Sea swept, p.29
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       Sea Swept, p.29
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         Part #1 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  quaint, with its narrow streets, clapboard houses and tiny shops. They liked to watch the crab pickers' fingers fly, and eat the flaky crab cakes or tell their friends they'd had a bowl of she-crab soup. They stayed in the bed-and-breakfasts—St. Chris was the proud home of no less than four—and they spent their money in the restaurants and gift shops.

  Ethan didn't mind them. During the times when the Bay was stingy, tourism kept the town alive. And he thought there would come a time when some of those same tourists might decide having a hand built wooden sailboat was their heart's desire.

  The wind picked up as Ethan moored at the dock. Jim jumped nimbly out to secure lines, his short legs and squat body giving him the look of a leaping frog wearing white rubber boots and a grease-smeared gimme cap.

  At Ethan's careless hand signal, Simon plopped his butt down and stayed in the boat as the men worked to unload the day's catch. The wind made the boat's sun-faded green awning dance. Ethan watched Pete Monroe walk toward them, iron-gray hair crushed under a battered billed hat, stocky body outfitted in baggy khakis and a red-checked shirt.

  "Good catch today, Ethan?"

  Ethan smiled. He liked Mr. Monroe well enough, though the man had a bone-deep stingy streak. He ran Monroe's Crab House with a tightly closed fist. But, as far as Ethan could tell, every man's son who ran a picking plant complained about profits.

  Ethan pushed his own cap back, scratched the nape of his neck where sweat and damp hair tickled. "Good enough."

  "You're in early today."

  "Storm's coming."

  Monroe nodded. Already his crab pickers who worked under the shade of striped awnings were preparing to move inside. Rain would drive the tourists inside as well, he knew, to drink coffee or eat ice cream sundaes. Since he was half owner of The Bayside Cafe, he didn't mind.

  "Looks like you got about seventy bushels there."

  Ethan let his smile widen. Some might have said there was a hint of the pirate in the look. Ethan wouldn't have been insulted, but he'd have been surprised. "Closer to ninety, I'd say." He knew the market price, to the penny, but understood they would, as always, negotiate. He took out his negotiating cigar, lit it and got to work.

  the first fat drops of rain began to fall as Ethan motored toward home. He figured he'd gotten a fair price for his crabs—his eighty-seven bushels of crabs. If the rest of the summer was as good, he was going to consider dropping another hundred pots next year, maybe hiring on a part-time crew.

  Oystering wasn't what it had been on the Bay, not since parasites had killed off so many. That made the winters hard. A few good crabbing seasons were what he needed to dump the lion's share of the profits into the new business—and to help pay the lawyer's fee. His mouth tightened at that thought as he rode out the swells toward home.

  They shouldn't need a damn lawyer. They shouldn't have to pay some slick, suited talker to clear their father's good name. It wouldn't stop the whispers around town anyway. Those would only stop when people found some thing juicier to chew on than Ray Quinn's life and death.

  And the boy, Ethan mused, staring out over the water that trembled under the steady pelting of rain. There were some who liked to whisper about the boy who looked back at them with Ray Quinn's dark-blue eyes.

  He didn't mind for himself. As far as Ethan was concerned they could wag their tongues about him until they fell out of their flapping mouths. But he minded, deeply, that anyone would speak a dark word about the man he'd loved with every beat of his heart.

  So he would work his fingers numb to pay the lawyer. And he would do whatever it took to guard the child.

  Thunder shook the sky, booming off the water like cannon fire. The light went dim as dusk, and those dark clouds burst wide to pour out solid sheets of rain. Still he didn't hurry as he docked at his home pier. A little more wet, to his mind, wouldn't kill him.

  As if in agreement with the sentiment, Simon leaped out to swim to shore while Ethan secured the lines. He gathered up his lunch pail, and with his waterman's boots thwacking wetly against the dock, he headed for home.

  Ethan removed the boots on the back porch. His mother had scalded his skin about tracking mud often enough in his youth for the habit to stick to the man. Still, he didn't think anything of letting the wet dog nose in the door ahead of him.

  Until he saw the gleaming floor and counters.

  Shit, was all he could think as he studied the paw prints, and heard Simon's happy bark of greeting. There was a squeal, more barking, then laughter.

  "You're soaking wet!" The female voice was low and smooth and amused. It was also very firm and made Ethan wince in guilt. "Out, Simon! Out you go. You just dry off on the front porch."

  There was another squeal, baby giggles, and the accompanying laughter of a young boy. The gang's all here, Ethan thought, rubbing rain from his hair. The minute he heard footsteps heading in his direction, he made a beeline for the broom closet and a mop.

  He didn't often move fast, but he could when he had to.

  "Oh, Ethan." Grace Monroe stood with her hands on her narrow hips, looking from him to the paw prints on her just-waxed floor.

  "I'll get it. Sorry." He could see that the mop was still damp and decided it was best not to look at her directly. "Wasn't thinking," he muttered, filling a bucket at the sink. "Didn't know you were coming by today."

