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The blustery winter morning had started well
But when Delainey Talbot let herself into the side entrance of the old redbrick building of Morrison and Morrison Attorneys, the office was eerily quiet. No morning chatter greeted her. No clicking of keys or rustling of papers-not even the smell of coffee.
Since her workday didn't start until she dropped off her daughter at school, there should be at least five people here by now.
The excitement of her long-awaited acceptance into law school faltered as she crept forward in the unnatural silence, and a sharp edge of worry seeped into her joy.
Then she heard quiet murmuring from behind the closed door of the office Carol and Shirley, two of the legal assistants, shared.
She tapped on the door and opened it slowly. Five people stood in a clump in front of Carol's desk, and as one, they looked at her with a mix of sadness, insecurity and maybe hope.
That was not helpful.
"What? What's going on?" Delainey asked, directing the inquiry to Carol.
"Shamus is retiring," cried Patty, the gray-haired sixtyish receptionist, as she rushed over, not quite teary but close, and grabbed Delainey's arm. "We hoped you'd know what's happening. Why would he do that to us?"
Since Patty's reaction was usually to panic first and seek information second, Delainey decided to remain calm. "He's been making those plans for years. He's going to start pulling back in a couple of years and be gone in three or four."
Patty just looked at her.
"Today," said Shirley, red haired, the youngest office employee and granddaughter of the retiring Shamus Murphy.
"He's retiring today?" Delainey looked at each of them. "That can't happen."
"He was here when I arrived, sitting right here drinking that awful tea he likes," said Carol as she leaned back against her desk. "He didn't say he was quitting soon and not even today. He said yesterday was his last day as partner."
"He's just stepping down." A rush of dread made Delainey's muscles ache and her chest tighten. "He'll still be here, right?"
Leaving couldn't be on the table. He had to keep the position open for her until she finished law school. Until she finished. Oh, that sounded selfish, even if it was just inside her head. But if she was going to provide for her daughter, she needed to give up being a paralegal and become the lawyer she had planned on becoming six years ago.
"'Stepping out,' he called it. He'll be available for consultations for ongoing cases for a while, but he's retiring. Harriet is now senior partner," Patty added, and the words felt like a door slamming loudly.
"But how? Who will be the other partner?" How would they get enough work to keep fourteen full-and part-time people busy with only one attorney? There needed to be two lawyers in the office, at least from a get-the-jobs standpoint. Shamus had to stay.
"Shamus left for the airport in Portland." Carol held up a hand. "Said he'd be back after lunch with his replacement."
In her head, Delainey saw this replacement arrive, sit down at the desk that was to have been hers in three years-and the world tilted on one dangerous edge.
Think. She had to think, not stand there and pull all her hair out with her coworkers watching.
"I have to get to my office," Delainey said as she raced out the door, leaving, she was sure, the whole bunch gaping after her.
She fled to her second-floor office at the back of the building. A lesser ten-by-ten-foot space tucked between two storage rooms. Two walls were blank.
The door in one wall was offset from the two main offices on the other side of the hallway, so even if the doors stood open, they could not easily see into each other's offices. The back wall had two lovely windows, windows that should have a view of the ocean, but they looked out at the fire escape, the parking lot and the dilapidated abandoned warehouse across the alley. But the office suddenly became indispensable to her, a den of retreat.
She hung her old navy blue quilted winter coat on the hook behind the door and sat down in the chair at her desk. Things were not supposed to change until she was ready.
Shamus was not supposed to leave. She swung her feet up onto her desk. Her whole plan hinged on having a place to work when she got out of law school, a place in Bailey's Cove, Maine, where she could raise her daughter among the townsfolk who loved them both.
Air came hard into her chest. Bailey's Cove didn't need another attorney. She wasn't greedy, but there wouldn't be enough work for the new person and herself after she graduated and came back to Morrison and Morrison.
And that was the large and the small of it. There were already more than enough attorneys for the struggling town of fourteen thousand. She had been eking out a living as a single mom for a long time while saving money for school. Her parents helped with her daughter and if this attorney job went away, she'd have to find work elsewhere, away from Bailey's Cove and everyone she and Brianna loved.
