Authors: Sherryl Woods
That’s how the letter that caught Marilou Stockton’s eye began. As a postal worker in the dead-letter office, she knew she shouldn’t read more of this grandmother’s heart-rending missive, yet one glance convinced her she had to seek out the writer’s little grandson.
But Cal Rivers was no child! He was a man - a sexy, stubborn rancher with no intention of honorably mending his fences. As far as Marilou could tell, all of Cal’s intentions were stricly dishonorable…and aimed at her! While his anger might be valid, she knew there was more to life than holding grudges. There was forgiveness…and love.
My Dearest Cal
For Craig, Dianne, Michael and Kelly
for all the holiday family dinners and for the insight into
postal regulations. For Ken, Eddie, Matda, Fred and all the rest,
who brighten the endless time an author seems to spend at the
mailbox.And especially for Nona, with thanks for sharing your
love of horses with me and in memory
of your beloved and gallant Bolshoi.
Table of Contents
pril showers, Marilou thought with a disgusted sniff. She splashed through an ankle-deep puddle on her way to work. At this rate the poor May flowers would drown. She sneezed and shivered as a chilly Thursday morning wind scooped up the hem of her raincoat and lifted it just high enough to allow the rain to drench her new red skirt. Drown, hell. They’d probably freeze first.
It must be warm and sunny someplace right now, she thought longingly as she trudged across the parking lot toward her office. Wherever it was, she would give anything to be there. Tahiti. Hawaii. Even the Sahara. It didn’t much matter as long as it was dry. And hot. The winter in Atlanta had been the pits. It was now one week into the dreariest, wettest April on
record. Judging from the endless gray sky, spring obviously wasn’t going to be much of an improvement.
A few minutes later, still sneezing and blowing her nose, Marilou settled into her cubbyhole in the U.S. Postal Service’s Dead Letter Office and grimly faced the stacks of unopened mail that had gone astray in the Southeast. Whole shelves around her held everything from lost keys to movie reels, all silent testimony to the carelessness of people in a hurry. A red bikini top dangled from a hook—the bottom had vanished. One of her co-workers had hung the provocative garment where he could see it as he worked. She had a hunch Matt thoroughly enjoyed imagining the woman who’d been wearing it and the no doubt fascinating story behind its loss and subsequent discovery in some corner mailbox.
Normally Marilou started the day with enthusiasm, liking the challenge of reuniting letters and parcels with the intended recipients. She’d only been at it a little more than a year and a half, but so far she’d never found it tedious. It was a little like she imagined detective work would be. Getting treasured photos or a favorite teddy bear back to its rightful owner required the same kind of ingenuity and persistence it took to track missing persons or lost heirs. It was also emotionally rewarding, even if the person never knew about her involvement. Once in a while, like the time she’d gotten several thousand dollars worth of stock certificates back where they belonged, she’d received letters of praise and heartfelt thanks. This wasn’t the
adventurous life she’d once envisioned for herself, but it was good.
Usually, she amended with a sigh.
Today, however, with her shoes soaked again and her feet icy cold, she was in no mood to be sympathetic to the people who’d forgotten to put return addresses on their envelopes. She was tired of trying to decipher ink that had run after getting drenched by rain. She was out of patience with people who stuck their bills in backward so that the company address wasn’t visible. And she’d had it up to her stuffed nose with idiots who figured they’d just send off their tax forms with no postage. As a protest against the IRS, it was useless. The forms went back to the sender, once she’d wasted half a day tracking them down. All in all, she felt like throwing the whole mess from her desk straight into the shredder, but she was too darned conscientious.
She shivered, then took one last sip of hot coffee before reaching for the one envelope that showed any promise. Addressed by a seemingly shaky hand to a Mr. Cal Rivers, it had been sent to an address in Florida that apparently didn’t exist. “No such address” had been stamped emphatically across the front and again on the back.
Palm Tree Lane. Oh, how she liked the sound of that. Where there were palm trees, there was probably sunshine. Maybe even temperatures above the freeze-your-butt variety. Honest-to-gosh spring temperatures. She paused a minute to savor the very idea of
lying on some sun-kissed stretch of sand, baking until she could actually breathe again.
When she finally got around to opening the letter, she was already feeling better just for having taken that brief mental vacation. But as she quickly scanned the thick vellum pages, filled with their crimped scrawl of words, her spirits sank once more. There was no return address anywhere. And although she wasn’t supposed to read the contents, one or two phrases caught her eye—“Never forget that I love you…so sorry we’ve never had a chance to get to know each other…I’m dying now…”
Oh, my God.
Knowing it was against every rule, Marilou went back to the beginning. “My dearest Cal…”
Now that she knew the ending, every word was so poignant, it made her want to weep. It seemed to be a farewell letter from a grandmother to a grandson she’d never met. Filled with longing and regrets, it broke Marilou’s heart. The terrible, unexpected loss of her own parents was still new and raw, even after nearly eighteen months. There had been so many things left unsaid between them, so many arguments that would never be resolved. She ached at the thought that some little boy might have family he didn’t even know about. There had to be a way to see that this letter reached him, that the family was reunited before it was too late.
