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Inner Harbor, Page 3

Nora Roberts

  of his fingers, nursed burns from hot creosote, soaked muscles that wept after hours of lifting planks. And had not suffered in silence.

  But with this tangible result of long months of labor swaying gracefully under his feet, he had to admit it was all worth it.

  Now they were about to start all over again.

  "You and Cam made some headway this week on the next project."

  "We want to have the hull ready to turn the end of October." Ethan took out a bandanna and methodically polished Phillip's fingerprints off the gunwale. "If we're going to keep to that killer schedule you worked up. Got a little bit more to do on this one, though."

  "This one?" Eyes narrowed, Phillip tipped down his Wayfarers. "Damn it, Ethan, you said she was ready to go. The owner's coming in to take her. I was about to go in and work up the last of the papers on her."

  "Just one little detail. Have to wait for Cam."

  "What little detail?" Impatient, Phillip checked his watch. "The client's due here any minute."

  "Won't take long." Ethan nodded toward the cargo doors of the building. "Here's Cam now."

  "She's too good for this yahoo," Cam called out as he came down the narrow dock with a battery-operated drill. "I'm telling you we should get the wives and kids and sail her off to Bimini ourselves."

  "She's good enough for the final draw he's going to give us today. Once he gives me that certified check, he's the captain." Phillip waited until Cam stepped nimbly aboard. "When I get to Bimini I don't want to see either of you."

  "He's just jealous because we've got women," Cam told Ethan. "Here." He shoved the drill into Phillip's hand.

  "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?"

  "Finish her." Grinning, Cam pulled a brass cleat out of his back pocket. "We saved the last piece for you."

  "Yeah?" Absurdly touched, Phillip took the cleat, watched it wink in the sun.

  "We started her together," Ethan pointed out. "Seemed only right. It goes on the starboard."

  Phillip took the screws Cam handed him and bent over the markings on the rail. "I figured we should celebrate after." The drill whirled in his hands. "I thought about a bottle of Dom," he said, raising his voice over the noise, "but figured it'd be wasted on the two of you. So I've got three Harps chilling down in the cooler."

  They would go well, he thought, with the little surprise he was having delivered later that afternoon.

  it was nearly noon before the client had finished fussing over every inch of his new boat. Ethan had been elected to take the man out for a shakedown sail before they loaded the sloop onto its new trailer. From the dock, Phillip watched the butter-yellow sails—the client's choice—fill with the wind.

  Ethan was right, he thought. She moved.

  The sloop skimmed toward the waterfront, heeled in like a dream. He imagined the late-summer tourists would stop to watch, point out the pretty boat to each other. There was, he thought, no better advertising than a quality product.

  "He'll run her aground the first time he sails her on his own," Cam said from behind him.

  "Sure. But he'll have fun." He gave Cam a slap on the shoulder. "I'll just go write up that bill of sale."

  The old brick building they rented and had modified for the boatyard didn't boast many amenities. The lion's share was a vast open space with fluorescent lights hanging from the rafters. The windows were small and always seemed to be coated with dust.

  Power tools, lumber, equipment, gallons of epoxy and varnish and bottom paint were set up where they could be easily reached. The lofting platform was currently occupied by the bare skeleton of the hull for the custom-designed sport's fisher that was their second job.

  The walls were pitted brick and unfinished Sheetrock. Up a steep flight of iron stairs was a cramped, windowless room that served as the office.

  Despite its size and location, Phillip had it meticulously organized. The metal desk might have been a flea market special, but it was scrubbed clean. On its surface was a Month-at-a-Glance calendar, his old laptop computer, a wire in/out box, a two-line phone/answering machine and a Lucite holder for pens and pencils.

  Crowded in with the desk were two file cabinets, a personal copier, and a plain-paper fax.

  He settled in his chair and booted up the computer. The blinking light on the phone caught his eye. When he punched it for messages, he found two hang-ups and dismissed them.

  Within moments, he'd brought up the program he'd customized for the business, and found himself grinning at the logo for Boats by Quinn.

  They might be flying by the seat of their pants, he mused as he plugged in the data for the sale, but it didn't have to look that way. He'd justified the high-grade paper as an advertising expense. Desktop publishing was second nature to him. Creating stationery, receipts, bills was simple enough—he simply insisted that they have class.

  He shot the job to the printer just as the phone rang.

  "Boats by Quinn."

