Locals learned to live with them, just as they learned to live with the gales that blew in from the Atlantic, and the droughts that sizzled their soybean fields. As they learned to live with the capricious Bay and her dwindling bounty.

He passed Crawford's and thought of sloppy submarine sandwiches, dripping ice cream cones and town gossip.

He'd ridden his bike on these streets, racing with Danny and Will McLean. He'd cruised with them in the secondhand Chevy he and Cam had fixed up the summer he turned sixteen.

And he'd sat—man and boy—at one of the umbrella tables while the town bustled by, trying to capture what it was about this single spot on the planet that shone so bright for him.

He wasn't sure he ever had, or ever would.

He eased into a parking space so he could walk down to the dock. He wanted to study the light, the shadows, the colors and shapes, and was already wishing he'd thought to bring a sketch pad.

It amazed him, constantly, how much beauty there was in the world. How it changed and it shifted even as he watched. The way the sun struck the water at one exact instant, how it spread or winked away behind a cloud.

Or there, he thought, the curve of that little girl's cheek when she lifted her face to look at a gull. The way her laugh shaped her mouth, or the way her fingers threaded through her mother's in absolute trust.

There was power in that.

He stood watching a white boat heel to in blue water, its sails snap full as they caught the wind.

He wanted to be out on the water again, he realized. Be part of it. Maybe he'd shanghai Aubrey for a few hours. He'd make a couple more stops, then swing by the boatyard and see if he could steal her.

Scanning the street, he started back for his car. A sign painted on a storefront caught his attention. Bud and Bloom, he read.

Flower shop. That was new. He strolled closer, noting the festive pots hanging on either side of the glass.

The window itself was filled with plants and what he thought of as what-nots. Clever ones, though, Seth thought, finding himself amused by the spotted black-and-white cow with pansies flowing over its back.

In the lower right-hand corner of the window, written in the same ornate script, was: Drusilla Whitcomb Banks, Proprietor.

It wasn't a name he recognized, and since the painted script informed him the shop had been established in September of the previous year, he imagined some fussy widow, on the elderly side. White hair, he decided, starched dress with a prim floral print to go with sensible shoes and the half-glasses she wore on a gold chain around her neck.

She and her husband had come to St. Chris for long weekends, and when he'd died, she'd had too much money and time on her hands. So she'd moved here and opened her little flower shop so that she could be somewhere they'd been carefree together while doing something she'd secretly longed to do for years.

The story line made him like Mrs. Whitcomb Banks and her snobby cat—she'd have to have a cat—named Ernestine.

He decided to make her, and the many women in his life, happy. With flowers on his mind, Seth opened the door to the musical tinkle of bells.

The proprietor, he thought, had an artistic eye. It wasn't just the flowers—they were, after all, just the paint. She had daubed, splashed and streamed her paints very well. Flows of colors, a mix of shapes, a contrast of textures covered the canvas of her shop. It was tidy, just as he'd expected, but not regimented or formal.

He knew enough of flowers from the years of living with Anna to recognize how cleverly she'd paired hot-pink gerbera with rich blue delphiniums, snowy-white lilies with the elegance of red roses. Mixed in with those sweeps of color were the fans and spikes and tongues of green.

And the whimsy again, he noted, charmed. Cast-iron pigs, flute-playing frogs, wicked-faced gargoyles.

There were pots and vases, ribbons and lace, shallow dishes of herbs and thriving houseplants. He got the impression of cannily arranged clutter in a limited and well-used space.

Over it all were the fairy-tale notes of "Afternoon of a Faun."

Nice going, Mrs. Whitcomb Banks, he decided and prepared to spend lavishly.

The woman who stepped out of the rear door behind the long service counter wasn't Seth's image of the talented widow, but she sure as hell belonged in a fanciful garden.

He gave his widow extra points for hiring help who brought faeries and spellbound princesses to a man's mind.

"May I help you?"

"Oh yeah." Seth crossed to the counter and just looked at her.

Long, slim and tidy as a rose, he thought. Her hair was true black, cut close to follow the lovely shape of her head while leaving the elegant stem of her neck exposed. It was a look, he thought, that took considerable female guts and self-confidence.

It left her face completely unframed so that the delicate ivory of her skin formed a perfect oval canvas. The gods had been in a fine mood the day they'd created her, and had drawn her a pair of long, almond-shaped eyes of moss green, then added a nimbus of amber around her pupil.

Her nose was small and straight, her mouth wide to go with the eyes, and very full. She'd tinted it a deep, seductive rose.

Her chin had the faintest cleft, as if her maker had given it a light finger brush of approval.

