Walt was speechless for a moment. Finally, in a stunned breath he said, “My God, you have a complicated life.”
“And when were you planning to drop this little bomb?”
“Frankly, sir, I wanted to wait until I was sure of a couple of things before I admitted to what an idiot I am. I don’t know the woman a tenth as well as I know Vanni and I have to be sure there really is a child, that it’s my child, that sort of thing. Since I did what I could to protect her from pregnancy, there leaves a little doubt—but I can’t deny the possibility. And—I wanted to be sure Vanni knew I feel as committed to little Matt as my own child. If she’ll have me with all these complications, that is.”
Walt crossed his arms over his chest. “Sounds like you’ll have women and children all over the place. That could be an expensive proposition. Spreading yourself a little thin, aren’t you?”
“Money isn’t going to be the biggest problem. I have a successful company, a supportive family. Shared custody, a situation that wouldn’t appeal to any man, that’ll be tough. But I’m not going to ignore my responsibilities.”
“I give you credit for that,” Walt said wearily, shaking his head. “I suppose you’ll verify all this quickly?”
“Of course. I’m going to the next doctor’s appointment and then…I just want to be sensitive. The woman is understandably upset and I don’t want to suggest she’s lying, but we have to be sure. Too many people are going to be hurt by my actions as it is. Once the facts are indisputable, I just hope Vanni can forgive me. Accept me with my baggage…”
Walt looked over his shoulder at a sound and both men watched as Vanni opened the corral gate, mounted Chico and rode away from the ranch, down along the riverbank. “Well, she’s getting away from you. If you have a case to plead and don’t want to do it in front of her father and brother, I guess you’ll have to go after her.”
Paul put his still-full cup of coffee on the patio table. “Can I borrow a horse, sir?”
“Knock yourself out,” the general said.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, clambering down the deck stairs and taking off for the stable.
Walt watched him run. Then he shook his head and said, “Holy Jesus.”
Paul saddled up Liberty, the general’s stallion, the feistiest horse in the stable, but also the fastest. It took a while to get him ready, though he hurried. He’d been on this horse once before and remembered him to be difficult, hard to handle. Tom, the more experienced rider, didn’t mind taking Liberty and leaving Chico for Paul. But today Paul wanted to catch up with Vanni and he really hoped Liberty didn’t throw him and break his stupid neck before he found her.
He took the stallion at a fast trot along the riverbank for a good twenty minutes before he saw her up ahead. He urged the horse a little faster and when he was within her hearing, he whistled. The piercing sound cut through the air and Vanni turned her mount toward him. She took one look at him, turned and kicked Chico’s flank, taking off.
“Goddammit!” he swore. So, this was how it would be—not easy. He was going to have to take off the gloves. He risked being thrown by giving Liberty a snap with the end of his rein. The stallion reared. Paul hung on, then leaned low in the saddle while Liberty closed the space between them. By God, he was going to catch her, make her listen, get through to her. There was no one within shouting distance to distract them. For once in his life, he was going to finish! Even if he had to cover Vanessa’s mouth with his hand!
It only took him a few minutes to catch up to her, thanks to Liberty, the champion of the stable. Pulling alongside Vanni he reached out over her hands and grabbed her reins, pulling Chico to a stop. The expression she turned on him was fierce.
“What?” she demanded.
“Listen to me!” he retorted.
“Make it quick!”
“Fine. Here’s quick. I love you. I’ve always loved you. I loved you before Matt saw you, but I didn’t have his guts and I hung back. I’ve regretted that forever. Now I have—”
“A baby coming,” she interrupted, lifting her chin.
“Listen! I don’t know much about being a father! Just what I watched when I was growing up! And you know what I saw? I saw my parents with their arms around each other all the time! I saw them look at each other with all kinds of emotions—love and trust and commitment and—Vanni, here’s the ugly truth—if I made a baby, I’m not angry about that. It wasn’t on purpose, but I’m not angry. I’ll do my damn best, and I’m real sorry that I’m not in love with the baby’s mother. I’ll still take care of them—and not just by writing a check. I’ll be involved—take care of the child like a real father, support the mother the best I can. What that child is not going to see is his parents looking at each other like they’ve made a terrible mistake. I want him to see his dad with his arms around his wife and—”
“Did you try?” she asked. “Did you give the woman who’s got your baby in her a chance?”
“Is that what you want for her? She’s a decent person, Vanessa—she didn’t get pregnant on purpose. You want her stuck with a man who’s got another woman on his mind? I didn’t want this to happen to her—I’m not sticking her with half a husband! She deserves a chance to find someone who can give her the real thing.”
“But she loves you. She does, doesn’t she? She wanted to get married.”
“Vanessa, she’s scared and alone. It’s what comes to mind. She’ll be all right when she realizes I’m not going to let her down. And I’m not going to—”
“All this because you couldn’t open your mouth and say how you felt, what you wanted,” she said hotly. “I wanted so little from you—just a word or gesture—some hint that you had feelings for me. Instead, you took your wounded little heart to another woman and—”
She stopped her tirade as she saw his eyes narrow and his frown deepen. He glared at her for a long moment, then he jumped off the stallion, her mount’s reins still in his hands. He led the horses the short distance to the river’s edge, to a bank of trees.
“What are you doing?” she asked, hanging on to the pommel.
He secured the horses at a fallen tree, then reached up to her, grabbed her around the waist and pulled her none too gently out of the saddle. He whirled her around and pressed her up against a tree, holding her wrists over her head and pinioning her there with the whole length of his body. His face was close to hers. “You never opened your mouth, either,” he said.
She was stunned speechless. She couldn’t remember a time Paul had ever behaved like this—aggressive, commanding.
He leaned closer. “Open it now,” he demanded of her just before he covered her mouth with his. Her lips opened under his and he moved over her mouth with passion, with heat, and she responded with her own. Her gentle, shy Paul, not only filled with all this desire, but clearly aroused. He let go of her wrists and circled her waist to pull her harder against him, and with a sigh and a shiver of lust, her arms went around him, yielding. Not just yielding—inviting.
Feeling her response, he couldn’t bring himself to end the kiss, but only deepened it, invading her velvety mouth with his tongue, letting his breath out slowly as her tongue came into his mouth. It was with a great deal of regret that he reminded himself they had to talk it through, get all their issues in the light and dealt with. But when he left her mouth, he stayed so close to her, he was whispering into her parted lips. “Vanessa, you have the worst goddamn temper.”
“And you’re the bossiest woman I’ve ever known. I want you to listen to me—I can’t change what I feel, what I’ve felt for years. I tried, because I never thought I’d have any kind of chance, I never imagined that we’d lose Matt. And even with you in my arms, finally, I’d give anything to have him back. But we can’t, Vanni. It’s going to be you and me now. That’s all it can be. Now stop all this fucking around—because I want you so bad, my head is pounding!”
“I never knew how you felt.”
“I know that, Vanni,” he said quietly. “You weren’t supposed to.”
“I loved Matt, you know.”
“I know. And he loved you.” He took a breath. “And I loved you both.”
“But you were the guy who caught my eye the night we all met. You. Yet you never even talked to me. Maybe if you’d talked to me…”
“He beat me to it. And once that happens…”
“What did she do, Paul? The woman in Grants Pass? How’d she manage to get your attention?”
“I told you. She was pretty. Seductive,” he said. “And I was lonely. I let it happen, Vanni, because there was no reason for me not to. You belonged to someone else. Not just anyone else, but Matt.”
“And later? When I didn’t belong to anyone?”
“I thought you still belonged to Matt, to a memory,” he said. “And I was pretty much out of my mind. It was stupid. I told you—I’m not good with women. I never have been, or you’d have belonged to me, not my best friend.”
“I don’t have any regrets, you know. Matt was good for me, good to me. He made me happy, he gave me a beautiful son. I’ll never regret a day…”
“Vanni,” he whispered, brushing that thick, copper hair away from her face. “Vanni, as much as I love you, as much as I wish I’d had the guts to pursue you before he got to you, in the end I wanted you happy. I wanted him happy. But now…” He gave her a kiss. “It is what it is. I want us to go forward. I want to take care of you and Mattie. And probably one more…”
“You’re still not certain?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “Vanni, be prepared—I don’t think I’m getting out of that one. If I’m responsible for a child, I’ll see it through.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Could be a large family in the end.”
“You’ll stand by me through that?”
She shrugged. “You’d stand by little Matt, wouldn’t you? That’s how it is. We don’t leave babies out there alone, without parents who love them.”
He smiled into her eyes. “You’re wonderful, you know. But very hard to shut up.” He pressed himself against her, kissing her deeply. “God,” he said in a whisper, going after her again, so desperately she laughed against his lips. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to kiss you?”
“If you’re telling me the truth, I know exactly how long. Paul, I want you to know something—while I was Matt’s wife, I didn’t have one second of doubt or temptation. Not one split second. I loved him completely.”
“Vanni, I know…”
“It wasn’t until later, after the baby, months after Matt was gone…And I didn’t think you’d ever see me as anything more than your friend’s wife…I used to talk to Matt about you. I’d stand out at that grave and tell him that I’d always love him, but I was going to love again and, if he approved, he should give you a nudge. You were so much more than a friend, but you didn’t seem to see me as a woman. I thought you couldn’t separate me from your best friend and his death.”
He ran his hand down her hair. “Oh, I saw you as a woman—too much woman for me. I was fighting for my life, I was so guilty about the way I’d felt for years. I didn’t know what to do except give you time, watch you come out of mourning and plan my approach. And trust me, I wasn’t planning this one.” He shook his head. “The goddamn doctor got there ahead of me. The fact that you were a recent widow sure didn’t slow him down.”