"Okay, up you come. Nearly there." It was past nap time, Grace thought. Aubrey wanted her nap directly after lunch every day. She would sleep for two hours, almost to the minute, then wake up ready to roll.
Aubrey's head was already a snoozing weight on Grace's shoulder when she climbed the porch and slipped into the house.
Once she had her daughter tucked onto the couch, she hurried upstairs to strip beds, gather and sort laundry. With the first load in, she made a quick call to the mechanic who did his best to keep her ailing car alive.
She rushed upstairs again, remaking the beds with fresh sheets. To save herself steps, she kept cleaning supplies on each floor. Grace tackled the bathroom first, scrubbing and rinsing in a flurry until chrome and tile sparkled.
It would be, she realized, her last full hit on the Quinn place before Cam and Anna returned. But she'd already decided, sometime during the mile walk from her broken-down car, to carve out a couple of hours for a quick polish the day they were expected home.
She had pride in her work, didn't she? And certainly another woman would notice the tidiness, the clean corners, the few extra touches she tried to add. A professional woman like Anna, a woman with a demanding career, would see, wouldn't she, that Grace was needed here?
She raced downstairs again to check on Aubrey, to drag wet clothes out of the washer into a basket and put the second load in.
She would make sure there were fresh flowers in the master bedroom when the newlyweds returned. And she'd put out the good fingertip towels. She would leave a note for Phillip to pick up some fruit so she could arrange it prettily in the bowl on the kitchen table.
She'd make time to paste-wax the hardwood floors and wash and iron the curtains.
She hung clothes on the line quickly, without any of her usual enjoyment in the task. Still, the simple routine began to calm her. Everything would be all right, somehow.
She caught herself swaying and shook her head to clear it. Fatigue had come quickly, like a punch to the jaw. If she had bothered to calculate the time she'd been on her feet and moving that day, she would have counted seven hours, on a short five hours' sleep the night before. What she did calculate was that she had another twelve to go. And she needed a break.
Ten minutes, she promised herself, and as she sometimes did on long days, stretched out right in the grass by the clothes that waved on the line. A ten-minute nap would recharge her system and still give her time to scrub down the kitchen before Aubrey woke up.
ethan drove home from the waterfront. He'd cut his day on the water short, letting Jim and his son take the workboat out again to check the pots in the Pocomoke. Seth was off with Danny and Will, and Ethan figured on grabbing himself a quick, if delayed, lunch, then spending the next several hours at the boatyard. He wanted to finish the cockpit, maybe get the roof of the cabin started. The more he managed to do, the less time it would be before Cam could get into the finish and fancy work.
He slowed down when he saw Grace's car on the side of the road, then pulled over quickly. He only shook his head when he looked under the open hood. Damn thing was held together with spit and prayers, he decided. She shouldn't be driving something so unreliable. Just what if, he thought sourly, the goddamn thing had decided to break down when she'd been coming home from the pub in the middle of the night?
He took a closer look and hissed through his teeth. The radiator was a dead loss, and if she was entertaining the idea of replacing it, he'd just have to talk her out of it.
He would find her a decent secondhand car. Fix it up for her—or ask Cam, who knew engines like Midas knew gold, to tune it up. He wasn't having her driving around in a wreck like this, and with the baby, too.
He caught himself, took a couple steps back. It wasn't any of his business. The hell it wasn't, he thought, with an uncharacteristic flash of temper. She was a friend, wasn't she? He had a right to help out a friend, especially one who needed some looking after.
And God knew—whether or not Grace did—that she needed some looking after. He got back in his truck and drove home with a scowl on his face.
He'd nearly slammed the screen door before he saw Aubrey curled up on the couch. The scowl didn't have a chance. He eased the door shut and walked quietly over to her. Her hand was bunched into a fist on the cushion. Unable to resist, he took it gently and marveled at those tiny, perfect fingers. She had a bow around one of her curls, a little ribbon of blue lace that he imagined Grace had tied on that morning. It was lopsided now, and only sweeter for it.
He couldn't help hoping that she woke before he had to head out again.
But now, he needed to find Aubrey's mother and discuss reliable transportation.
