He’d voiced thoughts she’d had a hundred times herself. Mostly she burned to know exactly who this woman was, this first Sorrow. She was a family mystery. A woman who’d given birth to at least one child out of wedlock, at a time when such things weren’t to be considered. A story had been woven through the generations—but had Sorrow Crabtree really known as hard-luck a life as the tale went?
Photography wasn’t common back then, and she couldn’t even summon a mental picture of the woman. Sorrow had found a couple of old dresses in the attic and fantasized they’d belonged to her ancestor. A dress did much to describe the woman who wore it, and this woman had been curvy—not unlike herself—with a penchant for low necklines and tight bodices. They were the sorts of dresses a lady didn’t wear on a stagecoach. Instead, they were for dancing, or for shots of whisky at a saloon. For bawdy jokes and hands of poker.
“I wonder what kind of pens they used then,” Billy said, calling her from her thoughts. “Do you know?”
She smiled to herself. “I’d like to find all that stuff out, I think.”
He skimmed a finger along the side of the stack, and she appreciated his care. “Are they really written to Buck Larsen?” he asked. “Did he write back?”
“That’s the thing.” She inhaled deeply, back in the moment, and reached for them, taking a few from the top. “My great-great-great-grandmother Sorrow never sent them. From what I can tell, Buck Larsen lived here, then took off for the capitol, and well, you probably know the story from there.”
“Me and every fifth grader in California.” His eyes caught hers, and there was a look of amazement there. “Now, what they don’t teach is how he left his pregnant lover behind…”
Sorrow felt a flare in her belly as she locked eyes with this man, heard the word lover come from his lips. She cleared her throat. “Looks that way. I’m reading the rest of them, but it’s slow going. The handwriting is pretty tricky to make out.”
“May I?” He reached his hand out, and she handed him a random letter. Billy studied it for a moment. “Handwriting is a lost art.”
She leaned in to look, and he edged toward her, moving the page to where she could see. The movement had been automatic, as had the way she’d scooted closer for a look. Only now their shoulders were touching, and Sorrow found she couldn’t focus on the words.
But apparently Billy could. She was grateful when he laughed, pointing to a spot low on the page.
“She sure does give him what for,” he said. “Listen to this: ‘I’m nothin but a Grass Widow, left for dead. Folk been sayin how grand you are now, living in Sacremennto. I say your nothing but a coward, Buck, runnin like you did.’” Billy leaned back. “Hoo-boy. She must’ve been something else, your great-great-great-grandmother. Them’s fightin’ words.”
“Wow. ‘Grass widow?’ I’m not even sure what that means.”
He carefully picked another few from the stack, rifling through. “This is remarkable. Have you read all of them?”
“Not yet.” She realized the excitement buzzing through her was from having another person actually show some enthusiasm. “So, you’re interested? I mean…you think they’re interesting?”
“What, the letters?” Billy shot her a look. “Who wouldn’t be?”
Damien. Her dad. Her mom. Pretty much everyone else. “I wonder if there’s a way to use these to bring more business to the lodge, but I’m not sure how.”
“You should take them to the historical society.”
It’d come from out of the blue, and a quick laugh escaped her. “What do you know about the historical society?” Generally, the only person she heard discuss such things was her mother. The other members probably discussed their society ad nauseam during their weekly bridge night, but Sorrow always steered clear, terrified she might get pulled into a round.
He scooted his chair to face her, looking earnest. “Seriously, they’d probably be able to help leverage the Buck Larsen connection. And answer other questions for you, too, like about pens, and grass widows, and such. I was talking to Marlene just yesterday—”
Now she really did laugh. “You were talking to Marlene?”
“Yes, I was talking to Marlene.” His eyes twinkled, and Sorrow wondered if she and the sheriff were flirting. “Apparently they’re having financial trouble. This would be of great interest to them. I take it you’re not a member?”
“Me? No way. That many older women in one room—it’s like a cabal. Each woman’s sole goal to introduce me to their grandson, or grandnephew, or paperboy or whatever.”
“They’ve known me forever,” she said, waving that one off. She sipped her wine, thinking. “You know, though…you might actually be on to something. I’ll have Mom bring it to the Kidd sisters.” At his puzzled look, she clarified, “Marlene’s maiden name was Kidd.”
