Sea swept, p.4

Sea Swept, page 4

 part  #1 of  Chesapeake Bay Saga Series

 




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  "That's none of your fucking business."

  "Ray made it my fucking business. You head for the door," he added as Seth shifted to the balls of his feet, "I'll just haul you back." Cam only sighed when Seth made his dash.

  Even as he caught him three feet before the front door, he had to give Seth credit for speed. And when he caught the boy around the waist, took the backhanded fist on his already tender jaw, he gave him credit for strength.

  "Get your goddamn hands off me, you son of a bitch. I'll kill you if you touch me."

  Grimly, Cam dragged Seth into the living room, pushed him into a chair, and held him there with their faces close. If it had just been anger he saw in the boy's eyes, or defiance, he wouldn't have cared. But what he saw was raw terror.

  "You got balls, kid. Now try to develop some brains to go with them. If I want sex, I want a woman. Understand me?"

  He couldn't speak. All he'd known when that hard, muscled arm had wrapped around him was that this time he wouldn't be able to escape. This time he wouldn't be able to fight free and run.

  "There's nobody here who's going to touch you like that. Ever." Without realizing it, Cam had gentled his voice. His eyes remained dark, but the hardness was gone. "If I lay hands on you, the worst it means is I might try to knock some sense into you. You got that?"

  "I don't want you to touch me," Seth managed. His breath was gone. Panic sweat slicked his skin like oil. "I don't like being touched."

  "Okay, fine. You sit where I put you." Cam eased back, then pulled over a footstool and sat. Since Foolish was now shivering in terror, Cam plucked him up and dumped him in Seth's lap. "We got a problem," Cam began, and prayed for inspiration on how to handle it. "I can't watch you twenty-four hours a day. And if I could, I'm damned if I would. You take off for Florida, I'm going to have to go find you and haul you back. That's really going to piss me off."

  Because the dog was there, Seth stroked him, gaining comfort while giving it. "What do you care where I go?''

  "I can't say I do. But Ray did. So you're going to have to stay."

  "Stay?" It was an option Seth had never considered. Certainly hadn't allowed himself to believe. "Here? When you sell the house—"

  "Who's selling the house?"

  "I—" Seth broke off, decided he was saying too much. "People figured you would."

  "People figured wrong. Nobody's selling this house." It surprised Cam just how firm his feelings were on that particular point. "I don't know how we're going to manage it yet. I'm still working on that. But in the meantime, you'd better get this into your head. You're staying put." Which meant, Cam realized with a jolt, so was he.

  It appeared his luck was still running bad.

  "We're stuck with each other, kid, for the next little while."

  Chapter Three

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  cam figured this had to be the weirdest week of his life. He should have been in Italy, prepping for the motocross he'd planned to treat himself to. Most of his clothes and his boat were in Monte Carlo, his car was in Nice, his motorcycle in Rome.

  And he was in St. Chris, baby-sitting a ten-year-old with a bad attitude. He hoped to Christ the kid was in school where he belonged. They'd had a battle royal over that little item that morning. But then, they were at war over most everything.

  Kitchen duty, curfews, laundry, television picks. Cam shook his head as he pried off the rotting treads on the back steps. He'd swear the boy would square up for a bout if you said good morning.

  And maybe he wasn't doing a fabulous job as guardian, but damn it, he was doing his best. He had the tension headache to prove it. And mostly, he was on his own. Phillip had promised weekends, and that was something. But it also left five hideous days between. Ethan made a point of coming by and staying a few hours every evening after he pulled in the day's catch.

  But that left the days.

  Cam would have traded his immortal soul for a week in Martinique. Hot sand and hotter women. Cold beer and no hassles. Instead he was doing laundry, learning the mysteries of microwave cooking, and trying to keep tabs on a boy who seemed hell-bent on making life miserable.

  "You were the same way."

  "Hell I was. I wouldn't have lived to see twelve if I'd been that big an idiot."

  "Most of that first year Stella and I used to lie in bed at night and wonder if you'd still be here in the morning."

  "At least there were two of you. And…"

  Cam's hand went limp on the hammer. His fingers simply gave way until it thudded on the ground beside him. There in the old, creaking rocker on the back porch sat Ray Quinn. His face was wide and smiling, his hair a tousled white mane that grew long and full. He wore his favored gray fishing pants, a faded gray T-shirt with a red crab across the chest. His feet were bare.

