“Rich, retired movie star? What’s she going to do with a ranch? Raise exotic chickens?”
Mel laughed. “You might be in for some surprises. She moved into that old Weatherby place on the other side of your pasture. You should bake her a cake or something. Go say hello. I told her you Booths were nice people.”
“I’ll put Vanni right on it when she gets back to town,” Walt said.
Mel perked right up. “Vanni’s out of town?”
“Gone to Grants Pass for a few days with Paul,” Walt said, hardly missing a mouthful. “They’ll be back by the weekend.”
“Well, how about that,” Mel said, smiling. “Were you expecting that?”
Walt dabbed his lips with his napkin. “Girl, the finger’s been on that trigger for months. The only thing I didn’t expect was how long it would take Haggerty to pull it.”
When Walt got home, the house was dismally quiet. He turned on the TV for some noise and picked up a book for something to do. He wished Tom would show up with Brenda and take over the TV for a movie or something, but they probably wouldn’t. If they could escape Brenda’s house, they’d be buried in the woods, parking. He’d like to hear the baby fuss, or Vanni cooing to him. Paul would make decent company right about now—he could do that running commentary they had in response to CNN stories.
Out of sheer boredom, he went to the computer. He started a search of Muriel St. Claire, his new neighbor. He found several Web sites plus a Wikipedia listing. Fifty-six years old, born in Brother Creek, California. He looked it up—Trinity County, right near the Humboldt line. There was a list of movies—Jesus, almost fifty of them, not to mention television credits. When he saw a photo he recognized her, but only because she’d recently been on Law and Order and CSI. He’d never in a million years have known her name. He ran through a series of publicity photos—none in the recent past. Blond, sleek, large blue eyes. Too thin, he decided, although she could certainly hold up a strapless black dress. She always appeared to be glancing over her bare shoulder at the camera, or leaning into it with those sultry movie-star eyes. There was even a shot of her in bed, the only visible fabric being a satin sheet. And pictures of her taken at Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival—lotsa big jewelry.
His wife had never much liked big jewelry.
It was all Hollywood stuff, dedicated to the superficial. She’d obviously be more at home in a marble mansion with a pool. What the hell was she doing with that old Weatherby ranch house? That wouldn’t last long.
“Exotic chickens, my ass,” Walt muttered to himself as he shut down the computer and headed for bed.
I n the early morning Vanni felt the bed dip as Paul brought her a freshly diapered and hungry baby, placing him between them.
“Well, good morning, my angel,” she murmured, kissing the baby’s head. He sent up a loud protest at kisses instead of milk and she snuggled him close to nurse.
Paul stretched out on the bed to watch Vanessa and the baby. His hand wandered affectionately from Mattie’s little head to Vanessa’s soft, mussed hair. The baby made a lot of noise this morning, which made Paul laugh. “Have you been starving him?”
“He’s always starving,” she said. “Time for him to get some solid food.”
“I thought you said the breast only for six months? He’s barely over three.”
“I did, but look at him. He’s ravenous. Maybe he could use a little cereal…”
“He’s awesome, and growing damn fat on the breast,” Paul said. “Vanessa, call Carol and Lance about a visit, find out when they can see you. Then I’ll get in touch with my mom about a family thing. I’ll try to get more details about Terri’s pregnancy while we’re here.”
“I should meet your family right away,” she said. “Make sure they’re not all as crazy as you are. Are you going to tell them about Terri?”
“Not until I know something for sure. But I want to tell them about us—that we’re getting married when we can get our plans together. Is that all right? Because I can’t look at you without wanting everyone to know.”
“Sure. I have the same problem,” she said with a smile. “This is the part about being married that I like. Lying beside you in bed…”
“Baby between us…”
She laughed. “He has his needs. And if you want more children, you’d better get used to this.”
“This,” he said, stroking the baby’s soft head, “is everything I’ve ever wanted.”
“So odd that you didn’t find someone to marry years ago. You’re so good at it. And this thing you have for pregnant women and babies…”
“For a while there it seemed like everyone had a pregnant wife but me. Between my brothers and my friends, I was surrounded by them. Round bellies, nursing babies…Is there some rule about waiting a respectable length of time between the first ‘I love you’ and the vows?” he asked her.
She laughed at him. “What’s the difference? We’ve known each other for years. We’ve been through things together that even some husbands and wives haven’t.”
“What would your father think if we got married right away?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Daddy scares everyone but me,” she said. “Anything I want suits him fine.”
“The person most on my mind is Tom,” Paul said.
“We’ve gotten real close. He’s like one of my brothers. And the way he feels about you—he tries to hide it, but he admires you. We can’t do it without him. He’s leaving right after graduation, but I want him to be there. I want him to be my best man.”
“How would your family feel about a fast wedding?”
He chuckled. “Relieved, believe me. My mother’s secret fear is that I’ll die a lonely old man.”
