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Excerpt:  Sanctuary

The black luxury sedan crept through the residential streets of Philadelphia, while the moon above peeked out from a faint cloud cover.  A charcoal gray sky tinted the neighborhood in shadow.  Nora Ramsey glanced up from her laptop screen and turned toward the backseat window.  Day was done, evening had arrived hours before. 

She sighed and closed her computer.  When was the last time she’d returned home from work before the sun had gone down?  She shook her head.  Not any time in recent memory.

“You okay, Ms. Ramsey?”  Her driver was spying her in the rearview mirror.

“Oh sure, Benny.”  She broke his gaze and looked out the window again. 

“Just wondering what it would feel like to work a nine-to-five.”

The man, at least ten years her elder, she guessed, chuckled, and turned his eyes back to the road.  “Yeah, you’ve been burning the midnight oil for a while now.”

She nodded.  The Samson merger, her biggest project yet at the law firm, had been her baby.  She’d managed all the details and the team of lawyers and accountants who had made it happen.  And that was on top of her normal duties as a managing partner of Gibson, Monroe and Ramsey, Attorneys at Law.  She’d been excited that the other partners had put her in charge of this project that had literally put them on the map as one of the most prestigious real estate acquisition firms in Philadelphia, or, she could optimistically stretch that, on the east coast. 

She lived for challenge.  She strove for results.  It’s what drove her, motivated her, kept her moving in this crazy career that she loved, and at times, hated.

It was nearly done.  All that remained now was the closing paperwork.  Maybe she’d take a vacation when it was finally closed, before she took on her next big assignment.  Heck, she deserved it, didn’t she?  She hadn’t taken a week off in years.  Could that be possible?

“Well, the big project I’ve been working on for close to three years now, is about done.  Maybe my days will go back to normal,” she commented to Benny.

He nodded.  “Congratulations, then.  You must have worked very hard.”

She smiled mildly, nodding her thanks.  He had no idea what he was congratulating her for.  The extent of the planning and execution she’d pulled off.  The achievement that she’d accomplished, the conflicts, the negotiations, the problems and the resolutions.  Her senior partner, Henry Gibson had told her that what she’d done had been nothing short of a phenomenon, a marvel of organization and legal guidance.  He didn’t need to tell her the vast amount of capital this merger had brought to their firm.  She was well aware, and of course, that was the main reason she’d fought so hard to manage the project in the first place.  If she could pull this off, she remembered thinking at the beginning, it would cement her future forever.

And now, she had.  She’d pulled it off.  She’d succeeded, and she was basking in the approval of the senior partner.

They were almost home.  She closed her eyes and sank back into the leather seat.  Her mind wandered … would the firm throw her a congratulatory party, a happy hour or dinner with all her appreciative colleagues, telling her what a great job she’d done for the firm?  “Speech, speech,” she could imagine them chanting, her modestly refusing, smiling, hands up, putting them off, them refusing to relent until she finally stood to their applause and stepped to the microphone.

“Here we are, ma’am.”

She popped her eyes open.  Benny was turned in the front seat, looking back at her, a polite expression on his face.  She looked out the window.  He had pulled the sedan to the curb of her high-rise and was waiting for her to get out.  “Oh, so sorry, Benny.  Hold on just a second.” 

“Take your time.”

She slid her laptop into her leather bag, slung it over her shoulder and gathered her purse.  She opened the door, and before stepping out, turned back to him.  “Thanks for your kind words, Benny.  Tomorrow, normal time?”

He grinned, nodded his head.  “If that’s when you want me.”

“Please.”  She waved and pushed out onto the sidewalk.  As she walked up the cement path toward the doorman of her apartment complex, it was not lost on her that Benny’s congratulations were her solitary celebration of her achievement tonight, and she’d just agreed to a 7 am pickup tomorrow for another full day of work.

She covered the distance quickly, noting the brisk snap in the early-spring air.  Less than a shiver later, she stepped through the doorway as her building’s doorman welcomed her. 

“Good evening,” she said, and it dawned on her that she didn’t know his name, although he’d been opening the door for her for several months now. She’d find out.  Soon.  Just not tonight when her brain felt like slog and she probably wouldn’t remember it anyway.  “Fifteenth floor.”

