"They love me too much," she said quietly. "Or not enough. I've never been able to figure it out. I don't suppose they have either. I can't be with them, standing in as their crutch or their referee the rest of my life."

"Have you told them?"

"Tried. They don't hear." She rubbed her arms as if smoothing ruffled feathers. "And I have absolutely no business dumping my mess in your lap."

"Why not? We're practically going steady." She let out a half laugh. "You're awfully good at that."

"I'm good at so many things. Which one is this?"

"At listening, for one." She leaned forward, kissed his cheek. "I've never been particularly good at asking anyone to listen. I don't seem to have to with you. And for two"—she kissed his other cheek—"you're good at making me laugh, even when I'm annoyed."

"I'll listen some more—and make you laugh—if you kiss me again. And aim for here this time," he added, tapping a finger to his lips.

"Thanks, but that's about it. Let's put it away. There's nothing I can do about them." She eased away from him. "I assume you want me on the blanket."

"Why don't we toss this for today and go for a sail? It always clears my head."

"No, you're already set up, and it'll take my mind off things.

But thanks, really, Seth."

Satisfied that the sadness on her face had lifted, he nodded. "Okay. If you decide you want to stop after all, just say so. First, lose the shoes."

She stepped out of the canvas slides. "A barefoot picnic."

"There you go. Lie down on the blanket."

She'd assumed she'd be sitting on it, skirts spread as she read the book. But she stepped onto the blanket. "Face up or down?"

"On your back. Scoot down a little more," he suggested as he walked around her. "Let's have the right arm over your head. Bend your elbow, relax the hand."

"I feel silly. I didn't feel silly in the studio."

"Don't think about it. Bring your left knee up." She did, and when the skirt came with it, smoothed it back down over her legs.

"Oh, come on." He knelt down and had her eyes going to slits when he pulled up the hem of the skirt so it exposed her left leg to mid-thigh.

"Aren't you supposed to say something about how you're not hitting on me, but that this is all for the sake of art?"

"It is for the sake of art." The back of his fingers skimmed her thigh as he fussed with the lie of the material. "But I'm hitting on you, too." He slid the strap of her top off her shoulder, studied the result, nodded.

"Relax. Start with your toes." He rubbed a hand over her bare foot. "And work your way up." Watching her, he ran his hand up her calf, over her knee. "Turn your head toward me."

She did, and glanced over the paint supplies he'd set up by his easel. "Aren't those watercolors? I thought you said you wanted oil."

"This one's for watercolors. I've got something else in mind for oils."

"So you keep saying. Just how many times do you think you can persuade me to do this?"

"As many as it takes. You're having a quiet afternoon by the water," he told her as he began sketching lightly on the paper. "A little sleepy from wine and reading."

"Am I alone?"

"For the moment. You're just daydreaming now. Go wherever you want."

"If it were warmer, I'd slide into the river."

"It's as warm as you want it to be. Close your eyes, Dru. Dream a little."

She did as he asked. The music, soft, romantic, was a caress on the air.

"What do you think of when you paint?" she asked him.

"Think?" At the question his mind went completely blank. "I don't know. Ah… shape, I guess. Light, shadow. Jeez. Mood. I don't have an answer."

"You just answered the question I didn't ask. It's instinct. Your talent is instinctive. It has to be, really, as you were so clever at drawing so young."

"What did you want to do when you were a kid?" Her body was a long, slim flow to him. Shape.

"Lots of things. A ballerina, a movie star, an explorer. A missionary."

"Wow, a missionary. Really?" The sun slid through the leaves and lay softly on her skin. Light and shadow.

"It was a brief ambition, but a profound one. What I didn't think I'd be was a businesswoman. Surprise."

"But you like it."

"I love it. I love being able to take what I once assumed was a personal passion and a small talent for flowers and do something with it." Her mind began to drift, like the river that flowed beside her. "I've never been able to talk to anyone the way I seem to be able to talk to you."

"No kidding?" She looked like a faerie queen—the exotic shape of her eyes, the sexy pixie cap of dark hair. The utter female confidence of the pose. A faerie queen drowsing alone in her private glade. Mood.

"Why do you think that is?" he wondered.

"I haven't a clue." And with a sigh, she fell asleep.

THE MUSIC had changed. A woman with a voice like heartbreak was singing about love. Still half dreaming, Dru shifted. "Who is that singing?" she murmured.

"Darcy Gallagher. Some pipes there. I caught a show she did with her two brothers a couple years ago in County Waterford. Little place called Ardmore. It was amazing."

"Mmm. I think I've heard—" She broke off when she opened her eyes and found Seth sitting beside the blanket with a sketchbook instead of standing behind the table. "What're you doing?"

"Waiting for you to wake up."

"I fell asleep." Embarrassed, she rose on one elbow. "I'm sorry. How long was I out?"

"Dunno. Don't have a watch." He set the book aside. "No need to be sorry. You gave me just what I was after."

>   Trying to clear her head, she looked over at the table. The watercolor paper was, frustratingly, out of her line of sight. "You finished?"

"No, but I got a hell of a start. Watch or no watch, my stomach's telling me it's lunchtime." He flipped the lid on a cooler.

"You brought a real picnic."

"Hamper was for art, cooler's for practicality. We've got bread, cheese, grapes, some of this pate Phil swears by." He pulled out plates as he spoke. "And though I had to debase myself and beg, some of Anna's pasta salad. And this terrific wine I discovered in Venice. It's called Dreams. Seemed to fit."

"You're trying to make this a date," she said warily.

"Too late." He poured the first glass, handed it to her. "It already is a date. I wanted to ask why you took off so fast yesterday, when you came by the boatyard."

"I'd finished my business." She chose a chilled grape, bit through its tart skin. "And I had to get back to work."

"So you want a boat?"

"Yes, I do. I like to sail."

"Come sailing with me. That way you can check out how seaworthy a boat by Quinn is."

"I'll think about it." She sampled the pate, made a sexy little sound of pleasure. "Your brother Phillip has excellent taste. They're very different, your brothers. Yet they hang together like a single unit."

"That's family."

"Is it? No, not always, not even usually, at least in my experience. Yours is unique, in a number of ways. Why aren't you scarred?" He looked up from scooping out pasta salad. "Sorry?"

"There's been enough information dribbled through the stories I've read about you, and what I've heard just living in Saint Chris, to tell me you had a very hard childhood. You told me so yourself. How do you get through that without being damaged?" The press articles had barely skimmed the surface, Seth thought. They knew nothing of the young boy who had hidden from or fought off more than once the slick, groping hands of the drunks or druggies Gloria had brought home.

They didn't know about the beatings or the blackmail, or the fear that remained a hard kernel lodged in his heart.

"They saved me." He said it with a simple honesty that made her throat burn. "It's not an exaggeration to say that they saved my life. Ray Quinn, then Cam and Ethan and Phil. They turned their world around for me, and because of it, turned mine around with it. Anna and Grace and Sybill, Aubrey, too. They made a home for me, and nothing that happened before matters nearly as much as everything that came after."

Unspeakably moved, she leaned forward and touched her lips to his. "That's for three. For making me like you. You're a good man. I don't know just what to do with you."

"You could start by trusting me."

"No." She eased back again, broke off a small hunk of bread. "Nothing starts with trust. Trust develops. And with me, that can take considerable time."

"I can probably guarantee I'm nothing like the guy you were engaged to." When her body went rigid, he shrugged. "I'm not the only one who gets written about or talked about."

And when she'd touched on a personal area, she reminded herself, he hadn't

Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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