“We’ve got the homesite all picked out,” Paul said. “We can build right on the other side of the pasture, along the river. We’ll share the stable.”
“Have you surveyed it?”
“When we have a design you like, we’ll walk it. Maybe tomorrow before I leave.”
The back door to the bar opened and the sound of someone carrying supplies into the kitchen could be heard. “That’d be Jack. He went out for supplies so I could stick around Paige,” Preacher said, getting to his feet.
“Let’s do it,” Joe said, and all the men present went through the kitchen to help unload Jack’s truck. Work done, they settled in for a beer and a little catching up. At around four, Joe shoved Paul out the door, telling him to take the plans and drawings home to Vanni and he’d see him in a couple of hours.
It wasn’t long before the dinner hour approached, which brought Mel and the little ones to the bar. Joe held the baby for a while, had a few words with Doc, said hello to Hope McCrea while she had her Jack Daniel’s, passed the time with Doug and Sue Carpenter, Brenda’s folks from just down the street. He checked his watch, asked for a cup of coffee from Jack and sat up at the bar.
“Business good?” Jack asked.
“Great,” Joe said. “I’m staying busy.”
“This stuff down here—is this extra?”
“Yeah, but it’s nice to have it. It’s great that my friends want my designs. Good for my ego,” he said.
“So then,” Jack said, “what’s eating you?”
“Not a thing, my brother.” He sat up a little straighter, took in a deep breath.
“Who’s eating you?” Jack said.
“You’re missing the signals, man. I’m good.”
Jack lifted his coffee cup. “Whatever you say.”
Joe knew what Jack was seeing. Joe had always been carefree. A grinning fool, a quick laugh, a lot of jokes, nothing in the world bothered him. He had a good family, good business, women when he bothered, plenty of money, lifelong friends like the boys. He knew there was a smudge on his personality, a sadness that now occupied his eyes and hadn’t been there for a long time, not for a good ten years.
“It’s just that, it seems like something’s bothering you,” Jack said.
“Yeah, maybe. Not a big deal. It’ll pass.”
“You ever want to talk, you know where I am.”
Joe smiled. “Thanks, buddy.”
Jack shrugged. “Maybe she’ll come around.”
“Who?” Joe asked, a little stunned. He would be genuinely pissed if Paul had talked about this.
“Whoever she is. Men have a lot of looks, pal. They have a look for business worries, family worries, ego worries. Combat worries—I got good at spotting that one. And there’s a real special look when a man wants a woman and she’s out of reach.”
It made Joe laugh. “Is that a fact?”
Jack sipped his coffee. “I’ve worn that look a couple of times.”
“I must not have been around,” Joe said.
“You might’ve been. Mel made me work pretty damn hard for her. It was excruciating. Excuse me—I have to load up the family. I stay late now that Paige is so close. Mel has to take the kids home, get them in bed.”
“I’ll help,” he said.
They got Mel and the little ones settled in the truck. Jack leaned in the window to kiss her and Joe was overcome with longing. This was torture, watching his best friends, his brothers, with their women. By the end of a hunt, they were talking about getting home to their beautiful, lush, ripe women, bringing them children and love. Joe hadn’t been so worried about the fact that he hadn’t found this yet until recently, until he held a woman that made him feel that full, that in love, and immediately lost her.
Vanni loved her house plans. She was animated and full of life, and in that, very affectionate toward Joe. If he was reading her right, she was forgiving Joe’s dalliance with her best friend. The general got into the mix, making suggestions, arguing with his daughter about what she should be doing differently. Joe was good at this sort of thing—he listened while they batted around ideas and waited until the dust settled. Then he could step in with one minor adjustment and bring the whole thing together.
For Vanni and Paul, Joe designed a larger version of Paul’s house, but with changes that although slight, gave it a different appearance altogether, so it didn’t look like a copy and was better suited for a growing family. The features they loved were there—the wide hallways, spacious rooms, high ceilings, large garage. And it had to have more bedrooms—Paul was going to fill her with babies.
He spent the night in the cabin, then in the morning he drove out to Jack’s property—to the parcel he’d given to Brie and Mike. It wasn’t far from Jack’s—they’d extended his road another quarter of a mile to their homesite. Paul had already set up shop and was hiring construction crew, quite successfully. He had the requisite trailer for his office and a Porta Potty for his crews. Now that there were plans, Paul could have the foundation poured. The septic tank would go in and the well dug. Then the plumbing and frame and wiring. “Then it’s game on,” Joe said. “Let’s go walk your property at the general’s,” he said.
This, too, was ready to move. The first order of business was the grading of the road, which would be a three-quarter-mile stretch, but no major excavation would be required, no trees to bring down. In ball cap and jeans, Joe paced off the perimeters of the foundation and pounded in some temporary stakes with red flags on them. He took a can of spray paint and outlined the house on the ground, bringing it up close enough to the river for a nice backyard view from a deck, far enough away to avoid problems with possible flooding. “I have indoor sprinklers in the design, which I recommend, but understand that in a wildfire, they aren’t going to do the job. It’s a precaution for a home fire.”
