If she were being honest, she’d always suspected there was more. She’d had a husband who was successful. She’d had a nice house. Shopping jaunts to Reno and a new designer coat every September. She’d devoted her life to standing by her man. But what had it gotten her?
She had her children, of course. And she’d do it all over again to have those four wonderful boys she’d raised into good and caring men. The love she held for them was fierce.
But what of her feelings for her ex-husband? After he took off, she’d begun to doubt herself. She often felt angry at being left holding the bag. But had she ever genuinely missed him?
Marlene looked at the three Kidd women and noted with a pang how her mother hadn’t eaten, hadn’t even moved. She just sat, not even looking out the window, with that same blankness in her eyes. Life marched on. One day these women would have passed and then Marlene would…what?
Everyone spoke at once, startling Marlene, and she tuned back in.
“You have to finish,” Sorrow was demanding.
“‘The only things…the things…’” Laura shook her head. “It’s no good. I can’t do it. This crazy handwriting is killing me.”
Pearl held out a quaking hand. “Let me see it, dear.” She slowly donned her glasses, kept on a beaded chain around her neck, and concentrated on the letter. After a silent moment, her face lit with understanding. “Ah! It says, ‘The only things you regret in this life are the risks you don’t take.’”
Marlene felt herself pale. It was as though Sorrow Crabtree had reached across the generations to deliver this message just to her.
Her life was all about roads not taken. She’d spent her life caring for other people, first her husband, then her sons, and now her aunts and mother. Hers had always been the responsible choices—the sorts of choices where she’d had no choice. Her life had held no room for risk.
Sorrow’s hand was warm on her suddenly chilled shoulder. “You okay, Marlene?”
“I’m fine.” Pasting a smile on her face, she said, “Let’s keep reading. We’ve been looking forward to it.” She cut her eyes back to her mother. Maybe Ma was in there somewhere to enjoy it, too.
Her mother’s life had been all risk. Leaving home, meeting a man, and returning heavy with child. Why had Marlene never asked her more about it? Asked her mother the hard questions. Ma sat there, across the room, empty as the prettiest of seashells, the one woman Marlene wished more than anything could give her wisdom.
Folks thought just because a family member was still alive meant there was no cause for grief. But Marlene knew different—Marlene grieved her living mother every day.
Sorrow’s cell buzzed, and she had to juggle a lid, a ladle, layers of apron, and the rag she had tucked at her waist to reach it. It was worth it, seeing who the caller was.
“Billy, hey.” She didn’t even try to mask the relief in her voice. “You coming by soon? It’s Ladies’ Night,” she added in a teasing voice. Tuesday was her night to cook at the tavern, and her dad had dubbed the evening with the silliest name imaginable. But she was heeding Billy’s advice and taking her opportunities where she could get them.
His somber voice alerted her at once. “What is it?”
“I’ve got to work a double shift,” he said. “Marshall was hit with the flu—the guy looks like hell.”
“How much crime can there be in Sierra Falls? Can’t you just let people speed for one night?”
His laugh was gentle. “You know I can’t. But I’ll be thinking of you. Wish I were there to help.”
“I wish you were, too—I’m using a Dutch oven that, I swear, weighs about a thousand pounds.”
“What did you end up making? The chicken or the pork loin?”
“Chicken. Coq au Vin to be exact.” Her sauce needed thickening, and she was stirring madly. “If I can get my roux to cooperate. It’s broken twice already.”
“Damned roux,” he said in a perfect deadpan.
She laughed. She missed him. They’d had a few kisses, and already she couldn’t wait for more. “I miss you.” The words had slipped out, and she instantly knew a twinge of regret. They’d kissed, but she didn’t know how he really felt. She suspected he was dealing with a lot of emotional baggage, and she needed to play it cool.
But he surprised her by saying, “I miss you, too.” There was real affection in his voice, and it made everything okay. “Save me some,” he added. “I’ll stop by later. I promise.”
She’d just finished searing the meat and had put it into the oven to braise when she sensed a hubbub in the tavern. Sorrow pulled off the red bandanna she wore in lieu of a hairnet, wiped her brow, and pushed through the swinging door.
“I swear, Helen,” she said as she pushed through the swinging door. “I don’t know how Sully does it. I am roasting in there. Could you please get me”—she spotted Damien and his parents settling into a window booth—“some ice water,” she finished lamely.
