love it. Well, what's this?"

  "What?"

  "That," Anna said and stared hard through the glass. She could see Grace talking, her hands locked together, Ethan staring at her. Then he lowered his head to hers. "I hope there's not any…" She trailed off as Ethan drew Grace close, buried his face in her hair and rocked. And her arms came up around him. "Oh, oh." Tears flooded Anna's eyes. "She must be—she's pregnant! She's just told him. I know it. Oh, look!" She gripped Sybill's shoulder when Ethan scooped a laughing Grace up into his arms. "Isn't that beautiful?"

  The two of them were wrapped around each other, making one silhouette in the last light of day. "Yes, yes, it is."

  "Look at me." Laughing at herself, Anna yanked off a paper towel and blew her nose. "I'm a mess. This is going to get to me, I know it is. I'm going to want one." She blew again, sighed. "I was so sure I could wait a year or two. I'm never going to be able to wait that long now. Not for that. I can just see Cam when I—" She stopped herself. "Sorry," she said with a watery laugh.

  "It's all right. It's lovely that you're so happy for them. That you're so happy for yourself. This is really a family occasion, especially no
w. Anna, I really should go."

  "Don't be a coward," Anna said, pointing her finger. "You're here, and you're going to have to face this nightmare of indigestion and noise just like the rest of us."

  "I simply think—" All she could do was close her mouth when the door burst open. Ethan was still carrying Grace and the pair of them wore huge smiles.

  "Anna, we're having a baby." Ethan made the announcement with a catch in his voice.

  "What, am I blind?" She brushed Ethan aside to kiss Grace first. "I've had my nose to the window. Oh, congratulations!" Then threw her arms around both of them. "I'm so happy."

  "You have to be godmother." Ethan turned his face to kiss her. "We wouldn't have gotten this far without you."

  "Oh, that does it." Anna burst into tears just as Phillip walked in.

  "What's going on? Why's Anna crying? Jesus, Ethan, what happened to Grace?"

  "I'm fine. I'm wonderful. I'm pregnant."

  "No kidding?" He plucked her out of Ethan's arms to kiss her lavishly.

  "What the hell is going on in here?" Cam demanded.

  Still holding Grace, Phillip grinned at him. "We're having a baby."

  "Oh, yeah?" He arched his eyebrow. "How does Ethan feel about the two of you?"

  "Ha-ha," was Phillip's comment as he set Grace carefully on her feet.

  "You feel all right?" Cam asked her.

  "I feel terrific."

  "You look terrific." Cam drew her into his arms, rubbed his chin over her head. And the tenderness with which he did both had Sybill blinking in surprise. "Nice going, bro," Cam murmured to Ethan.

  "Thanks. Can I have my wife back now?"

  "I'm nearly done." Cam held Grace at arm's length. "If he doesn't take good care of you and the little Quinn in there, I'll beat the hell out of him for you."

  "Are we ever going to eat?" Seth demanded, then stopped at the kitchen doorway and stared. "Why're Anna and Grace crying?" He swept an accusing look around the room, including Sybill in the heat. "What happened?"

  "We're happy." Grace sniffled and accepted the tissue that Sybill dug out of her purse. "I'm going to have a baby."

  "Really? Wow. Wow. That's cool. That's way cool. Does Aub know?"

  "No, Ethan and I will tell her, in a little while. But now I'm going to go get her because there's something you need to see. Outside."

  "Outside." He started for the door, but Phillip stepped neatly in his path.

  "Not yet."

  "What is it? Come on, move. Jeez. Let me see what's out there."

  "We should blindfold him," Phillip considered.

  "We should gag him," was Cam's suggestion.

  Ethan took care of matters by hauling Seth over his shoulder. When Grace brought Aubrey in, Ethan winked, shifted the wriggling Seth, and headed out the door.

  "You're not throwing me in again!" Seth's voice rang with terrified delight and giggles. "Come on, guys, the water's really cold."

  "Wimp," Cam sneered when Seth lifted his face from Ethan's back.

  "If you try," Seth warned, eyes dancing with joy and challenge, "I'm taking at least one of you with me."

  "Yeah, yeah, big talk." Phillip pushed Seth's face back down. "Ready?" he asked when everyone was assembled at the edge of the water. "Good. Do it, Ethan."

  "Man, the water's cold!" Seth began, ready to scream when Ethan dropped him. But he was set on his feet and he was turned to face the pretty little wooden boat with sky-blue sails that rippled lightly in the evening wind. "What—where did that come from?"

  "The sweat of our brows," Phillip said dryly while Seth gaped at the boat.

  "Is it—who's buying it?"

  "It's not for sale," Cam said simply.

  "It… is it…" It couldn't be, he thought, while his heart thumped with nerves and hope and shock. But hope was paramount. In the past year he'd learned to hope. "Is it mine?"

  "You're the only one with a birthday around here," Cam reminded him. "Don't you want a closer look?"

  "It's mine?" He whispered it first, with such staggered delight and shock that Sybill felt her eyes sting. "Mine?" He exploded with it as he whirled around. This time the sheer joy on his face closed her throat. "To keep?"

  "You're a good sailor," Ethan told him quietly. "She's a tight little boat. She's steady, but she moves."

  "You built her for me." His gaze shot from Ethan's face to Phillip's to Cam's. "For me?"

  "Nah, we built her for some other brat." Cam gave him a light swat on the side of the head. "What do you think? Go take a look."

