Inner harbor, p.9
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       Inner Harbor, p.9

         Part #3 of Chesapeake Bay Saga series by Nora Roberts
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  "Actually, I haven't been here with a woman since the summer of my sophomore year in college. Then it was a fairly decent Chablis, chilled shrimp, and Marianne Teasdale."

  "I suppose I should be flattered."

  "I don't know. Marianne was pretty hot." He flashed that killer grin again. "But being callow and shortsighted, I threw her over for a pre-med student with a sexy lisp and big brown eyes."

  "Lisps do weaken a man. Did Marianne recover?"

  "Enough to marry a plumber from Princess Anne and bear him two children. But, of course, we know she secretly yearns for me."

  Laughing, Sybill spread a cracker for him. "I like you."

  "I like you, too." He caught her wrist, holding it as he nibbled at the cracker she held. "And you don't even lisp."

  When his fingers continued to nibble, at the tips of her fingers now, it wasn't quite as easy to breathe. "You're very smooth," she murmured.

  "You're very lovely."

  "Thank you. What I should say," she continued, and eased her hand out of his, "is that while you're very smooth, and very attractive, and I'm enjoying spending time with you, I don't intend to be seduced."

  "You know what they say about intentions."

  "I tend to hold to mine. And while I do enjoy your company, I also recognize your type." She smiled again and gestured with her glass. "A hundred years ago, the word 'rogue' would have come to mind."

  He considered a moment. "That didn't sound like an insult."

  "It wasn't meant to be. Rogues are invariably charming and very rarely serious."

  "I have to object there. There are some issues that I'm very serious about."

  "Let's try this." She peeked in the cooler and took out another container. "Have you ever been married?"

  "No."

  "Engaged?" she asked as she opened the lid and discovered a beautifully prepared crab salad.

  "No."

  "Have you ever lived with a woman for a consecutive period of six months or more?"

  With a shrug, he took plates out of the hamper, passed her a pale-blue linen napkin. "No."

  "So, we can theorize that one of the issues about which you are not serious is relationships."

  "Or we can theorize that I have yet to meet the woman I want a serious relationship with."

  "We could. However…" She narrowed her eyes at his face as he scooped salad onto the plates. "You're what, thirty?"

  "One." He added a thick slice of French bread to each plate.

  "Thirty-one. Typically, by the age of thirty a man in this culture would have experienced at least one serious, long-term, monogamous relationship."

  "I wouldn't care to be typical. Olives?"

  "Yes, thanks. Typical is not necessarily an unattractive trait. Nor is conformity. Everyone conforms. Even those who consider themselves the rebels of society conform to certain codes and standards."

  Enjoying her, he tilted his head. "Is that so, Dr. Griffin?"

  "Quite so. Gang members in the inner city have internal rules, codes, standards. Colors," she added, selecting an olive from her plate. "In that way they don't differ much from members of the city council."

  "You had to be there," Phillip mumbled.

  "Excuse me?"

  "Nothing. What about serial killers?"

  "They follow patterns." Enjoying herself, she tore a chunk off her slice of bread. "The FBI studies them, catalogs them, profiles them. Society wouldn't term them standards certainly, but in the strictest sense of the word, that's precisely what they are."

  Damned if she didn't have a point, he decided. And found himself only more fascinated. "So you, the observer, size people up by noting what rules, codes, patterns they follow."

  "More or less. People aren't so very difficult to understand, if you pay attention."

  "What about those surprises?"

  She smiled, appreciating the question as much as she appreciated that he would think to ask it. Most laymen she'd socialized with weren't really interested in her work. "They're factored in. There's always margin for error, and for adjustments. This is wonderful salad." She sampled another bite. "And the surprise, a pleasant one, is that you would have gone to the trouble to prepare it."

  "Don't you find that people are usually willing to go to some trouble for someone they care for?" When she only blinked at him, he tilted his head. "Well, well, that threw you off."

  "You barely know me." She picked up her wine, a purely defensive gesture. "There's a difference between being attracted to and caring for. The latter takes more time."