“I understand,” Paul said.
“You can pour both foundations at the same approximate time. Do Brie and Mike’s first, since they have a bun in the oven, then get over here and pour yours. You can get started on the extension at the bar and as soon as Preacher’s baby is a couple of weeks old, we can relocate them to the cabin. We’ll tear out some walls—and you should move fast on that one to keep the bar working. You can stagger your crews—move the framers from the Valenzuelas’ property to this property, et cetera.”
“I’ve built more than one house at a time.” Paul smiled.
“I know. Just talking,” he said, smiling back.
“We’re going to need finalized architectural drawings,” Paul said.
“Two weeks?” Joe asked.
“Perfect,” Paul said, sticking out his hand. “I’ll order concrete.”
Joe shook it. “Pleasure doing business with you. I’m going to head out.”
“You want to say goodbye to Vanni?”
“Tell her I said goodbye and thank-you, would you?”
“You know, this is probably none of my business—but this thing we’re not talking about? It might help your case a little if you could just tell Vanni you’re sorry.”
Joe shook his head in a silent laugh, looking down. He put his hands in his pockets. “I couldn’t do that, pal,” he said. “Not honestly.” He took a breath. “The only thing I’m sorry about is how it turned out.”
Paul was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “Gotcha.”
Vanni had nursed the baby and put him down for the night. She heard her dad walk down the hall to his room at about nine-thirty, but her husband didn’t come to bed. Finally she went to the great room to see if he was hooked on something on television. She found him sitting forward in a chair, his elbows on his knees, a drink in his hands.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He sat back and patted the chair beside him. “Thinking.”
“Is it keeping you up?” she asked, sitting.
He gave her a wan smile. “Do you know how great my life is? How happy I am?”
She put her hand on his knee. “You’ve done a real good job of making sure I do, Paul. I’m just as happy.”
“I want to tell you something. Think back a few months. A long while back, the first night you surprised me by walking into Jack’s. When all the boys got together to hunt and I had no idea you were here, in Virgin River, and you surprised me. Remember?”
“I do.” She smiled.
“That very night, overcome just by seeing you, I might’ve had one too many.”
“I think you told me that, Paul,” she said.
“I got tanked. And I made this drunken confession to Jack, about how I’d seen you first but Matt got to you ahead of me. No one else heard me, thank God. But Jack knew what was going on. Later, then, after Matt was killed and the baby was born and a certain pediatrician was chasing you, Jack called me one night and told me not to be an idiot. He said if I wanted you I’d better get down here and find a way to say so.”
“He did? I never knew that.”
“And I came as fast as I could. Because if I hadn’t, I was going to lose you. And I loved you. God, I loved you.” He took a breath. “Before I ever held you or kissed you, I was so in love with you, sometimes it was awful. I try to imagine what it might have felt like if we’d been a couple, for even one night, and you didn’t want me anymore.”
“You don’t have to ever imagine that, sweetheart,” she said.
“I have what every man wants—a woman he’d die for. A woman who owns him, every piece of him. I really never thought I’d be this lucky.…”
“Stop,” she said. “Don’t go crazy on me.” She put her hand along his cheek. “Just pick up your dirty underwear like a good boy and I’ll reward you in many remarkable ways.”
But Paul wasn’t laughing. “Did you see my friend Joe? The guy is in pain. He’s dying. He had one night with a woman who obviously fulfilled every wish buried in his subconscious. She put a hex on him, then rejected him. Did you see him?”
She took a deep breath. “Paul, his timing was bad. We can’t help that.…”
“So was hers. I’ve known the man for fifteen years. He might be smooth, but he’s not disreputable. He wouldn’t take a woman to bed if she didn’t want to go. If Nikki had expressed the least hesitation, he wouldn’t have touched her. I know him. I know him as well as I knew Matt.”
“So? She made a mistake. What are you getting at?”
“She shouldn’t make a bigger one,” he said. “They just don’t come any better than Joe. There must have been some reason she said yes that night.”
“I’ve sent the little notes from him. She hasn’t changed her mind. You want me to talk to her?”
“No, honey. I’m going to talk to her.”
“I don’t know if you should do that,” she said nervously.
“But I’m going to. I’ve been thinking about it all day and I’m calling her. Right now. You want to listen in or go put your head under the pillow?”
She sucked in a breath. “I’ll listen,” she said. “But please, don’t let on I’m here. I feel really strange about this.”
“I want you to trust me,” he said, picking up the phone. He dialed the number. “I have to do this.”
Nikki could no doubt see the number on the caller ID because she picked up. She answered, “Hi, sweetie.”
“It’s not sweetie,” Paul said. “It’s Paul.”