Inner harbor, p.6
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       Inner Harbor, p.6

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  Casually—she hoped it was casually—she crossed to him. She could see him clearly now. His eyes were blue, but a deeper, darker blue than hers or her sister's. His hair was a darker blond than the little boy's in the picture she carried. He'd been nearly a towhead at four, and now his hair was a richer blond and very straight.

  The mouth, she thought. Wasn't there some resemblance around the mouth and chin?

  "Is that what you want to be?" She needed to keep him talking. "An artist?"

  "Maybe, but that's mostly for kicks." He took a huge bite of his sandwich, then talked through it. "We're boatbuilders."

  His hands were far from clean, she noted, and his face wasn't much better. She imagined such niceties as washing up before meals went by the wayside in a household of males. "Maybe you'll go into design work."

  "Seth, this is Dr. Sybill Griffin." Phillip offered Sybill a plastic cup of bubbling water over ice. "She writes books."

  "Like stories?"

  "Not exactly," she told him. "Like observations. Right now I'm spending some time in the area, observing."

  He wiped his mouth with a swipe from the back of his hand. The hand Foolish had enthusiastically licked, before and after, Sybill noted with an inward wince.

  "You going to do a book about boats?" he asked her.

  "No, about people. People who live in small towns, and right now people who live in small towns by the water. How do you like it—living here, I mean?"

  "I like it okay. Living in the city sucks." He picked up the soft drink bottle, glugged again. "People who live there are nuts." He grinned. "Like Phil."

  "You're a peasant, Seth. I worry about you."

  With a snort, Seth bit into his sandwich again. "I'm going out on the dock. We got some ducks hanging out."

  He bounced out, dogs trailing behind him.

  "Seth's got very definite opinions," Phillip said dryly. "I guess the world's pretty black and white when you're ten."

  "He doesn't care for the urban experience." Nerves, she noted, had been drowned out by sheer curiosity. "Has he spent time with you in Baltimore?"

  "No. He lived there for a while with his mother." His tone had darkened, making Sybill raise an eyebrow. "Part of that long story I mentioned."

  "I believe I mentioned I'd enjoy hearing it."

  "Then have dinner with me tonight, and we'll exchange those life stories."

  She looked toward the cargo doors. Seth had gone out through them, very much at home. She needed to spend more time with him. Observing. And, she decided, she needed to hear what the Quinns had to say about the situation. Why not start with Phillip?

  "All right. I'd like that."

  "I'll pick you up at seven."

  She shook her head. He seemed perfectly safe, perfectly fine, but she knew better than to take chances. "No, I'll meet you there. Where's the restaurant?"

  "I'll write it down for you. We can start the tour in my office."

  it was easy enough, and she had to admit it was interesting. The tour itself didn't take long. Other than the huge work area, there was little to the boatyard—just Phillip's closet-size office, a small bathroom, and a dark, dingy storeroom.

  It was obvious even to the untrained eye that the work center of the operation was its heart and soul.

  It was Ethan who patiently instructed her on smooth-lap planking, about waterlines and bow shapes. She thought he would have made an excellent teacher, with his clear, simple phrasing and willingness to answer what must have been very basic questions.

  She watched, genuinely fascinated, as the men held timber in a box and pumped out steam until the plank bowed into the shape they desired. Cam demonstrated how the ends were rabbeted together to form the smooth joints.

  Watching Cam with Seth, she was forced to admit there was a definite bond between them. If she had come across them knowing nothing, she would have assumed they were brothers, or perhaps father and son. It was all in the attitude, she decided.

  Then again, they had an audience, she mused, and were likely on their best behavior.

  She would see how they acted once they became used to her.

  cam let out a long, low whistle when Sybill left the building. He wiggled his eyebrows meaningfully at Phillip. "Very nice, bro. Very nice, indeed."

  Phillip flashed a grin, then lifted his bottle of water to his lips. "Can't complain."

  "She going to be around long enough to, ah…"

  "If there's a God."

