Inner harbor, p.5
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       Inner Harbor, p.5

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  slipped through the cracks during the week.

  When you added it all up, he mused, it didn't leave much time for cozy dinners with attractive women, much less the ritual of slipping between the sheets with those women.

  Which explained his recent restlessness and moodiness, he supposed. When a man's sex life virtually vanished, he was bound to get a little edgy.

  The house was dark but for the single beam of the porch light when he pulled into the drive. Barely midnight on Friday night, he thought with a sigh. How the mighty have fallen. There would have been a time when he and his brothers would have been out cruising, looking for action. Well, he and Cam would have dragged Ethan along, but once they'd hounded him into it, Ethan would have held up his end.

  The Quinn boys hadn't spent many Friday nights snoozing.

  These days, he thought as he climbed out of the Jeep, Cam would be upstairs cozied up to his wife and Ethan would be tucked into Grace's little house. Undoubtedly they both had smiles on their faces.

  Lucky bastards.

  Knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep, he skirted the house and walked to where the edge of the trees met the edge of the water.

  The moon was a fat ball riding the night sky. It shed its soft white light over the dark water, wet eelgrass, and thick leaves.

  Cicadas were singing in their high, monotonous voices, and deep in those thick woods, an owl called out in tireless two-toned notes.

  Perhaps he preferred the sounds of the city, voices and traffic muffled through glass. But he never failed to find this spot appealing. Though he missed the city's pace, the theater and museums, the eclectic mix of food and people, he could appreciate the peace and the stability found right here day after day. Year after year.

  Without it, he had no doubt he would have found his way back to the gutter. And died there.

  "You always wanted more for yourself than that."

  The chill washed through him, from gut to fingertips. Where he had been standing, staring out at the moonlight showering through the trees, he was now staring at his father. The father he'd buried six months before.

  "I only had one beer," he heard himself say.

  "You're not drunk, son." Ray stepped forward so that the moonlight shimmered over his dramatic mane of silver hair and into the brilliant blue eyes that were bright with humor. "You're going to want to breathe now, before you pass out."

  Phillip let out his breath in a whoosh, but his ears continued to ring. "I'm going to sit down now." He did, slowly, like a creaky old man, easing himself down onto the grass. "I don't believe in ghosts," he said to the water, "or reincarnation, the afterlife, visitations, or any form of psychic phenomenon."

  "You always were the most pragmatic of the lot. Nothing was real unless you could see it, touch it, smell it."

  Ray sat beside him with a contented sigh and stretched out long legs clad in frayed jeans. He crossed his ankles, and on his feet were the well-worn Dock-Sides that Phillip himself had packed into a box for the Salvation Army nearly six months before.

  "Well," Ray said cheerfully, "you're seeing me, aren't you?"

  "No. I'm having an episode most likely resulting from sexual deprivation and overwork."

  "I won't argue with you. It's too pretty a night."

  "I haven't reached closure yet," Phillip said to himself. "I'm still angry over the way he died, and why, and all the unanswered questions. So I'm projecting."

  "I figured you'd be the toughest nut of the three. Always had an answer for everything. I know you've got questions, too. And I know you've got anger. You're entitled. You've had to change your life and take on responsibilities that shouldn't have been yours. But you did it, and I'm grateful."

  "I don't have time for therapy right now. There's no place on the schedule to fit sessions in."

  Ray let out a hoot of laughter. "Boy, you're not drunk, and you're not crazy either. You're just stubborn. Why don't you use that flexible mind of yours, Phillip, and consider a possibility?"

  Bracing himself, Phillip turned his head. It was his father's face, wide and lined with life and filled with humor. Those bright-blue eyes were dancing, the silver hair ruffling in the night air. "This is an impossibility."

  "Some people said when your mother and I took you and your brothers in, that it was an impossibility we'd make a family, make a difference. They were wrong. If we'd listened to them, if we'd gone by logic, none of you would have been ours. But fate doesn't give a horse's ass about logic. It just is. And you were meant to be ours."

  "Okay." Phillip shot out a hand and jerked it back in shock. "How could I do that? How could I touch you if you're a ghost?"

  "Because you need to." Casually, Ray gave Phillip's shoulder a quick pat. "I'm here, for the next little while."

