Sea swept, p.7
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       Sea Swept, p.7
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         Part #1 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts

  Anna, and you believe in structure and in the system. Professor Quinn would have wanted what's best for Seth, and to repay an old debt, I gave him you."

  Anna blew out a long breath. "No pressure, huh?"

  "Pressure's all we've got around here." As if on cue, her phone began to ring. "And the clock's running."

  Anna rose. "I'd better get to work, then. Looks like I'll be in the field most of today."

  it was nearly one p.m. when Anna pulled up in the Quinns' drive. She'd managed to conduct interviews with three of the five names Cam had given her the day before, and she hoped to expand on that before too much more time passed.

  Her call to Phillip Quinn's office in Baltimore had given her the information that he was on leave for the next two weeks. She was hoping she would find him here and be able to file an impression of another Quinn.

  But it was the pup who greeted her. He barked ferociously even as he backed rapidly away from her. Anna watched with amusement as he peed on himself in terror. With a laugh, she crouched down, held out a hand.

  "Come on, cutie, I won't hurt you. Aren't you sweet, aren't you pretty?" She kept murmuring to him until he bellied over to sniff her hand, then rolled over in ecstasy as she scratched him.

  "For all you know, he's got fleas and rabies."

  Anna glanced up and saw Cam in the front doorway. "For all I know, so do you."

  With a snort of a laugh and his hands tucked in his pockets, he came out on the porch. It was a brown suit today, he noted. For the life of him he couldn't figure why she'd pick such a dull color. "I guess you're willing to risk it, since you're back. Didn't expect you so soon."

  "A boy's welfare is at stake, Mr. Quinn. I don't believe in taking my time under the circumstances."

  Obviously charmed by her voice, the puppy leaped up and bathed her face. The giggle escaped before she could stop it—a sound that made Cam raise his eyebrows—and defending herself from the puppy's eager tongue, she rose. Tugged down her jacket. And her dignity.

  "May I come in?"

  "Why not?" This time he waited for her, even opened the door and let her go in ahead of him.

  She saw a large and fairly tidy living area. The furniture showed some wear but appeared comfortable and colorful. The spinet in the corner caught her eye. "Do you play?"

  "Not really." Without realizing it, Cam ran a hand over the wood. He didn't notice that his fingers left streaks in the dust. "My mother did, and Phillip's got an ear for it."

  "I tried to reach your brother Phillip at his office this morning."

  "He's out buying groceries." Because he was pleased to have won that battle, Cam smiled a little. "He's going to be living here… for the foreseeable future. Ethan, too."

  "You work fast."

  "A boy's welfare is at stake," he said, echoing her.

  Anna nodded. At a distant rumble of thunder, she glanced outside, frowned. The light was dimming, and the wind beginning to kick. "I'd like to discuss Seth with you." She shifted her briefcase, glanced at a chair.

  "Is this going to take long?"

  "I couldn't say."

  "Then let's do it in the kitchen. I want coffee."

  "Fine."

  She followed him, using the time to study the house. It was just neat enough to make her wonder if Cam had been expecting her. They passed a den where the dust was layered over tables, the couch was covered with newspapers, and shoes littered the floor.

  Missed that, didn't you? she thought with a smirk. But she found it endearing.

  Then she heard his quick and vicious oath and nearly jumped out of her practical shoes.

  "Goddamn it. Shit. What the hell is this? What next? Jesus Christ." He was already sloshing through the water and suds flowing over the kitchen floor to slap at the dishwasher.

  Anna stepped back to avoid the flood. "I'd turn that off if I were you."

  "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now I've got to take the bitch apart." He dragged the door open. An ocean of snowy-white suds spewed out.

  Anna bit the inside of her cheek, cleared her throat. "Ah, what kind of soap did you use?"

  "Dish soap." Vibrating with frustration, he yanked a bucket out from under the sink.

  "Dishwasher soap or dish-washing soap?"

  "What the hell's the difference?" Furious, he started to bail. Outside, the rain began to fall in hard, driving sheets.

  "This." Keeping her face admirably sober, she gestured to the river running over the floor. "This is the difference. If you use the liquid for hand-washing dishes in a dishwasher, this is the inevitable result."

  He straightened, the bucket in his hand, and a look of such pained irritation on his face, she couldn't hold back the laugh. "Sorry, sorry. Look, turn around."

