Marlene smiled, not expecting the compliment. “Oh, Edith,” she replied with grudging honesty, “it’s you who’s looking pretty. As always.”
Edith had blond good looks, and she’d given them to her daughters, too. Weren’t fair-skinned women supposed to age more quickly? Marlene touched her own forehead—she wondered how that Botox stuff worked. She was certain there were any number of doctors in Reno or even in nearby Silver City who worked with it. Maybe it was time to give it a try.
“Enough about me. So”—Edith leaned close to whisper—“you’re meeting a man here tonight? How exciting.”
Hardly. She remembered her blind date and smiled stiffly, nodding. Exciting wasn’t the word she’d use. What would be exciting was if she’d already met the man, and he’d been a classy, gentlemanly sort of fellow. Someone who’d had a good, respectable career. A widower judge, perhaps. Or maybe a retired doctor. Someone who was kind, with a full head of hair, a healthy nest egg, and a nice sedan. Something foreign maybe, with a leather interior that was a color named something like ebony or champagne. She could put this Internet dating nonsense behind her.
And the next time Frank visited Sierra Falls, he’d see her, and see how well she was doing, and how spoiled she was, and he’d be jealous and realize what a fool he’d been to leave her.
“But aren’t you worried about this online stuff?” Edith asked, pulling her from the fantasy. “I’ve heard stories.”
Marlene had heard them, too, and a big part of her was terrified about all the crazies out there. But instead she made herself sound bravely nonchalant. “Oh no, it’s perfectly safe. All the singles are carefully screened.” She hoped. “And what other choice do I have? I’ve lived here my whole life, and as far as I know, there aren’t any retirees zipping around Sierra Falls in any sports cars, looking for wives.”
Edith slumped at that, unable to muster a rebuttal. “Forget men, then. How are you?”
Marlene sipped her wine, considering. How was she?
She was a sixty-three-year-old woman on a blind date. She was struggling to keep hold of her dignity. The last time she’d dated, she hadn’t needed to figure out how to balance her reading glasses on her face in order to put on eye makeup. The last time she’d dated, it’d been with boys she’d grown up with, nice boys her parents knew, not a bunch of strangers who might or might not be kooks.
She’d gone straight from raising four kids—four boys—to taking care of two elderly aunts and an ailing mother who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She shouldn’t be sitting in a bar drinking Bear Bailey’s crappy sauvignon blanc.
That’s how she was.
What she said instead was, “I’m plugging along, Edith. You?”
Edith glanced around then leaned in close, looking conspiratorial. “I have news.”
Marlene leaned close. The best cure for depression was gossip. Her friend looked happy—it was good news then.
Dark thoughts were replaced with a flurry of speculation. A smile crept across Marlene’s face as she realized what it must be. “It’s Sorrow, isn’t it?” She slammed her hand on the table, a lightbulb going off. “She and the Simmons boy finally got engaged.”
“Oh…” Edith looked momentarily puzzled. “Oh, no, not that. But it does have to do with Sorrow. She found letters.”
Marlene deflated. Letters wasn’t nearly as exciting as engagement. “Letters?” she asked, trying to sound intrigued.
When Edith got to the word affair Marlene perked back up. Turned out, Bear’s great-great-grandmother had a child out of wedlock with Buck Larsen, of all people. She’d written, but never sent, a stack of letters that featured some pretty juicy details.
Edith’s face was lit up in a way that Marlene hadn’t seen in some time. “It’s just what the town needs.”
Marlene hated to play devil’s advocate—why was she always the one to put a damper on things?—but she couldn’t keep herself from asking, “How do you know they’re real? I mean, those letters must be over a hundred years old.”
“Over one hundred fifty years old.” Edith beamed proudly, adding definitively, “The woman had no reason to lie.”
Marlene still didn’t buy it. It was a woman who’d connived her Frank out of a marriage that’d spanned almost four decades. Who knew what women had been capable of back then? “All the more reason she could’ve made any old thing up.”
“Why would she go and do something like that? Especially since she never even sent them.” Edith waved away the notion. “Don’t you see? It means we can turn our Spring Fling into a Buck Larsen Festival instead. Get some publicity, some new tourists.”
