Sea Swept, page 12part #1 of Chesapeake Bay Saga Series
God, what he wanted was his freedom back, to wake up and find it had all been a dream. Better, to wake up in some huge, anonymous hotel bed in some exotic city with a hot, naked woman beside him.
But when he tried to picture it, the bed was the same one he slept in now, and the woman was Anna.
As a substitute it wasn't such a bad deal, but… it didn't make the rest of it go away. He glanced up at the windows of the second floor as he walked around the house. The kid was up there, pulling himself together. And he was out here, trying to do the same thing.
The look the kid had shot him, Cam thought, just before things got sloppy. It had stirred up his gut. He'd have sworn he'd seen trust there, and a pathetic, almost desperate gratitude that both humbled and terrified him.
What the hell was he going to do with it? And when things settled down and he could pick up his own life again… That had to happen, he assured himself. Had to. He couldn't stay in charge like this. Couldn't be expected to live like this forever. He had places to go, races to run, risks to take.
Once they had everything under control, once they did what needed to be done for the kid and got this business Ethan wanted established, he'd be free to come and go as he pleased again.
A few more months, he decided, maybe a year, then he was out of here. No one could possibly expect more from him.
Not even himself.
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vice principal moorefield studied the three men who stood like a well-mortared wall in her office. The outward appearance would never indicate they were brothers. One wore a trim gray suit and perfectly knotted tie, another a black shirt and jeans, and the third faded khakis and a wrinkled denim work shirt.
But she could see that at the moment they were as united as triplets in the womb.
"I realize you have busy schedules. I appreciate all of you coming in this morning."
"We want to get this straightened out, Mrs. Moore-field." Phillip kept a mild, negotiating smile on his face. "Seth needs to be in school."
"I agree. After Seth's statement yesterday, I did some checking. It does appear as though Robert instigated the incident. There does seem to be some question over the motivation. The matter of the petty extortion—''
Cam held up a hand. "Seth, did you tell this Robert character to give you a dollar?"
"Nah." Seth tucked his thumbs in his front pockets, as he'd seen Cam do. "I don't need his money. I don't even talk to him unless he gets in my face."
Cam looked back at Mrs. Moorefield. "Seth says he aced that test and Robert flunked. Is that right?"
The vice principal folded her hands on her desk. "Yes. The test papers were handed back yesterday just before the end of class, and Seth received the highest grade. Now—''
"Seems to me," Ethan interrupted in a quiet voice, "that Seth told you straight, then. Excuse me, ma'am, but if the other boy lied about some of it, could be he's lying about all of it. Seth says the boy came after him, and he did. He said it was about this test, so I figure it is."
"I've considered that, and I tend to agree with you, Mr. Quinn. I've spoken with Robert's mother. She's no happier than you are about this incident, or about the fact that both boys are to be suspended."
"You're not suspending Seth." Cam planted his feet. "Not over this—not without a fight."
"I understand how you feel. However, blows were exchanged. Physical violence can't be permitted here."
"I'd agree with you, Mrs. Moorefield, under most circumstances." Phillip laid a hand on Cam's arm to prevent him from stepping forward. "However, Seth was being physically and verbally attacked. He defended himself. There should have been a teacher monitoring the hallway during the change of classes. He should have been able to depend on an adult, on the system to protect him. Why didn't one come forward to do so?"
Moorefield puffed out her cheeks, blew out a breath. "That's a reasonable question, Mr. Quinn. I won't start weeping to you about budget cuts, but it's impossible, with a staff of our size, to monitor all the children at all times."
"I sympathize with your problem, but Seth shouldn't have to pay for it."
"There's been a rough time recently," Ethan put in. "I don't figure that kicking the boy out of school for a couple days is going to help him any. Education's supposed to be more than learning—leastways that's how we were taught. It's supposed to help build your character and help teach you how to get on in the world. If it tells you that you get booted for doing what you had to, for standing up for yourself, then something's wrong with the system."
"You punish him the same way you punish the boy who started it," Cam said, "you're telling him there's not much difference between right and wrong. That's not the kind of school I want my brother in."
Moorefield steepled her hands, looked over the tips of her fingers at the three men, then down at Seth. "Your evaluation tests were excellent, and your grades are well above average. However, your teachers say you rarely turn in homework assignments and even more rarely participate in class discussion."