  "Why?"

  "Because I'm not willing to ruin my shoes or my hose. So turn around while I take them off and I'll give you a hand."

  "Yeah." Pathetically grateful, he turned his back, and even did his best not to imagine her peeling off her stockings. His best wasn't quite good enough, but it was the effort that counted. "Ethan handled most of the kitchen chores when we were growing up. I did my share, but it doesn't seem to have stuck with me."

  "You seem to be out of your element." She tucked her hose neatly in her shoes, set them aside. "Get me a mop. I'll swab, you get the coffee."

  He opened a long, narrow closet and handed her a string mop. "I appreciate it."

  Her legs, he noted as he sloshed over for mugs, didn't need hose. They were a pale and fascinating gold in color, and smooth as silk. When she bent over, he ran his tongue over his teeth. He'd had no idea a woman with a mop would be quite so… attractive.

  It's so amazingly pleasant, he realized, to be here, with the rain drumming, the wind howling, and a pretty, barefoot woman keeping him kitchen company. "You seem to be in your element," he commented, then grinned when she turned her head and eyed him balefully. "I'm not saying it's woman's work. My mother would have skinned me for the thought. I'm just saying you seem to know what you're doing."

  As she'd worked her way through college cleaning houses, she knew very well. "I can handle a mop, Mr. Quinn."

  "Since you're mopping my kitchen floor, you ought to make it Cam."

  "About Seth—"

  "Yeah, about Seth. Do you mind if I sit down?"

  "Go ahead." She caught herself before she began to hum. The mindless chore, the rain, the isolation were just a tad too relaxing. "I'm sure you know I spoke with him yesterday."

  "Yeah, and I know he told you he wanted to stay here."

  "He did, and it's in my report. I also spoke with his teachers. How much do you know about his schoolwork?''

  Cam shifted. "I haven't had a lot of time to get into that yet."

  "Mmm-hmm. When he was first enrolled, he had some trouble with the other students. Fistfights. He broke one boy's nose."

  Good for him, Cam thought with a surprising tug of pride, but he did his best to look disapproving. "Who started it?"

  "That's not the point. However, your father handled the situation. At this point I'm told that Seth keeps mostly to himself. He doesn't participate in class, which is another problem. He rarely turns in his homework assignments, and those he does bother to turn in are most often sloppily done."

  Cam felt a new headache begin to brew. "So the kid's not a scholar—"

  "On the contrary." Anna straightened up, leaned on the mop. "If he participated even marginally in class, and if his assignments were done and turned in on time, he would be a straight A student. He's a solid B student as it is."

  "So what's the problem?"

  Anna closed her eyes a moment. "The problem is that Seth's IQ and evaluation tests are incredibly high. The child is brilliant."

  Though he had his doubts about that, Cam nodded. "So, that's a good thing. And he's getting decent grades and staying out of trouble."

  "Okay." She would try this a different way. "Suppose you were in a Formula One race—"

  "Been there," h
e said with wistful reminiscence. "Done that."

  "Right, and you had the finest, fastest, hottest car in the field."

  "Yeah." He sighed. "I did."

  "But you never tested its full capabilities, you never went full-out, you never punched it on the turns or popped it into fifth and poured down the straights."

  His brow lifted. "You follow racing?"

  "No, but I drive a car."

  "Nice car, too. What have you had it up to?"

  Eighty-eight, she thought with secret glee, but she would never admit it. "I consider a car transportation," she said, lying primly. "Not a toy."

  "No reason it can't be both. Why don't I take you out in the 'Vette? Now that's a fine mode of entertaining transportation."

  While she would have loved to indulge in the fantasy of sliding behind the wheel of that sleek white bullet, she had a point to make. "Try to stick with the analogy here. You're racing a superior machine. If you didn't drive that car the way it was meant to be driven, you'd be wasting its potential, and maybe you'd still finish in the money, but you wouldn't win."

  He got her point, but couldn't help grinning. "I usually won."

  Anna shook her head. "Seth," she said with admirable patience. "We're talking about Seth. He's socially stunted, and he defies authority consistently. He's regularly given in-school suspension. He needs supervision here at home when it comes to this area of his life. You're going to have to take an active roll in his schoolwork and his behavior."

  "Seems to me a kid gets B's he ought to be left the hell alone." But he held up a hand before she could speak. "Potential. I had potential drummed into my head by the best. We'll work on it."

