“I feel so stupid,” Nikki said. “Why’d I let myself fall in love with him?”
“Can we really help who we love?” Vanni asked with a sigh. “Just get up here. We’ll eat fattening food, play with the baby, tease Tom, ride the horses and stick pins in a Craig doll. Nikki, you know it’s time to move on—he wasn’t good enough for you. And what he did—that was so deceptive, you could never count on him again.”
“Vanni, what’s wrong with us?” Nikki asked. “Why are we stuck loving men who don’t love us?”
With a shock of clarity, Vanni gulped. Why indeed, she asked herself. And then we feel so stupid, like such failures. It was wrong, all wrong. “We’re going to work on that, my friend. Both of us.”
Joe Benson got a call from his old friend, Preacher, explaining that he and Paige had done a lot of talking about their growing family. Right now they were housed in Jack’s old apartment behind the bar—a small L-shaped bedroom/living room built for a single man—while Paige’s son, four-year-old Chris, was sleeping in the bedroom above the kitchen that had once been Preacher’s. With a baby coming and maybe more in their future, they had to do something. They thought about buying a larger house, but in point of fact, Paige and Preacher loved living right where they worked. As far as either of them could foresee, Preacher would always be the cook and manager at Jack’s bar with Paige as his right hand.
Preacher had talked to Jack about allowing him to enlarge their quarters. Jack thought it was a fine idea; it would at least double the value of the property. He made Preacher a deal—if Preacher would build on, Jack would get together a contract to make him a full partner and half-owner. If the bar and grill and attached home was ever sold, the proceeds would be split.
Before any further discussion could occur, an architect would have to be consulted to see if building on was feasible. There was room; the property on which the bar sat was comfortably large. Preacher wanted to find a plan that would give them plenty of space and wouldn’t disrupt business too much during renovation.
That’s where Joe came in. If Joe thought it was a good idea and could draw up some plans, Preacher could begin to look for a builder.
Joe loved an excuse to spend a day or two with Jack and Preacher. And it made him feel good when his buddies asked him for help; he always gave them a deal on the designs. So Joe said, “I’ll have to see the space and the structure, do some measuring. It’s not raw land, Preach. An add-on is a little complicated—the basic structure has to support additional square footage. Tell you what. I’ll drive down tomorrow, stay overnight…”
“Tomorrow?! Oh, man, that’s great of you!”
“For you and Paige, Preach? It’s an honor.”
And that’s what he had done. When you’re an architect with your own small firm, you make your own hours, design at three in the morning sometimes, if that’s when the inspiration hits. So he made it to the bar before noon on Thursday, had a nice long lunch with Mel and Jack, Preacher and Paige and they talked about the expansion. To Joe’s surprise, Preacher was the one with the most elaborate ideas—he wanted a large great room and dining room, a play area for the kids, a small office for himself, plus a total of four bedrooms. And, he wanted the family connected, not separated the way it was—right now they had to go through the kitchen and up the back stairs to get to Christopher’s room. Preacher wanted it to become a house like any other house—with a clear path to all the rooms. And maybe a fireplace. The only thing he didn’t need was a kitchen.
Joe got busy right after lunch, sketching, measuring, tromping through their quarters and around the yard behind the house. There were some beautiful big trees back there he’d rather not disturb and a huge brick barbecue he’d prefer not to move. He could see the potential for a nice, spacious house connected to the bar by one door through the kitchen, and with two separate entrances independent of the bar. The downstairs could be enlarged enough to hold a great room, master bedroom and bath, dining room and serving station with storage for their personal dishes and dining accessories, with a breakfast bar separating the serving station from the dining room. He could install a food-warming tray, dishwasher, trash compactor and sink in their serving station for convenience. He left the laundry room right where it was, just inside the door to the bar. The addition of a small office would square out the first floor and support additional bedrooms and a loft on the second floor. They could entertain friends and have family meals there. The stairs to the second floor could be removed to enlarge their ground space and they could put an open staircase to the second floor in the great room.
There was room upstairs for two additional bedrooms and an open loft. The bedrooms would be large enough for more than one child, with walk-in closets. Their total living space now was twelve hundred square feet and he could turn it into three thousand without even breathing hard.
The only inconvenience would be that Preacher and his family would have to move out for most of the construction. Joe knew they had some options—one of which was Jack and Mel’s cabin. Small, but serviceable for four to six months.
It was almost five by the time Joe was ready to discuss these possibilities with Preacher, Jack and Paige. Since Jack was busy serving, and Preacher and Paige were busy cooking and clearing, he would enjoy a beer while waiting out the dinner crowd. He had a large sketch pad and notebook full of measurements that he flipped closed for the time being.
That’s when he saw her, the profile of a small brunette with long, silky dark hair that went halfway down her back. Right beside her, leaning toward her and talking in her ear, was Vanni. For a moment Joe was struck dumb. Then, gathering his wits, he said, “Vanni?”
