Sea swept, p.3
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       Sea Swept, p.3
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         Part #1 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts

  "That's just pure bullshit. Who the hell's saying that?"

  "It's going around—and some of it's rooting. It has to do with Seth."

  "What has to do with Seth?" Cam began to pace, long, furious strides up and down the narrow dock. "What, do they think he was crazy for taking the kid on? Hell, he was crazy for taking any of us on, but what does that have to do with an accident?"

  "There's some talk brewing that Seth is his son. By blood."

  That stopped Cam dead in his tracks. "Mom couldn't have kids."

  "I know that."

  Fury pounded in his chest, a hammer on steel. "You're saying that he cheated on her? That he went off with some other woman and got a kid? Jesus Christ, Phil."

  "I'm not saying it."

  Cam stepped closer until they were face to face. "What the hell are you saying?"

  "I'm telling you what I heard," Phillip said evenly, "so we can deal with it."

  "If you had any balls you'd have decked whoever said it in their lying mouth."

  "Like you want to deck me now. Is that your way of handling it? Just beat on it until it goes away?" With his own temper bubbling, Phillip shoved Cam back an inch. "He was my father too, goddamn it. You were the first, but you weren't the only."

  "Then why the hell weren't you standing up for him instead of listening to that garbage? Afraid to get your hands dirty? Ruin your manicure? If you weren't such a damn pussy, you'd have—"

  Phillip's fist shot out, caught Cam neatly on the jaw. There was enough force behind the punch to snap Cam's head back, send him staggering for a foot or two. But he regained his balance quickly enough. With eyes dark and eager, he nodded. "Well, then, come on."

  Hot blood roaring in his head, Phillip started to strip off his jacket. Attack came swiftly, quietly and from behind. He barely had time to curse before he was sailing off the dock and into the water.

  Phillip surfaced, spat, and shoved the wet hair out of his eyes. "Son of a bitch. You son of a bitch."

  Ethan had his thumbs tucked in his front pockets now and studied his brother as Phillip treaded water. "Cool off," he suggested mildly.

  "This suit is Hugo Boss," Phillip managed as he kicked toward the dock.

  "That don't mean shit to me." Ethan glanced over at Cam. "Mean anything to you?"

  "Means he's going to have a hell of a dry-cleaning bill."

  "You, too," Ethan said and shoved Cam off the dock. "This isn't the time or place to go punching each other. So when the pair of you haul your butts out and dry off, we'll talk this through. I sent Seth on with Grace for a while."

  Eyes narrowed, Cam skimmed his hair back with his fingers. "So you're in charge all of a sudden."

  "Looks to me like I'm the only one who kept his head above water." With this, Ethan turned and sauntered back toward the house.

  Together Cam and Phillip gripped the edge of the dock. They exchanged one long, hard look before Cam sighed. "We'll throw him in later," he said.

  Accepting the apology, Phillip nodded. He pulled himself up on the dock and sat, dragging off his ruined silk tie. "I loved him too. As much as you did. As much as anyone could."

  "Yeah." Cam yanked off his shoes. "I can't stand it." It was a hard admission from a man who'd chosen to live on the edge. "I didn't want to be there today. I didn't want to stand there and watch them put him in the ground."

  "You were there. That's all that would have mattered to him."

  Cam peeled off his socks, his tie, his jacket, felt the chill of early spring. "Who told you about—who said those things about Dad?''

  "Grace. She's been hearing talk and thought it best that we knew what was being said. She told Ethan and me this morning. And she cried." Phillip lifted a brow. "Still think I should have decked her?"

  Cam heaved his ruined shoes onto the lawn. "I want to know who started this, and why."

  "Have you looked at Seth, Cam?"

  The wind was getting into his bones. That was why he suddenly wanted to shudder. "Sure I looked at him." Cam turned, headed for the house.

  "Take a closer look," Phillip murmured.

  when cam walked into the kitchen twenty minutes later, warm and dry in a sweater and jeans, Ethan had coffee hot and whiskey ready.

  It was a big, family-style kitchen with a long wooden table in the center. The white countertops showed a bit of age, the wear and tear of use. There'd been talk a few years back of replacing the aging stove. Then Stella had gotten sick, and that had been the end of that.

  There was a big, shallow bowl on the table that Ethan had made in his junior year in high school wood shop. It had sat there since the day he'd brought it home, and was often filled with letters and notes and household flotsam rather than the fruit it had been designed for. Three wide, curtainless windows ranged along the back wall, opening the room up to the yard and the water beyond it.

