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Nothing made Delaney Westcott happier than four o'clock coming around on the last business day of December.
Being the deputy municipal clerk in her hometown of Tucker's Point, Maine, was usually a low-key job she enjoyed, but the stampede of people who'd realized it was the last day to register their vehicles would try the patience of a saint. And Delaney was no saint. Even after four years in the office, she had to brace herself for the panicked rush between the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
"Highway robbery if you ask me," Mrs. Keller muttered, slapping her checkbook down on the counter, just as she did every single year.
Delaney half expected the leather checkbook cover to creak and release a plume of dust and moths when the woman opened it. "How was your Christmas, Mrs. Keller?"
"I would have spent less on presents if I'd remembered you were going to rob me blind again."
Every year, Delaney thought again. "Did your grand-babies enjoy the holiday?"
Mrs. Keller's face, as worn and creased as her checkbook cover, softened. "They sure did."
"I heard Courtney had the croup again. Is she feeling better?"
"That baby takes after her mother," she said, shaking her head. "I swear my Becky spent half her childhood bent over a pan of hot water with a towel draped over her head. Now she has to do the same thing with Courtney."
By the time Delaney finished processing Mrs. Keller's registration renewal, the woman had forgotten her complaints and she even offered a "Happy New Year" on her way out. When you worked with the public in the town you'd grown up in, it didn't take very long to get everybody's numbers. Mrs. Keller had a reputation for being cantankerous, but she was a marshmal-low when it came to her grandchildren.
Ten minutes later, Delaney looked up to take the paperwork from the last customer of the year and almost laughed. Mike Huckins had a rumpled and frazzled look about him that went beyond the post-holiday haze the rest of the town was in. Having a two-week-old baby would do that to a man.
"Sandy called me in a panic," Mike said. "She totally forgot we had to register the car this month."
"At least you guys have a good excuse." Delaney took the handful of crumpled papers from him and smoothed them out. "How's Noah?"
"Loud. But he's doing good."
Mike sighed. "She's exhausted, of course. But she's doing good. You should stop in and visit for a while if you get a chance."
"I will. New moms don't get a lot of company."
"They sure don't. Brody's coming in Sunday, though, for an overnight visit."
Delaney froze, except for her fingers, which curled into fists and crumpled a paper she'd just smoothed.
"Sandy hasn't seen her brother since we all went to Vegas for our wedding," Mike continued, "so you can just imagine how excited she is."
Unlike Delaney, who hadn't seen him in the five years since his mother handed her the note he'd left, telling Delaney he loved her, but he was leaving town and wasn't coming back. So sorry.
But now he was coming back to Tucker's Point.
She went through the very familiar process of renewing Mike's registration while he talked about their new baby, but part of her mind couldn't let go of the fact Brody was returning to town.
Even through locking up the office and driving to the market, she couldn't stop thinking about him, which made her angry. He hadn't cared enough to tell her he was leaving town, so he wasn't worth thinking about. She'd done enough of that crying herself to sleep every night for weeks after he'd left. So he was going to his sister's overnight. Big deal. Delaney would simply put off visiting Sandy until she was sure he was gone and, since she planned to spend the weekend curled up in front of her television, there was no chance she'd run into him.
She was surprised to see how full the parking lot was, even for a Friday afternoon. Then she remembered it was New Year's Eve and figured there was a run on booze and snacks. Surprisingly, there had also been a run on bread and milk, she found as she wandered up and down the aisles a bit.
"Did the weather forecast change while I was at work?" she asked Cindy, the cashier, when it was her turn to check out.
Cindy rolled her eyes. "Not that I've heard. A little snow, but everybody's stocking up like the ice storm of '98's on its way back through."
"That was a doozy, for sure." And now that she was a volunteer for the town emergency shelter, should it need to be open, she hoped they wouldn't have another storm like that anytime soon.
She took the scenic road home, which took her along the coast for a few miles before turning back inland to the house she'd grown up in and had rented from her parents since they made the decision to move to Florida three years before. Driving calmed her and she desperately needed that. She needed to leave thoughts of Brody in her past, where they belonged.
Pulling off into a scenic area, she pulled a granola bar out of one of her grocery bags but, after a moment's hesitation, she traded it for the candy bar she'd bought on impulse. This day definitely called for chocolate therapy.