Vanni looked up, past the back of her friend’s head and said, “Joe?”
“Yeah,” he laughed.
She immediately left her beer and her friend and came over to him. Of course they’d met more than once, the last time being at her husband’s funeral. Joe knew Matt; he’d met him in Grants Pass when he’d been home on leave. They’d been introduced by Paul.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, embracing him.
“A little design work for Preacher and Paige,” he said. “They want to enlarge their home. You know—to accommodate the baby and then some.” The thought that immediately came to mind was the conversation he and Paul had had a couple of weeks ago. Paul was in love with this woman and had messed it up so bad, he probably didn’t stand a chance. Joe peered around Vanni at the woman with her, but he saw only her profile. She was exquisite. Beautiful beyond words.
“Nikki,” Vanni called. “Come here.” When Nikki approached, her smile very small and maybe shy, Vanni made introductions. “Meet Joe, a friend of Matt’s and Paul’s. Joe, meet my best friend, Nikki.”
He put out a hand and she laid hers in his. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
“A pleasure,” she said, but then she glanced down.
“Gee, this is terrible,” Vanni said. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have made plans to do something special for you. I would have cooked dinner or something.”
“I’d be glad to buy you a little of Preacher’s dinner if you’ll stay,” he offered. “I’d really enjoy that.”
“Thanks, that’s sweet. But I’ve left my dad baby-sitting for a while and I had Preacher pack us up something to go. I’m still nursing—my escapes are very brief. I could get Preacher to add to it if you’ll come out to the house.”
“I wish I could, but I have to discuss building plans with these folks tonight.”
“Doggone it, Joe. Next time, please let me know you’re coming. I’d like to spend some time with you, too!”
“It’s a promise,” he said. “And I’ll be back. Guaranteed.” But will she be back? Joe wondered. Nikki. He wouldn’t forget that name.
Right at that moment, Paige came out with a big sack holding their dinner. Vanni fished for her wallet and Joe said, “On me, sweetheart. Amends for not calling you ahead. A mistake I’ll never make again.” He pulled a couple of twenties out of his pocket, peeled them off, laid them on the bar and reached for the take-out sack to pass to her. “Enjoy the best food you’ll ever eat,” he said to Nikki.
Nikki gave her head a small nod while Vanni said, “Gee, thanks! I sure didn’t expect that.” Then she leaned toward Joe and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “That’s very sweet.”
“Enjoy,” he said. “Nice meeting you, Nikki,” he said, wishing that he’d had a little cheek press from her. But what he got instead was another small nod.
They left and he went back to his beer. It was quite a while before Jack was freed up enough to walk down to his end of the bar, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “How’d you do there?” he asked, glancing at the sketch pad.
“I think I have some good ideas here,” Joe said. “With the right builder, this could work out nicely.”
“The right builder is the problem. When I was finishing my house, I couldn’t find squat around here. That’s why I called Paul.”
“Well, I know some people,” Joe said. “I might be able to help you with that. First, we have to see if you three like my ideas. And, by the way, who was that woman with Vanni?”
“Girlfriend from the flight attendant days. I gather they’re best friends who flew together for years and she’s up here to visit.”
“Jesus,” Joe said. “She’s incredible.”
“Based in San Francisco,” Jack said with a smile. “She’s going home tomorrow.”
“Well, so am I.” He lifted his beer. “Here’s to another close call.”
Joe took a long drink, Jack wandered away and Joe thought, I’ve been to San Francisco five times in the past year and I never saw anyone like that. Why not? This is a town of six hundred. I shouldn’t see anyone that amazing here—I should see ten or twenty so gorgeous in the city.
Jack came back with his coffee cup. Joe merely looked up at him and said, “This place. It’s kind of scary.”
“Tell me about it,” Jack said, taking a sip of his coffee. “I found Mel here. That stuff isn’t supposed to happen.”
P aul knew that Jack was right—he’d have to make his presence felt in Virgin River soon. He couldn’t let the doctor be the only one there when Vanni came out of mourning and was ready to get on with her life. So he called the general and asked if it would be all right to come down for a weekend visit, to see the family and the baby.
He got up early on Saturday morning and made the drive in record time. He pulled up in front of the house and what he saw from the driveway gave him pause. Vanni was dressed in well-worn jeans, chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up, boots and a Stetson, standing out in front of Matt’s grave. She pulled the hat off her head and shook her hair down her back. Then she wiped at her eyes. Damn it, he thought. I told Jack she was still in that dark place.
He left the truck and, rather than going to the front door, he went out to the grave. As he came up behind her, she heard him and turned. Then she quickly turned back and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. He walked up behind her and put his arms around her waist. “Having one of those days?” he asked gently.
“Yeah,” she said. “Every once in a while I just get so lonely.”
“I know, Vanni. It’s going to be okay.”
“Dad’s worried about me coming out here to tell Matt about it.” She laughed uncomfortably. “He wishes I wouldn’t do this.”
“It’s okay to do this,” he said.