  "Good." She went back to mopping. "I had communications from your lawyer in regard to the guardianship. It's likely you'll be granted that, at least temporarily. But you can expect regular spot checks from Social Services."

  "Meaning you."

  "Meaning me."

  Cam paused a moment. "Do you do windows?"

  She couldn't help it, she laughed as she dumped sudsy water into the sink. "I've also talked to some of your neighbors and will talk to more." She turned back. "From this point on, your life's an open book for me."

  He rose, took the mop, and to please himself stood just an inch closer than was polite. "You let me know when you get to a chapter that interests you, on a personal level."

  Her heart gave two hard knocks against her ribs. A dangerous man, she thought, on a personal level. "I don't have time for much fiction."

  She started to step back, but he took her hand. "I like you, Miz Spinelli. I haven't figured out why, but I do."

  "That should make our association simpler."

  "Wrong." He skimmed his thumb over the back of her hand. "It's going to make it complicated. But I don't mind complications. And it's about time my luck started back on an upswing. You like Italian food?''

  "With a name like Spinelli?"

  He grinned. "Right. I could use a quiet meal in a decent restaurant with a pretty woman. How about tonight?''

  "I don't see any reason why you shouldn't have a quiet meal in a decent restaurant with a pretty woman tonight." Deliberately, she eased her hand free. "But if you're asking me for a date, the answer's no. First, it wouldn't be smart; second, I'm booked."

  "Damn it, Cam, didn't you hear me honking?"

  Anna turned and saw a soaking wet and bitterly angry man cart two heaping bags of groceries into the room. He was tall, bronzed, and very nearly beautiful. And spitting mad.

  Phillip shook the hair out of his eyes and focused on Anna. The shift of expression was quick and smooth—from snarling to charming in the space of a single heartbeat.

  "Hello. Sorry." He dumped the bags on the table and smiled at her. "Didn't know Cam had company." He spied the bucket, the mop held between them, and leaped to the wrong conclusion. "I didn't know he was going to hire domestic help. But thank God." Phillip grabbed her hand, kissed it. "I already adore you."

  "My brother Phillip," Cam said dryly. "This is Anna Spinelli, with Social Services. You can take your Ferragamo out of your mouth now, Phil."

  The charm didn't shift or fade. "Ms. Spinelli. It's nice to meet you. Our lawyer's been in touch, I believe."

  "Yes, he has. Mr. Quinn tells me you'll be living here now."

  "I told you to call me Cam." He walked to the stove to top off his coffee. "It's going to be confusing if you're calling all of us Mr. Quinn." Cam heard the rattle at the back door and got out another mug. "Especially now," he said as the door burst open and let in a dripping dog and man.

  "Christ, this bitch blew in fast." Even as Ethan dragged off his slicker, the dog set his feet and shook furiously. Anna only winced as water sprayed her suit. "Barely smelled her before—''

  He spotted Anna and automatically pulled off his soaked cap, then scooped a hand through his damp, curling hair. Seeing woman, bucket, mop, he thought guiltily about his muddy boots. "Ma'am."

  "My other brother, Ethan." Cam handed Ethan a steaming cup of coffee. "This is the social worker your dog's just sprayed water and dog hair all over."

  "Sorry. Simon, go sit."

  "It's all right," Cam went on. "Foolish already slobbered all over her, and Phillip just got finished hitting on her."

  Anna smiled blandly. "I thought you were hitting on me."

  "I asked you to dinner," Cam corrected. "If I'd been hitting on you, I wouldn't have been subtle." Cam sipped his coffee. "Well, now you know all the players."

  She felt outnumbered, and more than a little unprofessional standing there in the dimly lit kitchen in her bare feet, facing three big and outrageously handsome men. In defense, she pulled out every scrap of dignity and reached for a chair.

  "Gentlemen, shall we sit down? This seems to be an ideal time to discuss how you plan to care for Seth." She angled her head at Cam. "For the foreseeable future."

  "well," phillip said an hour later. "I think we pulled that off."

  Cam stood at the front door, watching the neat little sports car drive away in the thinning rain. "She's got our number," Cam muttered. "She doesn't miss a trick."