  "Oh, so you let wet dogs run through the house and dirty up the floors when I'm not coming by?"

  He jerked a shoulder. "Floor was dirty when I left this morning, didn't figure a little wet would hurt it any." Then he relaxed a little. It always seemed to take him a few minutes to relax around Grace these days. "But if I'd known you were here to skin me over it, I'd have left him on the porch."

  He was grinning when he turned, and made her sigh.

  "Oh, give me the mop. I'll do it."

  "Nope. My dog, my mess. I heard Aubrey."

  Absently Grace leaned on the doorjamb. She was tired, but she often was. She'd put in eight hours that day, too. And she would put in another four at Shiney's Pub that night serving drinks.

  There were nights when she crawled into bed that she would have sworn she heard her feet crying.

  "Seth's minding her for me. I had to switch my days. Mrs. Lynley called this morning and asked if I'd shift doing her house till tomorrow because her mother-in-law called her from D.C. and invited herself down to dinner. Mrs. Lynley claims her mother-in-law is a woman who looks at a speck of dust like it's a sin against God and man. I didn't think you'd mind if I did y'all today instead of tomorrow."

  "You fit us in whenever you can manage it, Grace, and we're grateful."

  He was watching her from under his lashes as he mopped. He'd always thought she was a pretty thing. Like a palomino—all gold and long-legged. She chopped her hair off short as a boy's, but he liked the way it sat on her head, like a shiny cap with fringes.

  She was as thin as one of those million-dollar models, but he knew Grace's long, lean form wasn't for fashion. She'd been a gangly, skinny kid as he recalled. She'd have been about seven or eight when he'd first come to St. Chris and the Quinns. He supposed she was twenty and a couple now—and skinny wasn't exactly the word for her.

  She was like a willow slip, he thought and then very nearly flushed.

  She smiled at him, and her mermaid-green eyes warmed, faint dimples flirted in her cheeks. For reasons she couldn't name, seeing such a healthy male specimen wielding a mop entertained her.

  "Did you have a good day, Ethan?"

  "Good enough." He did a thorough job with the floor. He was a thorough man. Then he went to the sink again to rinse bucket and mop. "Sold a mess of crabs to your daddy."

  At the mention of her father, Grace's smile dimmed a little. There was distance between them, and had been since she'd become pregnant with Aubrey and had married Jack Casey, the man her father had called "that no-account grease monkey from upstate."

  Her father had turned out to be right about Jack. The man h
ad left her high and dry a month before Aubrey had been born. And he'd taken her savings, her car, and most of her self-respect with him.

  But she'd gotten through it, Grace reminded herself. And she was doing just fine. She'd keep right on doing fine, on her own, without a single penny from her family—if she had to work herself to death to prove it.

  She heard Aubrey laugh again, a long rolling gut laugh, and her resentment vanished. She had everything that mattered. It was all tied up in a bright-eyed, curly headed little angel just in the next room.

  "I'll make you up some dinner before I go."

  Ethan turned back, took another look at her. She was getting some sun, and it looked good on her. Warmed her skin. She had a long face that went well with her long body—though the chin tended to be stubborn. A man could take a glance and he'd see a long, cool blonde—a pretty body, a face that made you want to glance back just a little longer.

  And if you did, you'd see shadows under the big green eyes, and weariness around that soft mouth.

  "You don't have to do that, Grace. You ought to go on home and relax a while. You're on at Shiney's tonight, aren't you?"

  "I've got time—and I promised Seth sloppy joes. It won't take me long." She shifted as Ethan continued to stare at her. She'd long ago accepted that those long thoughtful looks from him would stir her blood. Just another of life's little problems, she supposed. "What?" she demanded, and rubbed a hand over her cheek as if expecting to find a smudge.

  "Nothing. Well, if you're going to cook, you ought to hang around and help us eat it."

  "I'd like that." She relaxed again and moved forward to take the bucket and mop from him and put them away herself. "Aubrey loves being here with you and Seth. Why don't you go on in with them? I've got some laundry to finish up, then I'll start dinner."

  "I'll give you a hand."

  "No, you won't." It was another point of pride for her. They paid her, she did the work. All the work. "Go on in the front room—and be sure to ask Seth about the math test he got back today."

  "How'd he do?"

  "Another A." She winked and shooed Ethan away. Seth had such a sharp brain, she thought as she headed into the laundry room off the kitchen. If she'd had a better head for figures, for practical matters when she'd been younger, she wouldn't have dreamed her way through school.

  She'd have learned a skill, a real one, not just serving drinks and tending house or picking crabs. She'd have had a career to fall back on when she'd found herself alone and pregnant with all her hopes of running off to New York to be a dancer dashed like glass on brick.

  It had been a silly dream anyway, she told herself, unloading the dryer and shifting the wet clothes from the washer into it. Pie in the sky, her mama would say. But the fact was, growing up there had only been two things she'd wanted: the dance and Ethan Quinn.

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