“No, no, no.” She gave a grand shake to her head. “I forget how new you are around here. Marlene has aunts. Two of them. And her mother’s still alive, too. They’re all in their eighties.”
“Oh, you’d know if you had. Emerald, Ruby, and Pearl. The grandes dames of Sierra Falls.”
“Oh, yes.” She shared a smile with him. Suddenly she realized how intimate it all felt. Suddenly she wondered what it’d be like if he lowered his lips to hers and kissed her.
He looked like maybe he was wondering that as well.
Her heart beat hard in her chest.
The angry sound of water boiling over and sizzling onto the burner broke the moment. Sorrow shot to her feet. She ran to the pot and tossed in some linguini.
She smiled secretly over the stove. “You seem like a man with an appetite.”
“How’d you guess?” He picked up his wine and joined her, looking over her shoulder into the pot. “Except that might even be too much for me. Though I’ve always believed nothing beats leftover pasta in the morning.”
She nodded her agreement. Nodded, and found herself wondering what it might be like to serve this particular man breakfast.
Marlene surreptitiously smelled her wrist. She hoped she wasn’t wearing too much perfume. She hadn’t thought it’d been too much, but when she’d walked into the tavern, so full of the aroma of beer and fried things, she’d begun to worry that her Estée Lauder stood out.
She hated having to worry about such nonsense. One would think a sixty-three-year-old woman would have a little confidence by now. But the divorce had thrown her.
One would think a sixty-three-year-old woman didn’t have to worry herself with nonsense like blind dates, but there she was.
Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she sensed the slightest lull in conversation as folks turned to see who’d come in. Cheeks burning, she walked to the first empty table that was neither too conspicuously close to the door, nor tucked too secretively in the corner.
Normally she wouldn’t have chosen the Thirsty Bear—it meant meeting her prospective beau in front of everyone and their brother, for goodness sake—but she’d hoped to grab a word with Edith. There were no secrets from anybody in Sierra Falls anyway. She could’ve driven all the way to Sacramento to meet the man, and still folks would’ve heard about it.
Pulling off her scarf, she smoothed her hair into shape. She dyed it and had regular blowouts, but no matter how much money she threw at it, gray hair had a life of its own. She hated that almost as much as the lines that seemed to etch themselves on her face overnight.
She waved back, giving her friend a smile that she had to force. Edith looked as effortlessly attractive as ever—Edith never had to work at it, and Edith’s husband clearly wasn’t going anywhere. Marlene only hoped the dim tavern lighting was working the same magic on her.
Edith gave one last word to Helen behind the bar before scampering over to join her. “I’ve ordered us a couple of glasses of wine,” she said. “It’s that sauvignon blanc for you, right?”
Marlene half stood to offer her cheek for a quick air-kiss. “That’s perfect.” And of course it was—her friend seemed to remember everything about everyone.
She’d been a conundrum to Marlene since they’d met as girls. Edith always silently watching the world, noting everything. And just when she thought the woman was as passive as a lamb, she’d roar like a lion. Not that she needed to do much roaring—Edith and Bear had been together forever, and he did his fair share of bellowing for the two of them.
Helen came over with two glasses of white wine, looking put out that she had to step from behind the bar. The two women shared a quiet chuckle as the bartender walked away.
“She’s a piece of work,” Marlene whispered. “Flirts with everything in pants. And then’s a witch with a capital B to the rest of us.”
Edith sighed, watching Helen get back to work behind the bar. “She is, isn’t she?”
“So why not cut her loose?” Marlene didn’t understand why she kept the woman around. There were any number of people in their town who’d do backflips to get some extra work.
“We all of us have our troubles,” Edith said mysteriously.
“Ain’t it the truth.” Marlene raised her glass to toast that bit of obvious wisdom. She took a big sip, but the wine suddenly tasted too tart. Her friend’s relentlessly forgiving and openhearted outlook made Marlene feel jealous and small. She tried to be kinder in her thoughts, adding, “To women with troubles.”
Edith sipped, but shook her head. “How can you say you have troubles when you’re looking so pretty?”