  "Yeah." His voice quavered as he turned. "Yeah, can I get in her? Can I sit in her?"

  "For Christ's sake, she's yours, isn't she?" His voice rough with emotion, Cam grabbed Seth's hand and hauled him onto the dock.

  "I think this is a guy thing," Anna murmured. "Let's give them a few minutes to pull themselves together."

  "They love him so much." Sybill watched another moment as the four males made noises over a little wooden boat. "I don't think I realized it, really, until just now."

  "He loves them, too." Grace pressed her cheek to Aubrey's.

  and it was more, sybill thought later as she picked at the meal in the noisy kitchen. It had been that shock on Seth's face. The utter disbelief that someone loved him, could love him enough to understand his heart's desire. And understanding, make the effort to give it.

  The pattern of his life, she thought wearily, had been broken, shifted, then reformed. And all before she'd really come into it. Now it was set, the way it was meant to be set.

  She didn't belong here. She couldn't stay here. She couldn't bear it.

  "I really should go," she said with a well-mannered smile. "I want to thank you for—"

  "Seth hasn't opened your gift yet," Anna interrupted. "Why don't we let him rip, then we'll have some cake."

  "Cake!" Aubrey whacked her palms on her high chair. "Blow the candles out and make a wish."

  "Soon," Grace told her. "Seth, take Sybill into the living room so you can open your gift."

  "Sure." He waited for Sybill to stand, then with a jerk of his shoulder started out.

  "I got it in Baltimore," she began, miserably awkward, "so if it doesn't suit, if you don't like it, Phillip could exchange things for you."

  "Okay." He pulled a box out of the first bag, sat Indian-style on the floor, and within seconds was tearing the paper it had taken her untold agonies to choose to shreds.

  "You could have used newspaper," Phillip told her and, chuckling, nudged her into a chair.

  "It's a box," Seth said, puzzled, and Sybill's heart sank at his disinterested tone.

  "Yes, well… I kept the receipt. So you can take it back and get whatever you'd like."

  "Yeah, okay." But he caught the hard beam in Phillip's eye and made an effort. "It's a nice box." But he wanted to roll his eyes. Then he idly flicked the brass hook, flipped the top. "Holy shit!"

  "Christ, Seth." Cam muttered it, glancing over his shoulder as Anna walked in from the kitchen.

  "Man, look at all this stuff! It's got, like, everything. Charcoals and pastels and pencils." Now he looked at Sybill with that staggered shock. "I get to have it all?"

  "It goes together." Nervous, she twisted her silver beads around her finger. "You draw so well, I thought… You may want to experiment with other mediums. The other box has more supplies."

  "More?"

  "Watercolors and brushes, some paper. Ah…" She eased onto the floor as Seth gleefully ripped into the second box. "You may decide you like acrylics, or pen and ink, but I lean toward watercolors myself, so I thought you might like to try your hand at it."

  "I don't know how to do it."

  "Oh, well, it's a simple process, really." She leaned over to take one of the brushes and began to explain the basic technique. As she spoke, she forgot her nerves, smiled at him.

  The light from the lamp slanted over her face, caught something, something in her eyes that jiggled at the corners of his memory.

&nb
sp; "Did you have a picture on the wall? Flowers, white flowers in a blue vase?"

  Her fingers tightened on the brush. "Yes, in my bedroom in New York. One of my watercolors. Not a very good one."

  "And you had colored bottles on a table. Lots of them, different sizes and stuff."

  "Perfume bottles." Her throat was closing again, so she was forced to clear it. "I used to collect them."

  "You let me sleep in your bed with you." His eyes narrowed as he concentrated on the vague blips of memory. Soft smells, soft voice, colors and shapes. "You told me some story, about a frog."

  The Frog Prince. Into her mind flashed the image of how a little boy had curled against her, the bedside lamp holding back the dark for both of them, his bright-blue eyes intense on her face as she'd calmed his fears with a tale of magic and happily ever after.

  "You had—when you came to visit, you had bad dreams. You were just a little boy."

  "I had a puppy. You bought me a puppy."

  "Not a real one, just a stuffed toy." Her vision was blurring, her throat closing, her heart breaking. "You… you didn't have any toys with you. When I brought it home you asked me whose it was, and I told you it was yours. That's what you called it. Yours. She didn't take it when she—I have to go."

  She shot to her feet. "I'm sorry. I have to go." And bolted out the door.

  Chapter Seventeen

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  she got to her car and yanked at the door handle before she realized she'd locked it. Which was, she told herself frantically, a stupid, knee-jerk urban habit that had no more place in this pretty rural neighborhood than she did.

  The next thing she realized was that she'd run out of the house without her purse, her jacket, her keys. And that she would walk back to the hotel before she would go back inside and face the Quinns again after her rude and emotional behavior.

  She whirled when she heard footsteps behind her and wasn't sure if she was relieved or embarrassed to see Phillip coming toward her. She didn't know what she was, what it was that was bubbling up inside her, burning and swelling her heart and her throat. She only knew she had to escape it.

  "I'm sorry. I know that was rude. I really have to go." In the rush to get out, the words bumped and tumbled over each other. "Would you mind getting my purse? I need my purse. My keys. I'm sorry. I hope I didn't spoil—"

  Whatever was bubbling in her throat was rising higher, choking her. "I have to go."

  "You're shaking." He said it gently and reached for her, but she jerked back.

  "It's cold. I forgot my jacket."

 
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