Carefully, she slid off the ribbon and unfolded the first page. The writing was dense, but two lines at the end popped out:
Sincerely, and ever your Loving,
“Well, what do you know?” She’d known all her life that hers was a family name, but seeing it written by the owner’s own hand felt thrillingly personal. “Which Sorrow were you?”
She plopped onto her bottom. An icy puddle seeped into the seat of her jeans, but she didn’t care. She’d read the date at the top of the letter—1851. This could be from none other than her three-times great-grandmother, the first and saddest Sorrow of them all, Sorrow Crabtree.
Marlene Jessup sat behind the wheel of her Ford pickup, shaking. She’d skidded off the road right into a snowbank.
The old truck acted light as a feather—or at least the back end of it did—and it had the nasty habit of fishtailing all over the road at the first hint of flurries. By the end of winter, there was always a bed full of snow to weigh her down, but these early season dustings were always tough.
She’d have loved a nice car, something fancy and European-sounding like Volvo or Audi, but when her husband left, he’d taken half of their already lean bank account and stuck her with the pickup.
He and his new squeeze lived in Pinole now, in some well-to-do development, probably driving some fancy new pickup. The hell of it was, his new wife wasn’t even that much younger. It would’ve stung less if he’d left for some fresh-faced bimbo—she could’ve pointed the finger in blame. But Frank had left her for some late-fifties professional type—something to do with pharmaceutical sales—and soon they’d both retire, at which time they’d probably buy that boat Marlene and Frank had always talked about, and they’d travel the world.
Some other woman was getting her boat.
And Marlene was left with the old Ford, two elderly aunts, and an ailing mother to care for, haunted by questions of where she went wrong.
Not going there, as her grandson would say. She put the truck into reverse, willing her hands to stop shaking. It wasn’t even that cold, dammit. She hit the gas, and there was a horrible whirring sound, her tires spinning uselessly.
Damned pickup. It had one of those mini backseats that took forever to wrangle her aunts into. She’d wanted a sedan, but Frank had insisted. She slammed her hands on the wheel. She had no use for a damned pickup.
If she couldn’t get unstuck, she’d be late to pick up the ladies. Her aunts and mother were a trio, the famous Kidd sisters, Emerald, Pearl, and Ruby, the youngest a spry eighty-two.
And if she was late to pick them up, they’d all be late for the historical society meeting, and then she’d never hear the end of that. The ladies lived for their meetings.
Marlene had enough trouble on that front, as it was. She’d stupidly taken on the role of chairwoman, and they were a day late and a dollar short planning and funding the annual Sierra Falls festival.
It was one of the many quirky events Northern California was known for. Gilroy had their Garlic Festival. Other towns had cherry blossoms, chili cook-offs, art walks, and quilt shows. For Sierra Falls, it was the Spring Fling held every May. It was just January yet, but their coffers were empty. They could host town hall bingo till they were blue in the face, and it wouldn’t be enough to cover a pie-throw much less a whole festival.
No, she needed to get to that meeting. She petted the dashboard, coaxing, “Come on, girl. Just back us out of here, and I’ll buy you a nice set of snow tires.”
Marlene hit the gas only to hear that horrible, high-pitched whirring again. With a heavy sigh, she sank her forehead against the wheel.
She’d have to call one of her boys, but which one? Though Jack and Eddie lived the closest, she’d hate to bother them—they’d started Jessup Brothers Construction and had been running around like one-armed paperhangers ever since.
There was always Jack’s wife, Tina, but she was never around during the day. Or maybe her daughter-in-law only seemed to disappear whenever Marlene needed her. God only knew how the woman occupied her daylight hours—their son was a senior in high school and almost completely independent, so it wasn’t that she was toodling around, driving carpools. Regardless, Marlene wasn’t about to call her.
She couldn’t call Mark either—he was a doctor in Silver City, and as she recalled, this was his on-call day.
That left Scott. He worked as a park ranger for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy—his truck would surely be able to get her unstuck. He was her second oldest, her easy, smiling boy.
She rifled in her purse for her phone. Where had the years gone? Her boy had turned thirty-four on his last birthday.
It was getting real cold, real fast in the cab of the truck, but she had to pull off her gloves to dial, and her fingers fumbled over the tiny cell phone buttons.
There was a rapping on the window, and Marlene jumped about a foot off the seat. “Oh!”
