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Inner Harbor, Page 26

Nora Roberts

  told me she was, it was the most amazing feeling."

  "Some people strive all their lives for their parents' approval and never come close to gaining their pride." There was something bitter and cold in her voice. She caught it herself and managed a weak laugh. "I'm drinking too much. It's going to my head."

  Deliberately he filled her glass again. "You're among friends."

  "Overindulging in alcohol—even lovely alcohol—is an abuse."

  "Overindulging on a regular basis is an abuse," he corrected. "Ever been drunk, Sybill?"

  "Of course not."

  "You're due." He tapped his glass to hers. "Tell me about the first time you tasted champagne."

  "I don't remember. We were often served watered wine at dinner when we were children. It was important that we learn to appreciate the proper wines, how they were served, what to serve them with, the correct glass for red, the correct glass for white. I could easily have coordinated a formal dinner party for twenty when I was twelve."


  She laughed a little, let the wine froth in her head. "It's an important skill. Can you imagine the horror if one bungles the seating? Or serves an inferior wine with the main course? An evening in ruins, reputations in tatters. People expect a certain level of tedium at such affairs, but not a substandard Merlot."

  "You attended a lot of formal dinner parties?"

  "Yes, indeed. First, several smaller, what you might term 'practice' ones with intimates of my parents, so that I could be judged ready. When I was sixteen, my mother gave a large, important dinner for the French ambassador and his wife. That was my first official appearance. I was terrified."

  "Not enough practice?"

  "Oh, I had plenty of practice, hours of instruction on protocol. I was just so painfully shy."

  "Were you?" he murmured, tucking her hair behind her ear. Score one for Mother Crawford, he thought.

  "So silly. But any time I had to face people that way, my stomach would seize up and my heart would pound so hard. I lived in terror that I would spill something, say something I shouldn't, or have nothing to say at all."

  "Did you tell your parents?"

  "Tell them what?"

  "That you were afraid?"

  "Oh." She waved her hand at that, as if it were the most absurd of questions, then picked up the bottle to pour more champagne. "What would be the point? I had to do what was expected of me."

  "Why? What would happen if you didn't? Would they beat you, lock you in a closet?"

  "Of course not. They weren't monsters. They'd be disappointed, they'd disapprove. It was horrible when they looked at you that way—tight-lipped, cold-eyed—as if you were defective. It was easier just to get through it, and after a while, you learned how to deal with it."

  "Observe rather than participate," he said quietly. "I've made a good career out of it. Maybe I didn't fulfill my obligations by making an important marriage and giving a lifetime of those beastly dinner parties and raising a pair of well-behaved, properly bred children," she said with rising heat. "But I made good use of my education and a good career, which I'm certainly more suited for than the other. I'm out of wine."

  "Let's slow down a little—"

  "Why?" She laughed and plucked out the second bottle herself. "We're among friends. I'm getting drunk, and I think I like it."

  What the hell, Phillip thought and took the bottle from her to open it. He'd wanted to dig under that proper and polished surface of hers. Now that he was there, there was no point in backing off.

  "But you were married once," he reminded her. "I told you it didn't count. It was not an important marriage. It was an impulse, a small and failed attempt at rebellion. I make a poor rebel. Mmm." She swallowed champagne, gestured with her glass. "I was supposed to marry one of the sons of my father's associate from Britain."

  "Which one?"

  "Oh, either. They were both quite acceptable. Distant relations of the queen. My mother was quite determined to have her daughter associated by marriage with royalty. It would have been a triumph. Of course I was only fourteen, so she had plenty of time to work out the plan, the timing. I believe she'd decided I could become engaged, formally, to one or the other when I was eighteen. Marriage at twenty, first child at twenty-two. She had it all worked out."

  "But you didn't cooperate."

  "I didn't get the chance. I might very well have cooperated. I found it very difficult to oppose her." She brooded over that for a moment, then washed it away with more champagne. "But Gloria seduced them both, at the same time, in the front parlor while my parents were attending the opera. I believe it was Vivaldi. Anyway…" She waved her hand again, drank again. "They came home, found this situation. There was quite a scene. I snuck downstairs and watched part of it. They were naked—not my parents."


  "High on something, too. There was a lot of shouting, threatening, pleading—this from the Oxford twins. Did I mention they were twins?"

