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The sun rose as the bus rolled across the state line from New Hampshire into Maine. After four days on the road, crossing the country accompanied by complete strangers, eating at roadside diners and truck stops and sleeping in fits and starts, Ronan was ready to reach his destination.
The sunrise had become an important event for him, something he looked forward to when there was little else to mark the passing time. But now that they'd reached the Atlantic coast, he saw a completely different sunrise, a blaze of color over the blue ocean.
Like Seattle, the passing landscape was dominated by the sea and Ronan felt a hint of familiarity in such a strange, new place. The villages along the route were populated with white clapboard buildings and red brick churches, towering hardwood trees and tidy town squares, and harbors filled with bobbing sailboats.
"Thanks, Grandda," he murmured to himself. He couldn't imagine that his brothers' destinations in New Mexico, Kentucky and Wisconsin came close to the natural beauty he was seeing here.
The bus ride really hadn't been that bad. As a kid, he'd spent a lot of time alone, riding his bike around the neighborhood or mastering tricks on his skateboard. As he grew older, he'd hiked and climbed and camped, he'd taught himself to ski and snowboard, but always alone, finding comfort in the quiet of a silent mountain-top or a lush forest.
His fondness for solitude had made him a bit of a black sheep in a family of brothers who were impossibly close. Ronan had just never found a proper place for himself. His oldest brother, Cameron, was the responsible one, charged with holding their fractured family together. Dermot was the charmer and Kieran the quiet one. Ronan was the outsider.
It didn't help that Ronan was the only one of the four Quinn boys who harbored an unshakable fear of the water. It had been difficult when every Quinn family activity revolved around boats and sailing. Cam, Dermot and Kieran spent their free time on the water, while Ronan had been forced to find solitary activities on land.
Ronan knew his fear of water had everything to do with what had happened to his parents. He didn't remember many details about that time when the world went black and everyone was sad. Yet, to this day, he remembered the nightmares of cold water and high waves, endless depths and interminable storms, and a deep and utter feeling of loss.
The mother who had comforted him, the father he'd adored, were suddenly gone, and no one had ever really explained to him how that could have happened. He was the one who held hope the longest, certain that one day, his parents would walk in the door and life would get back to normal.
Ronan didn't mind that he was labeled the odd little brother. It was his place in the family hierarchy and it was comfortable amidst brothers who seemed to thrive on competition. He didn't mind that making friends didn't come easily to him. Or that he was twenty-six and drifted between women the same way he drifted between jobs at the yachtworks.
He didn't want to make plans, he avoided commitment. No one could know what the future held so he didn't think about the future. He lived his days, and his nights, one at a time.
But last week, his grandfather had asked them all to imagine a different life, to put aside the responsibilities they'd taken on as kids and to follow their dreams. To his surprise, the further he got from seattle and his life there, the more his past began to fade in his mind.
The only dream he'd ever had as a child was more of a fantasy, one where his parents magically reappeared in their lives. Maybe it was time to start making a plan for himself, to focus on a goal and make it come true. Without his family around, he was no longer the black sheep. He was simply Ronan Quinn, a clean slate, a fresh start.
When the bus driver finally called "Sibleyville," Ronan jumped to his feet. He was about to walk into a different life for the next six weeks. A month and a half was what his grandfather had required for this challenge and starting now, Ronan would have to find a job and a place to sleep.
The bus pulled up in front of a drug store and the driver opened the door. "Sibleyville. Anyone for Sibleyville?"
Ronan walked down the aisle, his duffel slung over his shoulder. "Thanks," he said to the driver as he stepped onto the sidewalk.
If there was a picture next to the definition of quaint in the dictionary, this was it, Ronan thought to himself. A neon Rexall Drug sign hung over his head and a variety of merchandise was displayed behind the gleaming plate glass windows on either side of the entrance. The bus pulled away behind him and Ronan turned and watched it disappear down the street.