She rubbed her chest and coaxed herself to relax. This replacement might only be temporary, because why would someone come here to this tiny town, and more importantly, why would they stay here in the back of nowhere?
She got up and stood at the window. Gulls floated in the sky as if the world were not crumbling. She felt small again, the way she had when her actions kept her from law school the first time.
Shamus knew she needed the job. Okay, he had never said in so many words the job was hers, but everyone in the office assumed she'd be the next attorney.
For Shamus to leave so abruptly, there had to be something terribly wrong with him or maybe Connie, his wife, or maybe a grandchild. The thought only tightened the knot in her chest.
She couldn't ask Harriet, the other partner, because Harriet had conveniently gone on an impromptu Caribbean cruise. Shamus would have planned this, she was sure. Get Harriet out of the way for her own peace of mind while he dealt with the fallout of whatever this was.
Oh, Shamus, please be okay.
She'd just have to pull it together for a while until she found out what was going on and who this was he was fetching from the airport. Probably some young thing fresh out of law school. Get some experience for the résumé in Bailey's Cove and be gone in two or three years-she could only hope.
The thought calmed her a bit. That would be perfect. That left only Shamus to worry about.
But what if the new attorney fell in love with the small coastal town, or even someone in the town? They might want to stay forever.
The budding calm fled.
When her phone jangled with her sister's ring-tone, she jumped and grabbed it off the desk. "Good morning, Christina."
"Deelee!" Her sister, Christina Talbot, younger by two years, was the only person who called her Deelee. Well, of all the people in the world she had trusted with the moniker, the only person who still lived in Bailey's Cove. "I got them. All of them. As of today they are mine."
"Wait. What did you get?" Her sister had been talking madness about the Three Sisters, three Victorian-style houses built long ago for three siblings. The houses sat side by side on Treacher Avenue a few blocks from the harbor.
"Dora, Cora and Rose, of course." Christina's tone held a touch of smug.
"Did you sign the contracts already?" She was certain her younger sister didn't know the meaning of due diligence.
"I did that a long time ago. Monday I got the money, and at eight o'clock this morning I closed on them."
As Christina had retorted more than once during their sisterly discussions, Delainey wasn't the one to be pointing fingers at decision making, good or bad. The big one Delainey had made had been a whopper. So she kept her mouth shut.
"I know. I know," Christina started again. "Owning them is going to be a total drain on my finances, but this is happening. It's really happening."
"Where are you now?"
"I'm in Cora. She's a great lady." Cora was the center and largest of the three houses. Cora had been the oldest daughter, and apparently, Daddy did love her best.
Delainey had a sudden thought. Her sister's purchase was the perfect distraction. "Hey, why don't I come down and join you? You can give me a tour."
"You'd come? I-I'd, ah, gee, love it."
Delainey knew her sister's hesitancy was shock that she'd just up and leave work so early in the day.
"So can I come now?"
"Now? Of course you can come now. I'm here with a tablet of paper and a pencil to work on my wish list. You can give your sisterly advice." The excitement in Christina's tone almost inspired De-lainey to be optimistic about the Three Sisters.
"You'd be doing me a favor if I could butt in for a while," she said, already getting up from her desk.
"Okay, I'm going to make you explain that when you get here. Come, I'll give you that 'before' tour you've been almost coming to take for six months now."
Delainey hadn't wanted to encourage what she thought of as Christina's scary adventure, so she hadn't been inside the houses. Now she felt a little ashamed of not being supportive.
She grabbed her coat and flew down the back stairway.
When she stuck her head into the reception area and called out, "Patty, I'm leaving for a while. Call if you can't live without me," Patty looked shocked, but it could not be helped.
As she yanked her long blond hair from inside her collar, she ran out the door before anyone could call her back. For six solid years after Brianna was born and she became a single mom, she had been the responsible one, the one who was always where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to be doing and more. If she was to be fair, she had been responsible her whole life except for two short days, and maybe right this minute as she left work shortly after she'd arrived.
The cold February wind rushed inside her open coat and she wrapped the warm quilted fabric around herself. In less than twenty-four hours, she had gone from elated and on her way to the moon to troubled and tumbling out of control. The idea made her muscles twitchy and her head begin to ache.
