The Chesapeake Bay Saga #2
Ethan Quinn must rise above his dark and painful past to find his one chance at happiness.
"GOT US SOME NICE peelers here, cap'n." Jim Bodine culled crabs from the pot, tossing the marketable catch in the tank. He didn't mind the snapping claws--and had the scars on his thick hands to prove it. He wore the traditional gloves of his profession, but as any waterman could tell you, they wore out quick. And if there was a hole in them, by God, a crab would find it.
He worked steadily, his legs braced wide for balance on the rocking boat, his dark eyes squinting in a face weathered with age and sun and living. He might have been taken for fifty or eighty, and Jim didn't much care which end you stuck him in.
He always called Ethan 'Cap'n', and rarely said more than one declarative sentence at a time.
Ethan altered course toward the next pot, his right hand nudging the steering stick that most waterman used rather than a wheel. At the same time, he operated the throttle and gear levels with his left. There were constant small adjustments to be made with every foot of progress up the line of traps.
The Chesapeake Bay could be generous when she chose, but she liked to be tricky and make you work for her bounty.
Ethan knew the Bay as well as he knew himself. Often he thought he knew it better--the fickle moods and movements of the continent's largest estuary. For two hundred miles it flowed from north to south, yet it measured only four miles across where it brushed by Annapolis and thirty at the mouth of the Potomac River. St. Christopher's sat snug on Maryland's southern Eastern Shore, depending on its generosity, cursing it for its caprices.
Ethan's waters, his home waters, were edged with marshland, strung with flatland rivers with sharp shoulders that shimmered through thickets of gum and oak.
It was a world of tidal creeks and sudden shallows, where wild celery and widgeongrass rooted.
It had become his world, with its changing seasons, sudden storms, and always, always, the sounds and scents of the water.
Timing it, he grabbed his gaffing pole and in a practiced motion as smooth as a dance hooked the pot line and drew it into the pot puller.
In seconds, the pot rose out of the water, streaming with weed and pieces of old bait and crowded with crabs.
He saw the bright-red pincers of the full-grown females, or sooks, and the scowling eyes of the jimmies.
"Right smart of crabs," was all Jim had to say as he went to work, heaving the pot aboard as if it weighed ounces rather than pounds.
The water was rough today, and Ethan could smell a storm coming in. He worked the controls with his knees when he needed his hands for other tasks. And eyed the clouds beginning to boil together in the far western sky.
Time enough, he judged, to move down the line of traps in the gut of the bay and see how many more crabs had crawled into the pots. He knew Jim was hurting some for cash--and he needed all he could come by himself to keep afloat the fledgling boat building business he and his brothers had started.
Time enough, he thought again, as Jim rebaited a pot with thawing fish parts and tossed it overboard. In leapfrog fashion, Ethan gaffed the next buoy.
Ethan's sleek Chesapeake Bay retriever, Simon, stood, front paws on the gunwale, tongue lolling. Like his master, he was rarely happier than when out on the water.
They worked in tandem, and in near silence, communicating with grunts, shrugs, and the occasional oath. The work was a comfort, since the crabs were plentiful. There were years when they weren't, years when it seemed the winter had killed them off or the waters would never warm up enough to tempt them to swim.
In those years, the watermen suffered. Unless they had another source of income. Ethan intended to have one, building boats.
The first boat by Quinn was nearly finished. And a little beauty it was, Ethan thought. Cameron had a second client on the line--some rich guy from Cam's racing days--so they would start another before long. Ethan never doubted that his brother would reel the money in.
They'd do it, he told himself, however doubtful and full of complaints Phillip was.
He glanced up at the sun, gauged the time--and the clouds sailing slowly, steadily eastward.
"We'll take them in, Jim."
They'd been eight hours on the water, a short day. But Jim didn't complain. He knew it wasn't so much the oncoming storm that had Ethan piloting the boat back up the gut. "Boy's home from school by now," he said.
"Yeah." And though Seth was self-sufficient enough to stay home alone for a time in the afternoon, Ethan didn't like to tempt fate. A boy of ten, and with Seth's temperament, was a magnet for trouble.