Unfortunately, off in the distance beyond the gray winter ocean, she could make out part of the roof of the Ambroise estate, which never failed to make her think of Brody. It was a beautiful place, set out on a jutting piece of land, and she used to daydream about winning the lottery and buying it. Brody could quit fishing and they'd fill the place with kids.
It hadn't worked out that way for anybody. Sophie Ambroise had passed away and, thanks to working in the town hall, she knew the place had been rezoned from residential to commercial. Somebody would turn it into a hotel, she thought. Brody had left town and Delaney certainly hadn't won the lottery.
With her mood matching the turbulent waves below her, Delaney pulled her car back onto the road and headed for home. She was going to spend the weekend with her television, a couple of good books and the gallon of ice cream that had simply jumped into her cart.
Come Monday morning, she'd go back to work and Brody would go back to wherever he'd come from. Life would go on.
The plan was simple. Fly into Portland on Sunday and rent a carupgrading to an all-wheel-drive model in deference to the snowand then drive into Tucker's Point. Once he'd done the ooh-and-ah thing over his newborn nephew, he'd spend the night and then drive right back out again Monday morning.
Brody Rollins didn't intend to spend one minute longer than he had to in his hometown. He'd left the place five years ago, and he hadn't thought anything could drag him back again. Then his only sister, Sandy, had her first child. Her need for her brother to see baby Noah had, over several phone calls, overcome his reluctance to ever step foot in Maine again.
Even though the "Welcome to Tucker's Point" sign was as familiar as the area it welcomed him to, Brody relied on the rental's GPS to guide him off Route 1 and through town. It was a blessing that Sandy's husband, Mike, worked for the town instead of fishing, so they had a small house in a residential section away from the harbor. Not the picturesque marina for the tourists, but the rough and dirty harbor the lobster boats called home. Sandy's residence wasn't necessarily in the postcard-pretty part of town, but it wasn't one of the run-down houses by the docks they'd grown up in, either.
He finally found the placea small, tidy Cape with green shutters, set back from the roadand pulled up the driveway, parking behind the well-used navy sedan Sandy had described. After killing the engine, he climbed out and stretched his back, inhaling deeply.
At least the frigid temperature and falling snow neutralized the smell. The briny air, reeking of fish and desperation, was so pervasive he'd bought himself all new clothes when he left town because he was convinced he could still smell Tucker's Point no matter how many trips he made to the Laundromat.
At the time he'd made do with stiff, coarse jeans and thin T-shirts from the discount store. Now his jeans were almost as soft as his merino-and-cashmere-blend sweater, and the soles of his boots weren't worn through. He didn't squander his money on fancy labels, but what he did buy was good quality and made to last.
Brody was halfway up the walk when the front door opened and, despite his reluctance to return to Tucker's Point, his heart squeezed at the sight of his sister. It had been two years since he'd seen her, and being a wife and new mother had changed her. She had the soft, rounded look of a woman who'd just had a baby, and her long, brown hair was pulled into a ponytail. She was a little pale and had dark circles under eyes the same soft shade of green as his, but he guessed that came with the new, first-time-mom territory.
She hugged him fiercely. "I can't believe you're here!"
"I've missed you." He squeezed her back, then chuckled when an angry shriek echoed through the house. "I guess it's time to meet my nephew."
Sandy led him to the bassinet set up in the living room and lifted Noah out. His volume level didn't go down any but his sister passed Noah to him, anyway. Brody held the tiny bundle of ticked-off baby, looking down into his face. It was red and scrunched up, and Brody thought he was cute as hell.
"He looks just like you do when you're hungry," he said, smiling at his sister.
"Funny." She took the baby, changed him, and then curled up at one end of the couch. "Will this bother you?"
"Nope." His sister breastfeeding her son wouldn't bother him anywhere near as much as the ear-splitting decibels the miniature kid was presently producing.
He walked to the window, giving her a little privacy while she got Noah settled. "It looks like it's changing over to ice. And the wind's picking up."
"I'm still doing the sleep when the baby sleeps thing, so I haven't even watched the weather. Mike said he'd be working overtime, but he didn't say anything about ice."
"Neither did the radio. Some snow, but no mention of ice." Driving in snow was no big deal, but the last thing he wanted was for Tucker's Point to become an ice rink and keep him from catching his plane home tomorrow.
