Author: Robyn Carr

“We can make the best of this, can’t we?” Vanni asked hopefully.

Cameron smiled at her, but it was a disappointed smile. Carol flew out from the kitchen, headed toward the dining room with a plate, napkin and utensils in her hands. She had obviously handed off the baby to Lance. “Carol, wait,” Cameron said. “I’m going to have to shove off. My pager,” he lied. “Thanks, but I’m not going to be able to stay.”

“Oh no!” Carol said. “Are you sure?”

He put one hand in his pants pocket. “I’m sure,” he said. He leaned forward and gave Vanni a kiss on the cheek. “You look terrific,” he said. “It’s good to know you’re happy.” He gave Paul a conciliatory slap on the upper arm as he passed and headed toward the door.

Paul squeezed her shoulder. He leaned down to her ear. “I’ll be back.” And he followed Cameron.

Cameron was making fast tracks to his car when Paul called to him. “Hey, Cameron. Buddy. A minute, huh?”

Cameron turned. “It’s okay, Paul. You don’t have to say anything. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried,” he said, taking another two long strides toward him. The two men were completely different—Paul in his jeans and boots, rough, rugged. Cameron in his linen pants, silk shirt, Italian shoes—possibly the best-dressed man in Grants Pass. “I think you deserve some kind of explanation. About me. Me and Vanessa. This was a horrible setup.”

Cameron put his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels and laughed ruefully. “It was pretty ugly,” he agreed. “Maybe more terrible for you and Vanni than for me.”

“I don’t know what Carol told you, and I don’t know why she brought you out to dinner, but I’ve been in love with Vanni forever. I couldn’t tell her that, of course—she married my best friend. God, I’d never have done anything that wrong to Matt. But since…Well, we’ve been through so much together and it just got stronger. It took a long time to iron it out. Man, I’m really sorry if you were misled.”

“I’ve only known her a few weeks, Paul. We’re not exactly confidants.”

“We’re getting married,” Paul said.

Cameron stiffened slightly, but he smiled. He nodded. “Congratulations. I’m sure you’ll be very happy.”

“Look,” Paul said. “It isn’t hard for me to understand you have a thing for her. What man wouldn’t? I want you to know something—this is my fault, Cameron. I should have spoken up sooner. Before Carol set up that first meeting with you. There’s no excuse. I knew how I felt. But Matt hadn’t been gone long and I—” He hung his head, shaking it briefly. “I just didn’t want to upset her.”

“She could have spoken up,” Cameron said.

“Well, it turns out there’s an explanation for that, too. I was real scarce for a while after the baby was born, trying to give her time and to get my head together. It was real hard for me to get into Matt’s territory, even after he was gone. I gave her the impression I wasn’t interested in her in that way.” He shook his head. “I’m not good with women. I’m real clumsy, in fact. But at least it’s finally out—how we feel about each other. Now we move ahead. I’m sorry, man,” he said, sticking out his hand. “You’re a good guy. You have everything. There’s no reason I should win this one.”

Cameron gave a huff of laughter. He took the hand. “Maybe there’s lots of reasons. No hard feelings.”

“Thanks. This, between us—it shouldn’t be hard for her. She’s so sensitive. She’d hate for anyone to be hurt. I happen to know—she thinks highly of you.”

“I know,” Cameron said. “Don’t worry about it, okay?”

“I don’t deserve her, I know that. But I’m going to do everything I can to make her happy. I hope you’re going to be okay.”

“You could gloat, you know,” Cameron said. “You got the girl.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Crazy woman.” He laughed. “A guy like you—you won’t have any trouble. The right one will come along.”

“Paul. I didn’t close the deal, all right? It barely got going. I might be a little disappointed, but that’s all. Vanni and I—we were just friends. In case you think I’m going to be a problem for you.”

“Nah, I know better than that. Didn’t take me long to figure you for a class act.”

Cameron smiled. “Yeah? Well, maybe I’m not the only one.”

Vanessa sat in the chair that had recently been Cameron’s. The baby was out of sight with Lance and so was Carol for the moment. Vanni was seething. Beyond furious. She picked up Cameron’s drink and took a long, deep swallow of liquid courage and grimaced at the taste of scotch. It was another minute before Carol showed herself.

“Well,” Carol said. “That was a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t realize you’d invited Paul.”

“You didn’t? And why didn’t you insist he be invited? He was Matt’s best friend. And you know how much he means to me!”

Carol stiffened indignantly. “I’m not sure I do,” she said.

Vanni stood to meet Carol at eye level. “Then let me be very clear about this. He means the absolute world to me. Paul was in Virgin River when Matt was killed and I asked him to stay on until the baby was born. I asked him to be with me for the birth. I’ve known him for years. I’ve always felt comfortable with him, I trust him—he’s wonderful. We’ve always been close, closer still when we lost Matt. For God’s sake, Matt asked him to take care of us if anything happened to him. How can it be so impossible for you to understand that I would come to love him?”

“I couldn’t imagine it,” Carol said, anger barely reined in. “Matt’s hardly gone…”

“He’s gone enough for you to try to set me up with a doctor.”

