"I'm not going to make you do anything." From his seat on the log, Ethan studied him. Seth's face was filthy, streaked with dirt and sweat, flushed with heat and fury. His legs and arms were thoroughly scratched from pushing through briars.
They were going to sting like fury, Ethan knew, when Seth cooled off enough to notice.
"You want to sit down and talk this out?" he asked mildly.
"I don't believe anything you say. You're a liar. You're both fucking liars. You gonna try to tell me you weren't screwing each other?"
"No, that's not what we were doing."
Seth flew at him so fast, Ethan was thrown off guard enough to take the first fist solidly in the jaw. He would think later, much later, that the kid threw a fine punch. But at the moment it took all his concentration to wrestle Seth to the ground.
"I'll kill you! You bastard, I'll kill you as soon as I get a chance." He wiggled and struggled and fought and waited for the rain of blows.
"Just hold on." Frustrated as the slick, sweaty arms kept sliding out of his grip, Ethan gave Seth a quick shake. "You're not getting anywhere this way. I'm bigger than you are, and I'll just pin you down till you run out of steam."
"Take your hands off me." Seth set his teeth and snarled. "Son of a whore."
It was a blow harder, and more sharply aimed, than the fist had been. Ethan caught his breath and nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's what I am. That's why you and I know each other. You can run when I let you up, Seth. You can spill filth all over me. That's what people expect from sons of whores. I'm going to figure you want better for yourself than that."
Ethan eased back, sat on his heels and wiped the blood off his mouth. "That's the second damn time you've punched me in the face. You try it again, and I'm going to wallop your ass so you don't sit for a month."
"I hate your fucking guts."
"Fine. But you're going to have to hate them for the right reasons."
"All you wanted was to get between her legs, and she spread them for you."
"Watch it." In a lightning move, Ethan grabbed Seth by the shirt and hauled him up to his knees. "Don't you talk about her that way. You had sense enough to recognize right off what kind of person Grace was. That's why you trusted her, why you cared about her."
"I don't give a shit about her," Seth claimed and had to swallow hard before the hot tears poured out.
"If you didn't, you wouldn't be so mad at both of us. And wouldn't be feeling like we let you down."
He let Seth go, then rubbed his hands over his face. He knew how miserably inept he could be at explaining emotions. Especially his own. "I'm going to talk to you straight." He dropped his hands. "You're right about what went on before you came home, you're just wrong about what it meant."
Seth's lips quivered into a snarl. "I know what fucking means."
"Yeah, the way you know it it's ugly sounds in the next room, fast gropes in the dark, sour smells, money changing hands."
"Just because you didn't pay her doesn't—"
"Be quiet," Ethan said patiently. "I used to think that's all it was, or the only kind there was. Hard and heartless, sometimes mean. All you want from the other is what you can get for yourself. So that makes it selfish, too. You get some release, pull your pants up and walk away. It's not always wrong. If it doesn't matter to either one of you, if it gets you through the night, it's not always wrong. But it's not the only way, and it sure as hell isn't the best way."
He remembered now thinking that he hoped someone else would explain such things to the boy when the time came. But it appeared that the time was now and he was in charge.
He couldn't say it all with a grin and a wink as Cam might, or smooth and fancy as Phillip surely would. He could only speak from the heart and hope it was right.
"Sex can be the same as eating. Just filling a hunger. Sometimes you pay for a meal, sometimes you trade something, and if it's fair you're giving as much as you're taking."
"Sex is just sex. They just pretty it up to sell books and movies."
"Do you figure that's all there is between Anna and Cam?"
Seth moved his shoulders, but he was thinking.
"They've got something that matters, and lasts, that lives get built on. It's not what you've grown up with, or what I spent the first part of my life with—that's why I can tell you straight."
Ethan pressed his fingers to his eyes and ignored the swarm of bugs and the sweat. "It's different when you care, when the other person isn't just a face or a body that's convenient and willing. I've had that. Most people do along the way. It's different when it's just that one person who matters, who makes it right. When it isn't all hunger pushing at you. When you want, more than anything, to give back more than you take. I never had with anyone what I have with Grace."
Seth shrugged and looked away, but not before Ethan saw the misery on his face. "I know you've got feelings for her, and that they're real and strong and important. Maybe part of you wanted her to be perfect, not to have the needs other women do. I think a bigger part of you wanted to protect her, to make sure nobody hurt her. So I'm telling you what I just finished finally telling her. I love her. I've never loved anybody else."
Seth stared off into the marsh. He hurt all over, but the worst of it was shame. "Does she love you back?"
