“Who more likely for you to be attracted to than someone who misses Matt as much as you do? Who loves little Mattie as much as Matt would himself? Besides, it’s not like you just met him—he’s been around since the day you met Matt! You know him better than anyone. You certainly don’t have to wonder what kind of man he is.”
“I’m just afraid…I’m not sure I’m ready to really let go of Matt.”
Nikki laughed. “Vanni, you don’t have to let go of Matt any more than Paul does. He’ll be part of you and Paul forever.”
Vanni gave her a thankful smile, lifting a tawny brow. “That’s what I’ve been thinking lately. It’s not like it has to be a choice, does it?”
“No way, babe.”
“So, how are things with you and Craig?”
Nikki’s smile vanished. “The same. Not good. I gave him an ultimatum. Commitment or we’re over. He just keeps saying he needs time. But how much time? It’s been five years. He knows I want a family, and my clock isn’t standing still.”
Vanni shook her head, doubtful. “He’ll never give you up,” Vanni said, but truthfully, she feared Nikki would never leave him even if he didn’t give her a tenth of what she needed.
Nikki lifted her chin. “Oh, yeah? You a betting woman?”
“Nikki, do you mean it this time? Really?”
Nikki touched the baby’s foot. “I’m not going through life without at least a shot at this,” she said. “I’m selfish. I want it all. And things have been nonnegotiable with Craig on all of it.”
Paul had been back in Grants Pass for just over six weeks. He’d had that evening with Terri and had promised her he’d be in touch. When she came to him at work and asked if he could sneak away for a conversation, he figured it was about the fact that he hadn’t called as he’d promised.
He folded his long legs up into her little Toyota parked in front of his office and said, “What’s up?” Through some nervous tears, she explained that she was pregnant and hadn’t been with anyone but him.
“Pregnant?” he repeated stunned. “Pregnant?”
“Yeah,” she said. “It happened that night after you got back to town. You remember. It was a pretty intense night. You can’t have forgotten.”
“How in the world did that happen? You said you were on the pill. I wore a condom.”
“I don’t know,” she said, sniffing. “It’s probably my fault. I’m sorry.”
“Your fault?” he asked. “How?”
“I haven’t had a boyfriend in so long, I got a little sloppy with the pills, missing them sometimes. Your call—it came as a surprise. I hadn’t heard from you in such a long time and I couldn’t pass up seeing you. But you had the condom and I was sure we’d be okay…I don’t know what went wrong. It must have been me missing pills, you having a faulty condom…I can’t think of any other explanation…”
“Aw, man,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, getting a grip on his panic. “Okay, tell me what you need,” he said, taking her hand and holding it in both of his.
“Any possibility marriage might come to mind?”
He didn’t even have to think about it. There was someone else; there’d been someone else for a long, long time. “God, Terri, we can’t get married. What did you call us—friends with benefits? We’re consenting adults who like and respect each other and that’s a lot, but at the same time, not enough. You’re important to me, but we don’t have the kind of relationship that would get us married. Keep us married.”
“That’s a little beside the point right now,” she said.
“We don’t really know each other. Not really.”
“We know each other well enough that I’m pregnant.”
“I take this to mean you’ve decided you want to have the baby?”
“I’m almost thirty,” she said, bristling. “I’m not getting rid of it.”
“Okay, okay, good,” Paul said, relieved in spite of common sense telling him this could be taken care of; it could disappear. He did not want to be in this position, but he didn’t want this baby erased, either. “I can help financially. I can do my best to support you emotionally. I swear, I’ll stand by you. But, Terri, anything more than that would be a mistake for both of us.”
“Why?” she asked, tears springing to her eyes.
He put an arm around her and held her against his shoulder as much as he could, given the tight space in her car. “Lots of reasons, starting with, before anything happened between us, we had a conversation about us—neither of us was looking for anything serious. We’ve been together, what? Three times in a year? Four? God, I’m sorry, Terri, but the night this happened, that’s the closest we’ve ever been, and that happened because I was messed up and you were sweet enough to give me an ear. Honey, we’re just not in love.”
“How do you know I’m not?” she asked.
“We’ve spoken once in the last six months. If you had those kind of feelings, I never suspected.” He tightened his arm around her. “Terri, you’re so special and wonderful. But here we are, two people who can go six months without talking, without seeing each other.” He shook his head. “I knew that night was a mistake. I went too deep into my feelings and you got too attached. But it’s just not the real thing. It was my crisis, your compassion that got us where we are today. Marrying you now would only get in the way of you finding what you really need. And believe me, you don’t need me.”
“What am I going to do?”
Selfishly he thought, what am I going to do? “Whatever you want to do, I’ll help in every way I can. I’m sorry, but you deserve a husband who loves you as much as you love him.”
“But I’m having your baby!” she said desperately.