Dabney and Phoebe Simmons—what were they doing there? If Damien was the prince of Sierra Falls, it was because his parents were its nobility. They were moneyed and sophisticated, and she wished she could hate them for it, but they also happened to be two of the kindest, most gracious people she’d ever met.
Dabney had been especially sweet every time he’d seen her, always joking how Sorrow needed to make his boy an honest man. It was like he was actually lobbying Damien to propose to her. She never could figure it, except to guess that Damien had been a hell-raiser as a kid and that maybe he’d mellowed a bit under her influence.
They’d have found out about the breakup by now. Had Damien sent them to convince her to get back together with him? She dreaded the conversation. Dreaded feeling like she’d hurt not just Damien but his parents, too.
As Helen handed her a big tumbler of water, she sang under her breath, “Oh yes, it’s ladies’ night, and you’re feeling right.” She made a little snorting laughing sound that Sorrow didn’t feel was entirely kind.
She glared at the bartender over the lip of the glass as she chugged and then put it down hard. “If you’re quoting the song, I think it’s ‘and the feeling’s right.’ And thanks for that. The only thing I needed more than seeing Damien’s family was a Kool & The Gang song stuck in my head.”
Phoebe and Dabney were kibitzing over the menu. Her mind scrambled for excuses, but it was no good. The chicken was in the oven—there would be no better time for her to go say hi.
She had a joke on her lips when she met the bartender’s eyes but kept her mouth shut when she saw that Helen was serious. Drinking might’ve been how the other woman dealt with her problems, but that wasn’t how Sorrow rolled.
Still, the woman was just trying to be kind, and there was genuine gratitude in Sorrow’s voice when she said, “No thanks, Helen. No drinks. I’ve got too long a night ahead of me.”
She was girding herself to approach and say her hellos when Damien beat her to it.
“Heya, Bailey.” He sauntered over to the bar, giving her a confident smile. Apparently, not even a breakup could get Damien down. Assuming he’d finally accepted that they’d broken up, which she didn’t entirely believe. He wasn’t the sort of guy to give up easily—showing up with a smiling face and his parents in tow had to be part of a master plan.
He was looking mighty fine, as always, and Sorrow gave herself a moment to study her own reaction to him. She was pleased to realize she didn’t feel a darned thing—not a moment’s regret, nor one iota of desire.
“You’re looking good,” he told her, echoing her own thoughts. “Cooking agrees with you.”
She took the compliment for what it was and gave him a grateful smile. “Nothing like a hot, stuffy kitchen to put color in the cheeks.” She and Damien weren’t exactly going to be best chums, but he was a good guy, and maybe someday they’d get back to where they’d begun, as casual friends.
He gestured to the door. “Hey, your bear box is open.” Everyone in the Sierras kept their trash in a bear box, lest they summon a several-hundred-pound scavenging visitor. “I tried to shut it, but it looks like the latch is broken. If you have some tools, I could take a look.”
“Nah, I got it,” she said, knowing she absolutely could not ask him to help her. She didn’t want him to think they were slipping back into their old ways. And besides, she was perfectly capable of tending to her own bear box.
She went outside, and sure enough the door was swinging on its hinges. Not many bears this time of year, but the last thing she wanted was to awaken some hungry brute out of hibernation. Leaning her shoulder into it, she tried to close the latch, but Damien was right—it swung back open, broken.
She didn’t have any tools, wasn’t wearing gloves, and had two Dutch ovens’ worth of Coq au Vin going. Now was not the time to deal with this, and she made a mental note to take care of the problem tomorrow.
She went back inside, and annoyance needled her. Everyone was in the kitchen, dragged back by her father who insisted on showing off their new freezer to the Simmons family.
Frustration joined annoyance—she had a ton yet to do. There was no time to give people the grand tour. She caught her mom’s eye and gave her a pleading look, but Edith just shrugged as if to say what can you do?
It was true—there was no stopping Dad once he got going. He was droning on, clearly trying to make himself sound important by spouting an array of ridiculous product descriptions—gaskets and cam-lifts, solid door reach-in, electro-polished shelves—but there wasn’t one iota of judgment on Dabney’s or Phoebe’s face.
She walked up behind Damien’s mom and gave her shoulder a grateful squeeze. “It’s a freezer all right,” Sorrow whispered, rolling her eyes. “Not like it’s going to feed any starving orphans or anything.”