He opened the door to Shiney's and felt yet one more home coming. Another constant of St. Chris, he thought. Shiney's Pub would always look as if it needed to be hosed down, the waitresses would always be leggy, and it would offer the very worst live bands to be found in the entire state of Maryland.
While the lead singer massacred Barenaked Ladies, Seth scanned the tables and bar for a little blonde in a fielder's cap.
His eyes actually passed over her, then arrowed back.
She was indeed at the bar, urbane and curvy in unrelieved black, her burnt-honey hair spiraling down her back as she carried on a heated conversation with a guy who looked like Joe College.
Mouth grim, body poised for a confrontation, Seth headed over to show College Boy just what happened when a guy hit on his sister.
"You're full of it." Aubrey's voice snapped like a whip and had Seth's mouth moving into a snarl. "You are so absolutely full of it. The pitching rotation is solid, the infield's got good gloves. The bats are coming around. By the All-Star Game, the Birds will be playing better than five-hundred ball."
"They won't see five hundred all season," her opponent shot back. "And they're going to be digging another level down in the basement by the All-Star Game."
"Bet." Aubrey dug a twenty out of her pocket, slapped it on the bar.
And Seth sighed. She might've looked like a tasty morsel, but nobody nibbled on his Aubrey.
"Seth." Spotting him, Aubrey reached out, hooked his arm and yanked him to the bar. "Sam Jacoby," she said with a nod toward the man sitting beside her. "Thinks because he plays a little softball he knows something about the Bigs."
"Heard a lot about you." Sam held out a hand. "From this sentimental slob here who thinks the Orioles have a shot at climbing their pitiful way up to mediocre this season."
Seth shook hands. "If you want to commit suicide, Sam, get a gun. It's got to be less painful than inciting this one to peel every inch of skin slowly off your body with a putty knife."
"I like to live dangerously," he said and slid off the stool. "Take a seat, I was holding it for you. Gotta split. See you around, Aub."
"You're going to owe me twenty bucks in July," she called out, then shifted her attention to Seth. "Sam's a nice enough guy, except for the fatal flaw that encourages him to root for the Mariners."
"I thought he was hitting on you."
"Sam?" Aubrey gazed back toward the tables with a smug and female look in her eye that made Seth want to squirm. "Sure he was. I'm holding him in reserve. I'm sort of seeing Will McLean right now."
"Will?" Seth nearly choked. "Will McLean?" The idea of Aubrey and one of his boyhood pals together—that way—had Seth signaling the bartender. "I really need a beer. Rolling Rock."
"Not that we get to see each other that often." Knowing she was turning the screw, Aubrey continued gleefully. "He's an intern at Saint Chris General. Rotations at the hospital are a bitch. But when we do manage the time, it's worth it."
"Shut up. He's too old for you."
"I've always gone for older men." Deliberately, she pinched his cheek. "Cutie pie. Plus there's only, like, five years' difference. Still, if you want to talk about my love life—"
"I don't." Seth reached for the bottle the bartender set in front of him, drank deep. "I really don't."
"Okay, enough about me then, let's talk about you. How many languages did you score in when you were plundering Europe?"
"Now you sound like Kevin." And it wasn't nearly as comfortable a topic to explore with Aubrey. "I wasn't on a sexual marathon. I was working."
"Some chicks really fall for the artistic type. Maybe your flower lady's one of them, and you'll get lucky."
"Obviously you've been hanging around with my brothers too much. Turned you into a gutter brain. Just tell me what you know about her?"
"Okay." She grabbed a bowl of pretzels off the bar and began to munch. "So, she first showed up about a year ago. Spent a week hanging around. Checking out retail space," she said with a nod. "I got that from Doug Motts. Remember Dougie—roly-poly little kid? Couple years behind you in school."
"Anyway, he lost the baby fat. He's working at Shore Realtors now. According to Doug, she knew just what she was looking for, and told them to contact her in DC. when and if anything that came close opened up. Now, Doug…" She pointed toward her empty glass when the bartender swung by. "He'd pretty much just started at the Realtor's and was hoping to hook this one. So he poked around some, trying to dig up information on his prospective client. She'd told him she'd visited Saint Chris a couple times when she was a kid, so that gave Doug his starting point."
