To try to compute it, she pressed her fingers to her temples. It didn't help a bit. "Why?"

He considered, smiled. "Because they're there?" he suggested.

"And your parents allowed this type of violent behavior."

"My mother was a pediatrician. She always stitched us up." He leaned forward to pour himself more wine. "I think I'd better explain the whole picture. You know that Cam, Ethan, and I are adopted."

"Yes. I did some research before I came…" She trailed off, glanced back at her laptop. "Well, you know that already."

"Yeah. And you know some of the facts, but not the meaning. You asked me about my scars. It doesn't start there," he mused. "Not really. Cam was the first. Ray caught him trying to steal my mother's car one morning."

"Her car? Steal her car?"

"Right out of the driveway. He was twelve. He'd run away from home and was planning on going to Mexico."

"At twelve he was stealing cars with plans to go to Mexico."

"That's right. The first of the Quinn bad boys." He lifted his glass to toast his absent sibling. "He'd been beaten, again, by his drunk father, and he'd figured it was time to run or die."

"Oh." She braced a hand on the arm of the sofa as she lowered herself again.

"He passed out, and my father carried him inside. My mother treated him."

"They didn't call the police?"

"No. Cam was terrified, and my mother recognized the signs of continual physical abuse. They made inquiries, arrangements, worked with the system and circumvented it. And they gave him a home."

"They just made him their son?"

"My mother said once that we were all hers already. We just hadn't found each other before. Then there was Ethan. His mother was a hooker in Baltimore, a junkie. She relieved boredom by knocking him around. And then she got the bright idea that she could supplement her income by selling her eight-year-old son to perverts."

Sybill clutched her glass in both hands and rocked. She said nothing, could say nothing.

"He had a few years of that. One night one of her customers finished with Ethan, and with her, and got violent. Since his target was her and not her kid, she objected. Stabbed him. She ran, and when the cops got there they took Ethan to the hospital. My mother was doing guest rounds."

"They took him, too," Sybill murmured.

"Yeah, that's the long and short of it."

She raised her glass, sipped slowly, watched him over the rim. She didn't know the world he was describing. Logically, she knew it existed, but it had never touched hers. Until now. "And you?"

"My mother worked the Block in Baltimore. Strip joints, turned tricks on the side. A little bait and switch now and then, some short cons." He shrugged. "My father was long gone. He did some time in Jessup for armed robbery, and when he got out he didn't look us up."

"Did she… did she beat you?"

"Now and then, until I got big enough, strong enough, that she worried I might hit back." His smile was thin and sharp. "She was right to worry. We didn't care for each other much. But if I wanted a roof over my head, and I did, I needed her, and I had to pull my weight. I picked pockets, lifted locks. I was pretty good at it. Hell," he said with a faint stir of pride, "I was damn good at it. Still, I stuck with small shit. The kind you turn into easy cash or drugs. If things were really tight, I sold myself."

He saw her eyes widen in shock, flick away from his.

"Survival's not always pretty," he said shortly. "Most of the time I had my freedom. I was tough, and I was mean, and I was smart. Maybe I got picked up once in a while and rattled through the system, but I always popped out again. Another few years of that life, and I'd have been in Jessup—or the morgue. Another few years of that life," he continued, watching her face, "and Seth would have gone the same way."

Struggling to absorb it, she stared into her wine. "You see your situations as similar, but—"

"I recognized Gloria yesterday," he interrupted. "A pretty woman gone brittle. Hard and sharp at the eyes, bitter at the mouth. She and my mother would have recognized each other, too."

What could she say, how could she argue when she'd seen the same thing, felt the same? "I didn't recognize her," she said quickly. "For a moment I thought there was a mistake."

"She recognized you. And she played the angles, pushed the buttons. She'd know how." He paused a moment. "She'd know exactly how. So do I."

She looked at him then, noted he was studying her coolly. "Is that what you're doing? Pushing buttons, playing angles?"

Maybe it was, he thought. They would both have to figure that out before much longer. "Right now I'm answering your question. Do you want the rest?"

"Yes." She didn't hesitate, for she'd discovered she very much wanted to hear it all.

"When I was thirteen, I thought I had it handled. I figured I was just fine. Until I found myself face down in the gutter, bleeding to death. Drive-by shooting. Wrong place, wrong time."

"Shot?" Her gaze whipped back to his. "You were shot."