When Cam returned from Europe in a couple of weeks, they would juggle Seth, between them. But for now the boy was Ethan's responsibility.
The water in the Bay kicked, turning gunmetal gray now to mirror the sky, but neither men nor dog worried about the rocky ride as the boat crept up the steep fronts of the waves, then slid back down into the troughs. Simon stood at the bow now, head lifted, his ears blowing back in the wind, grinning his doggie grin. Ethan had built the workboat himself, and he knew she would do. As confident as the dog, Jim moved to the protection of the awning and, cupping his hands, lit a cigarette.
The waterfront of St. Chris was alive with tourists. The early days of June lured them out of the city, tempted them to drive from the suburbs of D.C. and Baltimore. He imagined they thought of the little town of St. Christopher's as quaint, with its narrow streets and clapboard houses and tiny shops. They liked to watch the crab pickers' fingers fly, and eat the flaky crab cakes or tell their friends they'd had a bowl of she-crab soup. They stayed in the bed-and-breakfasts--St. Chris was the proud home of no less than four--and they spent their money in the restaurants and gift shops.
Ethan didn't mind them. During the times when the Bay was stingy, tourism kept the town alive. And he thought there would come a time when some of those same tourists might decide that having a hand-built wooden sailboat was their heart's desire.
The wind picked up as Ethan moored at the dock. Jim jumped nimbly out to secure lines, his short legs and squat body giving him the look of a leaping frog wearing white rubber boots and a grease-smeared gimme cap.
At Ethan's careless hand signal, Simon plopped his butt down and stayed in the boat while the men worked to unload the day's catch and the wind made the boat's sun-faded green awning dance. Ethan watched Pete Monroe walk toward them, his iron-gray hair crushed under a battered billed hat, his stocky body outfitted in baggy khakis and a red checked shirt.
"Good catch today, Ethan."
Ethan smiled. He liked Mr. Monroe well enough, though the man had a bone-deep stingy streak. He ran Monroe's Crab House with a tightly closed fist. But, as far as Ethan could tell, every man's son who ran a picking plant complained about profits.
Ethan pushed his own cap back, scratched the nape of his neck where sweat and damp hair tickled. "Good enough."
"You're in early today."
Monroe nodded. Already his crab pickers who had been working under the shade of striped awnings were preparing to move inside. Rain would drive the tourists inside as well, he knew, to drink coffee or eat ice cream sundaes. Since he was half owner of the 'Bayside Eats', he didn't mind.
"Looks like you got about seventy bushels there."
Ethan let his smile widen. Some might have said there was a hint of the pirate in the look. Ethan wouldn't have been insulted, but he'd have been surprised. "Closer to ninety, I'd say." He knew the market price, to the penny, but understood they would, as always, negotiate. He took out his negotiating cigar, lit it, and got to work.
The first fat drops of rain began to fall as he motored toward home. He figured he'd gotten a fair price for his crabs--his eighty-seven bushels of crabs. If the rest of the summer was as good, he was going to consider dropping another hundred pots next year, maybe hiring on a part-time crew.
Oystering on the Bay wasn't what it had been, not since parasites had killed off so many. That made the winters hard. A few good crabbing seasons were what he needed to dump the lion's share of the profits into the new business--and to help pay the lawyer's fee. His mouth tightened at that thought as he rode out the swells toward home.
They shouldn't need a damn lawyer. They shouldn't have to pay some slick-suited talker to clear their father's good name. It wouldn't stop the whispers around town anyway. Those would only stop when people found something juicier to chew on than Ray Quinn's life and death.
And the boy, Ethan mused, staring out over the water that trembled under the steady pelting of rain. There were some who liked to whisper about the boy who looked back at them with Ray Quinn's dark-blue eyes.
He didn't mind for himself. As far as Ethan was concerned people could wag their tongues about him until they fell out of their flapping mouths. But he minded, deeply, that anyone would speak a dark word about the man he'd loved with every beat of his heart.
