She debated, argued with herself. Wished she'd never seen the damn painting. Then because it was a foolish woman who made any agreement without looking at all the terms, she walked to the easel, around the canvas. And studied her own face.

She'd expected something rough and, well, sketchy, as he'd taken no more than fifteen minutes to produce it. Instead, it was detailed and stunning—the angles, the shadows, the curves.

She looked very cool, she decided. A bit aloof and so very, very serious. Cynical? she thought and gave in to the smile that tugged at her mouth.

"I don't look particularly friendly," she said.

"You weren't feeling particularly friendly."

"Can't argue with that. Or with the fact that you have an amazing gift." She sighed. "I don't have a dress with a long, full skirt and a sleeveless top."

And he grinned. "We'll improvise."

"I'll give you an hour tomorrow. Seven-thirty to eight-thirty."

"Ouch. Okay." He walked over, took the painting from the wall, held it out to her.

"You're trusting."

"Trust is underrated."

When her hands were full, he took her arms. He gave her that slight lift again, brought her to her toes. And the door swung open.

"Nope," Seth muttered as Cam strode in. "They never knock."

"Hi, Dru. Kiss the girl on your own time, kid. I don't smell any coffee." Obviously at home, he went toward the kitchen, then spotted the canvas. His face lit with pure delight. "Easiest fifty I ever made. I bet Phil Seth here would talk you into posing before the week was up."

"Oh, really?"

"No offense. Rembrandt here wants to paint something, he finds a way. He'd be a fool to pass up the chance to do that," he added, and the look on his face when he studied the canvas again was so filled with pride, she softened. "He's a pain in the ass half the time, but he's no fool."

"I'm aware of the pain-in-the-ass factor. I'll reserve judgment on whether or not he's a fool until I get to know him better. Seven-thirty," she said to Seth on her way out. "That's A.M."

Cam said nothing, just laid a beat with an open hand on his heart.

"Kiss ass."

"So, are you going to paint her, or poke at her?" Cam hooted out a laugh at Seth's vicious snarl. "What goes around comes around, kid. You spent a lot of time being disgusted at the idea of us poking at girls—as you put it—not so long ago."

"Since it is more than fifteen years that's not so long ago in your mind, it proves you're really getting old. Sure you should go up on the roof? Might have a spell up there and fall off."

"I can still kick your ass, kid."

"Sure. With Ethan and Phil holding me down, you might have a shot at taking me." He laughed when Cam caught him in a headlock. "Oh man, now I'm scared."

But they both remembered a time he would have been, when a skinny, smart-mouthed young boy would have frozen with terror at a touch, rough or gentle.

Knowing it, remembering it, Seth nearly blurted out the trouble he was keeping so tightly locked in the far corner of his mind. No, he'd handled it, he told himself. And would handle it again, if and when.

HE was a man of his word. When the last of the skylights was in place, he followed Cam to the boatyard to put in a few hours.

Once, he'd thought he'd make his living here, working side by side with his brothers building wooden sailing vessels. The fact was, some of his best memories were tucked inside the old brick building, flavored with his sweat, a little blood and the thrill of learning to be a part of something.

It had changed over the years. Refined, as Phillip would say. The walls were no longer bare and patched drywall, but painted a simple, workingman's white.

They'd fashioned a sort of entryway that opened to the stairs leading to Phillip's office and the second-story loft. It separated, in theory, the main work area.

Lining the walls were rough-framed sketches of various boats built by Quinn over the years. They depicted the progress of the business, and the growth of the artist.

He knew, because Aubrey had told him, that an art collector had come in two years before and offered his brothers a quarter million for the fifty sketches currently on display.

They'd turned him down flat, but had offered to build him a boat based on any sketch he liked.

It had never been about money, he thought now, though there had been some lean times during those first couple years. It had always been about the unit. And a promise made to Ray Quinn.