"Ma Crawford," Seth said with a laugh.
You got it. What Ma Crawford doesn't know ain't worth knowing. And the woman's got a memory like a herd of elephants. She recalled the Whitcomb Bankses. Name like that, who wouldn't?
But they stuck out more because she remembered Mrs. WB from when she was a girl visiting here with her family. Her really seriously kick-your-butt-to-Tuesday rich family. Whitcomb Technologies. As in we make everything. As in Fortune Five Hundred. As in Senator James P. Whitcomb, the gentleman from Maryland."
"Ah. Those Whitcombs."
bet. The senator, who would be the flower lady's grandfather, had an affection for the Eastern Shore. And his daughter, the current Mrs. WB, married Proctor Banks—what kind of name is Proctor, anyway?—of Banks and Shelby Communication. We're talking mega family dough with this combo. Like a fricking empire."
"And young, nubile and extremely wealthy Drusilla rents a storefront in Saint Chris and sells flowers."
"Buys a building in Saint Chris," Aubrey corrected. "She bought the place, prime retail space for our little kingdom. A few months after Doug had the good fortune to be manning the desk at Shore Realtors when she walked in, that place went on the market. Previous owners live in PA, rented it to various merchants who had their ups and downs there. Remember the New Age shop—rocks, crystals, ritual candles and meditation tapes?"
"Yeah. Guy who ran it had a tattoo of a dragon on the back of his right hand."
"That place lasted longer than anybody figured it would, but when the lease came up for renewal last year, it went bye-bye. Doug, smelling commission, gives the young WB a call to tell her a rental just opened up on Market, and she makes him salivate when she asks if the owners are interested in selling. When they were, and a deal was struck, he sang the 'Hallelujah Chorus.' Then she makes him the happiest man in Saint Chris when she tells him to find her a house, too. She comes down, takes a look at the three he shows her, takes a liking to this ramshackle old Victorian on Oyster Inlet. Prime real estate again," Aubrey added. "No flies on flower lady."
"That old blue house?" Seth asked. "Looked like a half-eaten gingerbread house? She bought that?"
"Lock and stock." Aubrey nodded as she crunched pretzels. "Guy bought it about three years ago, snazzed it up, wanted to turn it."
"Nothing much around there but marsh grass and thickets." But it rose over a curve of the flatland river, he remembered. That tobacco-colored water that could gleam like amber when the sun beamed through the oak and gum trees.
"Your girl likes her privacy," Aubrey told him. "Keeps to herself. Courteous and helpful to her customers, polite, even friendly, but carefully so. She blows cool."
"She's new here." God knew he understood what it was like to find yourself in a place, one that had just exactly what you wanted, and not be sure if you'd find your slot.
"She's an outlander." Aubrey jerked a shoulder in a typical Quinn shrug. "She'll be new here for the next twenty years."
"She could probably use a friend."
"Looking to make new friends, Seth? Somebody to go chicken necking with?"
He gestured for another beer, then leaned in until his nose bumped hers. "Maybe. Is that what you and Will do in your spare time?"
"We skip the chicken, and just neck. But I'll take you out in the pram if you've got a hankering. I'll captain. It's been so long since you manned a sail, you'd probably capsize her."
"Like hell. We'll go out tomorrow."
"That's a date. And speaking of dates, your new friend just came in."
"Who?" But he knew, even before he swiveled around on the stool. Before he scanned the evening crowd and spotted her.
She looked sublimely out of place among the watermen with their wind-scored faces and scarred hands and the university students with their trendy shoes and baggy shirts.
Her suit was still crisp and perfect, her face an oval of alabaster in the dull light.
She had to know heads turned as she walked in, he thought. Women always knew. But she moved with purpose and easy grace around the stained tables and rickety chairs.
"Classy" was Aubrey's one-word summation.
"Oh yeah." Seth dug out money for the drinks, tossed it on the bar. "I'm ditching you, kid."
Aubrey widened her eyes in exaggerated shock. "Color me amazed."
"Tomorrow," he said, then leaned down to give her a quick kiss before