So he would work his fingers numb to pay the lawyer. And he would do whatever it took to guard the child.
Thunder shook the sky, booming off the water like cannon fire. The light went dim as dusk, and those dark clouds burst wide to pour out solid sheets of rain. Still he didn't hurry as he docked at his home pier. A little more wet, to his mind, wouldn't kill him.
As if in agreement with the sentiment, Simon leaped out to swim to shore while Ethan secured the lines. He gathered up his lunch pail, and with his waterman's boots thwacking wetly against the dock, headed for home.
He removed the boots on the back porch. His mother had scalded his skin often enough in his youth about tracking mud for the habit to stick to the man. Still, he didn't think anything of letting the wet dog nose in the door ahead of him.
Until he saw the gleaming floor and counters.
Shit, was all he could think as he studied the pawprints and heard Simon's happy bark of greeting. There was a squeal, more barking, then laughter.
"You're soaking wet!" The female voice was low and smooth and amused. It was also very firm and made Ethan wince with guilt. "Out, Simon! Out you go. You just dry off on the front porch."
There was another squeal, baby giggles, and the accompanying laughter of a young boy. The gang's all here, Ethan thought, rubbing rain from his hair. The minute he heard footsteps heading in his direction, he made a beeline for the broom closet and a mop.
He didn't often move fast, but he could when he had to.
"Oh, Ethan." Grace Monroe stood with her hands on her narrow hips, looking from him to the pawprints on her just-waxed floor.
"I'll get it. Sorry." He could see that the mop was still damp and decided it was best not to look at her directly. "Wasn't thinking," he muttered, filling a bucket at the sink. "Didn't know you were coming by today."
"Oh, so you let wet dogs run through the house and dirty up the floors when I'm not coming by?"
He jerked a shoulder. "Floor was dirty when I left this morning, didn't figure a little wet would hurt it any." Then he relaxed a little. It always seemed to take him a few minutes to relax around Grace these days. "But if I'd known you were here to skin me over it, I'd have left him on the porch."
He was grinning when he turned, and she let out a sigh.
"Oh, give me the mop. I'll do it."
"Nope. My dog, my mess. I heard Aubrey."
Absently Grace leaned on the doorjamb. She was tired, but that wasn't unusual. She had put in eight hours that day, too. And she would put in another four at Shiney's Pub that night serving drinks.
Some nights when she crawled into bed she would have sworn she heard her feet crying.
"Seth's minding her for me. I had to switch my days. Mrs. Lynley called this morning and asked if I'd shift doing her house till tomorrow because her mother-in-law called her from D.C. and invited herself down to dinner. Mrs. Lynley claims her mother-in-law is a woman who looks at a speck of dust like it's a sin against God and man. I didn't think you'd mind if I did y'all today instead of tomorrow."
"You fit us in whenever you can manage it, Grace, and we're grateful."
He was watching her from under his lashes as he mopped. He'd always thought she was a pretty thing. Like a palomino--all gold and long-legged. She chopped her hair off short as a boy's, but he liked the way it sat on her head, like a shiny cap with fringes.
She was as thin as one of those million-dollar models, but he knew Grace's long, lean form wasn't for fashion. She'd been a gangling, skinny kid, as he recalled. She'd have been about seven or eight when he'd first come to St. Chris and the Quinns. He supposed she was twenty-couple now--and "skinny" wasn't exactly the word for her anymore.
She was like a willow slip, he thought, very nearly flushing.
She smiled at him, and her mermaid-green eyes warmed, faint dimples flirting in her cheeks. For reasons she couldn't name, she found it entertaining to see such a healthy male specimen wielding a mop.
"Did you have a good day, Ethan?"
"Good enough." He did a thorough job with the floor. He was a thorough man. Then he went to the sink again to rinse bucket and mop. "Sold a mess of crabs to your daddy."
At the mention of her father, Grace's smile dimmed a little. There was distance between them, had been since she'd become pregnant with Aubrey and had married Jack Casey, the man her father had called "that no-account grease monkey from upstate."
