Vanessa had always been sure of herself. Her mother had called her feisty, her father proclaimed her a handful, her best friends from the airline told her she was a fearless extrovert and counted on her to handle difficult situations with pilots or passengers. Matt had called her his fiery-haired vixen.
Around Carol, however, she lacked confidence. Carol was chic, perfect, successful and took self-assurance to the next level. Vanessa and Carol seemed to disagree on everything, and Carol managed to get her way at all times by wearing the most engaging smile. Carol Rutledge was possibly the only woman alive Vanessa had trouble standing up to. On top of that, Vanni felt she looked fat.
Frustrated, she pulled on a pair of jeans with an elastic waistband and her riding boots. She found her father in the great room. “Hey, Dad. Matt’s asleep and should be down for another hour or two. Can you listen for him while I take a short ride? I won’t be long.”
“Take your time,” he said, barely looking up from his book.
At least she was finally cleared to ride again. The exercise and glorious spring weather was good for her spirits. When she got to the stable, she noticed the door to the tack room was ajar. She heard something, hopefully not a mouse. She pushed the door open a bit further and saw her younger brother Tom sitting on the bench, paging through a book. “Whatcha doin?” she asked.
He jumped in surprise, slammed the book shut and hid it behind his back. His cheeks brightened and he looked like he wanted to die. She walked into the room and reached behind him, grabbing onto the book. She withdrew The Joy Of Sex.
“Is this mine?” she asked.
“This is mine!” she said.
“Come on, Vanni. Be a sport, huh?”
“Where did you find this?”
“I had to clean out the garage for Dad,” he said.
“But this must have been packed up in my stuff,” she said. “You’re not, you know—using this to—You know.”
“What?” he asked, brows drawn together in confusion. Then he caught her meaning; she thought he was using the pictures to beat off. “No! Jesus, no!”
“Well, then what?”
He shrugged. “I was just a little curious. That’s all.”
She flipped through the pages. It was an old book, but quite graphic. “You and Brenda aren’t having enough joy?”
He frowned. Sometimes he hated his sister, and this was one of them. “No, if you must know.”
“She suggest a little homework?”
“Vanni, we haven’t done it, all right?”
Her head snapped up in surprise. She smiled wryly and lifted a brow. “Really?” she said, grinning.
He hated her. “Really,” he said.
“You’re a virgin?”
“Vanni, so help me—”
He was. He’d made it all the way to eighteen with his virginity intact? Whew, she thought. Either he wasn’t as motivated as most boys his age or he was awfully well mannered. “Hmm,” she said. And then it hit her—she and Dad were going to Grants Pass with the baby for the weekend. “Oh-oh.”
“Don’t start,” he warned her.
“You have a date this weekend, Tommy?” she asked him.
He put his head in his hands. “God, why couldn’t I have had a big brother…”
“I presume you’re totally covered?” she asked him.
“I swear, if you say anything to anyone, especially—”
“Are you?” she asked a little hotly.
He looked up at her, almost bored. “Ask yourself—does the general’s boy have the facts about sexual responsibility? Does he have a drawer full of rubbers and all the birth control information available to the entire U.S. Army? Does the kid know anything about STDs? You wanna give me a frickin’ break here? Who is your father, huh?”
“Yeah, okay,” she said. Dad probably started talking to him about this stuff when he was three. “I’ll give you that one.” She flipped through the pages. She held the book open, turned it around toward him and gave it back to him. “Read this page. Memorize this page. I’m going for a short ride.”
She saddled up and took one of the horses out on the trail along the river, thinking about how long it had been since she’d even anticipated making love. Matt left almost a year ago and didn’t come back. She envied Tom, and she was frankly very surprised he was still untouched.
Well, if they were going to do it, she hoped her little brother would do a decent job of it. Vanessa’s first time had been a waste of time. But hopefully Brenda would fare better—the page she had shown Tom was all about the clitoris.
Carol and Lance Rutledge had been down to Virgin River twice in the past few months. First, last December to bury their son on the general’s land, an event that was understandably painful. If it wasn’t bad enough that they’d lost their only son, they had nothing to say about where he’d be laid to rest, and Carol had been stiff and angry about the decisions she felt Vanessa had made alone.
The Rutledges came back right after the baby was born to see their first and what would be their only grandchild. Those visits had been tense until Carol softened toward the baby. Lance, however, was very like his son had been—laid-back, cuddly, humorous. Carol was cool; a well-decked and still sexy grandmother who said, “Ew,” when the baby spit up on her blouse.
Now that the baby was almost two months, Vanni and Walt were going to them for the first time. Vanessa had always hated these visits, even when Matt was alive. Lance Rutledge was so easy to get along with, so unflappable. And, as men will do, Matt and his dad had hung together during visits and either ignored or were oblivious to any discord between the women.
Vanni wasn’t the only one who had trouble getting along with Carol. She and Matt had laughed about how Carol blamed Paul for talking Matt into quitting college to join the Marine Corps. Paul had gone back to college and received his degree in engineering while Matt stayed with the Corps.