  "Some of us move fast." He enjoyed seeing her flustered. It would be, he decided, a rare event. Taking advantage of it, he slid closer. "I do."

  "So I've already observed. However—"

  "However. I like hearing you laugh. I like feeling you tremble just slightly when I kiss you. I like hearing your voice slide into that didactic tone when you expand on a theory."

  At the last comment she frowned. "I'm not didactic."

  "Charmingly," he murmured, skimming his lips over her temple. "And I like seeing your eyes in that moment when I start to confuse you. Therefore, I believe I've crossed over into the care-for stage. So let's try your earlier hypothesis out on you and see where that leaves us. Have you ever been married?"

  His mouth was cruising just under her ear, making it very difficult to think clearly. "No. Well, not really."

  He paused, leaned back, narrowed his eyes. "No or not really?"

  "It was an impulse, an error in judgment. It was less than six months. It didn't count." Her brain was fogged, she decided, trying to inch away for some breathing room. He only scooted her back.

  "You were married?"

  "Only technically. It didn't…" She turned her head to make her point, and his mouth was there. Right there to meet hers, to urge her lips to part and warm and soften.

  It was like sliding under a slow-moving wave, being taken down into silky, shimmering water. Everything inside her went fluid. A surprise, she would realize later, that she'd neglected to factor into this particular pattern.

  "It didn't count," she managed as her head fell back, as his lips trailed smoothly down her throat.

  "Okay."

  If he'd taken her by surprise, she'd done exactly the same to him. At her sudden and utter surrender to the moment, his need churned to the surface, thrashing there. He had to touch her, to fill his hands with her, to mold those pretty curves through the thin, crisp cotton of her blouse.

  He had to taste her, deeper now, while those little hums of shock and pleasure sounded in her throat. As he did, as he touched and as he tasted, her arms came around him, her hands sliding into his hair, her body turning to fit itself against him.

  He felt her heart thud in time with his own.

  Panic punched through pleasure when she felt him tug at the buttons of her blouse. "No." Her own fingers shook as she covered his. "It's too fast." She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling to find her control, her sense, her purpose. "I'm sorry. I don't go this fast. I can't."

  It wasn't easy to check the urge to ignore the rules, to simply press her under him on the deck until she was pliant and willing again. He put his tense fingers under her chin and lifted her face to his. No, it wasn't easy, he thought again as he saw both desire and denial in her eyes. But it was necessary.

  "Okay. No rush." He rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip. "Tell me about the one that didn't count."

  Her thoughts had scattered to the edges of her mind. She couldn't begin to draw them together while he was looking at her with those tawny eyes. "What?"

  "The husband."

  "Oh." She looked away, concentrated on her breathing.

  "What are you doing?"

  "Relaxation technique."

  Humor danced back and made him grin at her. "Does it work?"

  "Eventually."

  "Cool." He shifted until they were hip to hip and timed his breathing to hers. "So this guy you were technically married to…"

&nbs
p; "It was in college, at Harvard. He was a chemistry major." Eyes shut, she ordered her toes to relax, then her arches, her ankles. "We were barely twenty and just lost our heads for a short time."

  "Eloped."

  "Yes. We didn't even live together, because we were in different dorms. So it wasn't really a marriage. It was weeks before we told our families, and then, naturally, there were several difficult scenes."

  "Why?"

  "Because…" She blinked her eyes open, found the sun dazzling. Something plopped in the water behind her, then there was only the lap of it, kissing the hull. "We weren't suited, we had no feasible plans. We were too young. The divorce was very quiet and quick and civilized."

  "Did you love him?"

  "I was twenty." Her relaxation level was reaching her shoulders. "Of course I thought I did. Love has little complexity at that age."

  "So spoken from the advanced age of what twenty-seven, twenty-eight?"

  "Twenty-nine and counting." She let out a last long breath. Satisfied and steady, she turned to look at him again. "I haven't thought of Rob in years. He was a very nice boy. I hope he's happy."

  "And that's it for you?"

  "It has to be."

  He nodded, but found her story strangely sad. "Then I have to say, Dr. Griffin, that using your own scale, you don't take relationships seriously."

