"Why'd you yell at her?" Seth wanted to know.

"Okay." He took a steadying breath, pressed his fingers to his tired eyes. "This morning she told me that Gloria had called her. Yesterday. Maybe I overreacted, but damn it, she should have told us."

"What did she want?" Seth's lips had gone white. Instinctively, Cam stepped over and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't let her spook you, kid. You're beyond that now. What's the deal?" he demanded of Phillip.

"I didn't get details. I was too busy blasting Sybill for not telling me sooner. The gist of it was money." Phillip shifted his gaze to Seth, spoke directly to him. "She told Gloria to kiss ass. No money, no nothing, no how. She told her she'd been to the lawyer and was making sure you stayed just where you are."

"Your aunt's no pushover," Cam said easily, giving Seth's shoulder a quick squeeze. "She's got spine."

"Yeah." Seth straightened his own. "She's okay."

"Your brother over there," Cam continued, nodding toward Phillip. "He's an asshole, but the rest of us have sense enough to know that Sybill didn't bring up the phone call yesterday because it was a party. She didn't want anybody to get upset. A guy doesn't turn eleven every day."

"So I screwed up." Muttering to himself, Phillip grabbed a plank and prepared to beat out his frustrations with nail and wood. "I'll fix it."

sybill needed to do some fixing of her own. It had taken her most of the day to work up both the courage and the plan. She pulled into the Quinn driveway just after four, and was relieved not to see Phillip's Jeep.

He'd be at the boatyard for another hour at least, she calculated. Seth would be with him. As it was Saturday night, they would most likely stop on the way home, pick up some takeout.

It was their pattern, and she knew her behavioral patterns, even if she didn't seem to be able to fully connect with the people who were doing the behaving.

Ten paces back, she thought, and was hurt all over again.

Annoyed, she ordered herself out of the car. She would do what she had come to do. It should take no more than fifteen minutes to apologize to Anna, for the apology to be accepted, at least outwardly. She would explain about the call from Gloria, in detail, so that it could be documented. Then she would leave.

She would be back at her hotel, buried in her work, long before Phillip arrived on the scene.

She knocked briskly on the door.

"It's open," came the response. "I'd rather kill myself than get up."

Warily, Sybill reached for the knob, hesitated, then opened the door. All she could do was stare.

The Quinn living room was usually cluttered, always appeared lived-in, but just now it appeared to have been lived in by a rampaging platoon of insane elves.

Paper plates, plastic cups, several of them dumped or spilled, littered the floor and the tables. Small plastic men were strewn everywhere as if a war had been waged, and the casualties were horrendous. Obviously fatal accidents had taken place with model cars and trucks. Shreds of wrapping paper were sprinkled over all like confetti on a particularly wild New Year's Eve.

Sprawled in a chair, surveying the damage, was Anna. Her hair was in her face, and her face was pale.

"Oh, great," she muttered, turning narrowed eyes to Sybill. "Now she shows up."

"I—I'm sorry?"

"Easy for you to say. I've just spent two and a half hours battling ten eleven-year-old boys. No—not boys," she corrected between her teeth. "Animals, beasts. Spawns of Satan. I just sent Grace home with orders to lie down. I'm afraid this experience might affect the baby. He could be born a mutant."

The children's party, Sybill remembered, her dazzled eyes scanning the room. She'd forgotten. "It's over?"

"It will never be over. I will wake up at night for the rest of my life, screaming, until they cart me off to a padded room. I have ice cream in my hair. There's some sort of… mass on the kitchen table. I'm afraid to go in there. I think it moved. Three boys managed to fall in the water and had to be dragged out and dried off. They'll probably catch pneumonia and we'll be sued. One of those creatures who disguised himself as a young boy ate approximately sixty-five pieces of cake, then got into my car—I don't know how he got by me, they're like lightning—and proceeded to throw up."

"Oh, dear." Sybill knew it wasn't a laughing matter. It shocked her to realize that her stomach muscles were quivering. "I'm so sorry. Can I help you, ah, clean up?"

"I'm not touching any of it. Those men—the one who claims to be my husband and his idiot brothers—they're going to do it. They're going to scrub and clean and wipe and shovel. They're going to do it all. They knew," she said in a vicious whisper. "They knew what a boy's birthday party would mean. How was I to know? But they did, and they hid themselves away down at that boatyard, using that lame excuse about contract deadlines. They left me and Grace alone with this, this unspeakable duty." She shut her eyes. "Oh, the horror."

