"No." Ethan cleared his throat. "You just go out and…you know, around so they smell it and know there's a meat eater in the vicinity."

"I see." She nodded, satisfied, then whirled on her husband. "Well, get out there then and pee on my marigolds."

"Could use a beer first," Cam said and winked at his brother. "Don't worry, darling, we'll take care of it."

"All right." Calmer, she huffed out a breath. "Sorry, Ethan."

"Yeah, well, hmmm." He waited until she'd hurried out, then lowered himself to the edge of the bed. He slanted a look at Cam, who continued to lean against the door. "That wife of yours has a streak of mean in her."

"Yeah. I love it. Why'd you steal her flowers?"

"I just needed a few of them," Ethan muttered and pulled on his pants. "What the hell are they out there for if you get your head cut off for picking them?"

"Rabbits? And deer?" Cam began to hoot with laughter.

"They're garden pests right enough."

"Pretty brave rabbits who hop between two dogs and right up to the house to select a few flowers. If they got that far, they'd mow the whole garden down to the ground."

"She doesn't have to know that. For a while. I appreciate you backing me up. I thought she was going to punch me."

"She might have. Since I saved your pretty face, I figure you owe me."

"Nothing comes free," Ethan grumbled and stalked to the closet for a shirt.

"You got that right. Seth needs a haircut, and he's already outgrown his last pair of shoes."

Ethan turned, shirt dangling from his fingertips. "You want me to take him to the mall?"

"Right again."

"I'd rather have the punch in the face."

"Too late." Cam hooked a thumb in his front pocket and grinned. "So, why'd you need the flowers?"

"Just thought Grace would like them." Muttering, Ethan shrugged into his shirt.

"Ethan Quinn stealing flowers, going out—voluntarily—to a jacket-and-tie restaurant." Cam's grin widened, his eyebrows wiggled. "Serious business."

"It's a usual thing for a man to take a woman out to dinner, bring her flowers now and then."

"Not for you it isn't." Cam straightened, patted his flat belly. "Well, I guess I'll go choke down that beer so I can be a hero."

"Man's got no privacy around here," Ethan complained when Cam sauntered away. "Women come right on into your bedroom, don't even have the courtesy to leave when they see you don't have your pants on."

Scowling, he dragged one of his two ties out of the closet. "People ready to skin you alive over a few flowers. And the next thing you know, you're at the goddamn mall fighting crowds and buying shoes."

He wrestled the tie under his collar and began to deal with the knot. "Never had to worry when I was in my own place. I could walk around buck ass naked if I wanted to." He hissed at the tie that refused to cooperate. "I hate these fuckers."

"That's because you're happier tying a sheepshank."

"Who the hell wouldn't be?"

Then he stopped, his fingers freezing on the tie. His gaze stayed on the mirror, where he could see his father behind him.

"You're just a little nervous, that's all," Ray said with a smile and a wink. "Hot date."

Taking a careful breath, Ethan turned. Ray stood at the foot of the bed, his bright-blue eyes merry, the way Ethan remembered they would sparkle when he was particularly tickled about something.

He was wearing a squash-yellow T-shirt that sported a boat under full sail, faded jeans, and scuffed sandals. His hair was long, past his collar, and shining silver. Ethan could see the sun glint on it.

He looked exactly like what he was—had been. A robust and handsome man who appreciated comfortable clothes and a good laugh.

"I'm not dreaming," Ethan murmured.

"It was easier for you to think so at first. Hello, Ethan."

"Dad."

"I remember the first time you called me that. Took you a while to come to it. You'd been with us almost a year. Christ, you were a spooky kid, Ethan. Quiet as a shadow, deep as a lake. One evening when I was grading papers, you knocked on the door. You just stood there for a minute, thinking. God, it was a marvel to watch your mind work. Then you said, 'Dad, the phone's for you.' " Ray's smile went bright as sunlight. "You slipped right out again, or you'd have seen me make a fool of myself. Sniffled like a baby and had to tell whoever the hell it was on the phone I was having an allergy attack."

