He put a hand on her arm to stop her. “Hey, Vanni—I asked her. And I didn’t call on purpose. I didn’t want to give you time to think of an excuse. I thought if I popped in unannounced, you might just cave in. Spend a couple of hours with me. You can punish me for bad manners later.”
She smiled at him. “I look forward to it.”
“So, do you have a little time?” he asked.
“It’s not as though I’m busy, but I have a baby who still nurses a lot.”
He tilted his head and grinned. “I’m pretty comfortable around babies.”
“Yeah. You would be, huh. Well, come on in.”
He stepped inside and looked around. “Wow,” he said. “What a great place. From the outside it looks like just an ordinary house.”
“My dad had the inside completely gutted and remodeled while he was serving his last tour in the Army. Last summer he and my brother Tommy came out and I joined them in the fall.” She walked into the great room and found her boots sitting by the chair. She sat down to pull them on while Cameron went to the window and looked out at the stable, corral and pasture. “Do you ride?” she asked.
“I did years ago. I haven’t been on a horse since I was a teenager.”
“Do you like horses?”
“I have great respect for horses. The last time I was near one, he stepped on my foot. Broke it.”
“Yeah, they should beep when they back up. You have to be alert.” She stood and smoothed her jeans. “Mattie is due to wake up any second. I can feed him, change him, beg him to behave and we could take a little run around Virgin River. How’s that sound?”
“Like just what I was hoping for.”
“You’re very presumptuous, you know,” she said, but she smiled.
He smiled right back. Confident. “You’re very beautiful, you know.”
She felt her cheeks grow instantly warm. “Help yourself to something to drink from the kitchen. I’ll see about the baby.”
“Take your time. Put him in a good mood.”
Forty-five minutes later they were underway in Walt’s big Tahoe. Cameron had come to Virgin River in a Porsche and there was no room in it for a car seat. She drove him out Highway 299, through the redwoods, then out to sit at the Virgin River where there were only a couple of anglers, it not being the best time of year for fishing. She explained the seasonal sports—fly-fishing in the summer, salmon in fall and winter was best, bear and deer hunting season from September through October, waterfowl hunting season October to January. Forest fire season from June through October. In summer the hikers and campers were all over the place.
While they were looking at the sights she learned that Cameron hailed from Portland, went to undergrad and medical school at Stanford and had parents, one brother and one sister in Portland, both married with kids. He did his residency in family medicine, then decided pediatrics was his first love. “I’ve disappointed my parents in the area of grandchildren, but I don’t think they should be so quick to write me off.”
“Certainly not,” she said. “Mel, my midwife, and her husband, Jack, didn’t marry until he was forty—and they’re expecting their second now. Jack says each one makes him feel younger. Mel frowns at him when he says that. I think the babies are a little closer together than she likes.”
“Medical school and residency is consuming. I was thirty by the time I was ready to go into practice, and that wasn’t simple. I had big time bills to pay off and it wasn’t easy to find an existing pediatric practice in Oregon that needed me.”
“And it had to be Oregon, huh?” she asked.
“At the time, I thought it had to be. I’ve become a lot more flexible since then.”
“But you like your practice?”
“Yeah, good docs. One woman and two men—outstanding physicians.”
Vanni continued the tour by driving him up into the foothills where sheep and cattle grazed, down through the valley where vineyards were just beginning to come to life and finally, as the afternoon had aged, they ended up at Jack’s. By the time they got there, Matt was fussing and demanding dinner. Before she could get to him, Cam had him out of the car seat and was jiggling him against his chest. Cameron had the diaper bag slung over his shoulder as well, taking charge. It was nice, having a man do that. Not just any man could—it would take someone special to be so confident with a baby. At that moment Vanni realized she’d been feeling so alone, even with her dad’s continual support. She missed her man. She would like to have a partner. She would like Mattie to have a dad.
When they walked into Jack’s, she was pleased to see the dinner crowd included her people, her friends. The first order of business was to introduce Cam to Jack. “This is Cameron Michaels, Dr. Michaels, a friend of Matt’s parents. And Cameron, this is Jack.”
Cameron deftly held the baby against his chest while he shook hands. “Pleasure,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about this place. I thought I’d drive down and look it over.”
“Welcome,” Jack said. “What can I get you?”
“How about a beer?”
“You got it. Cameron, meet Paige,” he said just as Paige came from the back. “She’s married to the guy who really runs this place—our cook, Preacher.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “Looks like the stork is on the way.”
“Pretty soon now—this summer,” she said, smiling sweetly.
Jack put a beer on the bar and Vanni said, “Paige, can I impose on your hospitality for a few minutes? I should nurse Mattie—we’ve been out driving around all afternoon and he’s hungry.”
“Sure. You know the way.”
Vanni reached for Mattie and said, “Jack, can you introduce Cameron to the crowd? I’ll be back in a little while.”