“Paul, you can’t tell your family that one woman is having your baby and you’re marrying another all in the same sentence.”
“I know. I’m going to get the facts as soon as possible—but, Vanni, the bottom line will be the same, whether it comes in one sentence or one month. I’ll take care of them, I’ll take care of you—but you’re going to be my wife. Period.”
“You’ve been thinking about this.…” she said.
“There’s something about lying next to you all night that disturbs my sleep.”
“Funny that you didn’t disturb mine,” she said.
“I thought I’d give you a break. But your break is almost over.”
Mattie drew in a deep sigh and fell away from the breast, satisfied and asleep. Paul leaned over the baby’s head to place a soft kiss on her lips. He then kissed the baby’s head and asked, “Would you like to hold him a while longer?”
“No, I’ll put him down,” she said, beginning to rise.
“Stay right there. Let me,” he said, scooping the baby into his arms. Mattie’s head fell right to Paul’s shoulder and before Paul had made it out of the bedroom, a loud, sleepy belch escaped the little boy.
Vanni chuckled and snuggled into the bed. Happy. She let her eyes close, but not for sleep. For a long time she had been afraid she’d never get to feel this way again. And then her man was back, pulling her into his arms, covering her mouth in a kiss that was not soft, drawing a deep moan from her as her arms went around him.
Later that morning Vanessa phoned Carol. “Hi. I’m going to be in town for a couple of days and I thought if you had time, I’d bring little Matt over for a visit.”
“You’re in town?” she asked. “Will you stay with us?”
“No, but thanks. I decided to come at the very last minute and I’m staying with Paul. He was in Virgin River so I came back up here with him, since he’s going right back to Virgin River at the end of the week.”
“My, he’s spending a lot of time in Virgin River,” Carol said.
“He is, with more time there in his future. He has a couple of potential building contracts down there, if it doesn’t interfere with his company up here. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring the baby over to see you and Lance.”
“I see. Make it tonight,” she said flatly. “We’ll have dinner.”
“All right,” Vanni agreed.
“Great! Six o’clock. Do you need a ride?” Carol asked.
“Of course not. Paul will bring me.”
“Good, then. We’ll do something on the grill.”
Vanni spent the whole day alone with Mattie while Paul went to his office, checked on his crews, saw his brothers and tried to catch up on business in general. He was home in plenty of time to shower and change to go to the Rutledges’ home.
When Carol opened the door to them, she actually stepped back in surprise. “Paul!” she said with a gasp.
“Hi, Carol,” he said. He gently squeezed Vanni’s upper arm. “How’ve you been?”
“Great! Great! Come in! Will you be staying for dinner?”
“Of course he’ll stay for dinner, Carol,” Vanni said, totally confused by this question. “When I told you he would bring me, did you think he’d just drop me off? Didn’t you expect him to stay?”
“Of course,” she said, reaching for the baby. “I’ll just set another place.”
Vanni passed her the baby, completely baffled. There was protocol and obligation with grandparents, not to mention the promise she’d made to Matt, and she held that sacred. But Carol never failed to put her under a strain. Most of the time she didn’t understand her. As they walked into the house, Vanni glanced into the dining room and noticed a table set for four. She was totally perplexed, until they stepped into the living room and Cameron stood up from his chair.
It was then she realized that Carol was at it again—and two extremely fine men were going to be made uncomfortable. She wore a sad smile as she went toward Cameron and allowed him to kiss her cheek. “How are you?” she asked softly.
“Fine,” he said. “You?”
“Good,” she answered. Paul came up behind her and put that hand on her shoulder, that hand that claimed her. She was sorry about how that would make Cameron feel, but not at all unhappy about how it made her feel. After wanting him so much, she loved letting the world know she was his.
“Cameron,” Paul said, sticking out his other hand from his place behind Vanni.
“How you doing?” he asked, shaking the hand. “So—just in town for a couple of days?” Cameron asked.
“That’s right,” Vanni said. “Paul was down for the weekend and I decided to come back here with him. To meet his family. I’m staying at Paul’s, Cameron.…”
“Ah,” he said, understanding perfectly. He turned and lifted his drink to his lips.
Lance came into the room, saw that Paul was there and welcomed him heartily. “Hey,” he said, reaching out his hand. “My man Paul! How is everything?”
“Great. Never better. How about you?” he asked.
“The same,” Lance answered. “Where’s that baby?”
“Carol took him to the kitchen,” Vanni said.
“Well, I don’t mean to seem rude, but I have to have a grandson fix. Be right back,” he said, darting off.
The three of them stood there, looking at each other. It was Cameron who broke the tension with a laugh. “Well. Looks like a serious miscommunication.”
“I’m sorry,” Vanni said. “I don’t understand.”
“I do,” Paul said. “Carol has a very specific plan in mind and she didn’t bother to consult anyone.”