"She was a monster. A fucking monster. She beat me senseless for the hell of it as often as when she figured she had a reason."

"Oh, Ethan." Helpless to do otherwise, she reached out for him.

"Don't touch me now." He wasn't sure what he might do if he put his hands on her just then. And it frightened him. "Don't touch me now," he repeated.

She let her empty arms fall to her sides, battled back the tears that wanted to come.

"She had to take me to the hospital once," he continued. "I guess she was afraid I was going to die on her. That's when we moved from D.C. to Baltimore. The doctor asked too many questions about how I fell down the steps and gave myself a concussion and a couple cracked ribs. I used to wonder why she didn't just leave me behind. But then, she got some welfare money because of me and had a live-in punching bag, so I guess that was reason enough. Until I was eight."

He stopped pacing and stood still, stood facing her. There was so much rage inside him he could all but feel it searing his pores. And the bitter rise of it stung his throat. "That was when she figured I'd better start earning my keep. She'd been in the life long enough to know where to go to find men who didn't much care for women. Men who would pay for children."

She couldn't speak, even when she pressed a hand to her throat as if to push words, any words, out. She could only stand there, her face bone-white in the light of the rising moon and her eyes huge and horrified.

"The first time, you fight. You fight like your life depends on it, and part of you doesn't believe it's really going to happen. It just can't happen. Doesn't matter that you know what sex is because you've been around the ugly edge of it all your life. You don't know what this is, can't believe it's possible. Until it's happening. Until you can't stop it from happening."

"Oh, Ethan. Oh, God. Oh, God." She began to weep, for him, for the little boy, for a world where such horrors could exist.

"She made twenty dollars, gave me two. And made a whore of me."

"No," Grace said, helpless and sobbing. "No."

"I burned the money, but that didn't change anything. She gave me a couple of weeks, then she sold me again. You fight the second time, too. Harder even than the first, because now you know, and now you believe. And you keep fighting, every time, over and over through the same nightmare until you just give up. You take the money and you hide it because one day you'll have enough. Then you'll kill her and get out. God knows you want to kill her maybe even more than you want to get out."

She closed her eyes. "Did you?"

He heard the raspiness in her voice, took it for disgust rather than the sick fury it was. A fury for him, underscored with a vicious hope that he had. Oh, that he had.

"No. After a while it's just your life. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less. You just live it."

He turned away now to stare toward the house, where the lights glowed in the windows. Where music—Cam on guitar—carried by the breeze played a pretty tune.

"I lived it until I was twelve and one of the men she'd sold me to went a little crazy. He knocked me around pretty hard, but that wasn't so unusual. But he was flying on something and he went after her. They tore the place apart, made enough trouble that a couple neighbors who'd made it their business to mind their own got riled enough to beat on the door.

"He had his hands around her throat," Ethan remembered. "And I was sprawled on the floor, looking up, watching her eyes bulge, and I was thinking, Maybe he'll do it. Maybe he'll do it for me. She got her hand on a knife, and she jammed it into him. She jammed it into his back just as the people beating on the door busted it in. People were shouting and screaming. She pulled the son of a bitch's wallet out of his pocket while he was bleeding on the floor. And she ran. She never even looked at me."

He shrugged, turned back. "Somebody called the cops and they got me to a hospital. I'm not clear on it, but that's where I ended up. Doctors and cops and social workers," he said quietly. "Asking questions, writing things down. I guess they went looking for her, but they never found her."

He lapsed into silence so that there was only the lap of water, the call of insects, the echoing notes of a guitar. But she said nothing, knowing he wasn't finished. Not yet finished.

"Stella Quinn was at some medical conference in Baltimore, and she was doing guest rounds. She stopped by my bed. I guess she'd looked at my chart, I don't remember. I just remember her being there, putting her hands on the bed guard and looking down at me. She had kind eyes, not soft but kind. She talked to me. I didn't pay any attention to what she said, just her voice. She kept coming back. Sometimes Ray would be with her. One day she told me I could come home with them if I wanted."

He fell silent again, as if that was the end. But all Grace could think was that the moment when the Quinns had offered him a home had been the beginning.

"Ethan, my heart breaks for you. And I know now that as much as I loved and admired the Quinns all these years, it wasn't enough. They saved you."

"They saved me," he agreed. "And after I decided to live, I did everything I could to be something that honored that, and them."

"You are, and always have been, the most honorable man I know." She went to him, wrapped her arms around him, and held tight despite the fact that his arms didn't enfold her in return. "Let me help," she murmured. "Let me be with you. Ethan." She lifted her face, pressed her mouth to his. "Let me love you."

He shuddered, broke. His arms came round her now, fiercely. His mouth took the comfort she offered. He swayed there, holding on to her, a lifeline in a thrashing sea. "I can't do this, Grace. It's not right for you."

"You're right for me." She clung when he would have eased her away. "Nothing you've said changes what I feel. Nothing could. I only love you more for it."

"Listen to me." His hands were steady, but they were firm as they gripped her shoulders and pushed her back. "I can't give you what you need, what you want, what you should have. Marriage, children, family."

"I don't—"

"Don't tell me you don't need them. I know you do."