  "No, you didn't."

  "Identical. Blond, pale, lantern-jawed. Gloria didn't give two damns about them, of course. She did it, knowing they'd be caught, because my mother had chosen them for me. She hated me. Gloria, not my mother." Her brow knit. "My mother didn't hate me."

  "What happened?"

  "The twins were sent home in disgrace and Gloria was punished. Which led, inevitably, to her striking back by accusing my father's friend of seducing her, which led to another miserable scene and her finally running off. It was certainly less disruptive with her gone, but it gave my parents more time to concentrate on forging me. I used to wonder why they saw me more as creation than child. Why they couldn't love me. But then…" She settled back again. "I'm not very lovable. No one's ever loved me."

  Aching for her, the woman and the child, he set his glass aside and framed her face gently with his hands. "You're wrong."

  "No, I'm not." Her smile was soaked in wine. "I'm a professional. I know these things. My parents never loved me, certainly Gloria didn't. The husband, who didn't count, didn't love me. There wasn't even one of those kindly, good-hearted servants you read about in books, who held me against her soft, generous bosom and loved me. No one even bothered to pretend enough to use the words. You, on the other hand, are very lovable." She ran her free hand up his chest. "I've never had sex when I've been drunk. What do you suppose it's like?"

  "Sybill." He caught her hand before she could distract him. "They underestimated and undervalued you. You shouldn't do the same to yourself."

  "Phillip." She leaned forward, managed to nip his bottom lip between her teeth. "My life's been a predictable bore. Until you. The first time you kissed me, my mind just clicked off. No one ever did that to me before. And when you touch me…" Slowly she brought their joined hand to her breast. "My skin gets hot and my heart pounds, and my insides get loose and liquid. You climbed up the building." Her mouth roamed over his jaw. "You brought me roses. You wanted me, didn't you?"

  "Yes, I wanted you, but not just—"

  "Take me." She let her head fall back so she could look into those wonderful eyes. "I've never said that to a man before. Imagine that. Take me, Phillip." And the words were part plea, part promise. "Just take me."

  The empty glass slipped out of her fingers as she wrapped her arms around him. Helpless to resist, he lowered her to the sofa. And took.

  the dull ache behind her eyes, the more lively one dancing inside her temples, was no more than she deserved, Sybill decided as she tried to drown both of them under the hot spray of the shower.

  She would never, as God was her witness, overindulge in any form of alcohol again.

  She only wished the aftermath of drink had resulted in memory loss as well, as a hangover. But she remembered, much too clearly, the way she'd prattled on about herself. The things she'd told Phillip. Humiliating, private things, things she rarely even told herself.

  Now she had to face him. She had to face him and the fact that in one short weekend she had
wept in his arms, then had given him both her body and her most carefully guarded secrets.

  And she had to face the fact that she was hopelessly, and dangerously, in love with him.

  Which was totally irrational, of course. The very fact that she believed she could have developed such strong feelings for him in such a short amount of time and association was precisely why those emotions were hopeless. And dangerous.

  Obviously she wasn't thinking clearly. This barrage of feelings that had tumbled into her so quickly made it all but impossible to maintain an objective distance and analyze.

  Once Seth was settled, once all the details were arranged, she would have to find that distance again. The simplest and most logical method was to begin with geographical distance and go back to New York.

  Undoubtedly she would come to her senses once she'd picked up the threads of her own life again and slipped back into a comfortable, familiar routine.

  However miserably dull that seemed just now.

  She took the time to brush her wet hair back from her face, to carefully cream her skin, adjust the lapels of her robe. If she couldn't quite take full advantage of her breathing techniques to compose herself, it was hardly any wonder, what with the drag of the hangover.

  But she stepped out of the bathroom with her features calmly arranged, then walked into the parlor, where Phillip was just pouring coffee from the room service tray.

  "I thought you could use this."

  "Yes, thank you." She carefully censored her gaze to avoid the empty champagne bottle and the scatter of clothing that she'd been too drunk to pick up the night before.

  "Did you take any aspirin?"

  "Yes. I'll be fine." She said it stiffly, accepted the cup of coffee and sat with the desperate care of an invalid. She knew she was pale, hollow-eyed. She'd gotten a good look at herself in the steamy mirror.

  And she got a good look at Phillip now. He wasn't pale at all, she noted, nor was he hollow-eyed.

