Authors: Nora Roberts
There was a long silence ripe with temper and frustration. Sybill closed her eyes, left them closed, and waited.
“You were always a joy to me. I never expected this kind of betrayal. I very much regret that I spoke with you about this matter. I wouldn't have if I'd known you would react so outrageously.”
“He's a ten-year-old boy, Mother. He's your grandson.”
“He is nothing to me, or to you. If you continue this, Gloria will make you pay for what you see as kindness.”
“I can handle Gloria.”
There was a laugh now, short and brittle as glass. “So you always believed. And you were always wrong. Please don't contact me, or your father, about any of this. I'll expect to hear from you when you've come to your senses.”
“Motherâ” The dial tone made Sybill wince. Barbara Griffin was a master at having the last word. Very carefully, Sybill set the receiver on the hook. Very deliberately, she swallowed the antacid.
Then, very defiantly, she turned back to her screen and buried herself in work.
INCE SYBILL WAS
always on time and nearly everyone else in the world, as far as she was concerned, never was, she was surprised to find Phillip already sitting at the table he'd reserved for dinner.
He rose, offered her a killer smile and a single yellow rose. Both charmed her and made her suspicious.
“My pleasure. Sincerely. You look wonderful.”
She'd gone to some trouble in that area, but more for herself than for him. The call from her mother had left her miserably depressed and guilty. She'd tried to fight off both emotions by taking a great deal of time and putting a great deal of effort into her appearance.
The simple black dress with its square neck and long, snug sleeves was one of her favorites. The single strand of pearls was a legacy from her paternal grandmother and much loved. She'd swept her hair up in a smooth twist and added sapphire cabochon earrings that she'd bought in London years before.
She knew it was the sort of feminine armor that women slipped into for confidence and power. She'd wanted both.
“Thank you again.” She slid into the booth across from him and sniffed the rose. “And so do you.”
“I know the wine list here,” he told her. “Trust me?”
“On wine? Why not?”
“Good.” He glanced toward the server. “We'll have a bottle of the number 103.”
She laid the rose beside the leather-bound menu. “Which is?”
“A very nice Pouilly Fuisse. I remember from Shiney's that you like white. I think you'll find this a few very important steps up from what you had there.”
“Almost anything would be.”
He cocked his head, took her hand. “Something's wrong.”
“No.” Deliberately she curved her lips. “What could be wrong? It's just as advertised.” She turned her head to look out the window beside her, where the Bay stretched, dark blue and excitingly choppy under a sky going rosy with sunset. “A lovely view, a pretty spot.” She turned back. “An interesting companion for the evening.”
No, he thought, watching her eyes. Something was just a little off. On impulse he slid over, cupped her chin in his hand, and laid his lips lightly on hers.
She didn't draw away, but allowed herself to experience. The kiss was easy, smooth, skilled. And very soothing. When he drew back, she raised an eyebrow. “And that was because?”
“You looked like you needed it.”
She didn't sigh, but she wanted to. Instead, she put her hands in her lap. “Thank you once again.”
“Any time. In factÂ .Â .Â .” His fingers tightened just a little on her face, and this time the kiss moved a bit deeper, lasted a bit longer.
Her lips parted under his before she realized that she'd meant it to happen. Her breath caught, released, and her pulse
shivered as his teeth scraped lightly, as his tongue teased hers into a slow, seductive dance.
Her fingers were linked and gripped tight, her mind just beginning to blur when he eased away.
“And that was because?” she managed.
“I guess I needed it.”
His lips brushed over hers once, then again, before she found the presence of mind to lay a hand on his chest. A hand, she realized, that wanted to ball into a fist on that soft shirt and hold him in place rather than nudge him away.
But she nudged him away. It was simply a matter of handling him, she reminded herself. Of staying in control.
“I think as appetizers go, that was very appealing. But we should order.”
“Tell me what's wrong.” He wanted to know, he realized. Wanted to help, wanted to smooth those shadows out of her incredibly clear eyes and make them smile.
He hadn't expected to develop a taste for her so quickly.
“Of course it is. And there can't be anything much more therapeutic than dumping on a relative stranger.”
“You're right.” She opened her menu. “But most relative strangers aren't particularly interested is someone else's minor problems.”
“I'm interested in you.”
She smiled as she shifted her gaze from the entrÃ©es to his face. “You're attracted to me. That's not always the same thing.”
“I think I'm both.”
He took her hand, held it as the wine was brought to the table, as the label was turned for his approval. He waited while a sample was poured into his glass, watching her in that steady, all-else-aside way she'd discovered he had. He lifted it, sipped, still looking at her.
“It's perfect. You'll like it,” he murmured to her while their glasses were being filled.
“You're right,” she told him after she sipped. “I like it very much.”
“Shall I tell you tonight's specials,” their waiter began in a cheerful voice. While he recited, they sat, hands linked, eyes locked.
Sybill decided she heard about every third word and didn't really give a damn. He had the most incredible eyes. Like old gold, like something she'd seen in a painting in Rome. “I'll have the mixed salad, with the vinaigrette, and the fish of the day, grilled.”
He kept watching her, his lips curving slowly as he drew her hand across the table to kiss her palm. “The same. And take your time. I'm very attracted,” he said to Sybill as the waiter rolled his eyes and walked away. “And I'm very interested. Talk to me.”