“I’ll do whatever I can, Terri, except marriage. It wouldn’t last. It could make us enemies and we have to do better than that.”
“Would I be such a terrible choice for a wife?” she asked pitifully.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Terri, nothing. The problem was with him. He found Terri attractive, desirable, funny and sweet, which was how he’d ended up with her at the time Vanni was married to his best friend. He’d have given anything to fall in love. When he thought of Vanni his blood pressure shot up and his heart pounded. When he thought of Terri, a smile came to his lips because she was so cute, because she made him laugh and because she was just plain good people. When he thought of Vanni, he was filled with fear and lust and ridiculous hope. He liked Terri; he was totally crazy for Vanni and had been for years. He didn’t know why. He suspected an evil curse made him want something he could never have.
It wasn’t fair to Terri; it wasn’t right, nor was it the easy way. But it was what it was. His testosterone kicked up when he was with Terri because she was seductive, pretty, available and he was alone. He was just a man; sometimes it was nice to have a woman in his life. Calling Terri after Matt’s death when the only woman in the world he wanted to be with was Vanni had been a critical mistake. But he’d been so desperate for understanding, for friendship.
“I think you’ll make someone a wonderful wife, when you find the right man,” he said. “I’m not the guy, but I’ll do whatever I have to do to be a part of this, Terri. I won’t run, I won’t hide. And God, Terri, I’m sorry. I sure didn’t mean for this to happen.”
Joe Benson had been designing houses for Haggerty Construction for about ten years, and he was a little worried about his friend Paul. He’d seen Paul on a couple of job sites and they talked about getting together for a beer, but Paul had been evasive, distracted, morose and probably depressed. Small wonder—Paul had been through a lot with Matt’s death. Joe suspected a pressure cooker. So he did what a good friend does—he pushed. It was time for Paul to let it out, so he could move on.
Joe went to a small, dark, quiet bar and waited for Paul to meet him. Joe had picked the place—somewhere a man could talk privately about the stuff that was eating his gut. He looked at his watch several times, wondering if Paul would be a no-show. Joe had a beer and was thinking about either trying the cell phone or just leaving when Paul finally lumbered in, head down, looking like he’d looked for too long now. The man was hurting all over.
“Beer,” he said to the bartender before he even said hello. “Heineken.”
“So,” Joe said, picking up his almost empty beer. “You’re in lousy shape.”
Paul was quiet for a moment, waiting for his beer. When it came he took a long drink before he said, “Lousy.”
“Listen, I thought maybe if we had a beer together, talked about it…”
“Believe me, you don’t want to talk about this, Joe.”
“Business okay?” Joe asked, nibbling around the edges of this situation. Paul’s family business was a good little company that did quality construction. While Matt might’ve been Paul’s best friend since they were kids, Joe had been closest to him since Desert Storm when they joined the same Marine reserve unit. They’d worked together since then and had gone back to Iraq together.
“Business is fine,” Paul said. “That’s not the problem.”
Joe clamped a strong hand on Paul’s shoulder. “You’re not yourself lately, bud. You’re having trouble moving on after Matt…He wouldn’t want this, you know.”
“Maybe it’s more than Matt,” Joe said. “I get the feeling something’s really eating you.”
“Yeah?” he asked with a somber laugh. “Jesus, you’re psychic.” He took another long drink of his beer.
“Any chance you could just go ahead and get it out where we can look at it? Because if you’re gonna drink that fast, you’ll leave me in your dust pretty quick.”
Paul shook his head. “I fucked things up pretty bad, Joe. I got myself in a mess I’m not gonna get out of.”
Joe stared at him a long moment. Then he banged his glass on the bar and when the bartender came over he said, “Gimme another one of these, huh?” While he was waiting for a new brew, he turned to Paul and asked, “You have any idea how confusing you are right now?”
“Yeah. You should find more stable people to drink with.”
“Well, until I do…”
It was a moment before Paul finally said, “I got someone pregnant…”
“No,” Joe said, stunned. “No, you’re too smart for that…”
Paul laughed. “I guess I’m not. Maybe I should sue Trojan, huh?”
“Oh, Jesus,” Joe said. “Oh God. Someone special? I hope?”
“Nice girl,” Paul said with a shrug. “But it wasn’t…Aw, man. It was…We aren’t…Shit. It was just one of those things. You know? I’ve known her about a year, but I’ve only been out with her a few times. We really didn’t have anything going on except…”
“Oh, Jesus,” Joe said again.
Paul turned toward Joe. “While I was in Virgin River last fall I didn’t talk to her once during that time—that’s how casual. I came back here all the time to check on the company, my dad and brothers, but I never even called her. And she didn’t call me. But…”
“But I came home with my gut in a knot after everything that had happened in Virgin River and I called her. On instinct, probably. And guess what happened?”