  A lesser woman would despise him for it.

  As she sipped her coffee and studied him, her muddled mind began to clear. How many times, she wondered, had he refilled her glass the night before? How many times had he refilled his own? It seemed to her there was a wide discrepancy between the two.

  Resentment began to stir as she watched him generously heap jam on a piece of toast. Even the thought of food had her shaky stomach lurching.

  "Hungry?" she said sweetly.

  "Starving." He took the lid off a plate of scrambled eggs. "You should try to eat a little."

  She'd rather die. "Sleep well?"


  "And aren't we bright-eyed and chipper this morning?"

  He caught the tone, slanted her a cautious look. He'd wanted to take it slow, give her some time to recover before they discussed anything. But it appeared that she was recovering rapidly.

  "You had a little more to drink than I did," he began.

  "You got me drunk. It was deliberate. You charmed your way in here and started pouring champagne into me."

  "I hardly held your nose and poured it down your throat."

  "You used an apology as an excuse." Her hands began to shake, so she slammed the coffee onto the table. "You must have known I'd be angry with you, and you thought you'd just ease your way into my bed with Dom Perignon."

  "The sex was your idea," he reminded her, insulted. "I wanted to talk to you. And the fact is, I got more out of you after you were buzzed than I ever would have otherwise. So I loosened you up." And damn if he was going to feel guilty over it. "And you let me in."

  "Loosened me up," she whispered, getting slowly to her feet.

  "I wanted to know who you are. I have a right to know."

  "You—you did plan it. You planned to come in here, to charm me into drinking just a little too much so you could pry into my personal life."

  "I care about you." He moved toward her, but she slapped his hand away.

  "Don't. I'm not stupid enough to fall for that again."

  "I do care about you. And now I know more, and understand more about you. What's wrong with that, Sybill?"

  "You tricked me."

  "Maybe I did." He took her arms, keeping a firm grip when she tried to pull back. "Just hold on. You had a privileged, structured childhood. I didn't. You had advantages, servants, culture. I didn't. Do you think less of me because until I was twelve I ran the streets?"

  "No. But this has nothing to do with that."

  "No one loved me either," he continued. "Not until I was twelve. So I know what it's like on both sides. Do you expect me to think less of you because you survived the cold?"

  "I'm not going to discuss it."

  "That's not going to work anymore. Here's emotion for you, Sybill." He brought his mouth down on hers, dragging her into the kiss, into the swirl. "Maybe I don't know what to do about it yet either. But it's there. You've seen my scars. They're right out there. Now I've seen yours."

  He was doing it again, making her weaken and want. She could rest her head on his shoulder, have his arms come around to hold her. She only had to ask. And couldn't.

  "There's no need to feel sorry for me."

  "Oh, baby." Gently this time, he touched his lips to hers. "Yes, there is. And I admire what you managed to become despite it all."

  "I was drinking too much," she said quickly. "I made my parents sound cold and unfeeling."

  "Did either of them ever tell you they loved you?"

  She opened her mouth, then sighed. "We simply weren't a demonstrative family. Not every family is like yours. Not every family shows their feelings and touches and…" She trailed off, hearing the trace of panicked defense in her own voice. For what, she wondered wearily. For whom?

  "No, neither of them ever said that to me. Or to Gloria, as far as I know. And any decent therapist would conclude that their children reacted to this restrictive, overly formal, and demanding atmosphere by choosing different extremes. Gloria chose wild behavior as a bid for attention. I conformed in a bid for approval. She equated sex with affection and power and fantasized about being desired and forced by men in authority, including her legal and her biological fathers. I avoided intimacy in sex out of fear of failure and selected a field of study where I could safely observe behavior without risk of emotional involvement. Is that clear enough?"

  "The operative word, I'd say, is 'chose.' She chose to hurt, you chose not to be hurt."

  "That's accurate."

  "But you haven't been able to keep it up. You risked being hurt with Seth. And you're risking being hurt with me." He touched her cheek. "I don't want to hurt you, Sybill."

  It was very likely too late to prevent that, she thought, but she gave in enough to rest her head on his shoulder. She didn't have to ask for his arms to come around her. "Let's just see what happens next," she decided.