  There was a hesitation, then the sound of throat clearing. "Sorry, wrong number." The voice was muffled and female and quickly gone.

  "No problem, sweetheart," Phillip said to the dial tone as he plucked the printed bill of sale from the machine.

  "there goes a happy man." Cam commented an hour later when the three of them watched their client drive off with the trailered sloop.

  "We're happier." Phillip took the check out of his pocket and held it out. "Factoring in equipment, labor, overhead, supplies…" He folded the check in half again. "Well, we cleared enough to get by."

  "Try to control your enthusiasm," Cam muttered. "You got a check for five figures in your hot little hand. Let's crack open those beers."

  "The bulk of the profits have to go right back into the business," Phillip warned as they started inside. "Once the cold weather hits, our utility bill's going to go through the roof." He glanced up at the soaring ceiling. "Literally. And we've got quarterly taxes due next week."

  Cam twisted the top off a bottle and pushed it at his brother. "Shut up, Phil."

  "However," Phillip continued, ignoring him, "this is a fine moment in Quinn history." He lifted his beer, tapped the bottle to both Cam's and Ethan's. "To our foot doctor, the first of many happy clients. May he sail clean and heal many bunions."

  "May he tell all his friends to call Boats by Quinn," Cam added.

  "May he sail in Annapolis and keep out of my part of the Bay," Ethan finished with a shake of his head.

  "Who's springing for lunch?" Cam wanted to know. "I'm starving."

  "Grace made sandwiches," Ethan told him. "They're out in my cooler."

  "God bless her."

  "Might want to put off lunch just a bit." Phillip heard the sound of tires on gravel. "I think what I've been waiting for just got here." He strolled out, pleased to see the delivery truck.

  The driver leaned out the window, worked a wad of gum into his cheek. "Quinn?"

  "That's right."

  "What'd you buy now?" Cam frowned at the truck, wondering how much of that brand-new check was flying away.

  "Something we need. He's going to need a hand with it."

  "You got that right." The driver huffed as he climbed out of the cab. "Took three of us to load her up. Son of a bitch weighs two hundred pounds if it weighs an ounce."

  He hauled open the back doors. It lay on the bed on top of a padded cloth. It was easily ten feet long, six high, and three inches thick. Carved in simple block letters into treated oak were the words BOATS BY QUINN. A detailed image of a wooden skiff in full sail rode the top corner.

  Lining the bottom corner were the names Cameron, Ethan, Phillip, and Seth Quinn.

  "That's a damn fine sign," Ethan managed when he could find the words.

  "I took one of Seth's sketches for the skiff. The same one we use for the logo on the letterhead. Put the design together on the computer at work." Phillip reached in to run a thumb along the side of the oak. "The sign company did a pretty good job of reproducing it."
  "It's great." Cam rested his hand on Phillip's shoulder. "One of the details we've been missing. Christ, the kid's going to flip when he sees it."

  "I put us down the way we came along. Works out alphabetical and chronological. I wanted to keep it clean and simple." He stepped back, his hands sliding into his pockets in an unconscious mirroring of his brothers' stances. "I thought this fit the building and what we're doing in it."

  "It's good." Ethan nodded. "It's right."

  The driver shoved at his gum again. "Well, you guys gonna admire it all day, or you want to get this heavy bastard out of the truck?"

  they made a picture, she thought. Three exceptional specimens of the male species engaged in manual labor on a warm afternoon in early September. The building certainly suited them. It was rough, the old brick faded and pitted, the grounds around it scrabbly—more weeds than grass.

  Three different looks as well. One of the men was dark, with his hair long enough to pull back in a short ponytail. His jeans were black, fading to gray. There was something vaguely European about his style. She decided he would be Cameron Quinn, the one who'd made a name for himself on the racing circuit.

  The second wore scuffed work boots that looked ancient. His sun-streaked hair tumbled out of a blue-billed ball cap. He moved fluidly and lifted his end of the sign with no visible effort. He would be Ethan Quinn, the waterman.

  Which meant the third man was Phillip Quinn, the advertising executive, who worked at the top firm in Baltimore. He looked gilded, she thought. Wayfarers and Levi's, she mused. Bronzed hair that must be a joy to his stylist. A long, trim body that must see regular workouts at the health club.

  Interesting. Physically they bore no resemblance to each other and through her research she knew they shared a name but not blood. Yet there was something in the body language, in the way they moved as a team, that indicated they were brothers.