They caught up while she fed Noah. She told him how well working for the town was going for Mike, and asked about his business. He flipped real estate and the market was tight, but he was careful and still had enough money in the bank so he slept at night. They talked about the baby and how she and Mike were still debating on whether or not she'd return to her job keeping books for the local doctor once her maternity leave was up.
She'd just finished laying the baby back in the bassinet when a massive gust of wind hit the house, driving ice against the window panes and making her jump. "It's getting bad out there really fast."
"Hopefully this is just a fluke and it'll turn back over to snow pretty soon."
"Are you going to see Mom and Dad while you're here?" Sandy asked the question in a casual enough tone, but the way she picked at the side of her thumbnail gave away her tension.
He didn't want to. Walking into that shabby and depressing little house he'd grown up in was the last thing he wanted to do. "Did you tell them I was coming?"
"I might have mentioned it to Mom."
Of course she had. "I might stop in for a few minutes on my out tomorrow."
As tempting as it was to accidentally run late and not have time, he'd do it.
It wasn't that he didn't love his parents. He did. Talked to them all the time on the phone, and his mom had even mastered Facebook so she could keep tabs on him. And he'd seen them during the past five years. Once, when he'd been working in Connecticut, he'd talked them into driving down for a weekend at the casino on his dime. And, two years ago, when Sandy had announced her engagement to Mike, he'd talked them all into joining him in Las Vegas for what was the wedding trip of a lifetime for a couple from Tucker's Point.
He'd simply managed to avoid seeing them in their natural habitat, so to speak. Just thinking about his childhood home, with its ancient brown tweed couch and insulation-deep stench of cigarette smoke and the sea, made him feel claustrophobic.
But Brody had hurt his mom enough by taking off in the middle of the night five years before. He couldn't hurt her again by avoiding seeing her when he was only a few minutes away.
He tried not to think about the other woman he'd hurt, maybe even more than he'd hurt his mother.
Delaney Westcott had been expecting a future with him. They were nearing the point of proposal, followed by a wedding, a cheap apartment over a fishermen's bar and babies. Instead, she'd gotten a note telling her he was gone because he didn't have the guts to face her.
"You need to spend more than a few minutes with them," Sandy said in an admonishing tone that made her sound just like their mother.
"I'll visit for a while. More than a few minutes. But I can't stay too long because I have a plane to catch so I can get back to work." And out of Tucker's Point.
That was when the power went out.
Chaos reigned in the school's gymnasium. Delaney wanted to pretend it was the controlled kind of chaos, but if somebody had control, it wasn't her. All she had was the clipboard. And a growing stream of people who did not want to be there.
At least it was keeping her mind off the fact Brody Rollins was back in town. Mostly.
She'd gotten the phone call shortly after the storm took its unexpected turn for the worse. Homes were already losing power and there might be a lot of ice and wind yet to come, so it was time to open the town's emergency shelter at the school.
There were several other volunteers helping the displaced get settled. At this point in the storm, they'd get mostly the elderly and families with small children, which made for an interesting mix. But if the storm didn't ease up or change back to a more manageable snowfall, people would start risking the weather to get a warm bed and some food as the temperature droppedboth outside and in their houses.
She hadn't even gotten around to opening her ice cream yet. If her power went out and it melted, she was going to be really bummed. She'd need it after this.
When she saw Mrs. Palmer approaching her, she almost groaned aloud. "What can I do for you?"
"Where are the jigsaw puzzles? We always do puzzles."
"I'll bring them out in a little while. Right now we're trying to get the cots, blankets and food situation taken care of."
"What am I supposed to do, then?"
Delaney smiled and did not suggest the woman help with the cots, blankets and food situation. Nobody would thank her for that. "Maybe you could see if Penny needs any help?"
Penny was so going to make her pay for that later. Probably tenfold, even. But Delaney needed to get the cots set up because she had the chart from the fire department and if everything wasn't up to the safety code, they'd have to do it again. It was a lot harder once people started showing up.
At least Mike and Sandy had a generator, which meant even if Brody was there with her and the power went out, he wouldn't be showing up at the school. It was hectic enough without throwing in a lost love. Not that he'd been lost. He'd deliberately left her behind without even telling her goodbye.
Hopefully she'd get through this storm and his surprise return to Tucker's Point without telling him hello.