"I never knew why you wanted me."

"You needed us. We needed you. You were ours, Ethan, even before we found each other. Fate takes its own sweet time, but it always finds a way. You were so… fragile," Ray said after a moment, and Ethan blinked in surprise. "Stella and I were worried we'd do something wrong and break you."

"I wasn't fragile."

"Oh, Ethan, you were. Your heart was delicate as glass and waiting to be shattered. Your body was tough. We never worried about you and Cam pounding on each other those first months. Thought it did both of you good."

Ethan's lips twitched. "He usually started the pounding."

"But you never were one to back off once your blood was up. Took some doing to get it up," he added. "Still does. We watched you watch and settle and think and consider."

"You gave me… time. Time to watch and settle, to think and consider. Everything I've got that's decent came from the two of you."

"No, Ethan, we just gave you love. And that time, and the place."

He wandered over to the window, to look out on the water and the boats that swayed gently at the dock. He watched an egret sail across a sky hazed with heat and plumped by clouds.

"You were meant to be ours. Meant to be here. Took to the water like you'd been born in it. Cam, he always just wanted to go fast, and Phillip preferred to sit back and enjoy the ride. But you…"

He turned back again, his gaze thoughtful. "You studied every inch of the boat, every wave, every turn of a river. You'd practice tying knots for hours, and

nobody had to nag you into swabbing the decks."

"It came easy for me, right from the start. You wanted me to get a college degree."

"For me." Ray shook his head. "For me, Ethan. Fathers are human, after all, and I went through a time when I thought my sons needed to love schooling as much as I did. But you did what was right for you. You made me proud of you. I should have told you that more often."

"You always let me know it."

"Words count, though. Who would know that better than a man who spent his life trying to teach the young the love of them?" He sighed now. "Words count, Ethan, and I know some of them come hard for you. But I want you to remember that. You and Grace have a lot to say to each other yet."

"I don't want to hurt her."

"You will," Ray said quietly. "By trying not to. I wish you could see yourself as I do. As she does." He shook his head again. "Well, fate takes its time. Think of the boy, Ethan, think of Seth—and what pieces of yourself you see there."

"His mother—" Ethan began.

"Think of the boy for now," Ray said simply, and he was gone.

Chapter Sixteen

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there wasn't a hint of rain on the breezy summer air. The sky was a hot, staggering blue, an unbroken bowl that held a faint haze and fragile clouds. A single bird sang manically, as if mad to complete the song before the long day was over.

She was as nervous as a teenager on prom night. The thought of that made Grace laugh. No teenager had ever dreamed of nerves like these.

She fussed with her hair, wishing she had long, glossy curls like Anna's—exotic, Gypsy-like. Sexy.

But she didn't, she reminded herself firmly. And never would. At least the short, simple crop showed off the pretty gold drop earrings Julie had loaned her.

Julie had been so sweet and excited about what she'd termed the Big Date. She'd launched straight into a what-to-wear-and-what-to-wear-with-it routine—and naturally had deemed the contents of Grace's closet a total loss.

Of course, letting Julie drag her off to the mall had been sheer foolishness. Not that Julie had to yank very hard,

Grace admitted. It had been so long since she'd shopped simply for the simple pleasure of shopping. For the couple of hours they'd spent swarming through the shops, she'd felt so young and carefree. As if nothing was really more important than finding the right outfit.

Still, she'd had no business buying a new dress, even if she did get it on sale. But she couldn't seem to talk herself out of it. Just this one little indulgence, this one little luxury. She so desperately wanted something new and fresh for this special night.

She'd yearned for the sexy, sophisticated black with its shoestring straps and snug skirt. Or the boldly sensuous red with the daringly plunging neckline. But they hadn't suited her, as she'd known they wouldn't.

It had been no surprise that the simple powder-blue linen had been discounted. It had looked so plain, so ordinary, hanging on the rack. But Julie had pressed it on her, and Julie had an eye for such things.


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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