Her father had turned out to be right about Jack. The man had left her high and dry a month before Aubrey was born. And he'd taken her savings, her car, and most of her self-respect with him.
But she'd gotten through it, Grace reminded herself. And she was doing just fine. She would keep right on doing fine, on her own, without a single penny from her family--if she had to work herself to death to do it.
She heard Aubrey laugh again, a long, rolling gut laugh, and her resentment vanished. She had everything that mattered. It was all tied up in a bright-eyed, curly-headed little angel just in the next room.
"I'll make you up some dinner before I go."
Ethan turned back, took another look at her. She was getting some sun, and it looked good on her. Warmed her skin. She had a long face that went with the long body--though the chin tended to be stubborn. A man could take a glance and he would see a long, cool blonde--a pretty body, a face that made you want to look just a little longer.
And if you did, you'd see shadows under the big green eyes and weariness around the soft mouth.
"You don't have to do that, Grace. You ought to go on home and relax a while. You're on at Shiney's tonight, aren't you?"
"I've got time--and I promised Seth sloppy joes. It won't take me long." She shifted as Ethan continued to stare at her. She'd long ago accepted that those long, thoughtful looks from him would stir her blood. Just another of life's little problems, she supposed. "What?" she demanded, and rubbed a hand over her cheek as if expecting to find a smudge.
"Nothing. Well, if you're going to cook, you ought to hang around and help us eat it."
"I'd like that." She relaxed again and moved forward to take the bucket and mop from him and put them away herself. "Aubrey loves being here with you and Seth. Why don't you go on in with them? I've got some laundry to finish up, then I'll start dinner."
"I'll give you a hand."
"No, you won't." It was another point of pride for her. They paid her, she did the work. All the work. "Go on in the front room--and be sure to ask Seth about the math test he got back today."
"How'd he do?"
"Another A." She winked and shooed Ethan away. Seth had such a sharp brain, she thought as she headed into the laundry room, off the kitchen. If she'd had a better head for figures, for practical matters when she'd been younger, she wouldn't have dreamed her way through school.
She'd have learned a skill, a real one, not just serving drinks and tending house or picking crabs. She'd have had a career to fall back on when she found herself alone and pregnant, with all her hopes of running off to New York to be a dancer dashed like glass on brick.
It had been a silly dream anyway, she told herself, unloading the dryer and shifting the wet clothes from the washer into it. Pie in the sky, her mama would say. But the fact was, growing up, there had only been two things she'd wanted. The dance, and Ethan Quinn.
She'd never gotten either.
She sighed a little, holding the warm, smooth sheet she took from the basket to her cheek. Ethan's sheet--she'd taken it off his bed that day. She'd been able to smell him on it then, and maybe, for just a minute or two, she'd let herself dream a little of what it might have been like if he'd wanted her, if she had slept with him on those sheets, in his house.
But dreaming didn't get the work done, or pay the rent, or buy the things her little girl needed.
Briskly she began to fold the sheets, laying them neatly on the rumbling dryer. There was no shame in earning her keep by cleaning houses or serving drinks. She was good at both, in any case. She was useful, and she was needed. That was good enough.
She certainly hadn't been useful or needed by the man she was married to so briefly. If they'd loved each other, really loved each other, it would have been different. For her it had been a desperate need to belong to someone, to be wanted and desired as a woman. For Jack ... Grace shook her head. She honestly didn't know what she had been for Jack.
An attraction, she supposed, that had resulted in conception. She knew he believed he'd done the honorable thing by taking her to the courthouse and standing with her in front of the justice of the peace on that chilly fall day and exchanging vows.
He had never mistreated her. He had never gotten mean drunk and knocked her around the way she knew some men did wives they didn't want. He didn't go sniffing after other women--at least not that she knew about. But she'd seen, as Aubrey grew inside her and her belly rounded, she'd seen the look of panic come into his eyes.
Then one day he was simply gone without a word.
The worst of it was, Grace thought now, she'd been relieved.