  She opened her mouth to protest, then wisely, shut it again. Casually, she picked up the wine bottle and topped off both glasses. "You may be right. I'll have to give that some thought."

  Chapter Seven

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  seth didn't mind running herd on Aubrey. She was kind of his niece now that Ethan and Grace were married. Being an uncle made him feel adult and responsible. Besides, all she really wanted to do was race around the yard. Every time he threw a ball or a stick for one of the dogs, she went into gales of laughter. A guy couldn't help but get a kick out of it.

  She was pretty cute, too, with her curly gold hair and her big green eyes that looked amazed at everything he did. Spending an hour or two on a Sunday entertaining her wasn't a bad deal.

  He hadn't forgotten where he had been a year ago. There'd been no big backyard that fell off into the water, no woods to explore, no dogs to wrestle with, no little girl who looked at him like he was Fox Mulder, all the Power Rangers and Superman rolled into one.

  Instead, there'd been grungy rooms three flights up from the street. And those streets had been a dark carnival at night, a place where everything had its price. Sex, drugs, weapons, misery.

  He'd learned that no matter what went on in those grungy rooms, he shouldn't go out after dark.

  There'd been no one to care if he was clean or fed, if he was sick or scared. He'd never felt like a hero there, or even very much like a kid. He'd felt like a thing, and he'd learned quickly that things are often hunted.

  Gloria had ridden all the rides in that carnival, again and again. She'd brought the freaks and the hustlers into those rooms, selling herself to whoever would pay the price of her next spin.

  A year ago Seth hadn't believed his life would ever be any different. Then Ray came and took him to the house by the water. Ray showed him a different world and promised he would never have to go back to the old one.

  Ray had died, but he had kept his promise all the same. Now Seth could stand in the big backyard with water lapping at its edges and throw balls and sticks for the dogs to chase while an angel-faced toddler laughed.

  "Seth, let me! Let me!" Aubrey danced on her sturdy little legs, holding up both hands for the mangled ball.

  "Okay, you throw it."

  He grinned while she screwed up her face with concentration and effort. The ball bounced inches away from the toes of her bright-red sneakers. Simon snapped it up, making her squeal with delight, then politely offered it back.

  "Oooh, good doggie." Aubrey batted the patient Simon on either side of his jaw. Angling for attention, Foolish nudged his way in, shoved her down on her butt. She rewarded him with a fierce hug. "Now you," she ordered Seth. "You do it."

  Obliging her, Seth winged the ball. He laughed as the dogs raced after it, bumping their bodies like two football players rushing downfield. They crashed into the woods, sending a pair of birds squawking skyward.

  At that moment, with Aubrey bouncing with giggles, the dogs barking, the fresh September air on his cheeks, Seth was completely happy. A part of his mind focused on it, snatched at it to keep. The angle of the sun, the brilliance of light on the water, the creamy sound of Otis Redding drifting through the kitchen window, the bitchy complaints of the birds, and the rich salty scent of the bay.

  He was home.

  Then the putt of a motor caught his attention. When he turned he saw the family sloop angling in toward the dock. At the wheel, Phillip raised a hand in greeting. Even as Seth returned the wave, his gaze shifted to the woman standing beside Phillip. It felt as if something brushed over the nape of his neck, light and cagey as the legs of a spider. Absently he rubbed at it, shrugged his shoulders, then took Aubrey firmly by the hand.

  "Remember, you have to stay in the middle of the dock."

  She gazed up at him adoringly. "Okay. I will. Mama says never, never go by the water by myself."

  "That's right." He stepped onto the dock with her and waited for Phillip to come alongside. It was the woman who, awkwardly, tossed him the bow line. Sybill something, he thought. For a moment, as she balanced herself, as their eyes met, he felt that sly tickle on the nape of his neck again.

  Then the dogs were bounding onto the dock and Aubrey was laughing again.

  "Hey, Angel Baby." Phillip helped Sybill step onto the dock, then winked down at Aubrey.

  "Up," she demanded.

  "You bet." He swung her onto his hip and planted a smacking kiss on her cheek. "When are you going to grow up and marry me?"