He pressed the button which opened the door to the waiting elevator, then stepped inside to press the 15 button, then back out to allow her passage.  “Have a good night.”

She thanked him, thought, what’s left of it, and rode the express to her floor.

Pulling her purse off her shoulder, Nora extracted her key from its zippered hiding place and stepped into her apartment.  She paused to pick up the stack of mail from the floor, where it had landed when the building admin had slipped it through the slot.  A few steps through the foyer and she dumped everything – her purse, her laptop bag and her mail – with an exhale onto her rarely used dining room table.  Her shoes flipped off easily – heels, albeit shorter ones than she used to wear twenty years ago when she’d had way less mileage on her – and Nora padded to her bedroom.  Within five minutes she’d shed the professional wear, donned her pajamas and slippers, washed her face and was ready for whatever was left of her evening in front of the TV.

The kitchen beckoned her, or maybe it was the grumble of her stomach.  Looking first in the refrigerator, she pulled out a “to go” box of leftovers from the last time she’d gone out to dinner.  When was that?  Right, it was over a week ago when she’d taken a few of her team members out to that Italian place near the office. Opening it, she stuck her nose in. “Ewww,” she groaned and took it right to the garbage disposal. 

The remaining options in the refrigerator were sparse so she opened the freezer and pulled out her normal dinner selection, a Lean Cuisine frozen dinner.  It didn’t really matter which flavor it was; she pulled it out of the box and into the microwave. Next came a big glass of ice water and a small glass of wine.  The microwave dinged.  “Dinnuh is served,” she said into the quiet.

Plopping the steaming contents onto a plate was a technique she’d mastered.  What was on the menu tonight?  Some combination of chicken and vegetables.  Carrying all three, balancing in two hands to the coffee table, she tuned into the cable news channels, trying to get a quick overview of what was happening in the country, and in the world.  She ate and drank the water, then picked up the glass of wine, retrieved the mail, and settled into her recliner.

In robot-mode, she processed the stack, separating into three piles: junk, bills and otherwise.  One thick legal-sized envelope grabbed her attention.  Since it was the only item in the “otherwise” category, she started with it.  The return address was a law firm in South Carolina.  Was this firm mail, somehow misrouted to her home address?

A closer look revealed that the law firm was in Myrtle Beach.  She shrugged and slid her finger under the envelope flap, pulled out the contents.  She scanned the professionally prepared letter, frowned and read it again.  With a gasp, she reached for her phone.

A few rings later, her sister Patty answered.  “Hey sis, long time no …”

“Aunt Edie died?” she demanded.

“Uhhh, hello to you too,” she said pointedly.

Nora huffed.  Social niceties had their place but not when she wanted information.  “Yes, hello Patty, hope you’re well, did you have a nice day?  And oh, by the way, did Aunt Edie die?”

“Yes,” her sister said, wisely getting to the point.  “Like a month ago.”

“Holy smokes!  Why am I just finding out about it now?”

“I don’t know.  When was the last time you spoke to Aunt Edie?”

“Well … never.  But just because we’d drifted apart doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to be filled in on family news, such as my favorite aunt from my childhood dying.”

“Okay, sorry. Aunt Edie died from prolonged effects of the stroke she had about six months ago.  You knew about that?”

“Yes.”

“She was hospitalized after her stroke, eventually moved to a long-term care facility, and never really recovered.  Her whole left side was paralyzed, including her face, arm and leg.  She couldn’t walk, talk, or move.  Had difficulties eating and swallowing. It was really more of a blessing than a sorrow that she passed on to be with the Lord.”

This news, quickly delivered, induced a wave of sadness.  Aunt Edie, all alone, self-sufficient for the long years of her adulthood, suddenly unable to take care of herself.  “Who took care of her?”

“You mean, who got her the care she needed?”

Nora shook her head, overwhelmed at all the details that had needed to be taken care of, the decisions that were made.  Who helped her after her stroke?  Who selected the place where they nursed her?  Who visited her in her final months?  Days?  “Yeah.”