  Seth laid a plank down by the saw, let out a huff. "Shit, you mean you're going to start poking at her? Is that all you guys think about?"

  "Other than pounding on you?" Phillip whipped off Seth's hat and bopped the boy over the head with it. "Sure, what else?"

  "You guys are always getting married," Seth said in disgust and tried to grab his hat.

  "I don't want to marry her, I just want to have a nice, civilized dinner with her."

  "Then bounce on her," Seth finished.

  "Christ. He gets that from you," Phillip accused Cam.

  "He came that way." Cam wrapped an arm around Seth's neck. "Didn't you, brat?"

  The panic didn't come now, as it used to whenever Seth was touched or held. Instead he wriggled and grinned. "At least I think of something besides girls all the time. You guys are really lame."

  "Lame?" Phillip put Seth's hat on his own head to free his hands, then rubbed them together. "Let's toss this runt fish off the dock."

  "Can you do that later?" Ethan asked while Seth shouted in wild and delighted objection. "Or do I have to build this damn boat by myself?"

  "Later, then." Phillip leaned down until he and Seth were nose to nose. "And you won't know when, you won't know where, you won't know why."

  "Man, I'm shaking now."

  i saw seth today.

  At her laptop, Sybill gnawed her bottom lip, then deleted the first sentence she'd typed.

  I made contact with the subject this afternoon.

  Better, she decided. More objective. To approach this situation properly, it would be best if she thought of Seth as the subject.

  There was no recognition on either side. This is, of course, as expected. He appears to be healthy. He's attractive, slimly built yet sturdy. Gloria was always thin, so I suspect he's inherited her basic body type. He's blond, as she is—or was when I last saw her.

  He seemed to be comfortable with me. I'm aware that some children are shy around strangers. That doesn't appear to be the case here.

  Though he was not at the boatyard when I arrived, he came in shortly after. He'd been sent to the store for lunch. From the ensuing complaints and conversation, I can assume he is often expected to run errands. This could be construed two ways. One that the Quinns take advantage of having a young boy available and use him accordingly. Or two, that they are instilling a sense of responsibility.

  The truth likely resides in the middle.

  He has a dog. I believe this to be a usual, even traditional occurrence for a child living in suburban or rural areas.

  He also has a talent for drawing. I was somewhat taken by surprise by this. I have some talent for it myself, as does my mother. Gloria, however, never showed any skill or interest in art. This shared interest may be a way to develop a rapport with the boy. It will be necessary to have some time alone with him to assist me in choosing the correct course to take.

  The subject is, in my opinion, comfortable with the Quinns. He seems to be content and secure. There is, however, a certain roughness, a mild crudeness in him. Several times during the hour or so I spent with him, I heard him swear. Once or twice he was rather absently corrected, otherwise his language was ignored.

  He was not required to wash his hands before eating, nor did any of the Quinns correct him for speaking with his mouth full or for feeding the dogs bits of his lunch. His manners are by no means appalling, but they are far from strictly polite.

  He mentioned preferring living here to the city. In fact, he was most disdainful of urban li
fe. I have agreed to have dinner with Phillip Quinn tonight and will urge him to tell me the facts of how Seth came to be with the Quinns.

  How those facts agree with, and differ from, the facts

  I received from Gloria will help me assimilate the situation.

  The next step will be to obtain an invitation to the Quinn house. I'm very interested to see where the boy is living, to see him and the Quinns on this stage. And to meet the women who are now a part of his foster family.

  I hesitate to contact Social Services and identify myself until I have completed this personal study.

  Sybill sat back, tapping her fingers on the desk as she skimmed over her notes. It was so little, really, she thought. And her own fault. She'd thought she was prepared for that first meeting, but she wasn't.

  Seeing him had left her dry-mouthed and sad. The boy was her nephew, her family. Yet they were strangers. And wasn't that nearly as much her fault as it was Gloria's? Had she ever really tried to make a connection, to bring him into her life?

  True, she had rarely known where he was, but had she ever gone out of her way to find him, or her sister?