That gave Marlene pause. Edith did have a point. The town sure could use some livening up—and not just financially. This discovery could bring new people into Sierra Falls. And with the average age of their historical society hovering somewhere around seventy, their group could use some fresh blood, as it were. Maybe it’d even bring in a wave of older, single men. Visions of tweedy historical types flitted through her mind.
Finally convinced, Marlene smiled. “I can’t wait to see their faces when I tell them.”
Edith didn’t have to ask to know the “them” in question were Marlene’s mother, Emerald, and her two aunts, Ruby and Pearl. Three women whose preacher daddy had scared away enough boys that they’d aged into thick-as-thieves spinsters. Marlene’s mother had been the wild one of the group, running off as a girl, but she’d returned home with a belly full of baby and a mouth full of secrets and had never left town again. They were the backbone of the historical society and a permanent fixture in Sierra Falls.
“I’ll get them going on a special gold rush quilt,” Marlene said.
Marlene nodded, her mind spinning. If they played up the gold rush aspect, they could really milk it. “We could make a book of old California recipes.”
Edith’s eyes lit up. “We could put on a show, too. From the look of the dresses we found, Sorrow—that was her name—was a dance hall girl. We could have a performance, maybe an exhibit, too.”
Edith bustled off, anxious to start her list of to-dos.
Which left Marlene alone again, waiting for Mister Wonderful, who had yet to make his appearance. She checked her watch for the umpteenth time. She’d come a little early, but now he was starting to feel a little late. She nursed her wine as slowly as possible—she didn’t want to sit there with nothing to sip on, nor did she want to order another drink. This one was hitting her too much already.
Edith’s news had been exciting, and Marlene was feeling residual optimism. Maybe she’d have a great time on this date. Maybe he’d be The One.
She adjusted her shirt, waiting. Why hadn’t she worn a sweater? It was chilly, and she’d sat too close to the door. Damned old age—most days, she was either too hot or too cold. Well, it was too late to move now, it’d just look funny.
Rubbing warmth into her arms, she decided she knew full well why she hadn’t worn a sweater. She ran a mental catalog of what was in her drawers, and it was all ancient cardigans. Sure, they were well-loved, having been hand-knit by her mother once upon a time, but all of a sudden they seemed too frumpy for something like dating. Too fusty.
She resented that feeling. She loved those sweaters—why weren’t they good enough? Did it mean she wasn’t good enough? That got her thinking about Frank again. This was all his fault.
Her optimism was fading fast. Her nerves getting more jangled by the minute. Where was this man?
“A woman like you…” A male voice said from behind her.
Marlene turned to find Sully standing behind her. There was a devilish light in his eyes that brought a quick smile to her face. That, she knew, was her vanity, pure and simple. Sully was a quiet man, but he’d always had a word or two for her, and as the years passed, her ego appreciated the attention more and more. “A woman like me what, Tom Sullivan?”
He put a glass of something sparkling on the table in front of her. “A woman like you shouldn’t be kept waiting.”
“A woman like me should do lots of things. Take this, for example,” she said, pushing away the glass. “I definitely shouldn’t.”
“I know you shouldn’t.” He edged it back toward her. “That’s why it’s just a club soda with a twist.”
She inhaled, the knot in her chest easing a bit. A club soda with a twist sounded perfect right about then. “How’d you guess?”
“You were wearing a hole in the table, spinning your wineglass all around. Thought you could shift that nervous energy to a nice cocktail straw instead.”
“I’m not nervous.” Did she really appear nervous? And how’d he known?
“You’re the boss.” He gave her a mysterious smile. But he didn’t leave, and he didn’t sit down either.
Why didn’t he just sit down? She narrowed her eyes on him. “If anything’s making me nervous, it’s you hovering over me.”
“If I’m hovering,” Sully said, “it’s because you haven’t invited me to join you.”
Would Sully really join her if she asked, or was he just ribbing her? Did she want him to join her? Why was he being friendly? He couldn’t be interested in her, could he?
She dismissed the possibility at once. A man like Tom Sullivan would attract someone saucier and wilder. An older, big-bosomed version of that attractive bartender they had. She wouldn’t be his type.
Not that she knew who he ran around with—she’d never heard that sort of gossip about him. The only rumors about Tom Sullivan were about his past, how he’d come back from Vietnam a changed man and had spent years on the road like something out of Easy Rider. It was probably all romantic speculation.