Anna was silent for a moment, her eyes still closed. "Go ahead. You can laugh. I'm too weak to get up and belt you."

"You worked so hard to do this for Seth."

"He had the time of his life." Anna's lips curved as she opened her eyes. "And since I'm going to make Cam and his brothers clean it up, I'm feeling pretty good about it, all in all. How are you?"

"I'm fine. I came to apologize for last night."

"Apologize for what?"

The question threw her off rhythm. She was already running behind schedule, she thought, distracted by the chaos and Anna's rambling monologue. Sybill cleared her throat and began again. "For last night. It was rude of me to leave without thanking you for—"

"Sybill, I'm too tired to listen to nonsense. You weren't rude, you have nothing to apologize for, and you'll annoy me if you keep this up. You were upset, and you had a perfect right to be."

And that blew Sybill's carefully prepared speech all to hell. "I honestly don't understand why people in this family won't listen to, much less accept, a sincere apology for regrettable behavior."

"Boy, if that's the tone you use when you lecture," Anna observed with admiration, "your audience must sit at attention. But to answer your question, I suppose we don't because we so often indulge in what could be termed regrettable behavior ourselves. I'd ask you to sit down, but those are really lovely slacks

and I have no idea what nasty surprises there are on any of the cushions."

"I don't intend to stay."

"You couldn't see your face," Anna said more gently. "When he looked up at you, when he told you what he remembered. But I could see it, Sybill. I could see it was a great deal more than duty or responsibility or a valiant attempt to do what was right that brought you here. It must have crushed you when she took him away all those years ago."

"I can't do this again." The burn of tears scalded the back of her eyes. "I just can't do this again."

"You don't have to," Anna murmured. "I just want you to know I understand. In my work I see so many damaged people. Battered women, abused children, men who are at the end of their ropes, the elderly we so blithely displace. I care, Sybill. I care about every one of them who come to me for help."

She sighed a little and spread her fingers. "But in order to help them, I have to hold part of myself back, be objective, realistic, practical. If I threw all my emotions into every one of my cases, I couldn't do my job. I'd burn out, burn up. I understand the need for a little distance."

"Yes." The painful tension drained out of Sybill's shoulders. "Of course you do."

"It was different with Seth," Anna went on. "Right from the first minute, everything about him pulled at me. I couldn't stop it. I tried, but I couldn't. I've thought about that, and I believe, sincerely, that my feelings for him were there, just there, even before I met him. We were meant to be a part of each other's lives. He was meant to be part of this family, and this family was meant to be mine."

Risking the consequences, Sybill eased down on the arm of the sofa. "I wanted to tell you… you're so good with him. You and Grace. You're so good for him. The relationship he has with his brothers is wonderful, and it's vital. That strong male influence is important for a boy. But the female, what you and Grace give him, is just as vital."

"You have something to give him, too. He's outside," Anna told her. "Drooling over his boat."

"I don't want to upset him. I really have to go."

"Running away last night was understandable and acceptable." Anna's gaze was direct, level and challenging. "Running now isn't."

"You must be very good at your job," Sybill said after a moment.

"I'm damn good at it. Go talk to him. If I manage to get out of this chair in this lifetime, I'll put some fresh coffee on."

It wasn't easy. But then Sybill supposed it wasn't meant to be. Crossing that lawn toward the boy who sat in the pretty little boat, so obviously dreaming of fast sails.

Foolish saw her first and, alerted, raced toward her, barking. She braced herself and put a hand out, hoping to ward him off. Foolish skimmed his head under it, turning the defensive gesture into a stroke.

His fur was so soft and warm, his eyes so adoring, his face so fittingly silly that she relaxed into a smile. "You really are foolish, aren't you?"

He sat, batting at her with his paw until she took it and shook. Satisfied, he raced back toward the boat, where Seth watched and waited.

"Hi." He stayed where he was, pulling on the line and making the small triangle of sail sway.

"Hello. Have you taken it out yet?"

"Nah. Anna wouldn't let me and any of the guys go out in her today." He jerked a shoulder. "Like we'd drown or something."

"But you had a good time at your party."

"It was cool. Anna's a little pissed—" He stopped and looked toward the house. She really hated it when he swore. "She's pretty steamed about Jake barfing in her car, so I figured I'd hang out here until she levels."

"That's probably very sensible."

Then silence fell, heavy, as they both looked out over the water and wondered what to say.


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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