"We're dealing with the homework." Cam gave Seth a subtle nudge. "Right?"
"Yeah, I guess. I don't see why—"
"You don't have to see." Cam cut him off with one lowering glance. "You just have to do it. We can't sit in the classroom with him and make him open his mouth, but he'll turn in his homework."
"I imagine he will," she murmured. "This is what I'll agree to do. Seth, because I believe you, you won't be suspended. But you will go on a thirty-day probation. If there are no more disruptive incidents, and your teachers report that you have improved your at-home-assignment record—we'll put this matter aside. However, your first homework assignment comes now and from me. You have one week to write a five-hundred-word essay on the violence in our society and the need for peaceful resolutions to problems."
"Shut up," Cam ordered mildly. "That's fair," he said to Mrs. Moorefield. "We appreciate it."
"that wasn't so bad." Phillip stepped back into the sunlight and rolled his shoulders.
"Speak for yourself." Ethan snugged his cap back on his head. "I was sweating bullets. I don't want to have to do that again in this lifetime. Drop me off at the waterfront. I can get a ride out to the boat. Jim's working her, and he ought to have pulled in a nice mess of crabs by now."
"Just make sure you bring us home our share." Cam piled into Phillip's shiny navy blue Land Rover. "And don't forget we've got company coming."
"Not going to forget," Ethan mumbled. "Principals in the morning, social workers in the evening. Christ Jesus. Every time you turn around, you have to talk to somebody."
"I intend to keep Miz Spinelli occupied."
Ethan turned around to look at Cam. "You just can't leave females alone, can you?"
"What would be the point? They're here."
Ethan only sighed. "Somebody better pick up more beer."
cam volunteered to get the beer late that afternoon. It wasn't altruism. He didn't think he could stand listening to Phillip another five minutes. Going to the market was the best way to get out of the house and away from the tension while Phillip drafted and perfected a letter to the insurance company on his snazzy little laptop computer.
"Get some salad stuff while you're out," Phillip shouted, causing Cam to turn back and poke his head in the kitchen where Phillip was typing away at the table.
"What do you mean, salad stuff?"
"Field greens—for God's sake, don't come back here with a head of iceberg and a couple of tasteless hothouse tomatoes. I made up a nice vinaigrette the other day, but there's not a damn thing around here to put it on. Get some plum tomatoes if they look decent."
"What the hell do we need all that for?"
Phillip sighed and stopped typing. "First, because we want to live long and healthy lives, and second because you invited a woman to dinner—a woman who's going to look at how we deal with Seth's nutritional needs."
"Fine. You write this goddamn letter."
He'd rather be burned alive. "Field greens, for sweet Christ's sake."
"And get some sourdough bread. And we're nearly out of milk. Since I'm going to be bringing my juicer the next time I get back to Baltimore, pick up some fresh fruit, some carrots, zucchini. I'll just make a list."
"Hold it, hold it." Cam felt the controls slipping out of his hands and struggled to shift his grip. "I'm just going for beer."
"Whole wheat bagels," Phillip muttered, busily writing.
thirty minutes later, Cam found himself pondering the produce section of the grocery store. What the hell was the difference between green leaf and romaine lettuce, and why should he care? In defense, he began loading the cart at random.
Since that worked for him, he did the same thing through the aisles. By the time he reached checkout, he had two carts, overflowing with cans, boxes, bottles, and bags.
"My goodness, you must be having a party."
"Big appetites," he told the checkout clerk, and after a quick search of his brain pegged her. "How's it going, Mrs. Wilson?"
"Oh, fair enough." She ran items expertly over the belt and scanner and into bags, her quick, red-tipped fingers moving like lightning. "Too pretty a day to be stuck inside here, I can tell you that. I get off in an hour and I'm going out chicken-necking with my grandson."
"We're counting on having crab for dinner ourselves.
Probably should have bought some chicken necks for the pot off our dock."
"Ethan'll keep you supplied, I imagine. I'm awful sorry about Ray," she added. "Didn't really get to tell you so after the funeral. We're sure going to miss him. He used to come in here once or twice a week after Stella passed, buy himself a pile of those microwave meals. I'd tell him, 'Ray, you got to do better for yourself than that. A man needs a good slab of meat now and then.' But it's a hard thing cooking for one when you're used to family."