“All right.” What harm could it do? she decided. Since, sooner or later, they would have to deal with each other on a different sort of level, it might be helpful if they understood one another now. “I'm the good daughter.” Amused at herself, she smiled a little. “Obedient, respectful, polite, academically skilled, professionally successful.”
“It's a burden.”
“Yes, it can be. Of course, I know better, intellectually, than to allow myself to be ruled by parental expectations at this stage of my life.”
“But,” Phillip said, giving her fingers a squeeze, “you are. We all are.”
He thought of sitting by the water in the moonlight and having a conversation with his dead father. “More than I might have believed. In my case, my parents didn't give me life. They gave me
life. This life. In yours,” he
considered, “since you're the good daughter, is there a bad daughter?”
“My sister has always been difficult. Certainly she's been a disappointment to my parents. And the more disappointed they've become in her, the more they expect from me.”
“You're supposed to be perfect.”
“Exactly, and I can't be.” Wanted to be, tried to be, couldn't be. Which, of course, equaled failure. How could it be otherwise? she mused.
“Perfect is boring,” Phillip commented. “And intimidating. Why try to be either? So what happened?” he asked when she only frowned.
“It's nothing, really. My mother is angry with me just now. If I give in and do what she wantsÂ .Â .Â . well, I can't. I just can't.”
“So you feel guilty and sad and sorry.”
“And afraid that nothing will ever be the same between us again.”
“As bad as that?”
“It could be,” Sybill murmured. “I'm grateful for all the opportunities they gave me, the structure, the education. We traveled quite a bit, so I saw a great deal of the world, of different cultures, while I was still a child. It's been invaluable in my work.”
Opportunities, Phillip thought. Structure, education, and travel. Nowhere had she listed love, affection, fun. He wondered if she realized she'd described a school more than a family. “Where did you grow up?”
“Um. Here and there. New York, Boston, Chicago, Paris, Milan, London. My father lectured and held consultations. He's a psychiatrist. They live in Paris now. It was always my mother's favorite city.”
It made her laugh. “Yes.” She sat back as their salads were served. Oddly enough, she did feel a little better. It seemed
slightly less deceptive to have told him something about herself. “And you grew up here.”
“I came here when I was thirteen, when the Quinns became my parents.”
“It's part of that long story.” He lifted his wineglass, studying her over its rim. Normally if he brought up that period of his life with a woman, what he told was a carefully edited version. Not a lie, but a less-than-detailed account of his life before the Quinns.
Oddly enough, he was tempted to tell Sybill the whole, the ugly and unvarnished truth. He hesitated, then settled on something between the two.
“I grew up in Baltimore, on the rough side. I got into trouble, pretty serious trouble. By the time I was thirteen, I was headed for worse. The Quinns gave me a chance to change that. They took me in, brought me to St. Chris. Became my family.”
“They adopted you.” She'd had that much information, from researching everything she could find on Raymond Quinn. But it didn't give her the why.
“Yeah. They already had Cam and Ethan, and they made room for one more. I didn't make it easy for them initially, but they stuck with me. I never knew either of them to back off from a problem.”
He thought of his father, broken and dying in a hospital bed. Even then Ray's concerns had been for his sons, for Seth. For family.
“When I first saw you,” Sybill began, “the three of you, I knew you were brothers. No real physical resemblance, but something less tangible. I'd say you're an example of how environment can offset heredity.”
“More an example of what two generous and determined people can do for three lost boys.”
She sipped her wine to soothe her throat before she spoke. “And Seth.”
“Lost boy number four. We're trying to do for him what my parents would have done, what our father asked us to do. My mother died several years ago. It left the four of us floundering some. She was an incredible woman. We couldn't have appreciated her enough when we had her.”
“I think you did.” And moved by the sound of his voice, she smiled at him. “I'm sure she felt very loved.”
“I hope so. After we lost her, Cam took off for Europe. Racingâboats, cars, whatever. He did pretty well at it. Ethan stayed. Bought his own house, but he's locked into the Bay. I moved back to Baltimore. Once an urbanite,” he added with a quick smile.
“The Inner Harbor, Camden Yards.”
“Exactly. I came down here off and on. Holidays, the occasional weekend. But it's not the same.”
Curious, she tilted her head. “Would you want it to be?” She remembered her secret thrill when she'd gone off to college. To be on her own, not to have every movement and word weighed and judged. Freedom.
“No, but there were times, are times, I miss the way it was. Don't you ever think back to some perfect summer? You're sixteen, your driver's license is shiny and new in your wallet, and the world is all yours.”
She laughed, but shook her head. She hadn't had a driver's license at sixteen. They'd been living in London that year, as she recalled. There had been a uniformed driver to take her where she'd been allowed to go, unless she managed to slip out and ride the Tube. That had been her small rebellion.
“Sixteen-year-old boys,” she said, while their salad plates were removed, their entrÃ©es served, “are more emotionally attached to their cars than sixteen-year-old girls are.”
“It's easier for that boy to get himself a girl if he has wheels.”
“I doubt you had any trouble in that area, with or without a car.”
“It's tough to neck in the backseat until you've got one.”
“True enough. And now you're back here, and so are your brothers.”
“Yeah. My father had Seth through complicated and not entirely clear circumstances. Seth's mother.Â .Â . well, you'll hear talk if you stay in the area for any length of time.”
“Oh?” Sybill cut into her fish, hoping that she could swallow it.