Author: Robyn Carr

“Sure you don’t want to just rent it for a while? Keep a grip on it just in case you decide that’s where you belong? You’ve been there your whole life.…”

“I know. I think it’s time for a new life. Don’t you?” She smiled. “While I’m thinking about where that new life is going to be, I’d like to be here with you, with my family. If it’s okay.”

“Shelby, nothing would make me happier. Honey, I never even dared hope you would come here for a long stay.”

“I hope you still feel that way when I’ve been underfoot for a while. I’m leaving early tomorrow, Uncle Walt. I’m going to shop my way back to Bodega Bay. I haven’t bothered with things like new clothes in years.” Tears came into her eyes. “Do you have any idea how happy that would make my mother?”

Walt pulled her against him and held her. “Shelby, sweetheart, I have an awful lot to be proud of, but I don’t think anyone in my life has made me prouder than I am of you. You’re an amazing young woman.”

Joe tried to keep tabs on Nikki throughout the party, even though she spent a great deal of time mingling among the guests. When it looked as if she wasn’t engaged in conversation, he found a way to get next to her, ask her if she was having fun, how long she would stay in Virgin River, when did she have to get back to work—anything that would keep her attention, keep her talking. Apparently he hadn’t lost his touch; she seemed to enjoy his flirting.

He wondered what the hell was going on with him—she wasn’t typical of the sort of woman he was attracted to. No, it was leggy blondes he liked, and this woman was small with that long sheath of satiny black hair. Her waist was so tiny, he thought maybe he could get his hands around it. That pink mouth, the same color as the dress. Her ankles, narrow. Calves, slim but firm; tiny feet with pink toes. When did he start caring about ankles and toes? He watched her laugh, the way she tilted her head back, an action that sent ripples down her curtain of hair.

Joe was a little confused. When he developed one of those physical attractions, he couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away from a woman’s butt, her breasts, her thighs. This was a whole new thing—the way she laughed, her little feet. It was nuts. It was like a schoolboy’s crush.

He kept watch, looking for a moment to spirit her out under the starlight, maybe steal a kiss or something, wondering why he would bother. First thing in the morning he was headed to Grants Pass and she would take off for San Francisco. Still, he watched her every move. When he saw her walk down the hall and slip into the room that had been given to her for her stay, he briefly gave up the vigil and went to the bar for a drink.

The hour was still early when some of the guests began to leave and Joe was caught up in saying goodbye to friends. “I’m going to open the bar for the guys who are staying over,” Preacher told him.

“Thanks, but I’m just going to bunk in the trailer out front and leave first thing. I have some work to get done before Monday morning,” Joe said.

The marines started to filter out, headed back into town, maybe thinking along the lines of cards, and Paul’s family—parents, brothers and their wives—were going to drive as far as Fortuna to stay the night before going on to Oregon in the morning. Vanni and Paul would pass their wedding night right here, to spend as much time with Tom as possible before he left.

She was gone, Joe realized. The house was beginning to empty of guests, the night was dark but for a sliver of a moon and a billion stars, and the girl he’d had a fix on all day was missing. He looked around the great room, the kitchen, and then, braving rejection, walked down the hall to her room. He tapped lightly on the door, but there was no answer. It was not gentlemanly, but he pushed open the door because he had to find her. She wasn’t there. How’d she get by him? There was no one in the hall bath; the door stood open. He had to at least get her phone number. He felt a trip to the Bay Area coming on.

“Have you seen Nikki?” he asked Vanessa.

“I haven’t. I thought maybe she turned in.”

“Maybe she did,” he lied. “I just wanted to say good-night—I’ll probably be out of here real early in the morning.”

Damn, he wasn’t ready to give up on that one. He hadn’t been drawn to a woman in a while, but this one had hooks in him like grappling. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but it was fierce.

The party was dwindling to just a few people—Rick and Tom and their girls, the bride and groom, the general, Mike and Brie, Shelby. The caterers were packing up and cleaning the kitchen. Joe stepped outside onto the now-dark deck. He took out a cigar, clipped the end, struck a match on his shoe—and it illuminated her. She was standing at the far end of the deck, out of sight, out of the light from within the house, her back to him.

He started to get excited at having found her, feeling a crazy lift in his chest. The match burned down to his fingers and he shook it out with a muffled curse. He took a breath and walked up behind her. “The stars again?” he asked softly.

“Something like that,” she said, her voice teary.

He slipped the cigar back into his shirt pocket and gently grabbed on to her upper arms. “What’s the matter?” he whispered.

“Nothing. I’m fine,” she said. Then she sniffed.

“Nothing? Fine but for the tears?” He gave her arms a squeeze. “Don’t cry, now. I can’t stand it when a woman cries. Wipes me out.”

“Go back inside,” she whispered. “Go on.”

“Can’t,” he said, leaning toward her a little, inhaling her scent. “I’m kind of stuck here now.”

“Just go, okay? This is sort of embarrassing.”