If Jack had done anything for her, it was to force her to grow up, to take charge. And what he'd given her was worth more than the stars.
She put the folded laundry in a basket, hitched the basket on her hip, and walked into the front room.
There was her treasure, her curly blond hair bouncing, her pretty, rosy-cheeked face alight with joy as she sat on Ethan's lap and babbled at him.
At two, Aubrey Monroe resembled a Botticelli angel, all rose and gilt, with bright-green eyes and dimples denting her cheeks. Little kitten teeth and long-fingered hands. Though he could decipher only half her chatter, Ethan nodded soberly.
"And what did Foolish do then?" he asked as he figured out she was telling him some story about Seth's puppy.
"Licked my face." Her eyes laughing, she took both hands and ran them up over her cheeks. "All over." Grinning, she cupped her hands on Ethan's face and fell into a game she liked to play with him. "Ouch!" She giggled, rubbed his face again. "Beard."
Obliging, he skimmed his knuckles over her smooth cheek, then jerked his hand back. "Ouch. You've got one, too."
"No." He pulled her close and planted noisy kisses on her cheeks while she wriggled in delight. "You."
Screaming with laughter now, she wiggled away and dived for the boy sprawled on the floor. "Seth beard." She covered his cheek with sloppy kisses. Manhood demanded that he wince.
"Jeez, Aub, give me a break." To distract her, he picked up one of her toy cars and ran it lightly down her arm. "You're a racetrack."
Her eyes beamed with the thrill of a new game. Snatching the car, she ran it, not quite so gently, over any part of Seth she could reach.
Ethan only grinned. "You started it, pal," he told Seth when Aubrey walked over Seth's thigh to reach his other shoulder.
"It's better than getting slobbered on," Seth claimed, but his arm came up to keep Aubrey from tumbling to the floor.
For a few moments, Grace simply stood and watched. The man, relaxed in the big wing chair and grinning down at the children. The children themselves, their heads close--one delicate and covered with gold curls, the other with a shaggy mop shades and shades deeper.
The little lost boy, she thought, and her heart went out to him as it had from the first day she'd seen him. He'd found his way home.
Her precious girl. When Aubrey had been only a fluttering in her womb, Grace had promised to cherish, to protect, and to enjoy her. She would always have a home.
And the man who had once been a lost boy, who had slipped into her girlish dreams years before and had never really slipped out again. He had made a home.
The rain drummed on the roof, the television was a low, unimportant murmur. Dogs slept on the front porch, and the moist wind blew through the screen door.
And she yearned where she knew she had no business yearning--to set down the basket of laundry, to go over and climb into Ethan's lap. To be welcomed there, even expected there. To close her eyes, for just a little while, and be part of it all.
Instead she retreated, finding herself unable to step into that quiet, lazy ease. She went back to the kitchen, where the overhead lights were bright and just a little hard. There, she set the basket on the table and began to gather what she needed to make dinner.
When Ethan came in a few moments later to hunt up a beer, she had meat browning, potatoes frying in peanut oil, and a salad under way.
"Smells great." He stood awkwardly for a minute. He wasn't used to having someone cook for him--not for years--and then not a woman. His father had been at home in the kitchen, but his mother ... They'd always joked that whenever she cooked, they needed all her medical skills to survive the meal.
"It'll be ready in half an hour or so. I hope you don't mind eating early. I've got to get Aubrey home and bathed and then change for work."
"I never mind eating, especially when I'm not doing the cooking. And the fact is, I want to get to the boatyard for a couple hours tonight."
"Oh." She looked back, blowing at her bangs. "You should have told me. I'd have hurried things up."
"This pace works for me." He took a pull from the bottle. "You want a drink or something?"
"No, I'm fine. I was going to use that salad dressing Phillip made up. It looks so much prettier than the store-bought."
The rain was letting up, petering out into slow, drizzling drops with watery sunlight struggling to break through. Grace glanced toward the window. She was always hoping to see a rainbow. "Anna's flowers are doing well," she commented. "The rain's good for them."