  Phillip's throat filled even as his stomach tightened into knots. "Why?"

  "I didn't finish. I left it up to you and your brothers. I'm sorry for that, Phillip."

  It wasn't happening, of course, Phillip told himself. He was probably in the first stages of a minor breakdown. He could feel the air against his face, warm and moist. The cicadas were still shrilling, the owl still hooting.

  If he was having an episode, he thought again, it seemed only right to play it out. "They're trying to say it was suicide," he said slowly. "The insurance company's fighting the claim."

  "I hope you know that's bullshit. I was careless, distracted. I had an accident." There was an edge to Ray's voice now, an impatience and annoyance that Phillip recognized. "I wouldn't have taken the easy way. And I had the boy to think about."

  "Is Seth your son?"

  "I can tell you that he belongs to me."

  Both his head and his heart ached as he turned to stare out at the water again. "Mom was still alive when he was conceived."

  "I know that. I was never unfaithful to your mother."

  "Then how—"

  "You need to accept him, for himself. I know you care for him. I know you're doing your best by him. You have that last step to take. Acceptance. He needs you, all of you."

  "Nothing's going to happen to him," Phillip said grimly. "We'll see to that."

  "He'll change your life, if you let him."

  Phillip let out a short laugh. "Believe me, he already has."

  "In a way that will make your life better. Don't close yourself off to those possibilities. And don't worry too much about this little visit." Ray patted him companionably on the knee. "Talk to your brothers."

  "Yeah, like I'm going to tell them I sat outside in the middle of the night and talked to…" He looked over, saw nothing but the moonlight on the trees.

  "Nobody," he finished and wearily laid down on the grass to stare up at the moon. "God, I need a vacation."

  Chapter Four

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  it wouldn't do to appear too anxious, Sybill reminded herself. Or to get there too early. It had to be casual. She had to be relaxed.

  She decided not to take her car. It would look more like a careless visit if she walked down from the waterfront. And if she included the visit to the boatyard in an afternoon of shopping and wandering, it would appear more impulsive than calculated.

  To calm herself, she roamed the waterfront. A pretty Indian-summer Saturday morning drew tourists. They poked and strolled along as she did, dropping into the little shops, pausing to watch boats sail or motor on the Bay. No one seemed to be in a particular hurry or have a specific destination.

  That in itself, she mused, made an interesting contrast to the usual urban Saturday when even the tourists seemed to be in a rush to get from one place to the next.

  It would be something to consider and analyze and perhaps theorize over in her book. And because she did find it interesting, she slipped her mini recorder out of her bag and murmured a few verbal notes and observations.

  "Families appear to be relaxed rather than harried or desperately seeking the entertainment they've traveled to find. The natives seem to be friendly an
d patient. Life is slow to reflect the pace set by the people who make their living here."

  The little shops weren't doing what she'd term a bustling business, yet the merchants didn't have that anxious and sly-eyed look prevalent among the vendors where the crowds were thick and the wallets tightly guarded.

  She bought a few postcards for friends and associates in New York, then, more out of habit than need, selected a book on the history of the area. It would help her in her research, she imagined. She lingered over a pewter fairy with a teardrop crystal hanging from her elegant fingers. But she resisted it, firmly reminding herself that she could purchase any sort of foolishness she wanted in New York.

  Crawford's appeared to be a popular spot, so she strolled in and treated herself to an ice cream cone. It gave her something to do with her hands as she walked the few blocks to Boats by Quinn.

  She appreciated the value of props. Everyone used them in the continuing play of living, she thought. A glass at a cocktail party, a paperback book on the subway. Jewelry, she realized when she caught herself twisting her necklace around her nervous fingers.

  She dropped the chain, and concentrated on enjoying her scoop of raspberry sherbet.

  It didn't take long to walk to the outskirts of town. She calculated that the waterfront area ran for barely a mile from end to end.

  The neighborhoods ran west from the water. Narrow streets with tidy houses and tiny lawns. Low fences designed as much for backyard gossiping, she mused, as for boundary lines. Trees were large and leafy, still holding the deep, dark green of summer. It would be, she thought, an attractive sight when they turned with autumn.

  Kids played in yards or rode bikes along the sloping sidewalks. She saw a teenage boy lovingly waxing an old Chevy compact, singing in a loud, just-out-of-tune voice to whatever played through his headphones.