  "Dad?" Cam's head spun once, sickly, then his heart burst with joy. He leaped to his feet.

  "You didn't think I'd leave you fumbling through this alone, did you?"

  "But—" Cam shut his eyes. He was hallucinating, he realized. It was stress and fatigue, grief tossed in.

  "I always tried to teach you that life's full of surprises and miracles. I wanted you to open your mind not just to possibilities, Cam, but to impossibilities."

  "Ghosts? God!"

  "Why not?" The idea seemed to cheer Ray immensely as he let loose with one of his deep, rumbling laughs. "Read your literature, son. It's full of them."

  "Can't be," Cam mumbled to himself.

  "I'm sitting right here, so it looks like it can. I left too many things unfinished around here. It's up to you and your brothers now, but who says I can't give you a little help now and again?"

  "Help. Yeah, I'm going to need some serious help. Starting with a psychiatrist." Before his legs gave out on him, Cam picked his way through the broken stairs and sat down on the edge of the porch.

  "You're not crazy, Cam, just confused."

  Cam took a steadying breath and turned his head to study the man who lazily rocked in the old wooden chair.

  The Mighty Quinn, he thought while the air whooshed out of his lungs. He looked solid and real. He looked, Cam decided, there.

  "If you're really here, tell me about the boy. Is he yours?"

  "He's yours now. Yours and Ethan's and Phillip's."

  "That's not enough."

  "Of course it is. I'm counting on each of you. Ethan takes things as they come and makes the best of them. Phillip wraps his mind around details and ties them up. You push at everything until it works your way. The boy needs all three of you. Seth's what's important. You're all what's important."

  "I don't know what to do with him," Cam said impatiently. "I don't know what to do with myself."

  "Figure out one, you'll figure out the other."

  "Damn it, tell me what happened. Tell me what's going on."

  "That's not why I'm here. I can't tell you if I've seen Elvis either." Ray grinned when Cam let out a short, helpless laugh. "I believe in you, Cam. Don't give up on Seth. Don't give up on yourself."

  "I don't know how to do this."

  "Fix the steps," Ray said with a wink. "It's a start."

  "The hell with the steps," Cam began, but he was alone again with the sound of singing birds and gently lapping water. "Losing my mind," he murmured, rubbing an unsteady hand over his face. "Losing my goddamn mind." And rising, he went back to fix the steps.

  anna spinelli had the radio blasting. Aretha Franklin was wailing out of her million-dollar pipes, demanding respect. Anna was wailing along with her, deliriously thrilled with her spanking-new car.

  She'd worked her butt off, budgeted and juggled funds to afford the down payment and the monthly installments. And as far as she was concerned it would be worth every carton of yogurt she ate rather than a real meal.

  Despite the chilly spring air, she'd have preferred to have the top down as she sped along the country roads. But it wouldn't have looked professional to arrive windblown. Above all else, it was essenti
al to appear and behave in a professional manner.

  She'd chosen a plain and proper navy suit and white blouse for this home visit. What she wore under it was nobody's business but her own. Her affection for silk strained her ever beleaguered budget, but life was for living, after all.

  She'd fought her long, curling black hair into a tidy bun at the nape of her neck. She thought it made her look a bit more mature and dignified. Too often when she wore her hair down she was dismissed as a hot number rather than a serious-minded social worker.

  Her skin was pale gold, thanks to her Italian heritage. Her eyes, big and dark and almond-shaped. Her mouth was full, with a ripe bottom lip. The bones in her face were strong and prominent, her nose long and straight. She wore little makeup during business hours, wary of drawing the wrong kind of attention.

  She was twenty-eight years old, devoted to her work, satisfied with the single life, and pleased that she'd been able to settle in the pretty town of Princess Anne.

  She'd had enough of the city.

  As she drove between long, flat fields of row crops with the scent of water a hint on the breeze through her window, she dreamed of one day moving to such a place. Country lanes and tractors. A view of the bay and boats.

  She'd need to save up, to plan, but one day she hoped to manage to buy a little house outside of town. The commute wouldn't be so hard, not when driving was one of her greatest personal pleasures.