  She intended simply to pass by, to give the building where they based their business a quick look and evaluation. Though she'd known that at least one of them would be there, since he'd answered the phone, she hadn't expected to see them outside, as a group, to have this opportunity to study them.

  She was a woman who appreciated the unexpected.

  Nerves shimmered in her stomach. Out of habit, she took three slow breaths and rolled her shoulders to relax them. Casual, she reminded herself. There was nothing to be uneasy about. After all, she had the advantage here. She knew them; and they didn't know her.

  It was typical behavior, she decided as she crossed the street. A person strolling along and seeing three men working to hang an impressive new sign would display curiosity and interest. Particularly a small-town tourist, which was, for this purpose, what she was. She was also a single female, and they were three very attractive men. A mild flirtation would be typical as well.

  Still, when she reached the front of the building, she stood back. It seemed to be difficult and precarious work. The sign was bolted to thick black chains and wrapped in rope. They'd worked out a pulley system, with the ad exec on the roof guiding and his brothers on the ground hauling. Encouragement, curses, and directions were issued with equal enthusiasm.

  There were certainly a lot of muscles rippling, she observed with a lift of her brow.

  "Your end, Cam. Give me another inch. Goddamn." Grunting, Phillip dropped onto his belly and squirmed out far enough that she held her breath and waited for gravity to do its work.

  But he managed to balance himself and snag the chain. She could see his mouth working as he fought to loop the heavy link around a thick hook, but she couldn't hear what he was saying. She thought that might be for the best.

  "Got it. Hold it steady," he ordered, rising to tightwalk his way across the eaves to the other end. The sun struck his hair, gleamed over his skin. She caught herself goggling. This, she thought, was a prime example of sheer male beauty.

  Then he was bellying over the edge again, grabbing for the chain, hauling it into place. And swearing ripely. When he rose, he scowled at the long tear down the front of his shirt where she supposed it had caught on something on the roof.

  "I just bought this sucker."

  "It was real pretty, too," Cam called up.

  "Kiss my ass," Phillip suggested and tugged the shirt off to use it to mop sweat off his face.

  Oh, well, now, she thought, appreciating the view on a purely personal level. The young American god, she decided. Designed to make females drool.

  He hooked the ruined shirt in his back pocket, started for the ladder. And that's when he spotted her. She couldn't see his eyes, but she could tell by the momentary pause, the angle of the head, that he was looking at her. The evaluation would be instinctive, she knew. Male sees female, studies, considers, decides.

  He'd seen her all right and, as he started down the ladder, was already considering. And hoping for a closer look. "We've got company," Phillip murmured, and Cam glanced over his shoulder.

  "Hmmm. Very nice."

  "Been there ten minutes." Ethan dusted his hands on his hips. "Watching the show."

  Phillip stepped off the ladder, turned and smiled. "So," he called out to her, "how's it look?"

  Curtain up, she thought and started forward. "Very impressive. I hope you don't mind the audience. I couldn't resist."

  "Not at all. It's a big day for the Quinns." He held out a hand. "I'm Phillip."

  "I'm Sybill. And you build boats."

  "That's what the sign says."

  "Fascinating. I'm spending some time in the area. I hadn't expected to stumble across boatbuilders. What sort of boats do you build?"

  "Wooden sailing vessels."

  "Really?" She turned her easy smile toward his brothers. "And you're partners?"

  "Cam." He returned the smile, jerked a thumb. "My brother Ethan."

  "Nice to meet you. Cameron," she began, shifting her gaze to read from the sign. "Ethan, Phillip." Her heartbeat accelerated, but she kept the polite smile in place. "Where's Seth?"

  "In school," Phillip told her.

  "Oh, college?"

  "Middle. He's ten."

  "I see." There were scars on his chest, she saw now. Old and shiny and riding dangerously close to his heart. "You have a very impressive sign, Boats by Quinn. I'd love to drop by sometime and see you and your brothers at work."

  "Anytime. How long are you staying in St. Chris?"

  "Depends. It was nice to meet you all." Time to retreat, she decided. Her throat was dry, her pulse unsteady. "Good luck with your boats."

  "Drop by tomorrow," Phillip suggested as she walked away. "Catch all four Quinns at work."

  She shot a look over her shoulder that she hoped revealed nothing more than amused interest. "I might just do that."

