She played with the hair at his temple. Not many women knew what it was like to have a man like this. A powerful and lusty man like Jack. He always put her needs and feelings ahead of his own, always looking to care for her in every way, keeping her safe, making sure she knew how loved she was. How wanted. In his love, in his arms, she always felt beautiful and sexy. Desired. Cherished. She kissed him on the lips and said, “Later. And you don’t have to be all that careful—I’m all right now.”
“But your poor little body has been through so much,” he said.
“John Stone was just here this morning, so he gave me a little check. I have my operator’s license back.”
“Oh, baby,” he said in a breath.
“But, Jack, you are not to write Rick about that!”
He grinned at her and said, “Just as well. I could never put it into words, what I feel with you.”
This was a kind of union Mel hadn’t even dared fantasize. The level of their intimacy, from the physical to emotional, was so deep and intense, it was impossible for either of them to tell where one ended and the other began. She could read his mind; he could sense her feelings. They anticipated each other in so many ways. It was as if his heart beat in her breast. She had never known another human being as she knew her Jack. And she made herself just as accessible to him, holding nothing back.
As July arrived, Paige’s time grew near. Mel was checking her by the week and she was progressing normally, ready for labor anytime. She had decided to have her baby at Doc’s because her small quarters weren’t really conducive to a home birth. And there was Christopher, only four. Lots of Mel’s rural patients had children around during deliveries; they’d come from families who had been having home births for generations and it was all part of the life cycle to them. For Paige and Preacher, however, this was a very new thing. In fact, Mel would have expected her to choose Valley Hospital and a sterile labor-and-delivery wing. But Paige was very determined—the only person who could deliver her was Mel.
Joe Benson was putting the plans together for Brie and Mike’s house, Paige and Preacher’s add-on. He also had some preliminary sketches ready to show Paul for his house, but felt hesitant. Since the incident with Nikki, their relationship was strained. Vanni seemed to be over her anger with Joe, but Joe wasn’t nearly over his disappointment in all of them. He supposed it would just take time.
What he would’ve liked was a little support. Maybe they could have gone to bat for him with the woman. Let her know that Joe was an okay guy, that he didn’t use and abuse women. Reassure her, maybe. Encourage her to at least get in touch with him. To maybe take a chance on him.
Joe hadn’t talked to Paul or Vanni about Nikki for a while. What he had done, however, was send notes to Vanni for Nikki about every other day, hoping to break through the barrier. Short, one-or two-sentence notes. “Please call me, Nikki. I want a chance to show you I’m a decent guy.” “Call me or write me and tell me you are absolutely not interested in seeing me again—but don’t do this. Don’t ignore me.” “I care. I thought it was clear in my actions that I’m sincere.” It took him a while to make himself stop; he began to feel like an idiot. And the more like an idiot he felt, the worse his mood. He hadn’t been passing notes like that since he was totally, insanely, ridiculously in love with Jodie Ferguson in the fourth grade. Blond, brilliant, distant Jodie—the first girl to get boobs in his class.
Although he had managed to kick his habit of note writing, he found a Nicole Jorgensen in the San Francisco phone directory and when he called that number, the voice on the answering machine was unmistakably hers. “Ah, Nikki, it’s Joe. From Grants Pass. I’d love to talk to you. No, I really need to talk to you. Please. I’ve been trying to reach you since the wedding. Come on, Nikki, we have things to talk about. I’m totally confused.”
Of course she didn’t call. Fortunately he left only the one message. It took great restraint on his part not to call that number several more times, just to hear the sound of her voice. That sweet, sultry voice that had caressed his mind with every word that had come out of her mouth. But her caller ID would show repeated attempts, making him look out of control, so he held himself back.
It had been a few weeks. He was done. No more note writing, no more calls. Even he wouldn’t date someone this desperate. He was going to start looking like a stalker when what he was, was in love with her. It embarrassed even him to think like that. How could you be in love with someone you’d met twice, but you knew for only twenty-four hours? It was impossible. There must be some other explanation for dreaming about her, smelling her, tasting her, hearing her voice, feeling her hair against his cheek when he was waking up in the morning. Some sort of mania or hallucination. An obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He called Paul. “Yeah, hi. If you’re ready, I can bring down the plans for your two properties this weekend. We can go over them with the owners, walk the land, make adjustments, get moving on this.”
“That would be great,” Paul said cheerfully. “Want to stay with us while you’re here?”
“Thanks, but I’m making some other plans.”
“How about the trailer? Want to borrow it?”
He laughed uncomfortably. “For sure, no. But thanks for the offer. I think I’m going to stay at Jack’s this trip.”
“Whatever works. I’m really looking forward to seeing you, buddy.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Joe said.
Joe asked Jack if that little cabin in the woods was still available and Jack told him it was. Jack mentioned his worry about the small forest fires that seemed to be springing up all over the countryside across five states due to drought and extreme dryness. Joe was able to see firsthand what that was about when he made the drive south. He passed a couple of small pockets of fire that came dangerously close to the roads he traveled. There were not too many controlled burns out there when the weather was so dry, but he supposed some of the small plumes of smoke he saw in the distance could be fires set by Cal Fire to keep the landscape under control—spacing the clumps of forest to give them an advantage in a fire, to keep it from spreading.
