Mama, please. I want Seth."
"She's okay, Grace. She can stay with me."
The easy, absent tone of Seth's voice had Sybill considering. "It's unusual, I'd think, for a boy Seth's age to be so patient with a toddler."
Phillip shrugged his shoulders and walked to the stove to start a pot of fresh coffee. "They hit it off right away. Aubrey adores him. That has to boost the kid's ego, and he's really good with her."
He turned, smiling as two women walked into the room. "Ah, the ones who got away. Sybill, these are the women my brothers stole from me. Anna, Grace, Dr. Sybill Griffin."
"He only wanted us to cook for him," Anna said with a laugh and held out a hand. "It's nice to meet you. I've read your books. I think they're brilliant."
Taken by surprise, both by the statement and the lush and outrageous beauty of Anna Spinelli Quinn, Sybill nearly fumbled. "Thank you. I appreciate you tolerating a Sunday-evening intrusion."
"It's no intrusion. We're delighted."
And, Anna thought, incredibly curious. In the seven months she'd known Phillip, this was the first woman he'd brought home to Sunday dinner.
"Phillip, go watch baseball." She waved him toward the doorway with the back of her hand. "Grace and Sybill and I can get acquainted."
"She's bossy, too," Phillip warned Sybill. "Just yell if you need help, and I'll come rescue you." He gave her a hard, firm kiss on the mouth before she could think to evade it, then deserted her.
Anna gave a long, interested hum, then smiled brightly. "Let's have some wine."
Grace pulled out a chair. "Phillip said you were going to stay in St. Chris a while and write a book about it."
"Something like that." Sybill took a deep breath. They were just women, after all. A stunning dark-eyed brunette and a cool lovely blonde. There was no need to be nervous. "Actually, I plan to write about the culture and traditions and social landscapes of small towns and rural communities."
"We have both on the Shore."
"So I see. You and Ethan are recently married."
Grace's smile warmed, and her gaze shifted to the gold band on her finger. "Just last month."
"And you grew up here, together."
"I was born here. Ethan moved here when he was about twelve."
"Are you from the area, too?" she asked Anna, more comfortable in the role of interviewer.
"No, I'm from Pittsburgh. I moved to D.C., wandered down to Princess Anne. I work for Social Services, as a caseworker. That's one of the reasons I was so interested in your books." She set a glass of deep-red wine in front of Sybill.
"Oh, yes, you're Seth's caseworker. Phillip told me a little about the situation."
"Mmm," was Anna's only comment as she turned to take a bib apron from a hook. "Did you enjoy your sail?"
So, Sybill realized, discussing Seth with outsiders was off-limits. She ordered herself to accept that, for now. "Yes, very much. More than I'd expected to. I can't believe I've gone so long without trying it."
"I had my first sail a few months ago." Anna set a huge pot of water on the stove to boil. "Grace has been sailing all her life."
"Do you work here, in St. Christopher's?"
"Yes, I clean houses."
"Including this one, thank the Lord," Anna put in. "I was telling Grace she ought to start a company. Maids Are Us or something." When Grace laughed, Anna shook her head. "I'm serious. It would be a terrific service, to the working woman in particular. You could even do commercial buildings. If you trained two or three people, word of mouth alone would get it going."
"You think bigger than I do. I don't know how to run a business."
"I bet you do. Your family's been running the crab house for generations."
"Crab house?" Sybill interrupted.
"Picking, packing, shipping." Grace lifted a hand. "Odds are, if you've had crab while you've been here, it came to you via my father's company. But I've never been involved in the business end."
"That doesn't mean you couldn't handle your own business." Anna took a chunk of mozzarella out of the refrigerator and began to grate it. "A lot of people out there are more than willing to pay for good, reliable, and trustworthy domestic services. They don't want to spent what little free time they might have cleaning the house, cooking meals, separating laundry. Traditional roles are shifting—don't you agree, Sybill? Women can't spend every spare second of their time in the kitchen."
"Well, I would agree, but… well, here you are." Anna stopped, blinked, then threw back her head and laughed. She looked, Sybill thought, like a woman who should be dancing around a campfire to the sound of violins rather than cozily grating cheese in a fragrant kitchen.
"You're right, absolutely." Still chuckling, Anna shook her head. "Here I am, while my man lounges in front of the TV, deaf and blind to anything but the game. And this is often the scene on Sundays around here. I don't mind. I love to cook."
Hearing the suspicion in Sybill's voice, Anna laughed again. "Really. I find it satisfying, but not when I have to rush in from work and toss something together. That's why we take turns around here. Mondays are leftovers from whatever I've cooked Sunday. Tuesdays we all suffer through whatever Cam cooks, because he's simply dreadful in the kitchen. Wednesdays we do takeout, Thursdays I cook, Fridays Phillip cooks, and Saturdays are up for grabs. It's a very workable system when it works."
"Anna's planning on having Seth take over as chef on Wednesdays within the year."
"At his age?"