  Seth, she thought, careful now to keep her eyes straight ahead. He'd just given her the open door to see Seth the following day.

  Cam gave a quiet and male hum. "I gotta say, there's a woman who knows how to walk."

  "Yes, indeed." Phillip hooked his hands in his pockets and enjoyed the view. Slim hips and slender legs in breezy maize-colored slacks, a snug little shirt the color of limes tucked into a narrow waist. A sleek and swinging fall of mink-colored hair just skimming strong shoulders.

  And the face had been just as attractive. A classic oval with peaches-and-cream skin, a mobile and shapely mouth tinted with a soft, soft pink. Sexy eyebrows, he mused, dark and well arched. He hadn't been able to see the eyes under them, not through the trendy wire-framed sunglasses. They might be dark to match the hair, or light for contrast.

  And that smooth contralto voice had set the whole package off nicely.

  "You guys going to stand there watching that woman's butt all day?" Ethan wanted to know.

  "Yeah, like you didn't notice it." Cam snorted.

  "I noticed. I'm just not making a career out of it. Aren't we going to get anything done around here?"

  "In a minute," Phillip murmured, smiling to himself when she turned the c
orner and disappeared. "Sybill. I sure hope you hang around St. Chris for a while."

  she didn't know how long she would stay. Her time was her own. She could work where she chose, and for now she'd chosen this little water town on Maryland's southern Eastern Shore. Nearly all of her life had been spent in cities, initially because her parents had preferred them and then because she had.

  New York, Boston, Chicago, Paris, London, Milan. She understood the urban landscape and its inhabitants. The fact was, Dr. Sybill Griffin had made a career out of the study of urban life. She'd gathered degrees in anthropology, sociology, and psychology along the way. Four years at Harvard, postgraduate work at Oxford, a doctorate from Columbia.

  She'd thrived in academia, and now, six months before her thirtieth birthday, she could write her own ticket. Which was precisely what she'd chosen to do for a living. Write.

  Her first book, Urban Landscape, had been well received, earned her critical acclaim and a modest income. But her second, Familiar Strangers, had rocketed onto the national lists, had taken her into the whirlwind of book tours, lectures, talk shows. Now that PBS was producing a documentary series based on her observations and theories of city life and customs, she was much more than financially secure. She was independent.

  Her publisher had been open to her idea of a book on the dynamics and traditions of small towns. Initially, she'd considered it merely a cover, an excuse to travel to St. Christopher's, to spend time there on personal business.

  But then she'd begun to think it through. It would make an interesting study. After all, she was a trained observer and skilled at documenting those observations.

  Work might save her nerves in any case, she considered, pacing her pretty little hotel suite. Certainly it would be easier and more productive to approach this entire trip as a kind of project. She needed time, objectivity, and access to the subjects involved.

  Thanks to convenient circumstance, it appeared she had all three now.

  She stepped out onto the two-foot slab that the hotel loftily called a terrace. It offered a stunning view of the Chesapeake Bay and intriguing glimpses of life on the waterfront. Already she'd watched workboats chug into dock and unload tanks of the blue crabs the area was famous for. She'd watched the crab pickers at work, the sweep of gulls, the flight of egrets, but she had yet to wander into any of the little shops.

  She wasn't in St. Chris for souvenirs.

  Perhaps she would drag a table near the window and work with that view. When the breeze was right she could catch snippets of voices, a slower, more fluid dialect than she heard on the streets of New York, where she'd based herself for the last few years.

  Not quite Southern, she thought, such as you would hear in Atlanta or Mobile or Charleston, but a long way from the clipped tones and hard consonants of the North.

  On some sunny afternoons she could sit on one of the little iron benches that dotted the waterfront and watch the little world that had formed here out of water and fish and human sweat.

  She would see how a small community of people like this, based on the Bay and tourists, interacted. What traditions, what habits, what clichés ran through them. Styles, she mused, of dress, of movements, of speech. Inhabitants so rarely realized how they conformed to unspoken rules of behavior dictated by place.

  Rules, rules, rules. They existed everywhere. Sybill believed in them absolutely.

  What rules did the Quinns live by? she wondered. What type of glue had fashioned them into a family? They would, of course, have their own codes, their own short-speak, with a pecking order and a reward and discipline standard.

  Where and how would Seth fit into it?

  Finding out, discreetly, was a priority.

  There was no reason for the Quinns to know who she was, to suspect her