He would paint that face; there was no question about it. And the rest of her as well. He saw her lying on a bed of red rose petals, those faerie eyes glowing with sleepy power, those lips slightly curved, as if she'd just wakened from dreaming of a lover.

Her smile didn't waver as he studied her, but the dark wings of her eyebrows lifted. "And just what can I help you with?"

The voice was good, he mused. Strong and smooth. Not a local, he decided.

"We can start with flowers," he told her. "It's a great shop."

"Thanks. What sort of flowers did you have in mind today?"

"We'll get to that." He leaned on the counter. In St. Chris, there was always time for a little conversation. "Have you worked here long?"

"From the beginning. If you're thinking ahead to Mother's Day, I have some lovely—"

"No, I've got Mother's Day handled. You're not from around here. The accent," he explained when those brows lifted again. "Not Shore. A little north, maybe."

"Very good. D.C."

"So, the name of the shop. Bud and Bloom. Is that from Whistler?"

Surprise, and speculation, flickered over her face. "As a matter of fact, it is. You're the first to tag it."

"One of my brothers is big on stuff like that. I can't remember the quote exactly. Something about perfect in its bud as in its bloom."

"'The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom.'"

"Yeah, that's it. I probably recognized it because that's what I do. I paint."

"Really?" She reminded herself to be patient, to relax into the rhythm. Part of the package in the little town was slow, winding conversations with strangers. She'd already sized him up. His face was vaguely familiar, and his eyes, a very striking blue, were frank and direct in their interest. She wouldn't stoop to flirtation, certainly not to make a sale, but she could be friendly.

She'd come to St. Chris to be friendly.

Because she imagined he painted houses, she sorted through her mind for an arrangement that would suit his budget. "Do you work locally?"

"I do now. I've been away. Do you work here alone?" He glanced around, calculating the amount of work that went into maintaining the garden she'd created. "Does the proprietor come in?"

"I work alone, for now. And I am the proprietor."

He looked back at her and began to laugh. "Boy, I wasn't even close. Nice to meet you, Drusilla Whitcomb Banks." He held out a hand. "I'm Seth Quinn."

Seth Quinn. She laid her hand in his automatically and did her own rapid readjustment. Not a face she'd seen around town, she realized, but one she'd seen in a magazine. No housepainter, despite the old jeans and faded shirt, but an artist. The local

boy who'd become the toast of Europe.

"I admire your work," she told him.

"Thanks. I admire yours. And I'm probably keeping you from it. I'm going to make it worth your while. I've got some ladies to impress. You can help me out."

"Ladies? Plural?"

"Yeah. Three, no four," he corrected, thinking of Aubrey.

"It's a wonder you have time to paint, Mr. Quinn."

"Seth. I manage."

"I bet you do." Certain types of men always managed. "Cut flowers, arrangements or plants?"

"Ah… cut flowers, in a nice box. More romantic, right? Let me think." He calculated route and time, and decided he'd drop by to see Sybill first. "Number one is sophisticated, chic, intellectual and practical-minded, with a soft-gooey center. Roses, I guess."

"If you want to be predictable."

He looked back at Dru. "Let's be unpredictable."

"Just a moment. I have something in the back you should like." Something out here I like, he thought as she turned toward the rear door. He gave his heart a little pat.

Phillip, Seth thought as he wandered the shop, would approve of the classic, clean lines of that ripening, peach-colored suit she wore. Ethan, he imagined, would wonder how to give her a hand with all the work that must go into running the place. And Cam… well, Cam would take one long look at her and grin. Seth supposed he had bits of all three of them inside him. She came back carrying an armload of streamlined and exotic flowers with waxy blooms the color of eggplant.

"Calla lilies," she told him. "Elegant, simple, classy and in this color spectacular."

"You nailed her."

She set them in a cone-shaped holding vase. "Next?"

"Warm, old-fashioned in the best possible way." Just thinking of Grace made him smile. "Simple in the same way. Sweet but not sappy, and with a spine of steel."

"Tulips," she said and walked to a clear-fronted, refrigerated cabinet. "In this rather tender pink. A quiet flower that's sturdier than it looks," she added as she brought them over for him to see.

"Bingo. You're good."

"Yes, I am." She was enjoying herself now—not just for the sale, but for the game of it. This was the reason she'd opened the shop. "Number three?"

Aubrey, he thought. How to describe Aubrey. "Young, fresh, fun. Tough and unstintingly loyal."

"Hold on." With the image in mind, Dru breezed into the back again. And came out with a clutch of sunflowers with faces as wide as a dessert plate.

"Jesus, they're perfect. You're in the right business, Drusilla."

Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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