"Are we ever going to eat?" Seth demanded, then stopped at the kitchen doorway and stared. "Why're Anna and Grace crying?" He swept an accusing look around the room, including Sybill in the heat. "What happened?"

"We're happy." Grace sniffled and accepted the tissue that Sybill dug out of her purse. "I'm going to have a baby."

"Really? Wow. Wow. That's cool. That's way cool. Does Aub know?"

"No, Ethan and I will tell her, in a little while. But now I'm going to go get her because there's something you need to see. Outside."

"Outside." He started for the door, but Phillip stepped neatly in his path.

"Not yet."

"What is it? Come on, move. Jeez. Let me see what's out there."

"We should blindfold him," Phillip considered.

"We should gag him," was Cam's suggestion.

Ethan took care of matters by hauling Seth over his shoulder. When Grace brought Aubrey in, Ethan winked, shifted the wriggling Seth, and headed out the door.

"You're not throwing me in again!" Seth's voice rang with terrified delight and giggles. "Come on, guys, the water's really cold."

"Wimp," Cam sneered when Seth lifted his face from Ethan's back.

"If you try," Seth warned, eyes dancing with joy and challenge, "I'm taking at least one of you with me."

"Yeah, yeah, big talk." Phillip pushed Seth's face back down. "Ready?" he asked when everyone was assembled at the edge of the water. "Good. Do it, Ethan."

"Man, the water's cold!" Seth began, ready to scream when Ethan dropped him. But he was set on his feet and he was turned to face the pretty little wooden boat with sky-blue sails that rippled lightly in the evening wind. "What—where did that come from?"

"The sweat of our brows," Phillip said dryly while Seth gaped at the boat.

"Is it—who's buying it?"

"It's not for sale," Cam said simply.

"It… is it…" It couldn't be, he thought, while his heart thumped with nerves and hope and shock. But hope was paramount. In the past year he'd learned to hope. "Is it mine?"

"You're the only one with a birthday around here," Cam reminded him. "Don't you want a closer look?"

"It's mine?" He whispered it first, with such staggered delight and shock that Sybill felt her eyes sting. "Mine?" He exploded with it as he whirled around. This time the sheer joy on his face closed her throat. "To keep?"

"You're a good sailor," Ethan told him quietly. "She's a tight little boat. She's steady, but she moves."

"You built her for me." His gaze shot from Ethan's face to Phillip's to Cam's. "For me?"

"Nah, we built her for some other brat." Cam gave him a light swat on the side of the head. "What do you think? Go take a look."

"Yeah." His voice quavered as he turned. "Yeah, can I get in her? Can I sit in her?"

"For Christ's sake, she's yours, isn't she?" His voice rough with emotion, Cam grabbed Seth's hand and hauled him onto the dock.

"I think this is a guy thing," Anna murmured. "Let's give them a few minutes to pull themselves together."

"They love him so much." Sybill watched another moment as the four males made noises over a little wooden boat. "I don't think I realized it, really, until just now."

"He loves them, too." Grace pressed her cheek to Aubrey's.

and it was more, sybill thought later as she picked at the meal in the noisy kitchen. It had been that shock on Seth's face. The utter disbelief that someone loved him, could love him enough to understand his heart's desire. And understanding, make the effort to give it.

The pattern of his life, she thought wearily, had been broken, shifted, then reformed. And all before she'd really come into it. Now it was set, the way it was meant to be set.

She didn't belong here. She couldn't stay here. She couldn't bear it.

"I really should go," she said with a well-mannered smile. "I want to thank you for—"

"Seth hasn't opened your gift yet," Anna interrupted. "Why don't we let him rip, then we'll have some cake."

"Cake!" Aubrey whacked her palms on her high chair. "Blow the candles out and make a wish."

"Soon," Grace told her. "Seth, take Sybill into the living room so you can open your gift."

"Sure." He waited for Sybill to stand, then with a jerk of his shoulder started out.