Carol lifted her chin. Her mouth took on a strained line. “That’s uncalled for!”

“How dare you treat Paul as if he’s inferior! Shame on you!”

“I never meant that. I never meant to—” Carol swallowed. “I thought Cameron was perfect for you.…”

“Cameron knew about me and Paul. What in the world did you tell him to get him here for dinner?”

“I…ah…I told him Paul was dropping you off and you’d love to see him. I didn’t think I was making it up—you said Paul coming back here from Virgin River was a perfect opportunity to visit us and—”

Vanni was shaking her head. “Why don’t you just ask if I’d like Cameron to join us for dinner? More to the point, why don’t you listen?”

“I do listen,” she said, insulted.

“No. You don’t listen. When I say I don’t want coral bridesmaids’ dresses, you buy them and dress up my girls in them. When I say I don’t want to be set up, you invite the man to dinner not once, but twice. When I say I’m staying with Paul and he’ll bring me to dinner, you plan your own party without asking, without listening. For heaven’s sake, Cameron is a wonderful man who didn’t deserve what just happened to him. And that you would humiliate Paul after knowing him for so many years, after knowing how he loved your only son, treating him like he’s my chauffeur, offering to set another place like he’s some last-minute addition to your private little dinner party…”

“I just couldn’t imagine it. Not Paul,” she said.

Lance appeared, coming out of the kitchen with his grandson cuddled against his chest, and the expression on his face was not a happy one. Carol said, “I was trying to help.…Maybe Mattie could benefit by being raised by a doctor. Instead of…” She glanced away uncomfortably.

Vanni laughed suddenly and hollowly. Here the woman was in real estate and had no concept of how successful the man who built some of the finest houses in the region might be. And that was nothing compared to the fact that Paul was the most incredible human being, and would be the most wonderful father. “Paul is such a catch, you can’t even imagine, but I’m not going to waste your time. Carol, I’m sick of the way you take over and I won’t have it anymore.” She walked toward Lance and reached for the baby just as Paul was coming in the front door. “I’m sorry, Lance, but we’re leaving. This was horrendous, and I’m never going through anything like this again.” She looked over her shoulder at Paul, who stood across the room, just inside the door. In his eyes she saw warmth and understanding. Patience. Kindness. Everything was going to be okay.

Vanni walked over to Paul. She turned at the door and said, “Carol, you should be more considerate of people’s feelings. What you did tonight was in bad taste, it’s beneath you.” And with that they left the house.

The next night was dinner with the Haggertys and Vanessa was tense. After what she’d been through with Carol Rutledge, she couldn’t imagine what kind of paces these people might put her through. The fact that Paul was so down-to-earth and kind didn’t reassure her much. After all, Matt had been so charming and fun, yet Carol could be a nightmare. When Paul drove up to the large, stately home in the beautiful countryside, Vanni gulped. Another big house. She knew their family business was successful, but at this point their obvious prosperity was making her nervous. It seemed to be the fulcrum on which so many opinions were balanced. Opinions that had little to do with the true quality of life.

But this was a whole different scene. Marianne Haggerty rushed to the front door when she heard them pulling up, drying her hands on a dish towel that she immediately flung over her shoulder. She was a short, round woman with steel-gray hair and a beautiful complexion. Her smile was effervescent and she had the most wonderful, engaging dimples. Right behind her was a tall, handsome man, Paul’s height, with Paul’s sandy-colored hair, strung with gray.

Marianne gave Paul a peck on the cheek and then quickly focused on the baby, reaching for him. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “Matt’s baby, how luscious. Oh, Vanessa—it’s so wonderful to finally meet you! Matt was so precious to us—we loved him so. Can I hold him? Please?”

“Of course,” Vanni said with a smile, handing him over.

Like grandparents, Marianne and Stan were focused on the baby, smiling and cooing and snuggling, almost ignoring Paul and Vanni. And then, surprisingly, Marianne began to tear up. Then weep. Stan put a strong arm around her shoulders, holding her and the baby against his big chest, murmuring to her, “All right, honey. Don’t get started…” And then his eyes welled and a tear ran down his weathered cheek and they were wiping at each other’s cheeks while cuddling the baby.

“Okay, you two,” Paul said. “Let’s not get going. Don’t upset Vanni.”

“I’m sorry,” Marianne said immediately. She looked at Vanessa with wet eyes. “You’ll just never know how grateful I am for this chance to see him, to hold him. We loved Matt so much. I always felt that he was one of my boys.”

“Mom, if you don’t get under control, I’ll take the baby,” Paul threatened.

Vanni laid a hand on his arm and shook her head at him, a small smile playing on her lips. This was good for her—Carol and Lance didn’t get choked up like this. There was no question in her mind that the Rutledges loved their grandson, but their restraint was sometimes hard to endure, especially during those times she was feeling emotional.

“Beer,” Paul said. “We need beer. And control.”

Stan let go with a hearty though shaky laugh. “Great recipe for control,” he said. “Beer. Come on, come on in.” He reached for Vanni’s hand and pulled her into the house, wiping clumsily at his cheeks.