She drew in air, let it out slowly. "I need them with you. I need a life with you."

"I can't marry you. I can't give you children. I promised myself I'd never risk passing on to a child whatever pieces of her are in me."

"There's nothing of her in you."

"There is." His fingers tightened briefly. "You saw it that day in the woods when I took you against a tree like an animal. You saw it when I yelled at you over working in a bar. And I've seen it too many times to count when someone pushes me the wrong way once too often. Holding it back doesn't mean it's not there. I can't take vows with you or make a child with you. I love you too much to let you believe it's ever going to happen."

"She scarred more than your body," Grace murmured. "It's your heart she really abused. I can help you heal it the rest of the way."

He gave her a quick, gentle shake. "You're not listening to me. You're not hearing me. If you can't accept the way things have to be between us, I'll understand. I'll never blame you for stepping back and looking for what you want with someone else. The best thing for you is for me to let you go. And that's what I'm doing."

"Letting me go?"

"I want you to go home." He released her and stepped back. Felt as if he'd entered a huge, dark void. "Once you think this all through, you'll see it my way. Then you can decide if we should go on seeing each other the way we have been or if you want me to leave you be."

"I want—"

"No," he interrupted. "You don't know what you want right now. You need time, and so do I. I'd rather you went on. I don't want you here right now, Grace."

She lifted a hand to her temple. "You don't want me here?"

"Not now." He set his jaw when he saw the hurt swim into her eyes. For her own good, he reminded himself. "Go home and leave me be for a while."

She took a step back, then another. Then turned and ran. Around the house rather than through it. She couldn't bear havin

g anyone see her with tears on her cheeks and this awful tearing pain in her heart. He wouldn't have her, was all she could think. He wouldn't let her be what he needed.

"Hey, Grace! Hey." Seth abandoned his pursuit of the lightning bugs that flickered and flashed through the dark and raced after her. "I've got about a million of these suckers." He started to hold up a jar.

Then he saw the tears, heard them in her ragged breathing as she fumbled with the door handle on her car. "What's wrong? Why are you crying? Did you get hurt?"

She sobbed out a breath, pressed a hand to her heart. Oh, yes, oh, yes, I'm hurt. "It's nothing. I have to go home. I can't—I can't stay."

She tore open the car door, stumbled inside.

Seth's eyes went from puzzled to grim as he watched her drive away. Hot with fury, he stormed around the side of the house, slapping the bright jar on the edge of the porch. He saw the shadow on the dock and strode toward it with fists clenched for battle.

"You bastard. You son of a bitch." He waited until Ethan turned, then rammed his fist as hard as he could into his gut. "You made her cry."

"I know I did." The fresh and physical pain jolted through him, and joined the rest. "This isn't your business, Seth. Go on in the house."

"Fuck you. You hurt her. Go on, try to hurt me. It won't be so easy." Teeth bared, Seth swung again, and again, until Ethan picked him up by collar and seat and held him dangling over the end of the dock.

"Cool off, you hear, or I'll toss you in." He added a hard, threatening shake, but his heart wasn't in it. "You think I wanted to hurt her? You think I got any pleasure out of it?"

"Then why did you?" Seth shouted, struggling like a baited fish.

"There wasn't any choice." Suddenly abominably weary, Ethan dropped Seth to his feet on the dock. "Leave me alone," he murmured and sat on the edge. Giving in, he put his head in his hands, pressed his fingers to his eyes. "Just leave me alone."

Seth shifted his feet. It wasn't just Grace who was hurt. He hadn't really understood that a grown man could be, not this way. But Ethan was. Tentatively, he stepped forward. He stuck his hands in his pockets, pulled them out. Shuffled. Sighed. Then sat.

"Women," Seth said in a level and considering voice, "make a man want to shoot himself in the head and be done with it." It was something he'd heard Phillip say to Cam, and he thought it might be appropriate. He was rewarded when Ethan let out a short laugh, even if it wasn't a happy one.

"Yeah, I guess they can." Ethan draped an arm around Seth's shoulders, pulled the boy close to his side. And took a little comfort.

Chapter Eighteen

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anna weighed her priorities—and took the day off. She couldn't be sure what time Grace would be by to tend the house, and she couldn't risk missing her.

She didn't give a good damn what Ethan said—or didn't say. There was a crisis.

If she'd believed they'd simply had a spat or misunderstanding, she would have been sympathetic or amused, whichever was most called for. It wasn't a misunderstanding that had put misery into Ethan's eyes. Oh, he had a way of hiding it, she mused as she slowly and ruthlessly tugged out weeds that threatened her begonias in the front-yard bed. And he hid his more personal feelings very well. It just so happened she was a professional at filtering through to emotion.

Too bad for him that he'd inherited a social worker for a sister-in-law.

She'd poked at Seth a bit. There was no doubt in her mind the boy knew something. But she'd run straight into unwavering male loyalty. All she got out of him was a Quinn shrug and a zipped lip.

She could have wheedled it out nonetheless. But she hadn't had the heart to put a chip in that lovely bond. Seth could keep his loyalty to Ethan.

Anna would work on Grace.


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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