  The few times Gloria had contacted her over the years for money, always for money, she had asked about Seth. But hadn't she simply taken Gloria's word that the child was fine? Had she ever demanded to speak with him, to see him?

  Hadn't it simply been easier for her to send money over the wire and forget about them again?

  Easier, she admitted. Because the one time she had let him in, the one time she had let herself open her home and her heart, he'd been taken away. And she had suffered.

  This time she would do something. She would do whatever was right, whatever was best. She wouldn't allow herself to become too emotionally involved, however. After all, he wasn't her child. If Gloria retained custody, he would still move out of her life again.

  But she would make the effort, take the time, see that he was situated well. Then she would get on with her life and her work.

  Satisfied, she saved the document and shifted to another to continue her notes for her book. Before she could begin, the phone on her desk rang.

  "Yes. Dr. Griffin."

  "Sybill. It took me a great deal of time and trouble to track you down."

  "Mother." On a long sigh Sybill closed her eyes. "Hello."

  "Would you mind telling me what you're doing?"

  "Not at all. I'm researching a new book. How are you? How's Father?"

  "Please, don't insult my intelligence. I thought we'd agreed you would stay out of this sordid little affair."

  "No." As it always did when faced with a family confrontation, Sybill's stomach pitched. "We agreed that you would prefer I stay out of it. I decided I prefer not to. I've seen Seth."

  "I'm not interested in Gloria, or her son."

  "I am. I'm sorry that upsets you."

  "Can you expect it to do otherwise? Your sister has chosen her own life and is no longer a part of mine. I will not be dragged into this."

  "I have no intention of dragging you into this." Resigned, Sybill reached into her purse and found the small cloisonné box she used to store aspirin. "No one knows who I am. And even if I'm connected to Dr. and Mrs. Walter Griffin, that hardly follows to Gloria and Seth DeLauter."

  "It can be followed, if anyone becomes interested enough to pursue it. You can't accomplish anything by staying there and interfering in this situation, Sybill. I want you to leave. Go back to New York, or come here to Paris. Perhaps you'll listen to your father if not to me."

  Sybill washed down the aspirin with water, then dug out antacids. "I'm going to see this through. I'm sorry."

  There was a long silence ripe with temper and frustration. Sybill closed her eyes, left them closed, and waited.

  "You were always a joy to me. I never expected this kind of betrayal. I very much regret that I spoke with you about this matter. I wouldn't have if I'd known you would react so outrageously."

  "He's a ten-year-old boy, Mother. He's your grandson."

  "He is nothing to me, or to you. If you continue this, Gloria will make you pay for what you see as kindness."

  "I can handle Gloria."

  There was a laugh now, short and brittle as glass. "So you always believed. And you were always wrong. Please don't contact me, or your father, about any of this. I'll expect to hear from you when you've come to your senses."

  "Mother—" The dial tone made Sybill wince. Barbara Griffin was a master at having the last word. Very carefully, Sybill set the receiver on the hook. Very deliberately, she swallowed the antacid.

  Then, very defiantly, she turned back to her screen and buried herself in work.

  Chapter Five

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  since sybill was always on time and nearly everyone else in the world, as far as she was concerned, never was, she was surprised to find Phillip already sitting at the table he'd reserved for dinner.

  He rose, offered her a killer smile and a single yellow rose. Both charmed her and made her suspicious.

  "Thank you."

  "My pleasure. Sincerely. You look wonderful."

  She'd gone to some trouble in that area, but more for herself than for him. The call from her mother had left her miserably depressed and guilty. She'd tried to fight off both emotions by taking a great deal of time and putting a great deal of effort into her appearance.

  The simple black dress with its square neck and long, snug sleeves was one of her favorites. The single strand of pearls was a legacy from her paternal grandmother and much loved. She'd swept her hair up in a smooth twist and added sapphire cabochon earrings that she'd bought in London years before.

  She knew it was the sort of feminine armor that women slipped into for confidence and power. She'd wanted both.

  "Thank you again." She slid into the booth across from him and sniffed the rose. "And so do you."

