"I'm not afraid of anything." Seth's eyes snapped open. The anger in them was adult and bitter, but his voice jerked like the child he was. "I'm not afraid of some stupid dream."

"You don't have to be ashamed of it, either."

Because he was, hideously, Seth sprang to his feet. His fists were bunched again, ready. "I'm not ashamed of anything. And you don't know a damn thing about it."

"I know every damn thing about it." Because he did, he hated to speak of it. But despite the defiant stance, the boy was trembling, and Ethan knew just how alone he felt. Speaking of it was the only thing left for him to do. The right thing to do.

"I know what dreams did to me, how I had them for a long time after that part of things was over for me." And still had them now and again, he thought, but there was no need to tell the boy he might have to face a lifetime of flashing back and overcoming. "I know what it does to your guts."

"Bullshit." The tears were burning the backs of Seth's eyes, humiliating him all the more. "Nothing's wrong with me. I got the hell out, didn't I? I got away from her, didn't I? I'm not going back either, no matter what."

"No, you're not going back," Ethan agreed. No matter what.

"I don't care what you or anybody thinks about what went on back then. And you're not tricking me into saying things about it by pretending you know."

"You don't have to say anything about it," Ethan told him. "And I don't have to pretend." He picked up the cap Seth's blow had knocked off his head, ran it absently through his hands before putting it back on. But the casual gesture did nothing to ease the tight, slick ball of tension in his gut.

"My mother was a whore—my biological mother. And she was a junkie with a taste for heroin." He kept his gaze on Seth's and his voice matter-of-fact. "I was younger than you when she sold me the first time, to a man who liked young boys."

Seth's breathing quickened as he took a step back. No, was all he could think. Ethan Quinn was everything strong and solid and… normal. "You're lying."

"People mostly lie to brag, or to get out of some stupid thing they've done. I don't see the point in either—and less in lying about this."

Ethan took his cap off again because it suddenly felt too tight on his head. Once, twice, he raked his hand through his hair as if to ease the weight. "She sold me to men to pay for her habit. The first time, I fought. It didn't stop it, but I fought. The second time, I fought, and a few times more after that. Then I didn't bother fighting because it just made it worse."

Ethan's gaze stayed level on the boy's. In the harsh overhead lights Seth's eyes were dark, and not as calm as they had been when Ethan had begun to speak. Seth's chest hurt until he remembered to breathe again. "How'd you stand it?"

"I stopped caring." Ethan shrugged his shoulders. "I stopped being, if you know what I mean. There wasn't anybody I could go to for help—or I didn't know there was. She moved around a lot to keep the social workers off her tail."

Seth's lips felt dry and tight. He rubbed the back of his hand over them violently. "You never knew where you're going to wake up in the morning."

"Yeah, you never knew." But all the places looked the same. They all smelled the same.

"But you got away. You got out."

"Yeah, I got out. One night after her john had finished with both of us, there was… some trouble." Screams, blood, curses. Pain. "I don't remember everything exactly, but the cops came. I must have been in a pretty bad way because they took me to the hospital and figured things out quick enough. I ended up in the system, might have stayed there. But the doctor who treated me was Stella Quinn."

"They took you."

"They took me." And saying that, just that, soothed the sickness in Ethan's gut. "They didn't just change my life, they saved it. I had the dreams for a long time after, the sweaty ones where you wake up trying to breathe, sure you're back in it. And even when you realize you're not, you're cold for a while."

Seth knuckled the tears away, but he didn't feel ashamed of them now. "I always got away. Sometimes they put their hands on me, but I got away. None of them ever…"

"Good for you."

"I still wanted to kill them, and her. I wanted to."

"I know."

"I didn't want to tell anybody. I think Ray knew, and

Cam sort of knows. I didn't want anybody to think I… to look at me and think…" He couldn't express it, the shame of having anyone look at him and see what had happened, and what could have happened, in those dark, smelly rooms. "Why did you tell me?"

"Because you need to know it doesn't make you less of a man." Ethan waited, knowing that Seth would decide whether he accepted the truth of that.