"In the chest. Probably should have killed me. One of the doctors who made sure I didn't die knew Stella Quinn. She and Ray came to see me in the hospital. I figured them for weirdos, do-gooders, your basic assholes. But I played along with them. My mother was done with me, and I was going to end up solid in the system. I thought I'd use them until I was steady on my feet again. Then I'd take what I needed and cut out."

Who was this boy he described to her? And how was she to reconcile him with the man beside her? "You were going to rob them?"

"It's what I did. What I was. But they…" How to explain it? he wondered. The miracle of them. "They just wore that away. Until I fell in love with them. Until I'd have done anything, been anything, to make them proud of me. It wasn't the paramedics or the surgical team that saved my life. It was Ray and Stella Quinn."

"How old were you when they took you in?"

"Thirteen. But I wasn't a kid like Seth. I wasn't a victim like Cam and Ethan. I made my choices."

"You're wrong." For the first time, she reached out and, taking his face in her hands, she kissed him gently.

He lifted his hands to her wrists, had to concentrate on not squeezing her skin the way that soft kiss had squeezed his heart. "That's not the reaction I expected."

It wasn't the one she'd expected to have. But she found herself feeling pity for the boy he described to her and admiration for the man he'd made himself into. "What reaction do you usually get?"

"I've never told anyone outside the family." He managed a smile. "Bad for the image."

Touched, she rested her forehead against his. "You're right. It could have been Seth," she murmured. "What happened to you, it could have been Seth. Your father saved him from that. You and your family saved him, while mine's done nothing. And worse than nothing."

"You're doing something."

"I hope it's enough." When his mouth came to hers, she let herself slide into comfort.

Chapter Fourteen

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phillip unlocked the boatyard at seven A.M. The very fact that his brothers hadn't given him grief about not working the day before, or about taking a full Sunday off the previous week, had his guilt quota at peak.

He expected he had a good hour, maybe a little more before Cam showed up to continue work on the hull of the sport's fisher

. Ethan would put in a morning of crabbing, taking advantage of the fall season, before heading in to work that afternoon.

So he would have the place to himself, and the quiet and solitude to deal with the paperwork he'd neglected the week before.

Quiet didn't mean silence. His first act when entering his cramped office was to hit the lights. The next was to switch on the radio. Ten minutes later, he was nose-deep in accounts and very much at home.

Well, they owed just about everybody, he concluded. Rent, utilities, insurance premiums, the lumberyard, and the ever popular MasterCard.

The government had demanded its share in the middle of September, and the bite had been just a little nasty. The next tax nibble wasn't far enough away to let him relax.

He juggled figures, toyed with them, stroked them, and decided red wasn't such a bad color. They'd made a tidy profit on their first job, the bulk of which had been poured back into the business. Once they turned the hull, they would get another draw from their current client. That would keep their heads above water.

But they weren't going to see a lot of the color black for a time yet.

Dutifully, he cut checks, updated the spreadsheet, reconciled figures, and tried not to mourn the fact that two and two stubbornly insisted on making four.

He heard the heavy door below open, then slam.

"Hiding up there again?" Cam called out.

"Yeah, having a real party."

"Some of us have real work to do."

Phillip looked at the figures dancing over his computer screen and laughed shortly. It wasn't real work to Cam, he knew, unless you had a tool in your hand.

"Best I can do," he muttered and shut the computer down. He stacked the outgoing bills on the corner of the desk, tucked the paychecks in his back pocket, then headed down.

Cam was strapping on a tool belt. He wore a ball cap backward to keep his hair out of his eyes, and it flowed beneath the down-sloped bill. Phillip watched him slide the wedding band off his finger and tuck it carefully into his front pocket.

Just as he would take it out after work, Phillip mused, and slip it back in place. Rings could catch on tools and cost a man a finger. But neither of his brothers left theirs at home. He wondered if there was some symbolism, or comfort, in having that statement of marriage on them, one way or the other, at all times.

Then he wondered why he was wondering and nudged the question, and the idea of it, aside.

Since Cam had reached the work area first, the radio wasn't tuned to the lazy blues Phillip would have chosen, but to loud, kiss-my-ass rock. Cam eyed him coolly as Phillip tugged on a tool belt of his own.

"Didn't expect to see you in so bright and early this morning. Figured you had a late night."

"Don't go there again."

"Just a comment." Anna had already chewed him out when he complained to her about Phillip's involvement with Sybill. He should be ashamed, he shouldn't interfere, he should have some compassion for his brother's feelings.

Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance