“I think you’re trying to tell me there’s a woman back in Grants Pass who’s counting on you. You have obligations there.”
“Yeah,” he said weakly. “But, Vanni, I have obligations here, as well. You and Mattie, you’re awful important to me…”
Being referred to as an obligation should have made her want to cry, but instead it made her furious. “Well, don’t worry your little head. We’re getting along just fine—better every day. You have a life in Grants Pass. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of that.”
“You’re not listening,” he said, his voice raising to match hers. “I want to be here with you, as often as possible,” he said. “I’m doing my damn best!”
“It sounds like you have other things, other people you’d better pay attention to.”
“Listen, things can happen that you don’t plan, don’t expect!”
“Oh really?” she asked sarcastically. “Tell me about it,” she said. She hadn’t expected her husband to die, or to fall in love with Paul. If there was one thing she knew about the men in her life—her father, her late husband, Paul and all the guys who seemed to gather around him—they didn’t make commitments lightly, and once a promise was made, they never broke an oath. “I’m sure you’ll get everything straightened out,” she said. She tried to keep the angry edge out of her voice, but she was thoroughly unsuccessful. “Please, you have no obligations here. We’ll be fine. I don’t know why you didn’t just tell me—a long time ago! Did you think I wouldn’t understand you had to get home because there was someone there? Someone who was counting on you?”
“It isn’t like that!”
“You could have just told me!”
“Vanessa! For God’s sake—” Paul attempted.
Walt walked into the room. He looked stricken, startled. “Are you having an argument about something?”
“No!” they both said.
“Oh,” Walt said. “Poetry, I guess. Some new kind of poetry?”
Vanessa hissed and Paul just shook his head.
“I hear the baby,” she said, whirling out of the room.
“I hear something, too,” Paul said, leaving in the opposite direction, charging out the front door and letting it slam behind him.
Walt was left alone in the great room in front of a blazing hearth. “Well,” he said to himself. “Glad to know that wasn’t an argument.”
Vanni cursed herself. She’d lost it. She hadn’t given him much of a chance to explain, but then the time involved in him actually getting to the point might have taken a lifetime. She lay on her back on her bed, fully clothed, the back of her hand on her forehead. She kicked her feet furiously and groaned. She had a short fuse sometimes, she knew that. It rarely reared its ugly head like that, but Paul had frustrated her so much. How could you love and hate the same thing about a person? She adored that he was kind of shy and reluctant; that a woman had to mean everything in the world to him for him to speak at all, for him to embrace, smile, kiss. But she hated that he couldn’t take charge! Stake his claim! He should have told her long before Mattie was born that there was a special woman in Grants Pass, and that he had to get back to her!
Vanni was not going to be like Nikki, hoping to change a man’s mind. Or his feelings. More to the point, she wanted nothing to do with another woman’s man!
Then, despite the fact that her cheeks were still hot with anger, she cried. Then damned herself for crying.
Paul had a hard time sleeping through the night. He’d made a half-assed and totally unrehearsed attempt to explain things to Vanni and, in his bungling, left it undone, maybe worse. Of course, having the general right down the hall, maybe ready to walk into the room right at the moment Paul announced, “She’s pregnant!” didn’t help. But that was no excuse.
He had to get this done, and the very thought curdled his stomach.
If he was going to be a father he would be an involved father. He was more than committed to taking on little Matt and he hoped…no, he prayed, Vanni could accept his child as part of the package. But he had no idea how to go about telling her. Vanni scared him to death. She had a helluva temper.
It was just after dawn and the household was quiet. Paul dressed, made a pot of coffee and took a cup with him down to the stable, thinking of having a little morning chat with the horses. Maybe he could get some advice about the embarrassing fact that he was thirty-six years old and was still trying to figure out how to get close to a woman he’d been in love with for years. Not to mention the fact that he had this little complication of another woman having his baby.
He was leaning against a stall when he heard a sound. He turned around and saw that the tack room door was ajar. His first thought was that the general might be up, so he pushed open the door. There, seated on the bench, elbows on his knees and head down, was Tom. His jacket was tossed over the bench beside him and his shirtsleeves were rolled up. “Hey,” Paul said.
Tom lifted his head. His expression was troubled. “Hey,” he said.
“You been out all night?” Paul asked.
“I was out late, yeah. Then at Brenda’s. I got home a couple of hours ago.”
Tom shuddered. It was unmistakable. “Yeah,” he said in a breath. “Yeah.”
“What’s the matter, bud?” Paul asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just thinking.”
“Yeah? Maybe if you think a little louder, I can help.”
Tom studied him for a long moment. “I sincerely doubt it, Paul.”
“Try me. I’m older. Maybe I’ve been down this road.”
“If you have and you’re still single at thirty-six, I really don’t want your advice,” he said glumly.
“Whoa,” Paul said. “What the hell’s this? Thinking about marriage at eighteen?”
“Nah. Not quite that. It’s just that…Brenda, man. Jesus, I love that girl. I didn’t think I could love a person this much.”
“Doesn’t sound exactly like a bad thing so far. Unless she doesn’t feel the same way…”
“Whew,” Tom said. His cheeks got a little pink and he shook his head. “She feels the same way. Whew.”
“So. You crossed that line, did you?”
“Whew,” he said again. He stood up, turned around and ran sweaty palms down his pants. When he turned back to Paul he said. “It should come with a warning, you know?”
Paul put a foot up on the bench and forced himself to take a leisurely sip of his steaming coffee, trying to get mentally ready for just anything. He hoped to God he and Tommy didn’t share the same problem. “Oh, yeah?”
“Can I talk about this? Does it make me a real jerk to talk about this? Because I was always taught men don’t talk about the women they…My dad always said a real man never talks about private things that happen with his girl.”
“It won’t go any further. We’re a long way from the locker room, Tom. I think I can be trusted.”
“It’s just that…Well, damn. She took her sweet time, you know? And I was real patient, even when I thought I was going out of my mind. But I just wouldn’t have felt right if she wasn’t sure. We had all the ground rules in place—double protection, we did a lot of talking first, were totally sure how we felt about each other. I promised I would be totally faithful to her, only her, unless she changed her mind, but I’m not changing mine. And she said the same thing to me. We love each other, Paul.”
“I figured it would take a little time, you know. Getting used to. I figured it would go real slow, maybe be a little clumsy. At first.”
“Yeah?” Paul asked, wondering what the hell this kid was getting at.
He ducked his head, then made eye contact. “It wasn’t.”
“It didn’t take any time at all. It isn’t clumsy. It’s freaking incredible. She’s freaking incredible.”
Paul shook his head in confusion. “Is there a problem in here somewhere?”
“I’m leaving pretty soon,” he said. “Right after graduation I go to basic, then West Point. For years.” Then he hung his head.
“Aah,” Paul said. So, the boy had tapped the honey pot and found it sweeter than life. He wanted that to be a part of every day for the rest of his life. And West Point was going to lock him up for four years—you couldn’t live away from the academy, couldn’t graduate if you got married. “You won’t be gone forever,” Paul said.
“It’s going to seem like it.”
“I bet it will. But if she feels the same way you do, you have something very nice to look forward to. When the time’s right.” Paul took a sip of coffee. “Hey, man, even if you didn’t have West Point, eighteen’s just too young to do the forever thing.”
“Does it ever happen? Do people like me and Brenda fall in love as kids and stay together?”
“Happens more than you might think,” he said with a shrug. “My buddy Zeke, firefighter from Fresno? Married his high school sweetheart and so far they have four kids. They managed to do that even with being separated by the Marine Corps for at least two years. Phillips and Stephens were married pretty young—have nice little families. And they’re still so crazy about their women, it’s almost ridiculous. You’d think they just met them.”
“I never expected this,” Tom said. “I didn’t expect it to be so natural, so awesome. Makes me feel like I can’t live without her. Makes me feel sick to my stomach to even think about her ever being with another guy. I can’t imagine ever being with another girl. It just has me torn up inside.”
Paul chuckled in spite of himself. “Tommy,” he said, putting a strong hand on his shoulder. “You’re talking about the thing that makes the bucks lock horns, makes bulls tear down barn doors to get to the cow. Men go into battle for less. Makes you think you’d risk anything, give up anything, lay awake at night in a cold sweat…”
“Shew,” he said. “I guess that’s what they mean when they say love hurts,” Tom said.
“No, buddy, it doesn’t. You just said so yourself—it feels wonderful to love someone and to make love. Keep your focus—separation hurts, breaking up hurts, infidelity hurts—but love, man, that’s what we live for. Because it feels good.”
“Sounds like you know what you’re talking about,” Tom said. “But it doesn’t look like you do.”
Paul frowned and gave that shoulder a squeeze. “I know. I just haven’t worked out all the details yet.”
At nine Paul threw his duffel in the back of his truck. He shook Tom’s hand and told him to hang in there, shook the general’s hand and thanked him for his hospitality, and after checking Vanni’s eyes and seeing that she had softened and wasn’t going to bite him or kick him, he slipped an arm around her waist, kissed her forehead and said, “I’m going to call you when I get back to Grants Pass tonight. We have some things to talk about. Maybe without the yelling part.”
She turned her sparkling turquoise eyes up to his face and said, “I’ll be here.”
Before heading up the highway to Oregon, Paul took a swing by Mel and Jack’s. He knocked softly on the door and Jack answered, David still in his pajamas balanced on his hip. “Morning,” Jack said. “Heading out of town?”
“Yeah. But if you have a few minutes, I need to talk.”
“Sure. We can sit out here so we don’t wake Mel. She was up half the night with her back hurting and she’s sleeping in. I have coffee. Want a cup?”