Anna shook back her hair. "He'll be eleven in a couple of weeks. By the time I was his age, I could make a killer red sauce. The time and effort it takes to teach him and to convince him he's still a male if he knows how to make a meal will be worth it in the end. And," she added, sliding wide, flat noodles into the boiling water, "if I use the fact that he can outdo Cam in any area, he'll be an A student."
"They don't get along."
"They're wonderful together." Anna tilted her head as the living room exploded with shouts, cheers, stomping. "And Seth likes nothing more than to impress his big brother. Which means, of course, they argue and prod each other constantly." She smiled again. "I take it you don't have any brothers."
"No. No, I don't."
"Sisters?" Grace asked and wondered why Sybill's eyes went so cool. "One."
"I always wanted a sister." Grace smiled over at Anna. "Now I've got one."
"Grace and I were both only children." Anna squeezed Grace's shoulder as she walked by to mix her cheeses. Something in that easy, intimate gesture stirred a tug of envy inside Sybill. "Since we fell in with the Quinns, we've been making up rapidly for coming from small families. Does your sister live in New York?"
"No." Sybill's stomach clenched reflexively. "We're not terribly close. Excuse me." She pushed away from the table. "Can I use the bathroom?"
"Sure. Down the hall, first door on the left." Anna waited until Sybill walked out, then pursed her lips at Grace. "I can't decide what I think about her."
"She seems a little uncomfortable." Anna shrugged her shoulders. "Well, I guess we'll have to wait and see, won't we?"
In the little powder room off the hall, Sybill splashed water on her face. She was hot, nervous, and vaguely sick to her stomach. She didn't understand this family, she thought. They were loud, occasionally crude, pieced together from different origins. Yet they seemed happy, at ease with each other, and very affectionate.
As she patted her face dry, she met her own eyes in the mirror. Her family had never been loud or crude. Except for those ugly moments when Gloria had pushed the limits. Just now she couldn't honestly say for certain if they had ever been happy, ever been at ease with each other. And affection had never been a priority or something that was expressed in an overt manner.
It was simply that none of them were very emotional people, she told herself. She had always been more cerebral, out of inclination, she decided, and in defense against Gloria's baffling volatility. Life was ca
lmer if one depended on the intellect. She knew that. Believed that absolutely.
But it was her emotions that were churning now. She felt like a liar, a spy, a sneak. Reminding herself that she was doing what she was doing for the welfare of a child helped. Telling herself that the child was her own nephew and she had every right to be there, to form opinions, soothed.
Objectivity, she told herself, pressing her fingertips against her temples to smother the nagging ache. That's what would get her through until she'd gathered all the facts, all the data, and formed her opinion.
She stepped out quietly and took the few steps down the hall toward the blaring noise of the ball game. She saw Seth sprawled on the floor at Cam's feet and shouting abuse at the set across the room. Cam was gesturing with his beer and arguing the last call with Phillip. Ethan simply watched the game, with Aubrey curled in his lap, dozing despite the noise.
The room itself was homey, slightly shabby, and appeared comfortable. A piano was angled out from the corner. A vase of zinnias and dozens of small-framed snapshots crowded its polished surface. A half empty bowl of potato chips sat at Seth's elbow. The rug was littered with crumbs, shoes, the Sunday paper, and a grubby, well-gnawed hunk of rope.
The light had faded, but no one had bothered to switch on a lamp.
She started to step back, but Phillip glanced over. Smiled. Held out a hand. She walked to him, let him draw her down to the arm of his chair. "Bottom of the ninth," he murmured. "We're up by one."
"Watch this reliever kick this guy's sorry ass." Seth kept his voice down, but it rang with glee. He didn't even flinch when Cam slapped him on the head with his own ball cap. "Oh, yeah! Struck him out!" He leaped up, did a victory boogie. "We are number one. Man, I'm starving." He raced off to the kitchen and soon could be heard begging for food.
"Winning ball games works up an appetite," Phillip decided, absently kissing Sybill's hand. "How's she doing in there?"
"She appeared to be on top of things."
"Let's go see if she made antipasto."
He pulled her into the kitchen, and within moments it was crowded with people. Aubrey rested her head on Ethan's shoulder and blinked like an owl. Seth stuffed his mouth with tidbits from an elaborate tray and did a play-by-play of the game.
Everyone seemed to be moving, talking, eating at the same time, Sybill thought. Phillip put another glass of wine in her hand before he was drafted to deal with the bread. Because she felt slightly less confused by him than by the others, Sybill stuck to his side as chaos reigned.
He cut thick slices of Italian bread, then doctored them with butter and garlic.
"Is it always like this?" she murmured to him.
"No." He picked up his own glass of wine, touched it lightly to hers. "Sometimes it's really loud and disorganized."
by the time he drove her back to her hotel, Sybill's head was ringing. There was so much to process. Sights, sounds, personalities, impressions.
She had survived complex state dinners with less confusion than a Sunday dinner with the Quinns.
She needed time, she decided, to analyze. Once she was able to write down her thoughts, her observations, she would align them, dissect them, and begin to draw her initial conclusions.