  The CD player shifted, the Queen of Soul to Beethoven. Anna began to hum the "Ode to Joy."

  She was glad the Quinn case had been assigned to her. It was so interesting. She only wished she'd had the chance to meet Raymond and Stella Quinn. It would take very special people to adopt three half-grown and troubled boys and make it work.

  But they were gone, and now Seth DeLauter was her concern. Obviously the adoption proceedings couldn't go forward. Three single men—one living in Baltimore, one in St. Chris, and the other wherever he chose to at the moment. Well, Anna mused, it didn't appear to be the best environment for the child. In any case, it was doubtful they would want guardianship.

  So Seth DeLauter would be absorbed back into the system. Anna intended to do her best by him.

  When she spotted the house through the greening leaves, she stopped the car. Deliberately she turned the radio down to a dignified volume, then checked her face and hair in the rearview mirror. Shifting back into first, she drove the last few yards at a leisurely pace and turned slowly into the drive.

  Her first thought was that it was a pretty house in a lovely setting. So quiet and peaceful, she mused. It could have used a fresh coat of paint, and the yard needed tending, but the slight air of disrepair only added to the hominess.

  A boy would be happy here, she thought. Anyone would. It was a shame he'd have to be taken away from it. She sighed a little, knowing too well that fate had its whims. Taking her briefcase, she got out of the car.

  She hitched her jacket to make certain it fell in line. She wore it a bit loose, so it wouldn't showcase distracting curves. She started toward the front door, noting that the perennial beds flanking the steps were beginning to pop.

  She really needed to learn more about flowers; she made a mental note to check out a few gardening books from the library.

  She heard the hammering and hesitated, then in her practical low heels cut across the lawn toward the back of the house.

  He was kneeling on the ground when she caught sight of him. A black T-shirt tucked into snug and faded denim. From a purely female outlook, it was impossible not to react and approve of him. Muscles—the long and lean sort—rippled as he pounded a nail into wood with enough anger, Anna mused, enough force, to send vibrations of both into the air to simmer.

  Phillip Quinn? she wondered. The advertising executive. Highly doubtful.

  Cameron Quinn, the globe-trotting risk-taker? Hardly. So this must be Ethan, the waterman. She fixed a polite smile on her face and started forward. "Mr. Quinn."

  His head came up. With the hammer still gripped in his hand, he turned until she saw his face. Oh, yes, the anger was there, she realized, full-blown and lethal. And the face itself was more compelling and certainly tougher than she'd been prepared for.

  Some Native American blood, perhaps, she decided, would account for those sharp bones and bronzed skin. His hair was a true black, untidy and long enough to fall over his collar. His eyes were anything but friendly, the color of bitter storms.

  On a personal level, she found the package outrageously sexy. On a professional one, she knew the look of an alley brawler when she saw one, and decided on the spot that whichever Quinn this was, he was a man to be careful with.

  He took his time studying her. His first thought was that legs like that deserved a better showcase than a drab navy skirt and ugly black shoes. His second was that when a brown, that beautiful, she probably got whatever she wanted without saying a word.

  He set the hammer down and rose. "I'm Quinn."

  "I'm Anna Spinelli." She kept the smile in place as she walked forward, hand extended. "Which Quinn are you?"

  "Cameron." He'd expected a soft hand because of the eyes, because of the husky purr of her voice, but it was firm. "What can I do for you?"

  "I'm Seth DeLauter's caseworker."

  His interest evaporated, and his spine stiffened. "Seth's in school."

  "I'd hope so. I'd like to speak with you about the situation, Mr. Quinn."

  "My brother Phillip's handling the legal details."

  She arched a brow, determined to keep the small polite smile in place. "Is he here?"

  "No."

  "Well, then, if I could have a few moments of your time. I assume you're living here, at least temporarily."

  "So what?"

  She didn't bother to sigh. Too many people saw a social worker as the enemy. She'd done so once herself. "My concern is Seth, Mr. Quinn. Now we can discuss this, or I can simply move forward with the procedure for his removal from this home and into approved foster care."

  "It'd be a mistake to try that, Miz Spinelli. Seth isn't going anywhere."