The work area itself hadn't changed very much. It was still a big, echoing, brightly lit space. There were pulleys and winches hanging from the ceiling. Saws, benches, stacks of lumber, the smell of freshly sawn wood, linseed oil, sweat, coffee, the boom of rock and roll, the buzz of power saws, the lingering scent of onions from someone's lunchtime sub.

It was all as familiar to him as his own face. Yes, once he'd thought he'd spend his life working there, listening to Phillip bitch about unpaid invoices, watching Ethan's patient hands lapping wood, sweating with Cam as they turned a hull.

But art had consumed it. The love of it had taken him away from boyhood ambitions. And had, for a time, taken him from his family.

He was a man now, he reminded himself. A man who would stand on his own ground, fight his own battles and be what it was he was meant to be.

Nothing, no one, was going to stop him. "You plan on standing there with your thumb up your ass much longer?" Cam asked him. "Or are we going to get some work out of you this afternoon?"

Seth shook himself back to the present. "Doesn't look like you need me," he pointed out.

He spotted Aubrey working on the deck planking of a skiff, her electric screwdriver

whirling. She wore an Orioles fielder's cap with her long tail of hair pulled through the back. Ethan was at the lathe, turning a mast with his faithful dog sprawled at his feet. "Hull of that skiff needs to be caulked and filled." Grunt work, Seth thought and sighed. "And what are you going to be doing?"

"Basking in the glory of my little empire." The basking included detailing the bulkhead for the cockpit, the sort of carpentry Cam turned into an art.

Seth did the grunt work; it was hardly the first time. He knew how to plank, he thought, a bit resentfully as Aubrey's drill continued its bump and grind over his head.

"Hey." She bent down to talk to him. "Will's got the night off. We're going to get some pizza, catch a flick after. You want in?"

It was tempting. He wanted to connect with Will again, not only because they'd been friends, but because he wanted to check out any guy who was sniffing around Aubrey.

He weighed that against spending the evening as a fifth wheel.

"Village Pizza?"

"Still the best in Saint Chris."

"Maybe I'll swing in," Seth decided. "Say hi to Will. I'll pass on the flick. I've got to get started early tomorrow."

"I thought you artistic types called your own hours."

Seth worked oakum into a seam of beveled planking on the hull. "Subject's calling these."

"What subject?" She sat back on her heels, then suddenly understood when she noted the expression on his face. "Ooooh, fancy flower lady's going to pose for the famous artist. I got more juice on her."

"I'm not interested in gossip." He managed to hold firm on that for nearly ten seconds. "What kind of juice?"

"Juicy juice, sweetheart. I got it from Jamie Styles, who got it from her cousin who was a Senate page a few years ago. Dru and a certain high-level White House aide were a very hot item back then."

"How hot?"

"Hot enough to burn up the society columns in the Post for nearly a year. And to warrant what Jamie's cousin describes as an engagement ring with a diamond the size of a doorknob. Then the diamond disappears, hot goes cold, and the high-level aide starts burning up the newsprint with a blonde."

"She was engaged?"

"Yeah. Briefly, according to my source. It came out that the blonde was a factor before the broken engagement. If you get my drift."

"He was cheating on Dru with the bimbo?"

"It so happens that this blonde was—is—a hotshot lawyer, assistant White House counsel or something."

"Must've been tough on Dru, having all that personal business splashed around in the press."

"She strikes me as someone who'd stand up to it pretty well. She's nobody's doormat. And I bet you a month's pay she busted that cheating bastards balls before she stuffed the ring down his throat."

"You would," Seth said with approval and pride. "Right before you mopped the floor with his lying tongue. But Dru doesn't come off as the violent type. More like she froze him to death with one chilly look and a few icy words."

Aubrey snorted. "A lot you know about women. Still waters, pal of mine. They not only run deep, you bet your ass they can run hot, too."

MAYBE, Seth thought as he dropped his filthy, aching body back behind the wheel of his car. But he'd lay money Dru had sliced the guy in two without spilling a single drop of blood.

Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance