“I’m not brooding. Really. Sometimes I can’t think of anyone else to complain to.”
“You can always complain to me,” he said.
She turned around and looked at him; for a moment her eyes flashed. “And how am I supposed to do that? I hardly ever talk to you. I almost never see you.”
“I’m sorry, I meant to do better. I know I went missing for a while after leaving here. It’s complicated, Vanni. I can explain.”
“Any more complicated than losing a husband?” she snapped. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me just now. My God, you lost your best friend—I’m sorry. Paul, you don’t have to explain…”
“Yeah, I think I do. After we buried him and I stayed on for Mattie—I was kind of like a grenade with the pin out. I hadn’t unloaded, and man, I really needed to. I was a little out of my head, Vanni. I didn’t use the best judgment. I had to take a time out, some space—a few weeks. I had to get a grip on things, you know? And I didn’t want everything between us to be about grieving over Matt. There’s a lot more between us than that.”
“There is?” she asked hopefully.
“Well, Jesus, we delivered a baby together.” He rubbed a thumb along her cheek under her eye. “Sorry. My hands are so rough.”
“No,” she said. “No. Your hands are fine. Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed you?”
“Not half as much as I missed you. We’ve been through a lot together, you and me.” He reached for her hand. He couldn’t tell her now, here, in front of Matt’s grave with the general waiting right inside the house. “Go get cleaned up. Tom’s probably got a big date tonight, but I’m going to take you and your dad out to dinner.”
She smiled. “Anywhere special?” she asked.
“Your favorite bar and grill. I made a reservation.”
By the time Paul got the general, Vanni and baby to the bar, the few customers were finishing up their early meals and leaving. Tables were pushed together and the usual crowd gathered around. The April nights were still cold, so the fire was lit in the hearth. Jack divided his time between the tables and his favorite spot behind the bar. Paul drifted back there and said, “Look at your wife, my man. She’s almost more baby than woman. And she’s got a kind of wild look about her. Her cheeks are awful pink.”
“I know,” Jack said. “We just had a doctor’s visit—John Stone said if we turn her upside down we might see the color of Emma’s eyes. Stand back. She’s going to go early. I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to keep her still. I’d like to keep this one inside at least a couple more weeks.”
“She’s real animated. Kind of like Vanni was that day she made me watch the childbirth movie.”
“Yeah. I’m not experienced enough to know how early is too early. I thought about calling John…” Then he smiled at Paul and said, “I see you made it right down here. Good thinking. You make any progress with Vanni?”
That changed Paul’s expression. “When I drove up to the house today I caught her out at the grave, crying. I told you—she’s still on real shaky ground.”
“My advice—which, by the way, Mel says I am not, under pain of death allowed to give—is be sure you’re around when the ground stops shaking.”
“Jack, I should talk to you about a couple of things. This whole business with Vanni—it just keeps getting more complicated.”
“For one thing, I have some pretty stiff competition…”
“Oh, yeah? Join the club, my brother.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Mel’s husband was a doctor.”
“Yeah,” he said. “An E.R. doctor. A saver of lives who, by all accounts, was also perfect in every other aspect of his life.” He swallowed. “He was neat, smart, humorous and probably great in bed. A fucking god.”
“You didn’t stand a chance, intellectually speaking,” Paul said.
“I know it,” Jack said. “And yet…”
“I need to talk to you about a couple of things,” Paul said. “Maybe you’ll point me in the right direction.”
“Paul, you don’t need my input. You just have to tell her how you feel.”
He hung his head briefly. “I don’t think it’s gonna be that simple. I think I might come by in the morning. So we can talk.”
“Come by the house then,” he said. “I try not to get too far away these days. I haven’t been coming into the bar until a little later in the morning.”
When Paul sat beside Vanessa again, she looked at him with sparkling aquamarine eyes and he almost melted. His very next thought was how he’d probably see those eyes flash in pure rage when he unburdened himself. She had a fire in her, and he’d seen a hint of that earlier today, out by the grave. It caused a shudder to pass through him. Then he noticed her hand was resting on her thigh, right next to him, and he reached for it, holding it under the table.
It was still early when they got back to the general’s house. Vanni took a little time alone with the baby, nursing him and settling him for the night. While she was busy, Walt built a fire. Then he went down the hall, leaving Paul alone in the great room.
Paul wanted a drink, but he didn’t dare. He was afraid it would loosen him up, make him either talk too much or do too much. Then Vanni joined him. She’d brushed out her hair and it fell in silky curves onto her shoulders, glistening in the firelight, making him want to scrunch it up in his hands.
“Where’s Dad?” she asked, curling up in the big leather chair beside his.
“He fixed up the fire and left the room,” Paul said. “It’s kind of early for him to turn in, isn’t it?”
“Maybe he’ll be right back. Can I get you anything? A nightcap?”
“No, thanks,” he said a little nervously. “So—rumor has it the doctor was here last week…”
She smiled. “Mel was right. If there’s anything you want to keep secret, get out of this town!”
“Did you want that to be a secret?” he asked, lifting his brows.
“No reason for that,” she said with a shrug. “I didn’t invite him. Yes, he came to town. I showed him around, had dinner at Jack’s, took him for a ride. He’s not great on a horse.” She grinned.
“How is he off the horse?” Paul heard himself ask.
She laughed at him, then said, “Cameron seems to be a very nice man. But then, we knew that.”
“A woman in your position—you’d probably be very interested in someone like him,” he said.
“Well, Paul, I have to admit, it’s nice to finally have a man pay a little romantic attention to me. It’s been a very long time. I know I haven’t been widowed all that long—but it’s been almost a year since…” Her voice trailed off and she looked away.
“Since?” he said, talking like a man who had had that drink.
She let her gaze drift back with a mysterious half smile on her lips. Vanni almost laughed, wondering how poor Paul would react if she said, “Since someone melted my bones with an orgasm…” A secret chuckle escaped her. Paul was sweet and affectionate, but far too taciturn. She reminded herself to treat him gently. He was very cautious with women. If he weren’t, he’d have been married years ago with a flock of children by now. “Since anything, Paul,” she said. “Anything at all.”
“Sorry,” he said, dropping his chin. “I didn’t mean to get so personal…”
She laughed at him. “Paul, you weren’t this shy with me when I was delivering Mattie. What’s going on?”
He took a breath. “Vanni, Vanni…I have things to explain. Difficult things. I know I don’t seem like the kind of guy who’d have complications in his life. I seem more like the kind of guy who has no life at all. But before Matt…Before I came down here to finish Jack’s house…I went out sometimes, you know?”
She laughed a little. “Paul, even though you never said anything, and I know you’re kind of shy around women, I assumed—”
“Stupid,” he said, interrupting. “I’m mostly stupid around women.”
“Uncertain, maybe. But under the right circumstances…”
“Exactly,” he said, almost relieved. “Under the right circumstances things can happen that you just don’t expect.”
She frowned slightly. “Paul, I understand you went out with women. Why wouldn’t you? You’re a handsome, single man.”
“It’s about me being a little absent since Mattie was born…I have a situation to work out.”
“A situation in Grants Pass?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing a hand across the back of his sweaty neck. He took a breath. “Before I came down here last fall, I went out with a woman a couple of times. Just a casual thing. Nothing serious. But then the whole goddamn world shifted, Matt was killed, Mattie was due, I stayed here with you, we got a lot closer during that time. It might’ve been all about Matt and the baby at first, but that’s irrelevant—we got real close. You and me.”
“As close as brother and sister?” she asked him softly, hopeful about what could be coming.
“A lot closer than that, Vanni. At least in my mind. Then I went back to Grants Pass and not that much had changed there. I had changed, boy had I changed, but things back home were…”
“The same?” she asked. And she thought, there’s a woman in Grants Pass. Someone who had perhaps become important to him. “That woman you went out with a couple of times—when did you meet her?”
“Why?” he asked, perplexed.
“God,” he said, rubbing his sweaty palms on his jeans. “I don’t know. About a year ago, I guess.”
“A year ago? Jesus, Paul. Why didn’t you just tell me!”
“Tell you what?”
“There’s a woman! All this time, there’s been a woman!”
“No. No. There was just this woman I saw a couple of times and…”
She stood up abruptly. “That wouldn’t be complicated.”
He stood, as well. “I had a few things to figure out, Vanni—that’s why I wasn’t in touch for a while. And now I have an…unexpected situation at home I have to work out, but I’m going to get that under control and I’ll be here a lot more, I promise.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she spat out. “Just say it. You’re involved with someone and it doesn’t work into your plans to spend time in Virgin River!”
“That’s not it,” he said nervously.
“You know everything about me! Yet you couldn’t even casually mention you were seeing someone at home?”
“It’s not like that. Listen, I just need some time on this. Some patience. Because I really intend to do better by you than I have. I know I haven’t been here for you like I meant to be and—”
“Stop!” she said. “I haven’t asked you for anything except to stay in touch! Stop whimpering!”
He scowled. His neck got red. “I’m not whimpering!”
“Well, you sure as hell aren’t talking! Man up!”
“I’m trying! But you’re doing all the talking for me!”
She had a few more hot retorts, but bit her tongue against them. She pursed her lips. He had been in Virgin River for months, but he went back to Grants Pass almost every week for a day or two. He had said it was to check on the construction company he’d left in the hands of his father and brothers. And to check on her? It must’ve been pretty hard on her to be asked to understand he had to be away so much, tending to his best friend’s widow. Imagine now, being told he’d have to make frequent trips to Virgin River to make sure the widow and baby were doing all right. Talk about complicated. Well, she wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship.