They said their good-byes, and he headed back to the tavern. He needed to pay his bill and get back to it. And then he’d push this strange episode from his mind.
Sorrow had sent the sheriff on his way. Something about the look on his face made her feel pitiable, and she hated that feeling. She might need help, but she wasn’t helpless.
She especially didn’t want him thinking of her in that light. Billy Preston was once a big shot police lieutenant in a major city, and she hated feeling like she might be a small-town yokel in comparison.
And anyway, she had a man in her life already, and he loved to help. Maybe it was because Damien was stuck in a suit, sitting behind a desk at his family’s business, but he seemed to relish coming to her aid as much as any knight of old had loved crusading on a white horse.
Whatever the reason, he was always happy to roll up his sleeves and do things like chop wood, or fix a clogged drain, or perform any of a variety of manly man tasks she might need. Sometimes he was a little too happy about it, smothering her with his manly manness when she didn’t necessarily need it.
Though there was one task she liked him to perform, and she blushed to think of it. A wistful sigh escaped her. She sure could use a heaping dose of that sort of help right about now. But she pushed the thought aside—this latest crisis was a doozy. She barely had time to shower these days, much less canoodle with Damien, no matter how yummy he looked in his suit.
She sat on an old stool. Staring blindly at the attic wreckage, she phoned him.
“Hey, Bailey,” he said, answering his cell the way he always did when she called. He had a smile in his voice, and it was a relief to hear him, even though she never did love his penchant for calling her by her last name. But it was a habit he’d started in middle school, and those things died hard.
“Hey yourself.” She heard background noise, like the sound of wind and gears shifting. She frowned. “Are you driving?”
“Oh, Damien, you know I hate when you talk and drive.” Even as she said it, she hated even more the naggy sound of her own voice. But he could be so reckless sometimes, acting the bad boy, and she had enough troubles without him wrecking his car. “God forbid,” she muttered, putting such thoughts to rest.
“Relax. I’m using that ear thing you got me.”
She held her tongue for a moment, and decided she’d pretend to believe him. “Okay.”
“What’s up? We’re still on for tonight, right?”
She heard the sounds of spitting gravel and the whine of a rapidly downshifting engine. He drove like an eight-year-old playing with Hot Wheels, but she’d vowed not to henpeck. Instead, she told him, “It’s the roof.”
“The what, babe?” He cut the engine, and she heard the dinging of the opened car door. “Tell me.”
Hearing the focus in Damien’s voice, she completely forgave and forgot his crazy driving. He’d work his magic and save the day. She knew a momentary pang—was she taking him for granted?—but she nudged away the feeling. Sorrow was strong and could handle what came her way, but finding a roofer willing to work in this weather was another thing entirely. And Damien, with one phone call, always managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
“The roof,” she repeated, getting up and wandering to the center of the attic where she could stand fully upright. Snow was blowing in, and she shielded a hand over her eyes, squinting against it. “A branch from that old pine smashed through, into the attic.”
“Yeah, it was dumping pretty hard this morning,” Damien said, and she heard his car door slam. “I told your dad he needed to cut back that tree.”
“I know, I know. But what Bear wants—”
“Bear gets,” he finished, with an irreverent laugh.
Everyone in Sierra Falls loved her father, but they also knew how set in his ways the man had become. As far as Bear Bailey was concerned, there was only one way to run the Big Bear Lodge and Thirsty Bear Tavern, and it was his way.
“Don’t you worry,” Damien said. “We’ll have you patched in time for happy hour. What’s the damage?”
She spun in a circle, assessing. Thankfully the snow was slowing, but the sun was coming out and the temp was rising, and snowmelt had already begun to drip in a steady plop-plop on the attic floor.
Sometimes she didn’t want her boyfriend to keep swooping in to save the day—but this was definitely not one of those times.
“It’s pretty bad.” Snow piled in little drifts around the room, while the lodge’s ambient heat had puddles forming in random cracks and valleys along the warped timber-plank flooring. “I called Jack Jessup, but he said he’s booked solid and can’t come out till next week.”
“I’ll call him,” he said, and she knew that was enough to settle it. Damien Simmons was the son of Dabney Simmons, CEO of Simmons Timber, a company that provided the bread, butter, and livelihood for much of their town. The Simmons clan owned much of the land in Sierra Falls—if someone in the family wanted a roof patched, it got patched.
“My pleasure, Bailey. I’ll be sure to get my reward later.”
He laughed suggestively just as he clicked off, and the sound reverberated in her belly, her body’s response instant. It wasn’t love she felt for him—at least she didn’t think it was—but that didn’t matter. If she ever wondered why she was with the guy, all she had to do was see him in person, and…yowza.
Damien had a knack with women—he’d had it as a teenager, and he had it in spades now. And though it felt wonderful to be the center of his attention, there was something about it she didn’t trust. Maybe it was leftover from high school, when he hadn’t spared her the time of day.
But he was hot, she was lonely, and besides, everyone in the town expected it. He’d been out of her league for years, but now that she was one of the few from their class who either hadn’t left town or wasn’t married, everyone expected her to fall head over heels for “the Simmons boy.”
Everybody knew him, of course. He was the pride and joy of the Simmons family. Oddly, that was one of the things that appealed to her. Not that he had money, though she sure could’ve used a whole lot more of that in her world. But Damien understood family expectations and responsibilities, and she liked that. Sorrow had family obligations coming out of her ears.
She just wished he weren’t so heavy-handed with her sometimes. He took care of business for his family, but she didn’t necessarily like the feeling that she was an obligation for him to deal with, too.
She raked a hand through her hair. “Damien, Damien,” she murmured, not quite sure what to do with him. But now it was time to get back to business.
Knowing Damien, the roofer would be there within the hour. In the meantime, she might as well do as her mom asked and rifle through the generations of old junk not valuable enough to have a place in the rest of the house.
“What a disaster.” She kicked at one of the old trunks. It was the “hope chest” of one of the women on her dad’s side. If it’d belonged to one of the Sorrows in his family tree, it was no wonder the thing was still filled with dusty and forgotten hopes.
She nudged it from the wall to see how even after death, these women had bad luck. The sides were already rippling and peeling, the wood turning cherry-red with damp. Getting ruined on her watch.
“My apologies, Grandma Sorrow. Or old Auntie Sorrow. Or whoever you were.” Sinking to her knees, she jiggled the old hinge, trying to unfasten it despite years of rust.
“Too bad they didn’t name Laura after you,” she grumbled. Why her parents hadn’t saddled her big sister with the name Sorrow was beyond her. If they had, maybe Laura would be the one kneeling there in a freezing puddle. “If I’d had a different name, then maybe I’d be the one off gallivanting around California. I’d be the one with the fancy job and car.”
But no, her siblings hadn’t been able to run out of Sierra Falls fast enough, abandoning her with things like leaking roofs and rotting trunks. “Maybe I’ll find some treasure and then I can have my turn.”
She finally pried open the lid, and was hit by a wave of mildew and mothballs. “Oh, jeez.” She rubbed at the twinge in her nose, looked up at the bright hole in the roof to catch a sneeze. She was going to be sneezing all day, she knew it.
“All right,” she muttered, digging through the contents in search of whatever needed saving first. “Gotta start somewhere.”
Family photos, important papers—she went through each trunk, systematically setting aside anything that couldn’t be washed or replaced. Most of it was junk, though. Her father had inherited the lodge from his father, who got it from his father, and so on, and much of this stuff was the forgotten, meaningless bits of life that accumulated when you weren’t paying attention. Old ledgers, musty afghans, mildewed picture frames, a warped guitar…she hoped to convince her parents to toss it all in the Dumpster, but knowing Bear and Edith, she feared it was a pipe dream.
“Seriously?” she exclaimed as she opened an old Kinney shoebox, revealing stacks of ancient receipts. She shoved the whole thing into a paper bag, planning to sneak it and the rest of the worthless papers to the recycling center in Silver City. “Do they seriously need this stuff?”
What she saw at the bottom gave her pause, though. The prettiest lace shawl, with ivory crewelwork, yellowed to a color that told her it’d been at the bottom of the trunk for a long time. She pulled it out, afraid the cheap wood might bleed color onto it.
Something tumbled from the shawl, and she scooped it up. A stack of letters. She held them up to catch the light. “Hello there.”
They were as yellowed as the linen, but otherwise miraculously spared of damage, still bound by a strand of rickrack gone crispy with age. The handwriting was old-fashioned spidery loops, and she got a shiver, knowing in her bones that she held a piece of history. A very intimate piece of history.