She wiped the condensation off with her sleeve, revealing the new sheriff. He was a big man, filling her view, and adrenaline exploded in her chest. She glanced at the rearview mirror and, sure enough, he’d pulled his sheriff’s SUV right up behind her, the white four-wheel drive looming on the narrow shoulder.
Why did the sight of a police car make her panic? She told herself to calm down—she couldn’t have been speeding, she hadn’t even been moving. Marlene rolled down the window. “Did I…is there something wrong?”
“Everything all right, Mrs. Jessup?” Billy Preston’s eyes were warm and concerned.
She put a hand to her chest, relieved. She wasn’t in trouble—he was worried about her. This new sheriff was a nice young gentleman.
“Please,” she said. “Call me Marlene. Jessup was my husband’s name. There’s another Mrs. Jessup now.” That last bit had come out a bit snappier than she’d meant it to.
“All right, Marlene,” he said slowly. His eyes went to her hands, and she realized they were shaking even more than before. “Are you okay?”
“I think I am…I don’t know. Maybe not.” She wriggled her fingers, then tried to put her gloves back on. Why was her body not cooperating? “It’s hell growing old. Beats the alternative, I suppose.” She gave a shake to her head. Maybe the cold was getting to her—she was rambling like a crazy woman.
The sheriff opened the door and escorted her out. “Let’s get you in my truck. You warm up, I’ll shovel you out, and we’ll get you on your way.”
She looked back over her shoulder at her pickup. The snowbank wasn’t high, but she’d managed to get her front wheels firmly entrenched. “The darned thing was skidding all over the place,” she explained.
Cars whooshed by as they walked along the shoulder, and she found her legs were trembling, too.
“Easy, Marlene.” He chafed warmth into her arm.
She leaned into him, a reassuringly solid man at her side. “I think I’m just cold is all.”
“I’ll blast the heat. You’ll feel better in no time.” He settled her in the front seat, and as promised, he cranked the heat all the way up.
She put her hands over the vents, relieved to feel the hot air blowing up the sleeves of her coat. How had she gotten so jittery? She wasn’t a jittery sort of woman. She breathed deeply, trying to calm down.
“Something sweet is what you need.” Billy pulled a foil-wrapped sack from atop the dash. “Apple cinnamon bread. Still warm from the oven.”
He laughed. “Not me, no. I got this from Sorrow Bailey, down at the lodge. She baked it.” Seeing that she took a bite, he gave her a firm nod, and shut the car door.
Marlene chewed slowly. It was good bread, just a little bit of sweet, yet substantial, too. Now the question was: how did the sheriff end up with homemade bread from the Bailey girl’s kitchen? Sorrow was with Damien, and a young girl would be a fool to step out on the rich and handsome Simmons boy. She’d pelt Sorrow’s mama with questions next time she saw her, that was for sure.
A bite of food spiced with a bit of speculation perked Marlene up, both in body and spirit.
Billy grabbed a bag of gravel and a small shovel from the back of his SUV and set to work freeing her front wheels. It was a testament to the Sierra Falls community that the sheriff’s snow shovel got more action than his sidearm ever did.
He bent down to spread the gravel evenly at the base of the tire. Marlene tilted her head…my, my, but the man had a fine set of shoulders. He was built like a bull. A strong, solid sort of man.
Fishing another slice of bread from Billy’s stash, she nestled deeper in the front seat, nibbling at the snack like it was popcorn at the movies. The sheriff shoveled and spread gravel, got into her truck, and sure enough, he was able to back it out. Marlene was almost disappointed to see the thing freed from the embankment.
Billy opened her door. “Feeling better?” His cheeks were flushed and damp from the cold and flurries.
There was nothing like seeing a man after a job well done. If only she were thirty years younger.
Marlene gave him a broad smile as she let herself out of his truck. “Much.”
He returned her smile, wary surprise in his expression.
She thought she must look like a loony bird and toned down her grin. “You’ve been too kind, Sheriff Preston, and I thank you for it.”
“If I get to call you Marlene, then you’ve got to call me Billy.” He gave her a wink, and her heart thumped in a way that had her wishing she had a daughter she could foist onto the man.
“Then thank you, Billy.” Marlene handed him the aluminum foil. She’d folded it into a careful square. “Homemade bread is good for what ails you, I always say. Sorry I didn’t leave you any.”
“Don’t you worry,” he said as he walked her back to her truck. “I had my fill earlier. Once you start eating the stuff, it’s hard to stop.” He opened her door, and the old hinges creaked. “You sure you’re all right to drive?”