  "Tomorrow!"

  "That's what you always say. This is Sybill. Sybill, meet Aubrey, my best girl."

  "She's pretty," Aubrey stated and flashed her dimples.

  "Thank you. So are you." As the dogs bumped her legs, Sybill jolted and took a step back. Phillip shot out a hand to grab her arm before she backed her way off the dock and into the water.

  "Steady there. Seth, call off the dogs. Sybill's a little uneasy around them."

  "They won't hurt you," Seth said with a shake of his head that warned Sybill she'd just dropped several notches in his estimation. But he snagged both dogs by the collar, holding them back until she could ease by.

  "Everybody inside?" Phillip asked Seth.

  "Yeah, just hanging until dinner. Grace brought over a monster chocolate cake. Cam sweet-talked Anna into making lasagna."

  "God bless him. My sister-in-law's lasagna is a work of art," he told Sybill.

  "Speaking of art, I wanted to tell you again, Seth, how much I liked the sketches you've done for the boatyard. They're very good."

  He shrugged his shoulders, then bent down to scoop up two sticks to toss and distract the dogs. "I just draw sometimes."

  "Me, too." She knew it was foolish, but Sybill felt her cheeks go warm at the way Seth studied her, measured and judged. "It's something I like to do in my spare time," she went on. "I find it relaxing and satisfying."

  "Yeah, I guess."

  "Maybe you'll show me more of your work sometime."

  "If you want." He pushed open the door to the kitchen and headed straight to the refrigerator. A telling sign, Sybill mused. He was at home here.

  She took a quick scan of the room, filing impressions. There was a pot simmering on what seemed to be an ancient stove. The scent was impossibly aromatic. Several small clay pots lined the windowsill over the sink. Fresh herbs thrived in them.

  The counters were clean, if a bit worn. A pile of papers was stacked on the end beneath a wall phone and anchored with a set of keys. A shallow bowl was centered on the table and filled with glossy red and green apples. A mug of coffee, half full, stood in front of a chai
r under which someone had kicked off shoes.

  "Goddamn it! That ump ought to be shot in the head. That pitch was a mile high."

  Sybill arched an eyebrow at the furious male voice from the next room. Phillip merely smiled and jiggled Aubrey on his hip. "Ball game. Cam's taking this year's pennant race personally."

  "The game! I forgot." Seth slammed the refrigerator door and raced out of the kitchen. "What's the score, what inning is it, who's up?"

  "Three to two, A's, bottom of the sixth, two outs, a man on second. Now sit down and shut up."

  "Very personally," Phillip added, then set Aubrey down when she wiggled.

  "Baseball often becomes a personal challenge between the audience and the opposing team. Especially," Sybill added with a sober nod, "during the September pennant race."

  "You like baseball?"

  "What's not to like?" she said and laughed. "It's a fascinating study of men, of teamwork, of battle. Speed, cunning, finesse, and always pitcher against batter. In the end it all comes down to style, endurance. And math."

  "We're going to have to take in a game at Camden Yards," he decided. "I'd just love to hear your play-by-play technique. Can I get you anything?"

  "No, I'm fine." More shouts, more cursing burst out of the living room. "But I think it might be dangerous to leave this room as long as your brother's team is down a run."

  "You're perceptive." Phillip reached out to curve his hand over her cheek. "So, why don't we stay right here and—"

  "Way to go, Call" Cam shouted from the living room. "That son of a bitch is amazing."

  "Shit." Seth's voice was cocky and smug. "No stinking California outfielder's going to blow one by Ripken."

  Phillip let out a sigh. "Or maybe we should head out back and take a walk for a few innings."

  "Seth, I believe we've discussed acceptable word usage in this house."

  "Anna," Phillip murmured. "Coming downstairs to lay down the law."

  "Cameron, you're supposed to be an adult."

  "It's baseball, sugar."

  "If the pair of you don't watch your language, the TV goes off."

  "She's very strict," Phillip informed Sybill. "We're all terrified of her."

  "Really?" Sybill considered as she glanced toward the living room.

  She heard another voice, lower, softer, then Aubrey's firm response. "No,
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