  The cabinet doors were glass-fronted, and the dishes inside plain white stoneware, meticulously arranged. As would be, Cam thought, the contents of all the drawers. Stella had insisted on that. When she wanted a spoon, by God, she didn't want to search for one.

  But the refrigerator was covered with photos and newspaper clippings, notes, postcards, children's drawings, all haphazardly affixed with multicolored magnets.

  It gave his heart a hitch to step into that room and know his parents wouldn't ever again be there.

  "Coffee's strong," Ethan commented. "So's the whiskey. Take your choice."

  "I'll have both." Cam poured a mug, added a shot of

  Johnnie Walker to the coffee, then sat. "You want to take a swing at me, too?"

  "I did. May again." Ethan decided he wanted his whiskey alone and neat. And poured a double. "Don't much feel like it now." He stood by the window, looking out, the untouched whiskey in his hand. "Maybe I still think you should have been here more the last few years. Maybe you couldn't be. It doesn't seem to matter now."

  "I'm not a waterman, Ethan. I do what I'm good at. That's what they expected."

  "Yeah." He couldn't imagine the need to run from the place that was home, and sanctuary. And love. But there was no point in questioning it, or in holding on to resentments. Or, he admitted, casting blame. "The place needs some work."

  "I noticed."

  "I should have made more time to come around and see to things. You always figure there's going to be plenty of time to go around, then there's not. The back steps are rotting out, need replacing. I kept meaning to." He turned as Phillip came into the room. "Grace has to work tonight, so she can't keep Seth occupied for more than a couple hours. You lay it out, Phil. It'll take me too long."

  "All right." Phillip poured coffee, left the whiskey alone. Rather than sit, he leaned back against the counter. "It seems a woman came to see Dad a few months back. She went to the college, caused a little trouble that nobody paid much attention to at the time."

  "What kind of trouble?"

  "Caused a scene in his office, a lot of shouting and crying on her part. Then she went to see the dean and tried to file sexual molestation charges against Dad."

  "That's a crock."

  "The dean apparently thought so, too." Phillip poured a second cup of coffee and this time brought it to the table. "She claimed Dad had harassed and molested her while she was a student. But there was no record of her ever being a student at the college. Then she said she'd just been auditing his class because she couldn't afford full tuition. But nobody could verify that either. Dad's rep stood up to it, and it seemed to go away."

  "He was pretty shaken," Ethan put in. "He wouldn't talk to me about it. Wouldn't talk to anybody. Then he went away for about a week. Told me he was going down to Florida to do some fishing. He came back with Seth."

  "You're trying to tell me people think the kid's his? For Christ's sake, that he had something going on with this bimbo who waits, what, ten, twelve years to complain about it?"

  "Nobody thought too much of it then," Phillip put in. "He had a history of bringing strays home.
But then there was the money."

  "What money?"

  "He wrote checks, one for ten thousand dollars, another for five, and another for ten over the last three months. All to Gloria DeLauter. Somebody at the bank noticed and mumbled to somebody else, because Gloria DeLauter was the name of the woman who'd tried to hang him up on the sexual misconduct charges."

  "Why the hell didn't somebody tell me what was going on around here?"

  "I didn't find out about the money until a few weeks ago." Ethan stared down into his whiskey, then decided it would do him more good inside than out. He downed it, hissed once. "When I asked him about it, he just told me the boy was what was important. Not to worry. As soon as everything was settled he'd explain. He asked me for some time, and he looked so… defenseless. You don't know what it was like, seeing him scared and old and fragile. You didn't see him, you weren't here to see him. So I waited." Whiskey and guilt paired with resentment and grief to burn a hole inside him. "And I was wrong."

  Shaken, Cam pushed back from the table. "You think he was paying blackmail. That he diddled some student a dozen years ago and knocked her up? And now he was paying so she'd keep quiet. So she'd hand over the kid for him to raise?''

  "I'm telling you what was, and what I know." Ethan's voice was even, his eyes steady. "Not what I think."

  "I don't know what I think," Phillip said quietly. "But I know Seth's got his eyes. You only have to look at him, Cam."

  "No way he fucked with a student. And no way he cheated on Mom."

  "I don't want to believe it." Phillip set down his mug. "But he was human. He could have made a mistake." One of them had to be realistic, and he decided he was elected. "If he did, I'm not going to condemn him for it. What we have to do is figure out how to do what he asked. We have to find a way to keep Seth. I can find out if he started adoption proceedings. They couldn't be final yet. We're going to need a lawyer."