Filled with determination, she hunted through the pile of phone books from every state in the region until she found the one she wanted. Please, just this
once, let it be easy, she thought as she flipped through the pages to the Rs. Let this kid be named after his father. Or at the very least, let there not be twenty-five listings for Rivers. Rivas. Rivero—at least fifty of them. Then she found it. Rivers, Cal. Two-twenty-nine Palm Lane. Not Palm
Lane. What was the big deal? she thought indignantly. Some fool mailman couldn’t figure out what the dear old woman meant?
Marilou reached for the phone, punched in the area code and number, only to hear the dreaded sound that always preceded some recorded message. With a sinking sensation, she anticipated this one.
“…Has been disconnected.” Of course. No new number. Just disconnected.
She flipped back through the directory for the phone number of the local post office, called and asked if there was any record of a Cal Rivers leaving a forwarding address.
“It’s not in the computer,” the disinterested clerk told her eventually.
“Maybe it just expired. There should be a record…”
“I’m telling you it’s not in here. For all I know it was never in here.”
“Lady, I don’t have all day to hunt for things that don’t exist.”
“What about the carrier for that route? Maybe he’d remember.”
“That’s probably Priscilla.”
“Could I speak to her?”
“She’s off today,” the clerk said in a tone that ended any further discussion.
“Thanks for your help,” Marilou said sarcastically into the already-dead connection. Apparently sunshine wasn’t a guaranteed panacea for the ill tempers of the world.
She put the letter aside and went through the remaining stack of mail. One after another she was able to identify either sender or recipient and get the mail back on track. Those that were hopeless, actually the greatest percentage, went into the shredder. But even as she efficiently handled her usual hundreds of letters, that one brief note from Cal Rivers’ grandmother began to haunt her.
According to regulations she was supposed to dispose of the letter since her search for sender and recipient had been unsuccessful. Only when there was something of value was the post office required to hold it for a year. In her mind, though, there really was something of value—a link to family, a cry for forgiveness. It might not have a dollar value, but to her way of thinking there was nothing more important. She couldn’t bring herself to throw the letter away.
She understood that her obsession had everything to do with those last few days with her parents, days clouded with petty arguments and misunderstandings. When they’d left on their vacation, tensions had been running high. Marilou was their much-loved and overly protected only daughter. They hadn’t wanted her to take off for Europe for a year without a job,
without friends. Always skeptical that her photography was a sensible career choice, they’d been certain that she’d starve while trying to sell the pictures she shot on her travels. After a lifetime of secure government service, the concept of free-lancing was beyond them. Nothing she’d said had been able to persuade them that the time was right for a few risks, for one glorious post-college adventure before settling down.
With the last bitter argument still fresh in her mind, Marilou had been devastated by the news that they’d been involved in a head-on collision with a stolen car filled with teenagers on a joyride. Her father had been killed outright. Her mother had lingered on for several horrifying weeks, never regaining consciousness.
In the emotional aftermath of the tragedy and in an attempt to cheat fate, she had resigned herself to staying as safe as her parents had wanted. The bribe hadn’t worked, her mother had died anyway. When the family savings had been depleted by the exorbitant medical bills, and when the last of her energy was drained, the civil service job had been waiting for her, thanks to her father’s career with the post office and his compassionate supervisor. She told herself she should be grateful to have it.
With an odd sort of lethargy, Marilou had settled down to a routine, but the longing for adventure, for a chance to use her photographic skills for more than holiday snapshots had never quite gone away. Every foreign stamp that crossed her desk stirred all of the old dreams of travel. Every letter gone astray reminded her of the mysteries that awaited. The plea
for forgiveness from Cal Rivers’ grandmother tapped into every one of her secret longings and regrets.
That night when a passing bus hit a giant puddle and soaked her from head to toe, she made up her mind. She had weeks of vacation coming. She had a healthy savings account again. She had a cold. And, most of all, she had those unfulfilled dreams.
So, she decided impulsively, she was going to Florida in search of Mr. Cal Rivers and his little boy. That child probably needed a grandmother as desperately as that poor dying lady needed to be in touch with him. Marilou might not be able to get her own family back, but maybe she could give him his. If she got a taste of adventure along the way, so much the better.
* * *
“Crazy, obstinate, mule-headed son of a bitch! Get in here. What kind of genes do you have anyway? Any other fool would be dancing and prancing to get a chance to be with that gorgeous lady in there. That little gal’s folks paid a pretty penny for you to do your stuff, so get on with it.”
“I think you’re going about this all wrong,” Cal Rivers said to the bowlegged man who barely reached to shoulder height next to his own six foot two. “How would you feel if some man came along and threw you into a cold, sterile room with a total stranger and told you to get to it, then stood by watching?”