He drew a deep breath and the salt-tinged sea air filled Ronan's lungs. It was a different smell from home, he mused. Familiar, but different. Small town life was bound to be a change for him. He enjoyed having all the conveniences that a big city provided. But then, people were supposed to be friendlier in places like this. And for a guy who usually depended on himself, Ronan might need the kindness of a few strangers right now.
He walked inside the drug store and immediately noticed the lunch counter along one wall. He still had a little cash left in his pocket so he decided to take a seat and have something to drink while he got his bearings.
An elderly man stepped behind the counter. "What can I get for you?"
"Chocolate malt," he said.
"Made with vanilla ice cream or chocolate?"
The man's New England accent was thick, the words flattened out until Ronan could barely understand. "Vanilla," Ronan said.
He grabbed a menu from the rack in front of him and perused the prices. They served soda fountain treats and sandwiches for lunch, but he'd have to find another spot for breakfast and dinner. "I'm looking for a place to stay," Ronan said. "Something cheap. Can you suggest anything?"
"Well, it's still high season around here, but there are a few boarding houses in town that you could try. Mrs. Morey has a place over on Second Street and Miss Harrington has a few rooms in her house on Whitney. They're pretty fussy about who they rent to. No funny business, if you get my drift."
"Do you know how much they charge?" Ronan asked.
The old man considered the question for a long moment as he prepared the malt. "Can't say that I do."
"I'm also looking for a job," Ronan said.
"There's a board over at the visitors center," he said. "There's always someone looking for help. They'll help you find a room, too, if you ask Maxine. She's usually behind the desk."
He placed the malt in front of Ronan. The old fountain glass was filled to the brim, then topped with whipped cream and a cherry. "That'll be three-ninety-five," he said.
Ronan pulled out his wallet and laid a five on the counter. "Keep the change," he said.
Ronan lingered over the malt, watching as customers came and went, getting a feel for the locals. Everyone in town seemed pretty friendly. There was a certain civility in their manner that he'd never seen in big city residents. Maybe it was because they all knew each other that they went out of their way to greet each other with a friendly hello or a short conversation.
When he finished his malt, Ronan grabbed his duffel and headed out to the visitor's center. The converted railroad station was home to the local merchant's association as well as the tourist office. He went to the job board and scanned the opportunities. There were jobs in restaurants and motels, a job at the local library and one at the marina.
A job at a local oyster farm caught his eye. He glanced around, then pulled the card from the board and tucked it in his pocket. He loved oysters and farming meant that he'd be spending his time outdoors. He couldn't think of a better combination.
Ronan walked over to the hospitality counter and gave the elderly woman sitting behind it a quick smile. "Are you Maxine?"
She nodded. "I am."
"I'm looking for a room. I'm going to be in town for six weeks. It needs to be cheap. I don't have a lot of money."
"We have a couple of boarding houses in town," she said. "And Isiah Crawford rents out a few of his motel rooms on a monthly basis. Let me try Mrs. Morey first."
The woman dialed a number. "Hello, Elvira. It's Maxine down at the Visitor's Center. I have a young man down here looking for a room. Do you have anything available?" She paused. "Wonderful. How much?" She scribbled something on her pad, then glanced up at Ronan. "What's your name?"
Maxine's eyes went wide for a moment, then she cleared her throat. "Yes, Elvira, you heard that right. Well, I'm sure he'll understand. If you forgot, you forgot."
Maxine hung up the phone and smiled apologetically. "It seems that she doesn't have a room after all. Some big group coming in."
"Could you try the other boarding house?" he asked.
"II don't think Tillie has anything available either. I just saw her at church this morning and sheshe would have mentioned it. Maybe you could try across the river in Newcastle?"
Ronan had the distinct impression that he was getting the runaround. Why were these people suddenly unwilling to rent to him? "Maybe you could try the motel?"
With a reluctant smile, she dialed the phone. "Hi there, Josiah. It's Maxine over at the Visitor's Center. I have a young man here named Ronan Quinn and he's looking for ayes, that's what I said. He's looking for a room. Well, that's a shame. All right. You, too, Josiah."
She hung up the phone again and shrugged. "He doesn't have any vacancies either. Newcastle really is your best option. It's just over the bridge."