He was a volunteer in the Grants Pass Fire Department, but had only been called once, years ago. There was nothing quite as ominous as driving through the lush green hillsides staked with towering pines and not be able to see very far in front of you because of smoke. Or worse, driving down a road that was bordered on each side by the charred, black skeletons of once-majestic trees. When a fire had passed through, the hillsides could look like that for years and years and years.
Joe was glad when he reached the redwoods, untouched and pristine. And then past the Virgin, wide and wild, flowing over rocks and down natural waterfalls. Another few months would bring deer hunting; deer hunters. Fishing in the Virgin would start to get real good. The boys would come down in a few months to catch the end of hunting season; Mel would throw a fit, but it wouldn’t do her any good. And then she’d cry if they shot any deer. The memory of it made him smile—she was so sentimental, and Jack was so tender with her. But he’d hunt anyway.
He walked into the bar with his plans rolled up under his arm. Preacher was waiting for him, but the bar was empty, as it often was in the middle of the afternoon. Joe got his usual bear hug from the big man. “Ready to be a daddy, my man?” Joe asked him.
“Whew, you can’t know. Paige, she’s big as a—” He stopped himself. “Mel says that baby’s ready to walk out of her.”
“Get the girl,” Joe said. “You’re going to love the house.”
“Yeah, I’ll get her. And I’ll give Brie a call—they’re excited to see their plans. How about Paul?”
“I told him I’d get here by early afternoon. I’m sure he’ll show up.”
When Paige came out of the back, Joe’s eyes warmed over at the sight of her. She was ripe as an overdue melon. Plump and rosy and big. “Aw, honey,” he said. “You’re so beautiful.”
“Thanks, Joe,” she said, reaching for him.
He pulled her into his arms and while he hugged her, the baby kicked. “Whoa,” he said. “What do you have in there? A football team?”
“A feminine little girl,” she said. “Dana Marie.”
“She’s got big feet, I guarantee it,” he told her. “You want to see your new house?” he asked.
“I can’t wait.”
He barely had the plans laid out on a table when Brie and Mike came in. More hugs and warm greetings. “And I understand you’ve put a little rush on the building?” he asked. “To make room for a newcomer?”
“Right around Christmas,” she said.
“I can already see it in your eyes.”
“What you see is me getting past the first trimester. It’s relief, Joe. We’re not getting any younger.”
“I feel younger, that’s for sure,” Mike said, and if Joe wasn’t mistaken, his chest puffed a little bit.
“Okay, we got your house pretty close to ready, and Paul and I will walk the property this weekend. Come over here.”
Joe had Paige and Preacher seated at one table, going over plans, Mike and Brie at another, and he walked between the two with a pointer and a pencil, answering questions, penciling in adjustments.
For Preacher, he had added to the existing apartment. Downstairs the current quarters were enlarged into a great room with fireplace, no need for a kitchen but a serving area with sink, counter, dishwasher and cupboards for their own dishes and glassware that fronted a large dining room. They would use the bar’s kitchen for their cooking, but should have a private place for meals. He designed a big master bedroom and enlarged the existing bath. The larger downstairs could support two more bedrooms upstairs, a Jack and Jill bath and a loft, connected to Christopher’s room by a short hall. There was a wide-open staircase from the great room to the loft. It turned those little quarters into a real four-bedroom, three-bath house that could be filled with family and friends.
For Mike and Brie, twenty-five hundred square feet of living space, another five hundred attached to the house as office space for Brie with entrances from the outside and inside. Four bedrooms, a great room, a spacious kitchen, three baths including the master, and some beautiful features from vaulted ceilings, a large marble shower without doors, granite counters, stone hearths in the great room and master, slate and hardwood floors, a long, deep deck.
By the time they’d gotten familiar with the designs, Paul arrived. Joe felt awkward until he saw his old friend, and then it was natural to grab him, give him a hearty greeting with slaps on the back. “I’ve really missed you, man,” Paul said.
“Yeah, me, too. Hey, I brought some drawings for you and Vanni to look at. Maybe something will work. I did it based on what you said she liked about your Grants Pass house.”
“Bring them to dinner.”
“I don’t want to impose.…”
“You’re kidding, right? Joe—we gotta get past this. Seriously. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
“Maybe it was mine,” he said, dropping his head briefly. “Whatever, it’s in the past. It’s over. We should try to move on.”
Paul glanced at Brie and Mike, Paige and Preacher. Seeing they were absorbed in their house plans, he quietly asked, “Have you moved on, brother?”
“Yeah,” Joe answered with a laugh that even he knew was insincere. “Sure.”
“Come to dinner,” Paul said. “Please.”
“Okay,” he said. “But you have to take the plans home first, give Vanni a chance to have a look before I get there. So she can work up her questions and complaints.”