  A long-legged mutt with floppy ears rushed a fence as she passed, barking in deep, rusty clips. Her heart did a quick dance when he planted his huge paws on the top of the fence. And she kept walking.

  She didn't know much about dogs.

  She spotted Phillip's Jeep in the pothole-filled parking lot beside the boatyard. An aging pickup truck kept it company. The doors and several of the windows of the building were wide open. Through them came the buzz of saws and the Southern rock beat of John Fogerty.

  Okay, Sybill, she thought and took a deep breath as she carefully swallowed the last of her cone. Now or never.

  She stepped inside and found herself momentarily distracted by the look of the place. It was huge, and dusty and bright as a spotlighted stage. The Quinns were hard at work, with Ethan and Cam fitting a long, bent plank into place on what she assumed was a hull in progress. Phillip stood at a big, dangerous-looking power saw, running lumber through it.

  She didn't see Seth.

  For a moment she simply watched and wondered if she should slip back out again. If her nephew wasn't there, it would be more sensible to postpone the visit until she was sure he was.

  He might be away for the day with friends. Did he have any friends? Or he could be home. Did he consider it his home?

  Before she could decide, the saw switched off, leaving only John Fogerty crooning about a brown-eyed, handsome man. Phillip stepped back, pushed up his safety goggles, turned. And saw her.

  His smile of welcome came so quickly, so sincerely, that she had to clamp down on a hard tug of guilt. "I'm interrupting." She raised her voice to compete with the music.

  "Thank God." Dusting his hands on his jeans, Phillip started toward her. "I've been stuck with looking at these guys all day. You're a big improvement."

  "I decided to play tourist." She jiggled the shopping bag she carried. "And I thought I'd take you up on the offer of a tour."

  "I was hoping you would."

  "So…" Deliberately, she shifted her gaze to the hull. It was safer, she decided, than looking into those tawny eyes for any length of time. "That's a boat?"

  "It's a hull. Or will be." He took her hand, drew her forward. "It's going to be a sport's fisher."

  "Which is?"

  "One of those fancy boats men like to go out on to act manly, fish for marlin, and drink beer."

  "Hey, Sybill." Cam shot her a grin. "Want a job?"

  She looked at the tools, the sharp edges, the heavy lumber. "I don't think so." It was easy to smile back, to look over at Ethan. "It looks like the three of you know what you're doing."

  "We know what we're doing." Cam wiggled his thumb between himself and Ethan. "We keep Phillip around for entertainment."

  "I'm not appreciated around here."

  She laughed and began to circle the hull. She could understand the basic shape but not the process. "I assume this is upside down."

  "Good eye." Phillip only grinned when she cocked an eyebrow. "After she's planked, we'll turn her and start on the decking."

  "Are your parents boatbuilders?"

  "No, my mother was a doctor, my father a college professor. But we grew up around boats."

  She heard it in his voice, the affection, the not-quite-settled grief. And hated herself. She'd intended to ask him more about his parents in some detail, but couldn't. "I've never been on a boat."

  "Ever?"

  "I imagine there are several million people in the world who haven't."

  "Want to?"

  "Maybe. I've enjoyed watching the boats from my hotel window." As she studied it, the hull became a puzzle she needed to solve. "How do you know where to begin to build this? I assume you work from a design, blueprints or schematics or whatever you call it."

  "Ethan's been doing the bulk of the design work. Cam fiddles with it. Seth draws it up."

  "Seth." Her fingers tightened on the strap of her purse. Props, she thought again. "Didn't you say he was in middle school?"

  "That's right. The kid's got a real talent for drawing. Check these out."

  Now she heard pride and it flustered her. Struggling for composure, she followed him to a far wall, where drawings of boats were roughly framed in raw wood. They were good—very, very good. Clever sketches done with pencil and care and talent.

  "He… A young boy drew these?"

  "Yes. Pretty great, huh? This is the one we just finished." He tapped a hand on the glass. "And this one's what we're working on now."

  "He's very talented," she murmured around the lump in her throat. "He has excellent perspective."

  "Do you draw?"