  "I know the wine list here," he told her. "Trust me?"

  "On wine? Why not?"

  "Good." He glanced toward the server. "We'll have a bottle of the number 103."

  She laid the rose beside the leather-bound menu. "Which is?"

  "A very nice Pouilly Fuisse. I remember from Shiney's that you like white. I think you'll find this a few very important steps up from what you had there."

  "Almost anything would be."

  He cocked his head, took her hand. "Something's wrong."

  "No." Deliberately she curved her lips. "What could be wrong? It's just as advertised." She turned her head to look out the window beside her, where the Bay stretched, dark blue and excitingly choppy under a sky going rosy with sunset. "A lovely view, a pretty spot." She turned back. "An interesting companion for the evening."

  No, he thought, watching her eyes. Something was just a little off. On impulse he slid over, cupped her chin in his hand, and laid his lips lightly on hers.

  She didn't draw away, but allowed herself to experience. The kiss was easy, smooth, skilled. And very soothing. When he drew back, she raised an eyebrow. "And that was because?"

  "You looked like you needed it."

  She didn't sigh, but she wanted to. Instead, she put her hands in her lap. "Thank you once again."

  "Any time. In fact…" His fingers tightened just a little on her face, and this time the kiss moved a bit deeper, lasted a bit longer.

  Her lips parted under his before she realized that she'd meant it to happen. Her breath caught, released, and her pulse shivered as his teeth scraped lightly, as his tongue teased hers into a slow, seductive dance.

  Her fingers were linked and gripped tight, her mind just beginning to blur when he eased away. "And that was because?" she managed.

  "I guess I needed it."

  His lips brushed over hers once, then again, before she found the presence of mind to lay a hand on his chest. A hand, she realized, that wanted to ball into a fist on that soft shirt and hold him in place rather than nudge him away.

  But she nudged him away. It was simpl
y a matter of handling him, she reminded herself. Of staying in control.

  "I think as appetizers go, that was very appealing. But we should order."

  "Tell me what's wrong." He wanted to know, he realized. Wanted to help, wanted to smooth those shadows out of her incredibly clear eyes and make them smile.

  He hadn't expected to develop a taste for her so quickly.

  "It's nothing."

  "Of course it is. And there can't be anything much more therapeutic than dumping on a relative stranger."

  "You're right." She opened her menu. "But most relative strangers aren't particularly interested is someone else's minor problems."

  "I'm interested in you."

  She smiled as she shifted her gaze from the entrees to his face. "You're attracted to me. That's not always the same thing."

  "I think I'm both."

  He took her hand, held it as the wine was brought to the table, as the label was turned for his approval. He waited while a sample was poured into his glass, watching her in that steady, all-else-aside way she'd discovered he had. He lifted it, sipped, still looking at her.

  "It's perfect. You'll like it," he murmured to her while their glasses were being filled.

  "You're right," she told him after she sipped. "I like it very much."

  "Shall I tell you tonight's specials," their waiter began in a cheerful voice. While he recited, they sat, hands linked, eyes locked.

  Sybill decided she heard about every third word and didn't really give a damn. He had the most incredible eyes. Like old gold, like something she'd seen in a painting in Rome. "I'll have the mixed salad, with the vinaigrette, and the fish of the day, grilled."

  He kept watching her, his lips curving slowly as he drew her hand across the table to kiss her palm. "The same. And take your time. I'm very attracted," he said to Sybill as the waiter rolled his eyes and walked away. "And I'm very interested. Talk to me."

  "All right." What harm could it do? she decided. Since, sooner or later, they would have to deal with each other on a different sort of level, it might be helpful if they understood one another now. "I'm the good daughter." Amused at herself, she smiled a little. "Obedient, respectful, polite, academically skilled, professionally successful."

  "It's a burden."

  "Yes, it can be. Of course, I know better, intellectually, than to allow myself to be ruled by parental expectations at this stage of my life."

  "But," Phillip said, giving her fingers a squeeze, "you are. We all are."

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