  "I liked her." Ethan stretched out in the big wing chair and let the puppy climb into his lap. "Get your mind out of the sewer, Cam," he suggested when Cam snickered. "I mean I liked her. She's smart, and she's professional, but she's not cold. Seems like a woman who cares."

  "And she's got great legs," Phillip added. "But regardless of all that, she's going to note down every time we screw up. Right now, I figure we've got the upper hand. We've got the kid, and he wants to stay. His mother's run off to God knows where and isn't making any noises—at the moment. But if pretty Anna Spinelli talks to too many people around St. Chris, she's going to start hearing the rumors."

  He dipped his hands in his pockets and started to pace. "I don't know if they're going to count against us or not."

  "They're just rumors," Ethan said.

  "Yeah, but they're ugly. We've got a good shot at keeping Seth because of Dad's reputation. That reputation gets smeared, and we'll have battles to fight on several fronts."

  "Anyone-tries to smear Dad's rep, they're going to get more than a fight."

  Phillip turned to Cam. "That's just what we have to avoid. If we start going around kicking ass, it's only going to make things worse."

  "So you be the diplomat." Cam shrugged and sat on the arm of the sofa. "I'll kick ass."

  "I'd say we're better off dealing with what is than what might be." Thoughtfully, Ethan stroked the puppy. "I've been thinking about the situation. It's going to be rough for Phillip to live here and commute back and forth to Baltimore. Sooner rather than later, Cam's going to get fed up with playing house."

  "Sooner's already here."

  "I was thinking we could pay Grace to do some of the housework. Maybe a couple days a week."

  "Now that's an idea I can get behind one hundred percent." Cam dropped onto the sofa.

  "Trouble with that is it leaves you w
ith nothing much to do. The idea is for the three of us to be here, share responsibility for Seth. That's what the lawyer says, that's what the social worker says."

  "I said I'd find work."

  "What are you going to do?" Phillip asked. "Pump gas? Shuck oysters? You'd put up with that for a couple of days."

  Cam leaned forward. "I can stick. Can you? Odds are, after the first week of commuting, you'll be calling from Baltimore with excuses about why you can't make it back. Why don't you stay here and try pumping gas or shucking oysters for a while?''

  The argument was inevitable. In minutes they were both up and nose to nose. It took several attempts before Ethan's voice got through. Cam stepped back and with a puzzled frown turned. "What?"

  "I said I think we ought to try building boats."

  "Building boats?" Cam shook his head. "For what?"

  "For business." Ethan took out a cigar, but ran it through his fingers rather than lighting it. His mother hadn't allowed smoking in the house. "We got a lot of tourists coming down this way in the last few years. And a lot more people moving down to get out of the city. They like to rent boats. They like to own boats. Last year I built one in my spare time for this guy out of D.C. Little fourteen-foot skiff. Called me a couple months ago to see if I'd be interested in building him another one. Wants a bigger boat, with a sleep cabin and galley."

  Ethan tucked the cigar back in his pocket. "I've been thinking on it. It'd take me months to do it alone, in my spare time."

  "You want us to help you build a boat?'' Phillip pressed his fingers to his eyes.

  "Not one boat. I'm talking about going into business."

  "I'm in business," Phillip muttered. "I'm in advertising."

  "And we'd be needing somebody who knew about that kind of thing if we were starting a business. Boat building's got a history in this area, but nobody's doing it anymore on St. Chris."

  Phillip sat. "Did it occur to you that there might be a reason for that?"

  "Yeah, it occurred to me. And I thought about it, and I figure it's because nobody's taking the chance. I'm talking wooden boats. Sailing vessels. A specialty. And we already got one client."

  Cam rubbed his chin. "Hell, Ethan, I haven't done that kind of work seriously since we built your skipjack. That's been—Jesus—almost ten years."

  "And she's holding, isn't she? So we did a good job with her. It's a gamble," he added, knowing that single word was the way to Cam's heart.

  "We've got money for start-up costs," Cam murmured, warming up to the idea.

  "How do you know?" Phillip demanded. "You don't have a clue how much money you need for start-up costs."

  "You'll figure it out." A roll of the dice, Cam thought. He liked nothing better. "Christ knows, I'd rather be swinging a hammer than a damn vacuum hose. I'm in."

  "Just like that?" Phillip threw up his hands. "Without a thought to overhead, profit and loss, licenses, taxes, insurance. Where the hell are you going to set up shop? How're you going to run the business end?"

 
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