"Yeah, she does. Damned if I can figure out why."
Seth thought he knew why. Ethan was strong, and he didn't put on a big show. He did what had to be done.
What was right. "I was going to take care of her when I got older. I guess you think that's pretty lame."
"No." He suddenly, urgently, wanted to pull the boy against him, but he knew the timing was wrong. "No, I think that's pretty great. It makes me proud of you."
Seth's gaze flicked up, then quickly away again. "I kind of, you know, love her. Sort of. Not like I want to see her naked or anything," he added quickly. "Just—"
"I get it." Ethan clamped down on the tip of his
tongue to stifle the chuckle. The quick surge of amused relief tasted finer than an icy beer on a hot day. "Kind of like she was a sister, like you wanted the best for her."
"Yeah." And Seth sighed. "Yeah, I guess that's it."
Thoughtfully, Ethan sucked air between his teeth. "It's got to be tough for a guy to walk in and see that his sister's been with some guy."
"I hurt her. I wanted to."
"Yeah, you did. You'll have to apologize if you want to put things right with her."
"She'll think I'm stupid. She won't want to talk to me."
"She wanted to come after you herself. By this time, I'd say she's pacing around the backyard, worried sick."
Seth sucked in a breath that was too close to a sob to suit either of them. "I razzed Cam until he brought me home for my ball glove. And when I… I saw you in there, it made me think of how I would come back to wherever Gloria was living, and she'd be doing it with some guy."
Where sex was a business, Ethan thought, both ugly and mean. "It's hard to put those things aside, or let yourself believe there's a different way." Since he was still working on it himself, Ethan spoke carefully. "That making love, when you care, when it matters, when things are right, it's clean."
Seth sniffled, wiped at his eyes. "Gnats," he muttered.
"Yeah, they're a bitch out here."
"You should've slugged me, for saying that shit."
"You're right," Ethan decided after a moment. "I'll slug you next time. Now, let's go home."
He rose, brushed off his pants, then held out a hand. Seth stared up at him, saw kindness, patience, compassion. Qualities in a man he might have sneered at once because he'd found so little of them in anyone who had touched his life.
He put his hand in Ethan's and, without realizing it, left it there as they walked down the path. "How come you didn't hit me back even once?"
Little boy, Ethan thought, you've had too many hands raised against you in your short life. "Maybe I was afraid you could take me."
Seth snorted, blinking furiously at tears that still wanted to come. "Shit."
"Well, you're small," Ethan said, taking the cap from Seth's back pocket and snugging it down on Seth's head. "But you're a wiry little bastard."
Seth had to take long breaths as they came close to where the sunlight struck the edge of the woods, slanting white light.
He saw Grace, as Ethan had predicted, in the yard, hugging her arms as if she were chilled. She dropped them, took a quick step forward, then stopped.
Ethan felt Seth's hand flex in his and gave it a quick encouraging squeeze. "It'd go a long way to making things up to her," Ethan murmured, "if you were to run up and hug her. Grace is big on hugs."
It was what he'd wanted to do, what he was afraid to risk. He looked up at Ethan, jerked a shoulder, cleared his throat. "I guess I could, if it'd make her feel better."
Ethan stood back, watched the boy race across the lawn, watched Grace's face light with a smile as she threw open her arms to take him in.
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if you were going to have to work over a long holiday weekend, Phillip figured, it might as well be at something fun. He loved his job. What was advertising, anyway, but a knowledge of people and of which buttons to push to nudge them into opening their wallets?
It was, he often thought, an accepted, creative, even expected twist on picking those wallets. For a man who had spent the first half of his life as a thief, it was the perfect career.
On this day before the celebration of America's independence, he put his skills to use in the boatyard, schmoozing a potential client. He much preferred it to manual labor.
"You'll forgive the surroundings." Phillip waved a well-manicured hand, encompassing the enormous space, the exposed rafters and hanging lights, the yet-to-be-painted walls and scarred floors. "My brothers and I believe in putting our efforts into the product and keeping our overhead minimal. Those are benefits that we pass along to our clients."
At which time, Phillip thought, they had exactly one—with another in the box and this one nibbling at the line.
"Hmmm." Jonathan Kraft rubbed his chin. He was in his mid-thirties and fortunate enough to be a fourth-generation member of the pharmaceutical Krafts. Since his great-grandfather's humble beginnings as a storefront pharmacist in Boston, his family had built and expanded an empire on buffered aspirin and analgesics. It allowed Jonathan to indulge in his great love of sailing.