“Nikki,” he whispered, “you’re doing it to me again.” He covered her mouth and kissed her, deep and long. He touched her breast. “God,” he whispered.
“Take me somewhere,” she said.
“No,” he whispered. “Not until you understand a few things.”
“Hurry then. Tell me what I have to understand.”
“I’m not interested in one night. I want it all. If that’s too much for you, tell me right now. If it’s going to scare you off, I want to know.”
“I want to go to bed with you, and wake up with you.” He kissed her. “Then I want to do that again.” He kissed her. “And again. And again.”
“Okay,” she said breathlessly.
“I’m an idiot, but I’m in love with you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve never felt this bad before.”
“Isn’t it supposed to feel good?”
“It does, when you’re in my arms. When you’re not, it’s just awful.”
“Okay,” she said. “I understand.”
“You’re going to give it a chance?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
“I realize that sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to. I’ve been down that road and so have you. But I’m not going to string you along. I’ll never lie to you. Do you believe me?”
“I do. Do you believe me?”
“You’re not going to run out on me again, without any explanation?”
“I won’t do that again, no.”
“You can do anything else, you know. You can tell me you were mistaken. Tell me you changed your mind and you don’t feel it anymore. Anything but disappearing without a word. If it’s over for you, you have to finish it. Do we have a deal?”
“Deal,” she said against his lips.
“Where do Vanni and Paul think you are?” he asked her in a hoarse whisper.
“With you,” she said.
“And are you?”
“Yes. Yes, Joe. I’m with you.”
He lifted her off her feet, kissing her. “If you want me to make love to you, I will. But only if you want me to. And only if you think it can be the beginning of something, not the end.”
She locked her hands behind his neck and smiled. “You’re something, you know that? You’re not a regular guy. Usually this is about the time the guy says something like, don’t try to pin me down, baby. Guys don’t usually start right off saying they want a chance at something that lasts.”
“Yeah?” He grinned. Then he shrugged, thinking about his boys, his friends. There was a time almost all of them were that other guy—the kind who’s dodging commitment. Now look at them. “You over that idiot who let you go?”
“I’m so over him, I could laugh.”
“Good.” He chuckled. “Let’s go someplace we can wake up together.”
It amazed Joe he could sleep at all, but he did. Holding Nikki in his arms through the night, feeling her sweet, warm body against his, he was at peace. When he woke beside her, it was as though the future had been decided for him. He was dead in love with her, amazed at the way he had only to touch her, kiss her, and she would unfold, wanting him as much as he wanted her. Now it was only a question of what she would decide about them. But he trusted their pact—they would be honest with each other. No more running away.
Joe slipped out of bed in the predawn, the sun barely rising. He thought he’d start the coffee, make love to her again while it brewed, and they could watch the sunrise together. They could talk about when they’d see each other next. He started the coffee. He stared at the coffeepot while it began to brew. The smell of the pot was suspect—he wondered if it was old. Then he lifted his head. He looked at the clock on the microwave. Nine-thirty. He sniffed the air. Oh shit. He unplugged the coffeepot and ran out onto the porch, naked. He thought it was predawn because the sun streaming through the windows was so dim—but it was smoke in the air. “Nikki,” he yelled, running back into the cabin. “Nikki! Wake up! Fire!”
T he town had become a base camp for firefighters and the acrid odor of smoke hung in the air. When Joe pulled into town, he had to park back beyond the church. He held on to Nikki’s hand and ran with her to the center of town. There were many Cal Fire trucks, Hot Shot transports, Cal Fire firefighters and dozens of firefighters who Joe knew at a glance would be inmates trained in firefighting. There were flatbeds loaded with gear, water tenders and trucks for hauling firefighters, paramedic rigs, dozens of men in hard hats and yellow turnouts, boots, packs of gear on their backs, and a tent pitched in the middle of the street, beside it an ambulance. The street was wide enough for a helicopter to land for medical airlift.
On the porch, among many men Joe had never seen before, were his friends. Jack was pulling on yellow turnouts, slipping the suspenders over his shoulders.
“Joe,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you were still here. I knew you intended to leave for Oregon at the crack of dawn.” He glanced at Nikki and couldn’t suppress a quick grin. He gave her a nod.
“Still here. What’s happening?”
“Wind shifted. It’s headed this way.”
“What are we doing?”
Zeke stepped forward and handed him some gear, which he took. “We’re getting in it, bud.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been watching it from Fresno. Just after midnight it looked like it could threaten my favorite hunting grounds, so I fired up the truck and started driving.”
Stephens walked out of the bar, already dressed out, a big doughnut in his hand. “Not before he got everyone out of bed,” he said.
Joe immediately started getting into his gear. He pulled the suspenders over his shoulders. Zeke and Josh were professional firefighters and paramedics, the rest of them trained volunteers—Cal Fire could use them. It would be a lot of fetching and carrying, digging, removing vegetation, but every hand helped.
“What are you doing?” Nikki asked Joe.