  "I want to find out more about this Gloria DeLauter." Deliberately, Cam unclenched his fists before he could use them on something, or someone. "I want to know who the hell she is. Where the hell she is."

  "Up to you." Phillip shrugged his shoulders. "Personally, I don't want to get near her."

  "What's this suicide crap?"

  Phillip and Ethan exchanged a look, then Ethan rose and walked to a kitchen drawer. He pulled it open, took out a large sealed bag. It hurt him to hold it, and he saw by the way Cam's eyes darkened that Cam recognized the worn green enameled shamrock key ring as their father's.

  "This is what was inside the car after the accident." He opened it, took out an envelope. The white paper was stained with dried blood. "I guess somebody—one of the cops, the tow truck operator, maybe one of the paramedics—looked inside and read the letter, and they didn't trouble to keep it to themselves. It's from her." Ethan tapped out the letter, held it out to Cam. "DeLauter. The postmark's Baltimore."

  "He was coming back from Baltimore." With dread,

  Cam unfolded the letter. The handwriting was a large, loopy scrawl.

  Quinn, I'm tired of playing nickel and dime. You want the kid so bad, then it's time to pay for him. Meet me where you picked him up. We'll make it Monday morning. The block's pretty quiet then. Eleven o'clock. Bring a hundred and fifty thousand, in cash. Cash money, Quinn, and no discounts. You don't come through with every penny, I'm taking the kid back. Remember, I can pull the plug on the adoption any time I want. A hundred and fifty grand's a pretty good bargain for a good-looking boy like Seth. Bring the money and I'm gone. You've got my word on it. Gloria

  "She was selling him," Cam murmured. "Like he was a—" He stopped himself, looked up sharply at Ethan as he remembered. Ethan had once been sold as well, by his own mother, to men who preferred young boys. "I'm sorry, Ethan."

  "I live with it," he said simply. "Mom and Dad made sure I could. She's not going to get Seth back. Whatever it takes, she won't get her hands on him."

  "We don't know if he paid her?"

  "He emptied his bank account here," Phillip put in. "From what I can tell—and I haven't gone over his papers in detail yet—he closed out his regular savings, cashed in his CDs. He only had a day to get the cash. That would have come to about a hundred thousand. I don't know if he had fifty more—if he had time to liquidate it if he did."

  "She wouldn't have gone away. He'd have known that." Cam put the letter down, wiped his hands on his jeans as if to clean them. "So people are whispering that he killed himself in what—shame, panic, despair? He wouldn't have left the kid alone."

  "He didn't." Ethan moved to the coffeepot. "He left him with us."

  "How the hell are we supposed to keep him?" Cam sat again. "Who's going to let us adopt anybody?"

  "We'll find a way." Ethan poured coffee, added enough sugar to make Phillip wince in reaction. "He's ours now."

  "What the hell are we going to do with him?"

  "Put him in school, put a roof over his head, food in his belly, and try to give him something of what we were given." He brought the pot over, topped off Cam's coffee. "You got an argument?"

  "Couple dozen, but none of them get past the fact that we gave our word."

  "We agree on that, anyway." Frowning, Phillip drummed his fingers on the table. "But we've left out one pretty vital point. None of us knows what Seth's going to have to say about it. He might not want to stay here. He might not want to stay with us."

  "You're just looking to complicate things, as usual," Cam complained. "Why wouldn't he?"

  "Because he doesn't know you, he barely knows me." Phillip lifted his cup and gestured. "The only one he's spent any time with is Ethan."

  "Didn't spend all that much with me," Ethan admitted. "I took him out on the boat a few times. He's got a quick mind, good hands. Doesn't have much to say for himself, but when he does, he's got a mouth on him. He's spent some time with Grace. She doesn't seem to mind him."

  "Dad wanted him to stay," Cam stated with a shrug. "He stays." He glanced over at the sound of a horn tooting three quick beeps.

  "That'll be Grace dropping him back off on her way to Shiney's Pub."

  "Shiney's?" Cam's brows shot up. "What's she doing down at Shiney's?"

  "Making a living, I expect," Ethan returned.

  "Oh, yeah." A slow grin spread. "Does he still have his waitresses dress in those little skirts with the bows on the butt and the black fishnet stockings?"

  "He does," Phillip said with a long, wistful sigh. "He does indeed."

  "Grace would fill out one of those outfits pretty well, I'd imagine."

  "She does." Phillip smiled. "She does indeed."

  "Maybe I'll just mosey down to Shiney's later."