She went into Preacher and Paige’s apartment behind the bar, settled herself into the soft leather chair and nursed her baby. In spite of her determination to be strong about the events that shaped her days, she felt the sting of tears. This guy had driven all the way from Grants Pass on the chance he might see her. She’d had a lovely time with him. But where was Paul? She’d give anything to see him, but he didn’t even call. Because, she reminded herself, I’m not a woman to him. I’m his best friend’s wife; he loves me like a sister, whether he’ll admit it or not. Hadn’t it always been like that?
Cameron was introduced to Preacher, who was very welcoming, if a little distracted by the dinner he was working on. With him in the kitchen was Christopher, who he introduced as his son except the boy called him John. Then there was Mike Valenzuela and Jack’s sister, Brie. Cameron sat down with them for a little while and learned that Mike was a former police detective and sergeant and Brie a former prosecutor. He hadn’t imagined he’d be meeting professionals with such sophisticated educations and experience in a little place like this.
He was offered dinner of pork loin, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, but he chose to wait for Vanessa to finish with the baby. And while he waited a beautiful young pregnant woman came in, followed by an old man carrying a young child. The woman leaned across the bar to kiss Jack and then Jack took immediate charge of the child. Cameron was soon introduced to Doc Mullins and Mel Sheridan. A couple more tables were pushed together and they joined the group while Jack, with his son on his hip, fetched the high chair from the kitchen.
“Mel, I’m fascinated by your work. You deliver most of the town, I’m told,” Cameron said.
“I don’t know about that. I do for the women who don’t have a lot of insurance. Or for special cases like Vanni. She doesn’t look it, but she’s kind of granola natural—she wanted to give birth at her father’s house, and she did a fantastic job. Textbook. In fact, we had a wonderful birthing party.”
“A birthing party?” Cameron asked.
“It kind of fell into place. When I was called out, Jack let it slip that she was in labor, so Preacher and Paige packed up dinner from the kitchen and closed the bar. Mike and Brie came out in case any of the children needed tending. With the general and Tommy, Jack and Davie, and of course Paul helping with the delivery, we were a full and happy house. It was great fun.”
“Wasn’t it a little melancholy? It being Vanni’s late husband’s child?”
“That’s the thing about babies, Cameron. They give you such hope. Such joy. That’s why I love this business.”
He laughed and said, “You obviously take it personally.”
She rubbed her swollen middle. “Not much longer. Jack promises we’re going to take a break after this one. And I’ve promised that if he doesn’t keep his word, I’m going to shoot him in his sleep.”
While Doc had his whiskey, Cameron grilled him with questions about small town doctoring, asked Mel about some of her other cases and quizzed Mike about local policing. He asked Brie what kind of law she was practicing and learned that while she’d been a prosecutor in Sacramento, she was now occupied with small cases that included divorces, property closures, water rights disputes and such. The county D.A. used her as a consultant on some cases, as well. He was completely fascinated, completely enchanted. Before long Vanni joined them, Mattie full and content against her shoulder. Cameron reached for the baby across the table and said, “Get yourself a beer. Lucky for you, it’s good for nursing mothers.” When Jack joined them, they were ready for dinner together.
Cameron enjoyed this excursion far more than he expected to. He had hoped for an opportunity to be with Vanni on the excuse of checking out Virgin River, but it had happened that he was delighted by the town, the people and the families that gathered at Jack’s.
“Are you staying at the general’s?” Jack asked him.
“No, there’s a motel in Fortuna that has plenty of room.”
“You’re welcome to stay with us,” Vanessa said.
“Or, I can give you another option,” Jack offered. “The cabin Mel and I just moved out of is empty and furnished, and right here in Virgin River. Clean sheets on the bed, towels in the bathroom, but no food in the fridge. If you want it, it’s yours. I can even fix you up with food and drink to take with you—I’m tight with the cook.”
“Are you sure?” Cameron asked.
“Absolutely. Let me draw you a map—the door is never locked.”
“Hey, that’s fantastic of you. Since it’s already kind of late, I really appreciate it.”
“I’ll write my number at home and at the bar on this map,” he said, drawing on the back of a napkin. “Give me a call anytime. If my family isn’t visiting and using the cabin, you’re welcome to it.”
“What can I pay you for it?” Cameron asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s there for friends and family.” He finished with the map and turned it around to Cameron. “Any friend of Vanni’s is a friend of ours.”
The night was still young when Mike and Brie said good night. Not long after Jack fetched his son out of the high chair and swept his family away. Doc Mullins said goodbye.
Cameron had enjoyed his dinner while holding Mattie against his chest; he had loved looking across the table at the beautiful and sexy Vanessa. Julia Roberts, that was what she was. Leggy, full-breasted, her hair a reddish hue shot through with blond, her smile wild and spontaneous, her laugh loud and free. He didn’t think he’d ever run into a woman like this in his life.
“What do you think? Time for you and the baby to go home?”
“Yeah,” she said, and she smiled as though she’d had a good time.
“Let’s get going. If you’re not too busy tomorrow, maybe you could introduce me to the horses before I head back to Grants Pass.”