The Rutledge home was very large for only two people, up on a hill with a long driveway. Lance was an endodontist and Carol had been in real estate for many years and was a real mover and shaker in the business world of Grants Pass. They were certainly successful enough to retire, but they both enjoyed their work, social lives and vacations.
Carol Rutledge didn’t look her age. She was fit and trim with thick auburn hair that she kept short, manicured nails, a drop-dead wardrobe and, though this was supposed to be a secret, a woman who had benefited from a face-lift that made her look more a youthful fifty than sixty. Before pregnancy and childbirth, Vanni felt equal by comparison, but at the moment, breasts straining at her shirts, hips too wide and waistless, nails trimmed down short, she felt dowdy and insecure.
When they arrived, Lance grabbed the baby immediately, thrilled to be nuzzling him, while Carol stood beside him, giving the baby a few pats. Vanni wandered into the house, so large and richly decorated. Eventually she moved down the hall to peek into the room Matt had used as a teenager, looking at all the memorabilia. It was everywhere—pictures, letters from high school teams, trophies, posters, airplane models. It hadn’t been preserved, but restored, like a shrine. A small framed picture of the baby now rested on the bureau, as though Matt would be back directly. It almost made Vanni cry.
That evening, as Lance turned steaks on the grill with Walt and the women keeping him company on the deck, Vanni learned that Carol had at least one surprise in store for her. “I’ve invited another guest to dinner tomorrow night, Vanessa,” Carol told her. “A friend of ours—a young doctor I met through work. His name is Cameron and he’s just darling.”
“Carol, you’re not fixing me up, are you?”
“Of course not! But I didn’t think it was too soon for you to meet someone. If you two get along, maybe sometime in the future…”
“She’s fixing you up,” Lance said.
“That’s what it sounds like,” Walt agreed.
“Oh God,” Vanni said miserably.
“Stop it, all of you. We’ve had Cameron to dinner before, and he’s charming. I happen to like him.”
“But, Carol, Paul will be here, too.”
“I know, honey,” she said brightly. “I’m sure they’ll hit it off. I know if Matt were with us, he’d like Cameron.”
How could she do that so well? Make Vanni feel guilty, as though Matt would want her to meet this Cameron? Vanni’s pants immediately began to feel more snug, her belly rounder, her breasts bulkier and nails choppier. Not only would she look plump and awkward to Paul, but to two men. She tried to be ready for anything with Carol, but hadn’t counted on something like this, a new widow with a baby just two months old—and two bachelors at dinner. One of whom she had been missing. Missing so much.
“We should talk about what you’re going to do next, Vanessa,” Carol said smoothly. “With just the smallest interest in real estate, I could take you into our firm. Your hours would be flexible for the baby, the market is good right now and it would set you up for a successful career.” She beamed. “I could work alongside you until you get your sea legs.”
Vanni wanted to die. She’d rather have an ax firmly planted in her skull than work with Carol every day. “I’m…ah…afraid real estate doesn’t appeal to me much.”
“You can’t be thinking of flying again,” Carol said. “Really, I could help. At least give it a fair chance.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s too soon for me to think about that now. I’ll let you know.”
“Good girl,” Carol said, patting her knee and smiling.
Vanni was a long way from having Carol figured out. She seemed to be trying to be helpful, but she plowed through every polite, “No, thank you,” and did as she pleased. She’d made Vanni’s wedding a nightmare with her interference. Vanni’s mother had been deceased only a short time, and Carol had wanted to step in and help in that role, but she took over. Carol had not liked the colors of the bridesmaids’ dresses; she preferred coral to pale green. She thought that by getting a consensus from the bridesmaids and paying for the ones she liked, the problem was solved, but Vanni had hated them. When she had appealed to Matt, he had said, “What’s wrong with orange, or whatever that is? They look nice and the girls like them.”
“They clash with my hair!” Vanni had tearfully argued. “There will be pictures…”
“Look,” said Matt, the peacekeeper. “She doesn’t have a daughter—why not let her have her way about some small things?” So Vanni let it go and Carol changed the flowers from Vanni’s favorites of calla lilies to white roses and baby’s breath. She added a hundred names to her guest list and presided over the parties and wedding reception as though it was her wedding, cracking the whip over caterers and florists like an Egyptian pharaoh. “Try not to worry about little things,” Matt had said. “Really, she’s only trying to help. She just wants everything to be beautiful for us.” It left Vanni in the uncomfortable position of fighting it out with her future husband or future mother-in-law.
As for Saturday night’s dinner, Cameron arrived a good half hour before Paul for drinks. Vanni suspected Carol had told Cameron six and Paul six-thirty, and because of that, Vanni didn’t give Carol any credit at all for coming up with a perfectly nice man in her attempted setup.
But the man who stood before Vanessa had absolutely no excuse for being thirty-five and single. He was so good-looking, he could make a woman pee her pants. He was six feet with dark hair, heavy, expressive brows, sexy dimples in his cheeks when he smiled and teeth so white that they almost made you gasp when he grinned. And he grinned hugely when he met Vanessa.