"Yeah." It was all Cam could say. He'd been family, and he hadn't been there.
"Always had some story to tell about one of you boys. Showed me pictures and things from foreign newspapers on you. Racing here, racing there. And I'd say, 'Ray, how do you know if the boy won or not when it's written in Italian or Fran-say?' We'd just laugh."
She checked the weight on a bag of apples, keyed them in. "How's that young boy? What's his name, now? Sam?"
"Seth," Cam murmured. "He's fine."
"Good-looking boy. I said to Mr. Wilson when Ray brought him home, 'That's Ray Quinn for you, always keeping his door open.' Don't know how a man of his age expected to handle a boy like that, but if anybody could, Ray Quinn could. He and Stella handled the three of you."
Because she smiled and winked, he smiled back. "They did. We tried to give them plenty to handle."
"I expect they loved every minute of it. And I expect the boy, Seth, was company for Ray after y'all grew up and lit out. I want you to know I don't hold with what some people are saying. No, I don't."
Her mouth thinned as she rang up three jumbo boxes of cold cereal. With a cluck of her tongue and a shake of her head, she continued. "I tell them straight to their face if they do that nasty gossiping in my hearing that if they had a Christian bone in their body, they'd mind their tongues."
Her eyes glittered with fury and loyalty. "Don't you pay any mind to that talk, Cameron, no mind at all. Why the idea that Ray would have had truck with that woman, that the boy was his by blood. Not one decent mind's going to believe that, or that he'd run into that pole on purpose. Makes me just sick to hear it."
It was making Cam sick now. He wished to God he'd never come in the store. "Some people believe lies, Mrs. Wilson. Some people would rather believe them."
"That they do." She nodded her head twice, sharply. "And even if they don't, they like to spread them around. I want you to know that Mr. Wilson and me considered Ray and Stella good friends and good people. Anybody says something I don't like about them around me's going to get their ears boxed."
He had to smile. "As I remember, you were good at that."
She laughed now, a kind of happy hoot. "Boxed yours that time you came sniffing too close to my Caroline. Don't think I didn't know what you were after, boy."
"Caroline was the prettiest girl in tenth grade."
"She's still a picture. It's her boy I'm going chicken-necking with. He'll be four this summer. And she's carrying her second into the sixth month now. Time does go right by."
It seemed it did, Cam thought when he was back at home and hauling bags of groceries into the house. He knew Mrs. Wilson had meant everything she'd said for the best, but she had certainly managed to depress him.
If someone who'd been a staunch friend of his parents was being told such filthy lies, they were spreading more quickly, and more thickly, than he'd imagined. How long could they be ignored before denials had to be given and a stand taken?
Now he was afraid they would have no choice but to take Phillip's advice and find Seth's mother.
The kid was going to hate that, Cam knew. And what would happen to the trust he'd seen swimming in Seth's eyes?
"Guess you want a hand with that stuff." Phillip stepped into the kitchen. "I was on the phone. The lawyer. Temporary guardianship's a lock. There's step one anyway."
"Great." He started to relay the conversation in the grocery store, then decided to let it ride for the night. Goddamn it, they'd won two battles that day. He wasn't going to see the rest of the evening spoiled by wagging tongues.
"More out in the car," he told Phillip.
"More?'' Phillip stared at the half dozen loaded brown bags. "Jesus, Cam, I didn't have more than twenty items on that list."
"So I added to it." He pulled a box out, tossed it on the counter. "Nobody's going to go hungry around here for a while."
"You bought Twinkies? Twinkies? Are you one of the people who believe that white stuff inside them is one of the four major food groups?"
"The kid'll probably go for them."
"Sure he will. You can pay his next dentist bill."
His temper dangerously close to the edge, Cam whirled around. "Look, pal, he who goes to the store buys what he damn well pleases. That's a new rule around here. Now do you want to get that stuff out of the car or let it fucking rot?"
Phillip only lifted a brow. "Since shopping for food puts you in such a cheery mood, I'll take that little chore from now on. And we'd better start a household fund to draw from for day-to-day incidentals."