  Chapter Twenty

  Contents - Prev

  Fear, Sybill wrote, is a common human emotion. And being human, it is as complex and difficult to analyze as love and hate, greed, passion. Emotions, and their causes and effects, are not my particular field of study. Behavior is both learned and instinctive and very often contains no true emotional root. Behavior is much more simple, if no more basic, than emotion.

  I'm afraid.

  I'm alone in this hotel, a grown woman, educated, intelligent, sensible, and capable. Yet I'm afraid to pick up the phone on the desk and call my own mother.

  A few days ago, I wouldn't have termed it fear, but reluctance, perhaps avoidance. A few days ago I would have argued, and argued well, that contact with her over the issue of Seth would only cause disruption in the order of things and produce no constructive results. Therefore, contact would be useless.

  A few days ago, I could have rationalized that my feelings for Seth stemmed from a sense of moral and familial obligation.

  A few days ago, I could, and did, refuse to acknowledge my envy of the Quinns with their noisy and unstructured and undisciplined interactive behavi
or. I would have admitted that their behavior and their unorthodox relationship were interesting, but never would I have admitted that I had a yearning to somehow slip into that pattern and become part of it.

  Of course, I can't. I accept that.

  A few days ago, I attempted to refute the depth and the meaning of my feelings for Phillip. Love, I told myself, does not come so quickly or so intensely. This is attraction, desire, even lust, but not love. It's easier to refute than to face. I'm afraid of love, of what it demands, what it asks, what it takes. And I'm more afraid, much more, of not being loved in return.

  Still, I can accept this. I understand perfectly the limitations of my relationship with Phillip. We are both adults who have made our own patterns and our own choices. He has his needs and his life, as I do mine. I can be grateful that our paths crossed. I've learned a great deal in the short time I've known him. A great deal I've learned has been about myself.

  I don't believe I'll be quite the same as I was.

  I don't want to be. But in order to change, truly, to grow, there are actions that must be taken.

  It helps to write this out, even though the order and sense are faulty.

  Phillip called just now from Baltimore. I thought he sounded tired, yet excited. He had a meeting with his attorney about his father's life insurance claim. For months now, the insurance company has refused to settle. They instigated an investigation into Professor Quinn's death and held off paying the claim over the suspicion of suicide. Financially, of course, it put a strain on the Quinns with Seth to provide for and a new business to run, but they have doggedly pursued legal action over this issue.

  I don't think I realized until today how vital it is to them to win this battle. Not for the money, as I originally assumed, but to clear any shadow on their father's name. I don't believe suicide is always an act of cowardice. I once considered it myself. Had the proper note written, the necessary pills in my hand. But I was only sixteen and understandably foolish. Naturally I tore the letter up, disposed of the pills, and put the matter aside.

  Suicide would have been rude. Inconvenient for my family.

  Doesn't that sound bitter? I had no idea I'd harbored all this anger.

  But the Quinns, I've learned, considered the taking of one's own life selfish, cowardly. They have refused all along to accept or to allow others to believe that this man they love so much was capable of such a singular selfish act. Now, it appears, they will win this battle.

  The insurance company has offered to settle. Phillip believes my deposition may have swayed them toward this response. He may be right. Of course, the Quinns are, perhaps genetically, ill-suited to settlements. All or nothing, is precisely how Phillip put it to me. He believes, as does his attorney, that they will have all very shortly.

  I'm happy for them. Though I never had the privilege of meeting Raymond and Stella Quinn, I feel I know them through my association with their family. Professor Quinn deserves to rest in peace. Just as Seth deserves to take the Quinn name and to have the security of a family who will love and care for him.

  I can do something to ensure that all of that happens. I will have to make this call. I will have to take a stand. Oh, my hands shake just at the possibility. I'm such a coward. No, Seth would call me a wimp. That's somehow worse.

  She terrifies me. There it is in black and white. My own mother terrifies me. She never raised a hand to me, rarely raised her voice, yet she shoved me into a mold of her own making. I barely struggled.

  My father? He was too busy being important to notice.

  Oh, yes, I see a great deal of anger here.

  I can call her, I can use the very status that she insisted I achieve to gain what I want from her. I'm a respected scientist, in some small way a public figure. If I tell her I'll use that, if I make her believe I will, unless she provides a written statement to the Quinns' attorney, detailing the circumstances of Gloria's birth, admitting that Professor Quinn attempted several times to