  Her back went up at the way he drawled out her name. "Seth DeLauter is a minor. The private adoption your father was implementing wasn't finalized, and there is some question about its validity. At this point, Mr. Quinn, you have no legal connection to him."

  "You don't want me to tell you what you can do with your legal connection, do you, Miz Spinelli?" With some satisfaction he watched those big, dark eyes flash. "I didn't think so. I can resist. Seth's my brother." The saying of it left him shaken. With a jerk of his shoulder, he turned. "I need a beer."

  She stood for a moment after the screen door slammed.

  When it came to her work, she simply didn't permit herself to lose her temper. She breathed in, breathed out three times before climbing the half-repaired steps and going into the house.

  "Mr. Quinn—"

  "Still here?" He twisted the top off a Harp. "Want a beer?"

  "No. Mr. Quinn—"

  "I don't like social workers."

  "You're joking." She allowed herself to flutter her lashes at him. "I never would have guessed."

  His lips twitched before he lifted the bottle to them. "Nothing personal."

  "Of course not. I don't like rude, arrogant men. That's nothing personal either. Now, are you ready to discuss Seth's welfare, or should I simply come back with the proper paperwork and the cops?''

  She would, Cam decided after another study. She might have been-given a face suitable for painting, but she wasn't a pushover. "You try that, and the kid's going to bolt. You'd pick him up sooner or later, and he'd end up in juvie—then he'd end up in a cell. Your system isn't going to help him, Miz Spinelli."

  "But you can?"

  "Maybe." He frowned into his beer. "My father would have." When he looked up again, there were emotions storming in his eyes that pulled at her. "Do you believe in the sanctity of a deathbed promise?"

  "Yes," she said before she could
stop herself.

  "The day my father died I promised him—we promised him—that we'd keep Seth with us. Nothing and no one is going to make me break my word. Not you, not your system, not a dozen cops."

  The situation here wasn't what she'd expected to find. So she would reevaluate. "I'd like to sit down," Anna said after a moment. "Go ahead." She pulled out a chair at the table. There were dishes in the sink, she noted, and the faint smell of whatever had been burnt for dinner the night before. But to her that only meant someone was trying to feed a young boy. "Do you intend to apply for legal guardianship?"

  "We—"

  "You, Mr. Quinn," she interrupted. "I'm asking you if that is your intention." She waited, watching the doubts and resistance sweep over his face.

  "Then I guess it is. Yeah." God help them all, he thought. "If that's what it takes."

  "Do you intend to live in this house, with Seth, on a permanent basis?"

  "Permanent?" It was perhaps the only truly frightening word in his life. "Now I have to sit down." He did so, then pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger to relieve some of the pressure. "Christ. How about we use 'for the foreseeable future' instead of 'permanent'?"

  She folded her hands on the edge of the table. She didn't doubt his sincerity, would have applauded him for his intentions. But… "You have no idea what you're thinking of taking on."

  "You're wrong. I do, and it scares the hell out of me."

  She nodded, considering the answer a point in his favor. "What makes you think you would be a better guardian for a ten-year-old boy, a boy I believe you've known for less than two weeks, than a screened and approved foster home?"

  "Because I understand him. I've been him—or part of him. And because this is where he belongs."

  "Let me lay out some of the bigger obstacles to what you're planning. You're a single man with no permanent address and without a steady income."

  "I've got a house right here. I've got money."

  "Whose name is the house in, Mr. Quinn?" She only nodded when his brows knit. "I imagine you have no idea."

  "Phillip will."

  "Good for Phillip. And I'm sure you have some money, Mr. Quinn, but I'm speaking of steady employment. Going around the world racing various forms of transportation isn't stable employment."

  "It pays just fine."

  "Have you considered the risk to life and limb of your chosen lifestyle when you propose to take on a responsibility like this? Believe me, the court will. What if something happens to you when you're trying to break land and speed records?"

  "I know what I'm doing. Besides, there are three of us."

  "Only one of you lives in this house where Seth will live."

  "So?"

  "And the one who does isn't a respected college professor with the experience of raising three sons."

  "That doesn't mean I can't handle it."

  "No, Mr. Quinn," she said patiently, "but it is a major obstacle to legal guardianship."

  "What if we all did?"

  "Excuse me?"

 

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