Yesterday had started like most Tuesdays. Get up. Exercise. Get Brianna up, ready and off to school. The day had changed completely when she came home and ripped open the letter from the university as soon as she got inside her back door. When she shouted, "Yes! Yes!" Brianna had come running to her side.
"Did we win something?" her daughter had asked.
"Yes, sweetie, I did, we did. Mommy gets to go be a lawyer."
Yesterday's triumph now seemed so far in the past.
In her car again, Delainey pulled out onto Church Street. Morrison and Morrison's redbrick building, with a stately facade and dark rich wood on the interior, sat on this main road on the south edge of the "old downtown" of Bailey's Cove. Across Church Street was the town's mall. Eight stores, a dry cleaner's, a real-estate company and the Taco Loco, and the rest, alas, empty. The view out the front windows of Morrison and Morrison wasn't much better than out the back, Delainey had to concede, just brighter.
Farther south, past Morrison and Morrison, in the "newer" section of town, were the police station, the clinic, a great diner, the new Sacred Heart Church and a small motel. Even farther south and west were several housing developments, most built in the fifties and sixties, including the more upscale homes and one new condo complex built by a hopeful out-of-town contractor.
Church Street spread the town out along the coastline for several miles, four miles, according to the traditional town limits-which most residents used-but six and a half by the new standards set in the 1950s. Delainey drove north until she turned off onto Treacher Avenue. A few blocks down the hill and toward the docks sat Christina's passions, Dora, Cora and Rose.
Delainey parked facing the harbor, got out and leaned on the open door to take in the subtle beauty of the misty gray morning. Next to her adorable daughter's face, her favorite sight in the world was this small harbor, home to fishing boats, pleasure boats and one lone yacht. Though right now there were only a few fishing boats and the yacht out there in the fog that obscured the outer islands and even those boats were indistinct images, almost dreams.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The smell of the sea filled her with a sense of being home, of knowing what was good in her life. She would miss all of this if she ever had to live inland.
"Hey, that was quick."
Christina waved from Cora's porch and charged down the steps of the old Victorian home. Her blond hair and her long legs flew. The two of them might look very much alike, but Christina had more energy than Delainey could even imagine.
She threw her arms around Delainey and squeezed hard. "You came. I can't believe you left work. Won't they fall apart without you?"
Delainey hugged back. "They might, but today I'm visiting my sister's brand new acquisition. Congratulations."
"Your leaving work for anything besides Brianna is so out of character for you. You're scaring me- you know that, don't you?"
"I told you I'd come."
"So what happened?"
She grinned at her sister. "I got into law school."
"Congratulations, sis!" Christina squeezed her in another hug. "Does anyone besides you know?"
Delainey snorted. "Brianna knows. I was going to tell them at work this morning but something else came up."
"Some big new case, I suppose."
They both laughed at Christina's words. There were no big cases, only a few hundred small ones in varying stages of resolution or decay.
"So do we get to go inside?" Delainey asked, closing the door to her car.
"Oh, yes. Let's start with Cora. She's my star."
Christina jiggled the handle of the double-door entryway and let them inside.
Delainey was surprised by what she saw. "Christina, there's a fireplace in your, um- This is much more than a foyer. What do you call it?" The wide hall swept all the way to the back of the house, with the fireplace on the left side and two small alcoves and four doors, two on either side, leading to the parlor and kitchen and whatever other rooms Victorian homes had on the first floor.
"It's a reception hall, and that-" she pointed to wires dangling from the ceiling high above them "-is the chandelier."
Delainey laughed. When they were growing up, the home of her sister's dreams would have seven chandeliers. "How many are there?"
"This house has six and the others each have four."
"Twice as nice. Cool."
Delainey sucked up the misgivings she felt about her sister's ability to deal with one house, let alone three, and followed her on a tour. Without a doubt, these houses were three of the town's valuable historical assets, and also without a doubt, no one had been able to give proper attention to them for decades, maybe a half century. And the prospect of fixing them up excited her sister so much Delainey caught some of the fervor.