"Fine." Cam waved him away. "You do that."
When Phillip walked out, Cam began to stuff boxes and cans wherever they fit. He would let somebody else worry about organizing. In fact, he'd let anybody else worry about it. He was done for a while.
He started out, and when he hit the front door saw that Seth had arrived home. Phillip was passing him bags, and the two of them were talking as if they hadn't a care in the world.
So, he'd go out the back, he decided, let the two of them handle things for a couple of hours. As he turned, the puppy yipped at him, then squatted and peed on the rug.
"I suppose you expect me to clean that up." When Foolish wagged his tail and let his tongue loll, all Cam could do was close his eyes.
"I still say the essay's a raw deal," Seth complained as he walked into the house. "That kind of stuff's crap. And I don't see why—"
"You'll do it." Cam pulled the bag out of Seth's arms. "And I don't want to hear any bitching about it. You can get started right after you clean up the mess your dog just made on the rug."
"My dog? He's not mine."
"He is now, and you better make sure he's housebroken all the way or he stays outside."
He stalked off toward the kitchen, with Phillip, who was trying desperately not to laugh, following.
Seth stood where he was, staring down at Foolish. "Dumb dog," he murmured, and when he crouched down, the puppy launched h
anna told herself she would and could be perfectly professional for the evening. She'd cleared the informal visit with Marilou, just to keep it official. And the truth was, she wanted to see Seth again. Every bit as much as she wanted to see Cam.
Different reasons, certainly, and perhaps different parts of her, but she wanted to see them both. She could handle both sides of her heart, and her mind. She'd always been able to separate areas of her life and conduct them all in a satisfactory manner.
This situation wouldn't be any different.
Verdi soared out of her speakers, wild and passionate. She rolled her window up just enough that the breeze didn't disturb her hair. She hoped the Quinns would allow her a few moments alone with Seth, so she could judge for herself, without influence, how he was feeling.
She hoped she could steal a few moments alone with Cam, so she could judge for herself how she was feeling.
Itchy, she admitted. Needy.
But it wasn't always necessary, or possible to act on feelings, however strong they might be. If, after seeing him again, she felt it best for all concerned to take a large step back, she would do so.
She had no doubt the man had an iron will. But so did Anna Spinelli. She would match herself against Cameron Quinn in that respect any day. And she could win.
Even as she reassured herself of that one single fact, Anna pulled her spiffy little car into the drive.
And Cam walked out onto the porch.
They stayed where they were for just a moment, eyeing each other. When he came off the porch and onto the walk, that hard body tucked into snug black, that dark hair unruly, those smoky eyes unreadable, her heart took one helpless spin and landed with a thud.
She wanted that tough-looking mouth on her, those rough-palmed hands on her. She wanted that all-male body pinning hers to a mattress, moving with the speed that was so much a part of his life. It was idiotic to deny it.
But she'd handle him, Anna promised herself. She only hoped she could handle herself.
She stepped out, wearing a prim, boxy suit the color of a bird's nest. Her hair was pulled up and back and ruthlessly controlled. Her unpainted lips curved in a polite, somewhat distant smile, and she carried her briefcase.
For reasons that baffled him, Cam had precisely the same reaction he'd had when she'd clipped down her hallway on stiletto heels that rainy night. Instant and raging lust.
When he started toward her, she angled her head, just a little, just enough to send the warning signal. The hands-off sign was clear as a shout.
But he leaned forward a bit when he reached her, sniffed at her hair. "You did that on purpose."
"Did what on purpose?"
"Wore the don't-touch suit and the sex goddess perfume at the same time just to drive me crazy."
"Listen to the suit, Quinn. Dream about the perfume." She started past him, then looked down coolly when his hand clamped over her arm. "You're not listening."
"I like to play games as much as the next guy, Anna." He tugged until she turned and they were again face to face. "But you may have picked a bad time for this one."
There was something in his eyes, she realized, something along with desire, annoyance. And because she recognized it as unhappiness, she softened. "Has something happened? What's wrong?"
NORA ROBERTS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Vision in WhiteThe Next AlwaysBorn in FireDance Upon the AirJewels of the SunThe WitnessKey of LightBlue Dahlia
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