He turned her around slowly. He looked down into those dark, liquid eyes, a trace of tears on each cheek. “All this wedding crap, huh?”

“I don’t want Vanni to think I’m not happy for her.”

“She wouldn’t think that. She’d understand.”

“Someone told you.”

“I asked Paul why a woman as beautiful as you seems sad. Bad breakup, he said. I don’t know the details, but I’m sorry that happened. He’s certifiable, the guy who let you go.” He pressed his lips first against one of those tear tracks, then the one on the other cheek.

“What are you doing?”

“The only thing I can think of is kiss the tears away. I don’t want you to cry anymore, but if you do, I can take care of it.”

“You shouldn’t. We don’t really know each other.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking all day—we should get to know each other better.” He put his hands on her waist. “I’ve been wondering about this all day,” he said. “I can get my hands around your waist.” He lowered his lips to hers, barely touching them. “I think there was a small tear there,” he whispered.

“There wasn’t.”

“There was,” he insisted. He put his lips there again. Barely touching. He ran his tongue along her upper lip. “Tear,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”

Her eyes closed and another tear squeezed out and ran down her cheek. He was right on it, kissing it dry. It took many soft kisses. “No one should make you cry like this. Tell me who he is. I’ll kill him for you.”

“I wasted so much time on him,” she said with a hiccup of emotion.

He kissed her eyes. “He’s a dick,” he said. “Worse. He’s a stupid dick.”

She responded with a small, whimpering laugh.

He pulled her closer, slipped his arms around her and lowered his head to kiss her neck.

“There are no tears there,” she said in a whisper.

“I know that now,” he said. “Do you have any idea how good you smell?”

“Of course. I meant to smell this way,” she said. Her hands were on his arms. Not embracing, but not pushing him away. “Do you do this a lot?”

“I’ve never done this before,” he said.

“You’re such a liar,” she said softly. “I bet you pick up girls all the time.”

He lifted his head. “I try,” he admitted. “It doesn’t work that often. And I swear, I have never found a beautiful woman crying over some jerk and kissed her tears away. Never. But I think I like it. And I’m getting good at it.”

“Not too bad,” she said with a sigh, laying her head on his shoulder. “For an amateur.”

He chuckled. “Nikki, you’re beautiful and sexy. And funny. You shouldn’t be treated badly by anyone. No one should make you cry. Ever.”

“Believe me, I want you to be right.”

“Oh, I’m right.” He touched her lips again, a little more firmly this time. He moved over them tenderly. “I think you’re starting to feel a little better.”

“Not yet,” she said, her eyes closing as she leaned into his kiss again.

Something happened inside Joe’s head, inside his chest. There was a kind of lightness and fullness at the same time. He opened his lips as he kissed her, tasting her mouth, and she was delicious. In fact, she tasted even better than she smelled and he was falling headlong into her. Whoa, he thought. I’m wanting this girl, this woman. I want the maid of honor. She opened her lips under his and allowed his tongue inside and it brought a thrilled, lusty moan from him. He held her close against him, probing the inside of her mouth. No way he was letting her go, now that he finally had her in his arms. Her arms went around his neck, yielding to the kiss, making small noises that were not associated with crying. He found himself thinking, Paul is going to kill me. I’m thinking carnal thoughts about the maid of honor and how to get her out of this pink dress and Paul is going to kill me.

But I will die happy, he further thought.

He pulled away from her just a bit, whispering against her lips, “That’s what you needed. You needed to be kissed.”

“Possibly,” she whispered.

“We should be sure,” he said, covering her mouth again. And again, tongues played, lips moved. He ran a hand down her hair and found it felt as soft as it looked—pure silk. The softest thing he’d ever touched. He scrunched up a handful at the base of her neck. “God,” he whispered, in awe of the texture. “God.”

“We hardly know each other,” she said again, but she said it while her lips were still in contact with his.

“Yeah…but that’s a short-term problem. We’re going to get to know each other lots better.”

Like an answer to a prayer, she came to his lips with hunger, thrusting her small tongue inside, moaning softly as she did so. He ran his hand down to the small of her back and pulled her against him. He devoured her lips for a full minute, for two full minutes. Three. A light from the great room inside the house flicked off, leaving the deck that much darker and he became intoxicated with the taste of her, the feel of her small body molded to his. With a will of its own, his hand brushed against her breast and if he wasn’t mistaken, she kissed him harder, deeper. He could feel an erect nipple under the silk of her dress and he ran his thumb over it, bringing a sigh from her. She didn’t push his hand away. His lips slipped to her neck. “Yeah. You’re starting to feel better I think.”

“Maybe. Just a little.”

He couldn’t hold it back any longer; he was aroused. Erect. Damn. This was going to put him in a tough spot, because this reaction always made it a lot more difficult to think straight. It was a real challenge to be sensible. Logical. Thoughts of Paul killing him for making love to the maid of honor fled from his mind, replaced with obsessive thoughts of what his lips around that nipple would feel like. He lowered his head to check. He was absolutely right—it felt perfect. Even through the dress.