"Saves me from dragging out the hose. She'd have my head if they died on her while she's gone."
"Wouldn't blame her. She worked so hard getting them planted before the wedding." Grace worked quickly, competently as she spoke. Draining crisp potatoes, adding more to the sizzling oil. "It was such a beautiful wedding," she went on as she mixed sauce for the meat in a bowl.
"Came off all right. We got lucky with the weather."
"Oh, it couldn't have rained that day. It would have been a sin." She could see it all again, so clearly. The green of the grass in the backyard, the sparkling of water. The flowers Anna had planted glowing with color--and the ones she'd bought spilling out of pots and bowls alongside the white runner that the bride had walked down to meet her groom.
A white dress billowing, the thin veil only accentuating the dark, deliriously happy eyes. Chairs had been filled with friends and family. Anna's grandparents had both wept. And Cam--rough-and-tumble Cameron Quinn--had looked at his bride as if he'd just been given the keys to heaven.
A backyard wedding, Grace thought now. Sweet, simple, romantic. Perfect.
"She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Grace said it with a sigh that was only lightly touched with envy. "So dark and exotic."
"She suits Cam."
"They looked like movie stars, all polished and glossy." She smiled to herself as she stirred spicy sauce into the meat. "When you and Phillip played that waltz for their first dance, it was the most romantic thing I've ever seen." She sighed again as she finished putting the salad together. "And now they're in Rome. I can hardly imagine it."
"They called yesterday morning to catch me before I left. They said they're having a good time."
She laughed at that, a rippling, smoky sound that seemed to cruise along his skin. "Honeymooning in Rome? It would be hard not to." She started to scoop out more potatoes and swore lightly as oil popped and splattered on the side of her hand. "Damn." Even as she was lifting the slight burn to her mouth to soothe it, Ethan leaped forward and grabbed her hand.
"Did it get you?" He saw the pinkening skin and pulled her to the sink. "Run some cold water on it."
"It's nothing. It's just a little burn. Happens all the time."
"It wouldn't if you were more careful." His brows were knitted, his hand gripping her fingers firmly to keep her hand under the stream of water. "Does it hurt?"
"No." She couldn't feel anything but his hand on her fingers and her own heart thundering in her chest. Knowing she'd make a fool of herself any moment, she tried to pull free. "It's nothing, Ethan. Don't fuss."
"You need some salve on it." He started to reach up into the cupboard to find some, and his head lifted. His eyes met hers. He stood there, the water running, both of their hands trapped under the chilly fall of it.
He tried never to stand quite so close to her, not so close that he could see those little gold dust flecks in her eyes. Because he would start to think about them, to wonder about them. Then he'd have to remind himself that this was Grace, the girl he'd watched grow up. The woman who was Aubrey's mother. A neighbor who considered him a trusted friend.
"You need to take better care of yourself." His voice was rough as the words worked their way through a throat that had gone dust-dry. She smelled of lemons.
"I'm fine." She was dying, somewhere between giddy pleasure and utter despair. He was holding her hand as if it were as fragile as spun glass. And he was frowning at her as if she were slightly less sensible than her two-year-old daughter, "The potatoes are going to burn, Ethan."
"Oh. Well." Mortified because he'd been thinking--just for a second--that her mouth might taste as soft as it looked, he jerked back, fumbling now for the tube of salve. His heart was jumping, and he hated the sensation. He preferred things calm and easy. "Put some of this on it anyway." He laid it on the counter and backed up. "I'll ... get the kids washed up for dinner."
He scooped up the laundry basket on his way and was gone.
With deliberate movements, Grace shut the water off, then turned and rescued her fries. Satisfied with the progress of the meal, she picked up the salve and smoothed a little on the reddened splotch on her hand before tidily replacing the tube in the cupboard.
Then she leaned on the sink, looked out the window.
But she couldn't find a rainbow in the sky.
—Reprinted from Rising Tides by Nora Roberts by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001, Nora Roberts. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
"A warm, satisfying romance with a dash of mystery...will keep readers engrossed." Library Journal
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