  "A little, now and then. Just a hobby." She had to turn away to settle herself. "It relaxes me, and it helps in my work." Determined to smile again, she tossed her hair over her shoulder and aimed a bright, easy one at Phillip. "So, where's the artist today?"

  "Oh, he's—"

  He broke off as two dogs raced into the building. Sybill took an instinctive step back as the smaller of the two made a beeline in her direction. She made some strangled sound of distress just as Phillip jabbed out a finger and issued a sharp command.

  "Hold it, you idiot. No jumping. No jumping," he repeated, but Foolish's forward motion proved too much for all of them. He was already up, already had his paws planted just under Sybill's breasts. She staggered a bit, seeing only big, sharp teeth bared in what she took for fierceness rather than a sloppy doggie grin.

  "Nice dog," she managed in a stutter. "Good dog."

  "Stupid dog," Phillip corrected and hauled Foolish down by the collar. "No manners. Sit. Sorry," he said to Sybill when the dog obligingly plopped down and offered his paw. "He's Foolish."

  "Well, he's enthusiastic."

  "No, Foolish is his name—and his personality. He'll stay like that until you shake his paw."

  "Oh. Hmm." Gingerly she took the paw with two fingers.

  "He won't bite." Phillip angled his head, noting there was a good deal more distress than irritation in her eyes. "Sorry—are you afraid of dogs?"

  "I… maybe a little—of large, strange dogs."

  "He's strange, all right. The other one's Simon, and he's consi
derably more polite." Phillip scratched Simon's ears as the dog sat calmly studying Sybill. "He's Ethan's. The idiot belongs to Seth."

  "I see." Seth had a dog, was all she could think as Foolish offered his paw yet again, eyeing her with what appeared abject adoration. "I don't know very much about dogs, I'm afraid."

  "These are Chesapeake Bay retrievers—or Foolish mostly is. We're not sure what else he is. Seth, call off your dog before he slobbers all over the lady's shoes."

  Sybill lifted her head quickly and saw the boy just inside the doorway. The sun was streaming at his back, and it cast his face into shadows. She saw only a tall, slightly built boy carrying a large brown bag and wearing a black-and-orange ball cap.

  "He doesn't slobber much. Hey, Foolish!"

  Instantly, both dogs scrambled to their feet and raced across the room. Seth waded through them, carrying the bag to a makeshift table fashioned from a sheet of plywood laid over two sawhorses.

  "I don't know why I have to always go up for lunch and stuff," he complained.

  "Because we're bigger than you," Cam told him and dived into the bag. "You get me the cold-cut sub loaded?"

  "Yeah, yeah."

  "Where's my change?"

  Seth pulled a liter of Pepsi out of the bag, cracked the top and guzzled straight from the bottle. Then he grinned. "What change?"

  "Look, you little thief, I've got at least two bucks coming back."

  "Don't know what you're talking about. You must've forgotten to add on the carrying charges again."

  Cam made a grab for him, and Seth danced agilely away, hooting with laughter.

  "Brotherly love," Phillip said easily. "That's why I make sure I only give the kid the right change. You never see a nickel back otherwise. Want some lunch?"

  "No, I…" She couldn't take her eyes off Seth, knew she had to. He was talking with Ethan now, making wide, exaggerated gestures with his free hand while his dog took quick, playful leaps at his fingers. "I had something already. But you go ahead."

  "A drink, then. Did you get my water, kid?"

  "Yeah, fancy water. Waste of money. Man, Crawford's was packed."

  Crawford's. With a sensation she couldn't quite define, Sybill realized they might have been in the store at the same time. Might have walked right by each other. She would have passed him on the street without a clue.

  Seth glanced from Phillip to Sybill, studied her with mild interest. "You buying a boat?"

  "No." He didn't recognize her, she thought. Of course he wouldn't. He'd been hardly more than a baby the only time they'd seen each other. There was no stunned familial awareness in his eyes, any more than there would have been in hers. But she knew. "I'm just looking around."

  "That's cool." He went back to the bag and pulled out his own sandwich.

  "Ah…" Talk to him, she ordered herself. Say something. Anything. "Phillip was just showing me your drawings. They're wonderful."

  "They're okay." He jerked a shoulder, but she thought she saw a faint flush of pleasure on his cheeks. "I could do better, but they're always rushing me."

 
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