“I’ll do what I can to help. You want to go home? Go out to Vanni’s?”
Before she could answer, Mel stepped onto the porch. She was wearing a white doctor’s coat, something Joe had never seen her do before. There was a stethoscope around her neck. “What’s this?” he asked her, lifting his chin toward her as he pulled heavy gloves out of the pockets.
“We’re helping in the first-aid station set up here. Since these guys don’t know us—me and Doc—we have to be identifiable by uniform.”
“Where are the kids?” he asked.
“Little ones are having morning naps in the back,” Jack said. “I think Christopher is standing watch. Paige is in charge of the kids while Mel works medical and Brie attempts to keep the food and water coming.”
“I’ll help her,” Nikki said. She put a quick kiss on Joe’s cheek and whispered in his ear, “I love you, too. Please be careful.” Then she headed quickly into the bar while he followed her with his eyes, a stupid grin on his face.
“There’s help from Cal Fire if Brie and Nikki can’t keep up with it,” Jack said. “If necessary, they’ll evacuate the town. We’re hoping that won’t be necessary.”
Before long, Preacher was on the porch, already dressed in his gear. Paige was beside him, holding their new baby. He bent down, kissed his wife and daughter, and headed down the porch toward the waiting truck. Jack walked after him, snagging his arm. “Maybe you should stay, Preach. In case these women and children have to be taken out of here.”
“There are people to help them out of here. I don’t let you go in anywhere alone.”
“I’m a big boy,” Jack said.
Preacher straightened and glowered. “Me, too.”
Mel walked off the porch and toward the truck that would carry the volunteers away. She watched as the marines climbed on—Zeke, Phillips, Stephens. Mike, Paul, Preacher, Joe and Jack followed them. A truck came flying into town, horn honking. Corny, also a professional firefighter, climbed out and yelled, “Hey! Forget anyone?”
Greetings ripped the air. “What about that new baby?”
“Aw, she’s not so new anymore. We had her two days ago.”
“And your wife let you out of town?”
“You’re kidding, right? She told me to get my ass down here and help.” He grinned, pulling his own gear out of the truck bed. “She’s got her mother—I’m just in the way now. I have years with those kids.”
“Another girl, huh?” Jack said.
“Yeah, but I know I have a boy in me. I just know it.”
“You better keep that to yourself for a while, pal,” someone advised.
There were also locals—Doug Carpenter, Fish Bristol, Buck Anderson and two of his sons. All certified volunteer firefighters.
Everyone but Jack was in the truck. He went to his wife, leaned down and kissed her lips. “When they tell you it’s time, gather up the kids and get out of town.”
“It’s not going to come to that, Jack. It can’t. I don’t know if I can leave this place.…”
“You do it. Keep them safe. And have someone get Ricky’s grandma out.”
“I’ll watch out for Lydie, but I’m waiting for you,” she said. “I’m waiting right here. I’ll be here when you’re done and Virgin River will be fine.”
“Melinda, don’t you dare take any chances.”
“Don’t you,” she said. “You come back as soon as you can.”
He smiled at her. “You know you can’t get rid of me.” He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her up to his mouth. “You taste too good.” He grinned. “Behave yourself.”
Jack climbed into the truck and sat next to Joe. “Looks like maybe you got some things straightened out,” Jack said.
“Might have a start on it. How’d you round up all these old boys?”
“Five of us were already here,” Jack said. “I just can’t believe these other guys. They must never have to work.”
“The few. The proud,” Phillips said. “The soon-to-be jobless if we don’t knock this shit off.”
It took a half hour to get to their area, the fire spreading toward them. Here there were steam shovels, trucks and water tenders parked along the road. All the firefighters, including the volunteers, had their gear on their backs—food, water, survival gear. They were assigned jobs—chain saws for cutting down trees or removing branches, Pulaskis and drag-spoons. They were herded up an old abandoned logging road with the rest of the hand crew. The farther they went, the thicker the air got, the more sparks were flying. They were organized into a line, some of them felling huge trees while hand crews were cutting boughs off felled pines to decrease the fuel to the fire. Still others were digging a wider gap to separate the tree line from the burning forest, digging out vegetation, throwing dirt on small pockets of spreading fire. Water tenders were driving farther back to spray down the small fires started by blowing sparks and embers. Jack walked all the way up to the end of the line and started turning earth. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he said, throwing dirt to cover the felled trees and chopped boughs.
“We all are, man,” Paul said. He looked up. “You think we could get one frickin’ cloud in the sky?”
“Go ahead and pray,” Jack suggested.
The general drove up to the bar and walked inside. The first thing he saw was Brie, her baby niece swaddled in a carrier around her front, setting up pitchers of water on the bar for firefighters. He heard the sound of a baby crying in the back, in Preacher’s quarters. He went behind the bar and dived right in. “I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you and Paige take the kids out to the ranch. It’s surrounded by flat land and river—no danger there. I’ll handle the bar.”