"I got it in Baltimore," she began, miserably awkward, "so if it doesn't suit, if you don't like it, Phillip could exchange things for you."

"Okay." He pulled a box out of the first bag, sat Indian-style on the floor, and within seconds was tearing the paper it had taken her untold agonies to choose to shreds.

"You could have used newspaper," Phillip told her and, chuckling, nudged her into a chair.

"It's a box," Seth said, puzzled, and Sybill's heart sank at his disinterested tone.

"Yes, well… I kept the receipt. So you can take it back and get whatever you'd like."

"Yeah, okay." But he caught the hard beam in Phillip's eye and made an effort. "It's a nice box." But he wanted to roll his eyes. Then he idly flicked the brass hook, flipped the top. "Holy shit!"

"Christ, Seth." Cam muttered it, glancing over his shoulder as Anna walked in from the kitchen.

"Man, look at all this stuff! It's got, like, everything. Charcoals and pastels and pencils." Now he looked at Sybill with that staggered shock. "I get to have it all?"

"It goes together." Nervous, she twisted her silver beads around her finger. "You draw so well, I thought… You may want to experiment with other mediums. The other box has more supplies."

"More?"

"Watercolors and brushes, some paper. Ah…" She eased onto the floor as Seth gleefully ripped into the second box. "You may decide you like acrylics, or pen and ink, but I lean toward watercolors myself, so I thought you might like to try your hand at it."

"I don't know how to do it."

"Oh, well, it's a simple process, really." She leaned over to take one of the brushes and began to explain the basic technique. As she spoke, she forgot her nerves, smiled at him.

The light from the lamp slanted over her face, caught something, something in her eyes that jiggled at the corners of his memory.

&nb

sp; "Did you have a picture on the wall? Flowers, white flowers in a blue vase?"

Her fingers tightened on the brush. "Yes, in my bedroom in New York. One of my watercolors. Not a very good one."

"And you had colored bottles on a table. Lots of them, different sizes and stuff."

"Perfume bottles." Her throat was closing again, so she was forced to clear it. "I used to collect them."

"You let me sleep in your bed with you." His eyes narrowed as he concentrated on the vague blips of memory. Soft smells, soft voice, colors and shapes. "You told me some story, about a frog."

The Frog Prince. Into her mind flashed the image of how a little boy had curled against her, the bedside lamp holding back the dark for both of them, his bright-blue eyes intense on her face as she'd calmed his fears with a tale of magic and happily ever after.

"You had—when you came to visit, you had bad dreams. You were just a little boy."

"I had a puppy. You bought me a puppy."

"Not a real one, just a stuffed toy." Her vision was blurring, her throat closing, her heart breaking. "You… you didn't have any toys with you. When I brought it home you asked me whose it was, and I told you it was yours. That's what you called it. Yours. She didn't take it when she—I have to go."

She shot to her feet. "I'm sorry. I have to go." And bolted out the door.

Chapter Seventeen

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she got to her car and yanked at the door handle before she realized she'd locked it. Which was, she told herself frantically, a stupid, knee-jerk urban habit that had no more place in this pretty rural neighborhood than she did.

The next thing she realized was that she'd run out of the house without her purse, her jacket, her keys. And that she would walk back to the hotel before she would go back inside and face the Quinns again after her rude and emotional behavior.

She whirled when she heard footsteps behind her and wasn't sure if she was relieved or embarrassed to see Phillip coming toward her. She didn't know what she was, what it was that was bubbling up inside her, burning and swelling her heart and her throat. She only knew she had to escape it.

"I'm sorry. I know that was rude. I really have to go." In the rush to get out, the words bumped and tumbled over each other. "Would you mind getting my purse? I need my purse. My keys. I'm sorry. I hope I didn't spoil—"

Whatever was bubbling in her throat was rising higher, choking her. "I have to go."

"You're shaking." He said it gently and reached for her, but she jerked back.

"It's cold. I forgot my jacket."


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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