What Seth saw was a man, tall, strong, self-possessed, with big, callused hands and quiet eyes. One of the weights that hung on his heart lifted. "I guess I do." And he smiled a little. "Your mouth's bleeding."

Ethan dabbed at it with the back of his hand and knew they'd crossed a thin and shaky line. "You got

a good right jab. I never saw it coming." He held out a hand, testing, and ruffled Seth's sleep-tumbled hair. The boy's smile stayed in place. "Let's clean up," Ethan said, "and go home."

Chapter Five

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grace had a morning full of chores. The first load of laundry went in at seven-fifteen while the coffee was brewing and her eyes were still mostly shut. She watered her porch plants and the little pots of herbs on her kitchen windowsill, and yawned hugely.

As the coffee began to scent the air and give her hope, she washed the glasses and bowls Julie had used the night before while baby-sitting. She closed the open bag of potato chips, tucked it into its place in the cupboard, then wiped the crumbs from the counter where Julie had had her snack while talking on the phone.

Julie Cutter wasn't known for her neatness, but she loved Aubrey.

At precisely seven-thirty—and after half a cup of coffee—Aubrey woke.

Reliable as the sunrise, Grace thought, heading out of the tiny galley kitchen toward the bedroom off the living room. Rain or shine, weekday or weekend, Aubrey's internal clock buzzed away at seven-thirty every morning.

Grace could have left her in the crib and finished her coffee, but she looked forward to this moment every day. Aubrey stood at the side of the crib, her sunbeam curls tangled from sleep, her cheeks still flushed with it. Grace could still remember the first time she'd come in and seen Aubrey standing, her wobbly legs rocking, her face glowing with success and surprise.

Now Aubrey's legs seemed so sturdy. She lifted one, then the other, in a kind of joyful march. She laughed out loud when Grace came into the room. "Mama, Mama, hi, my mama."

"Hello, my baby." Grace leaned over the side for the first nuzzle and sighed. She knew how lucky she was. There couldn't have been a child on the planet with a sunnier nature than her little girl. "How's my Aubrey?"

"Up! Out!"

"You bet. Gotta pee?"

"Gotta pee," Aubrey agreed and giggled when Grace lifted her out of the crib.

The toilet training was coming along, Grace decided, checking Aubrey's overnight diaper as they headed into the bathroom. It had its hits and its misses.

Aubrey hit it this time, and Grace launched into the lavish praise over bodily functions that only a parent with a toddler could understand. Teeth and hair were brushed in the closet-size bathroom Grace had brightened up with mint-green walls and awning-striped curtains.

Then the breakfast routine began. Aubrey wanted cold cereal with bananas but no milk. She plopped her hand over the bowl when Grace started to pour it on, shaking her head vigorously. "No, Mama, no. Cup. Please."

"Okay, milk in a cup." Grace filled one, set it on the high-chair tray beside the bowl. "Eat up, now. We've got lots to do today."

"Do what?"

"Let's see." Grace made herself a piece of toast while she went through the projected day. "We have to finish the laundry, then we promised Mrs. West we'd wash her windows today."

A three-hour job, Grace estimated.

"Then we have to go to the market."

Aubrey gasped in pleasure. "Miss Lucy."

"Yes, you'll see Miss Lucy." Lucy Wilson was one of Aubrey's favorite people. The supermarket cashier always had a smile—and a lollipop—for Aubrey. "After we put the groceries away, we're going to the Quinns'."

"Seth!" Milk dribbled out of her grin.

"Well, honey, I don't know for certain that he'll be there today. He may be out on the boat with Ethan, or over at his friends' house."

"Seth," Aubrey said again, very definitely, and her mouth puckered up into a stubborn pout.

"We'll see." Grace mopped up the spills.

"Ethan."

"Maybe."

"Doggies."

"Foolish, for sure." She kissed the top of Aubrey's head and gave herself the luxury of a second cup of coffee.

at eight-fifteen grace was armed with a stack of newspapers and a spray bottle that contained a mix of vinegar and ammonia. Aubrey was entertaining


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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