He cocked his head, decided it was too quiet for her to be upstairs doing whatever it was she did up there. He walked into the kitchen and noted that the signs of a hurried breakfast were still in evidence. She hadn't gotten to that yet. But the washing machine was humming, and he caught a glimpse of clothes flapping in the breeze on the line outside.
The minute he stepped to the door he saw her. And hit full panic. He didn't know what he thought, only that she was lying on the grass. Terrible images of illness and injury crowded into his head as he rushed outside. He was barely one full stride away from her when he realized she wasn't unconscious. She was sleeping.
Curled up much as her daughter was inside. One fist bunched near her cheek, her breathing slow and deep and even. He gave in to his weakened knees and sat down beside her, waited for his heartbeat to return to something approaching normal.
He sat, listening to the clothes flap on the line, to the water lick the eelgrass, and to the birds chatter while he wondered what the hell
he was going to do with her.
In the end, he simply sighed, rose, then bending down gathered her up into his arms.
She stirred in them, snuggled, made his blood run a little too fast for comfort. "Ethan," she murmured, turning her face into the curve of his neck and inciting the bright fantasy of rolling over that sun-warmed grass with her.
"Ethan," she said again, skimming her fingers along his shoulder. And making him hard as iron. Then again, "Ethan," only this time in a squeak of shock as she jerked her head up and stared at him.
Her eyes were dazed with sleep and bright with surprise. Her mouth made a soft O that was gloriously tempting. Then color flooded her cheeks.
"What? What is it?" she managed over a stomach-churning combination of arousal and embarrassment.
"You're going to take a nap, you ought to have as much sense as Aubrey and take it inside out of the sun." He knew his voice was rough. He couldn't do anything about it. Desire had him by the throat with gleefully nipping claws.
"I was just—"
"Scared ten years off me when I saw you lying there. I thought you'd fainted or something."
"I only stretched out for a minute. Aubrey was sleeping, so—Aubrey! I need to check on Aubrey."
"I just did. She's fine. You'd have shown more sense if you'd stretched out on the couch with her."
"I don't come here to sleep."
"You were sleeping."
"Just for a minute."
"You need more than a minute."
"No, I don't. It's just that things got complicated today, and my brain got tired."
It almost amused him. He stopped in the kitchen, still holding her, and looked into her eyes. "Your brain got tired?"
"Yeah." It nearly shut off entirely now. "I needed to rest my mind a minute, that's all. Put me down, Ethan."
He wasn't ready to, not quite yet. "I saw your car about a mile down the road from here."
"I called Dave and told him. He's going to get to it as soon as he can."
"You walked from there to here, carting Aubrey?"
"No, my chauffeur drove us in. Put me down, Ethan." Before she exploded.
"Well, you can give your chauffeur the rest of the day off. I'll drive you home when Aubrey wakes up."
"I can get myself home. I've barely started on the house. Now I need to get back to it."
"You're not walking two and a half miles."
"I'll call Julie. She'll run down and pick us up. You must have work to do yourself. I'm… behind schedule," she said, desperately now. "I can't catch up if you don't put me down."
He considered her. "There's not much to you."
The shimmer of need wavered into annoyance. "If you're going to tell me I'm skinny—"
"I wouldn't say skinny. You've got fine bones, that's all." And smooth, soft flesh to cover them. He set her on her feet before he forgot he intended to look after her. "You don't have to worry with the house today."
"I do. I need to do my job." Her nerves were a jittery mess. The way he was looking at her made her want to take one flying leap back into his arms and also made her want to hightail it out the back door like a rabbit. She'd never experienced such a dramatic tug-of-war on her system, and could only stand her ground. "I can do it quicker if you aren't underfoot."
"I'll get out of your way as soon as you call Julie and see if she'll come by and get you." He reached up and brushed some dandelion fluff out of her hair.
"Okay." She turned, punched in numbers on the kitchen phone. Maybe it would be best, she thought wildly as the phone started to ring, if Anna didn't want her around after she got home. It seemed she couldn't be with Ethan for ten minutes anymore without getting jumpy. If it kept up, she was bound to do something to embarrass them both.