"I need to stay here, in Sibleyville," he said. Ronan picked up his duffel bag. "Never mind, I'll find a place on my own."
Maxine forced a smile. "Can I offer you a bit of advice? Don't give them your name. In fact, use a different name entirely. But don't dare tell anyone I gave you this advice. Run along now."
With a soft curse, Ronan walked outside, keeping his temper in check. What the hell was going on here? Did the town have something against the Irish? Or was it just because he was a single guy? From what he could tell, the town thrived on tourism so it didn't make sense they'd turn anyone away. If he'd thought Sibleyville looked like a friendly place at first glance, he'd been sadly mistaken.
He looked down at the card he held. Mistry Bay Oyster Farm. Contact Charlie Sibley. Would a potential employer feel the same? Especially one named after this very village? For now, he'd keep his name to himself until he knew for sure.
"Maybe living a different life is going to be more difficult than I thought it would be," he muttered.
"You need to scrape harder than that," Charlotte Sibley said, running her hand over the rough hull of the skiff. "All this old paint has to come off. If you paint on top of it, it won't stick."
Her fourteen-year-old brother, Garrett, looked up from the task she'd given him and rolled his eyes. "I know what I'm doing."
"Of course you do. You're just not doing a very good job of it. You've been bugging Dad to let you work the boats on your own but you're not willing to put in the effort that comes with it." She ruffled his hair. "Come on, princess, put some muscle into it. We're going to need that skiff this season."
"Who made you the boss of me? You're not the boss of me, Charlie. Dad is."
"And if you haven't noticed, Einstein, Dad is laid up with a bad back. His doctor says he can't work for at least a month or two. He made me the boss of things, so that makes me the boss of you, too."
Garrett muttered something beneath his breath and went back to work. Charlotte smiled to herself. Now that she'd been put in charge of the Mistry Bay oyster farm, it had been a bit of a rocky ascension from worker to boss. Charlie knew the business from top to bottom, after working it for years with her family. And six years away hadn't been long enough to forget the ropes. But being in charge meant that she'd had to rein in the members of the Sibley clan who preferred malingering to hard work.
A knock sounded on the door of the boathouse and Charlotte strode over to the door. She'd been expecting a visit from an up and coming chef from Boston who was visiting the area. Chef Joel Bellingham had already made a name for himself in Boston with one highly rated restaurant and would soon be opening a seconda seafood place that might feature Mistry Bay oysters.
She yanked the door open, but her greeting died in her throat as she came face-to-face with an impossibly handsome man, not much older than she was. He watched her with pale blue eyes, as she tried to regain her breath, his gaze holding hers. Charlie swallowed hard, then cleared her throat. "Hello! Come on in. I hope you didn't have any trouble finding the place." She'd met Bellingham over the phone earlier that morning and had somehow gotten the impression he was much older. This guy could be thirty, tops.
"There was a sign above the door," he said, glancing around.
They stood there for an uncomfortable moment before Charlie could shake herself into action. "How was your trip?" she asked. "The traffic on Highway 1 can be really bad on the weekends."
"It was fine."
He was a man of few words. Charlie felt a stab of disappointment. He obviously wasn't interested in chatting with her. And usually she was so good with customers. But this guy, though stunningly handsome, didn't have much of a personality. "Let me show you around."
The waterfront building served multiple purposes for the family business. Charlie pointed out the shop area where they repaired equipment and boat engines. Housed in the other half of the lower floor was the shipping area, where workers cleaned and sorted oysters before they were boxed to be sent all over the east coast and beyond. As Charlie rattled off her talking points, she realized she wasn't even listening to herself. He stood beside her, nodding politely.
The second floor housed the business offices and a small apartment Charlotte sometimes used when she needed to get away from the craziness at her parents' house. It also included a finely appointed tasting room, modeled after a gourmet kitchen, where they often entertained visitors interested in featuring Mistry Bay oysters at their restaurants or seafood counters. The room overlooked the river and was the perfect setting to talk oysters.