  "Grace isn't one of your French models." Ethan pushed back from the table, took his mug and his annoyance to the sink. "Back off."

  "Whoa." Behind Ethan's back, Cam wiggled his brows at Phillip. "Backing off, bro. Didn't know you had your eye aimed in that particular direction."

  "I don't. She's a mother, for Christ's sake."

  "I had a really fine time with the mother of two in Cancun last winter," Cam remembered. "Her ex was swimming in oil—olive oil—and all she got in the divorce settlement was a Mexican villa, a couple of cars, some trinkets, art, and two million. I spent a memorable week consoling her. And the kids were cute—from a distance. With their nanny."

  "You're such a humanitarian, Cam," Phillip told him.

  "Don't I know it."

  They heard the front door slam and looked at each other. "Well, who talks to him?" Phillip wanted to know.

  "I'm no good at that kind of stuff." Ethan was already edging toward the back door. "And I've got to go feed my dog."

  "Coward," Cam muttered as the door shut at Ethan's back.

  "You bet. Me, too." Phillip was up and moving. "You get first crack. I've got those papers to go through."

  "Wait just a damn minute—"

  But Phillip was gone, and cheerfully telling Seth that Cameron wanted to talk to him. When Seth cam
e to the kitchen door, the puppy scrambling at his heels, he saw Cam scowling as he poured more whiskey in his coffee.

  Seth stuck his hands in his pockets and lifted his chin. He didn't want to be there, didn't want to talk to anybody. At Grace's he'd been able to just sit on her little stoop, be alone with his thoughts. Even when she'd come out for a little while and sat beside him with Aubrey on her knee, she'd let him be.

  Because she understood he'd wanted to be quiet.

  Now he had to deal with the man. He wasn't afraid of big hands and hard eyes. Wouldn't—couldn't—let himself be afraid. He wouldn't care that they were going to kick him loose, toss him back like one of the runt fish Ethan pulled out of the bay.

  He could take care of himself. He wasn't worried.

  His heart scrambled in his chest like a mouse in a cage.

  "What?" The single word was ripe with defiance and challenge. Seth stood, his legs locked, and waited for a reaction.

  Cam only continued to frown and sip his doctored coffee. With one hand, he absently stroked the puppy, who was trying valiantly to climb into his lap. He saw a scrawny boy wearing jeans still stiff and obviously new, a screw-you sneer, and Ray Quinn's eyes. "Sit down."

  "I can stand."

  "I didn't ask you what you could do, I told you to sit down."

  On cue, Foolish obediently plopped his fat butt on the floor and grinned. But boy and man stared at each other. The boy gave way first. It was the quick jerk of the shoulders that had Cam setting his mug down with a click. It was a Quinn gesture, through and through. Cam took a moment to settle, tried to gather his thoughts. But they remained scattered and elusive. What the hell was he supposed to say to the boy?

  "You get anything to eat?"

  Seth watched him warily from under girlishly thick lashes. "Yeah, there was stuff."

  "Ah, Ray, did he talk to you about… things. Plans for you?"

  The shoulders jerked again. "I don't know."

  "He was working on adopting you, making it legal. You knew about that."

  "He's dead."

  "Yeah." Cam picked up his coffee again, let the pain roll through. "He's dead."

  "I'm going to Florida," Seth burst out as the idea slammed into his mind.

  Cam sipped coffee, angled his head as if mildly interested. "Oh, yeah?"

  "I got some money. I figured I'd leave in the morning, catch a bus south. You can't stop me."

  "Sure I can." More comfortable now, Cam leaned back in his chair. "I'm bigger than you. What do you plan to do in Florida?"

  "I can get work. I can do lots of things."

  "Pick some pockets, sleep on the beach."

  "Maybe."

  Cam nodded. That had been his plan when his destination had been Mexico. For the first time he thought he might be able to connect with the boy after all. "I guess you can't drive yet."

  "I could if I had to."

  "Harder to boost a car these days unless you've got some experience. And you need to be mobile to keep ahead of the cops. Florida's a bad idea."

  "That's where I'm going." Seth set his jaw.

  "No, it isn't."

  "You're not sending me back." Seth lurched up from the chair, his thin frame vibrating with fear and rage. The sudden move and shout sent the puppy racing fearfully from the room. "You got no hold over me, you can't make me go back."

  "Back where?"

  "To her. I'll go right now. I'll get my stuff and I'm gone. And if you think you can stop me, you're full of shit."

  Cam recognized the stance—braced for a blow but ready to fight back. "She knock you around?"

 
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