“She had good friends there in Murrells Inlet.  She was a huge part of the community.  She had church friends, neighbors.  She was taken care of.”

What about family?  Nora’s mother was Edie’s sister, her only sibling.  But she lived in Florida – had lived there since she and Dad retired twenty years ago, prior to Dad’s death.  And her two nieces – herself and Patty.  Nora in Philadelphia and Patty in Illinois.  Was that the only family she had left?  Aunt Edie had been widowed for most of her adulthood, her husband having died on the spot from a freak heart attack in his thirties.

“Wow,” she breathed.  The reality and permanence of Aunt Edie’s situation permeated her mind.  She would be Aunt Edie in a few decades.  Alone, nobody checking on her.  Except instead of being in a quaint beach town where neighbors watched out for each other, Nora would be in a pricey Philadelphia high-rise with a doorman and security doors where nobody knew their neighbors.  When it came her time, would anyone even realize she was gone?

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, sis.  I figured Mom would.”

Nora shrugged and said, “Yeah.”  Mom probably would, if she’d done a better job of calling her regularly.  Nora cringed when she thought of how many voicemails she’d received from Mom in the last month that she never returned.  Or returned, but gave her a five minute time limit.  Maybe Mom was meaning to tell her about Aunt Edie and Nora just hadn’t made enough of an effort.  But with her long days and exhausting schedule, the last thing she wanted to do was sit with a phone plugged to her ear for an hour listening, or pretending to listen, to all the details of her mother’s retired life. 

She squeezed her eyes shut and said a quick prayer of apology to God for that awful thought.  She was lucky to still have a mother.  She’d make an effort to stay in closer touch.

“Did you get your inheritance?” Patty asked.

“Huh?”

“I assumed that’s why you’re calling.  You got the inheritance letter from Aunt Edie’s lawyer?”

“Oh.”  Nora shuffled through the small stack of papers.  She hadn’t even gotten past the cover page where she’d learned of Aunt Edie’s death.  Yes, the next few were the will.  The lawyer had included the general wording, then had gone straight to the punch with what Aunt Edie had left her.

“Oh, my gosh.”

“What?  What did she leave you?”

Nora stared, her mouth dropping open.  The generosity of the inheritance astounded her.  “What … what did she leave you?” she asked her sister.

“She left us money to put into a college savings account for the girls.”

“Oh, how nice,” Nora said slightly, still staring at the will page.

“Yes, it sure was.  I mean, Brad and I had of course started saving for the girls’ college.  But Aunt Edie’s gift will go a long way towards their expenses.  And if there’s any money left over, we can give them each a gift of funds to start their adult lives with.”

“Yeah,” Nora said.

A quiet moment passed while she fully absorbed what her aunt was leaving her. 

“What did you get?”

Nora took a breath.  “You’re not going to believe this, Patty.”

“What?”

“Aunt Edie left me all her property.  Ten acres, a barn and the house in Murrells Inlet.  Everything – furniture, farm equipment.”

“Wow.”

“That’s … extremely generous.”

“Yeah.”

A guilty wave came over her.  Why would Aunt Edie leave her such a generous inheritance when she hadn’t even stayed in touch with the woman over the last few decades?  When was the last time she’d seen Edie?  Spoken to her?  “I’m having trouble understanding why she’d leave this to me.”

“Aunt Edie loved you.  And me.  Both of us.  She never had kids so we were like her children.”

“Yes, I remember going to her place every summer as kids.”

“Lots of sentimental value for the both of us.”

“But … why me?”

“I guess Aunt Edie wanted to help take care of my girls’ education.  And since you don’t have kids, and she knew you loved visiting there, that gift was more appropriate for you.”

Nora hesitated, not exactly sure how to put her concerns into words.  Until she just came out with it.  “Are you mad that she left the property to me?”

“Not at all,” Patty insisted.  “No. Her gifts were well thought out.  I live in the Midwest.  I have kids to raise.  What would I do with a beach front farm property?”

Nora nodded.  So, no hard feelings there.  That was a relief.

“Wait.  I’m a partner in a law firm in Philadelphia.  What am I going to do with a beach front farm property?

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