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Vanessa Rutledge stood in front of her husband's grave, her coat pulled tightly around her against the crisp March breeze, red hair billowing in the wind. "I know this is going to seem like a strange request—but I just don't know who else to ask. Matt, you know I love you, that I'll always love you, that I see you in your son's eyes every day. But, darling, I'm going to love again, and I need your blessing. If I have that, I'd like you to give the man who is to be my future a little nudge. Let him know it's all right. Please? Let him know he's so much more than—"
Her father was standing out on the deck behind the house holding the baby away from himself, like he'd just pooped on his mess dress. It was past time to leave. Little Matt had been born six weeks ago and this morning they were both seeing Mel Sheridan for their first checkups since his birth. Her father, retired general Walt Booth, was acting as chauffeur so that he could watch the baby while Vanessa had her exam.
"Coming, Dad!" she called. She looked back at the grave. "We'll have a real conversation about this later," she told the headstone. She blew a long kiss in that direction and hurried down the little hill, past the stable and up to the house.
The last place Vanessa ever expected to find herself was in a tiny mountain town of six hundred. When her father chose this property a couple of years before his retirement from the Army, she and Matt had taken a look at it. Matt fell in love with it at once. "When I go," he had said, "plant me on that little hill, under that tree."
"Stop it!" she had laughed, slapping his arm, neither of them realizing how prophetic his words would be.
There was a time, years before she met Matt, that Vanni had envisioned herself as a high-powered news anchor; using her degree in communications. She decided to take a year before pursuing an eighty-hour-a-week career path and, on a whim, went to work as a flight attendant. One year turned into five because she loved the job, the travel, the people. She'd still been working for the airline when Matt left for Iraq. It was her loneliness and advancing pregnancy that had sent her packing to Virgin River. She had thought it would be temporary—she'd have the baby, wait for her husband's return from war and move on to his next assignment with him. Instead Matt was brought here, to that little hill with the tree on it.
She didn't cry as much anymore, though she missed him; missed the laughter, the long, late-night talks. Missed having someone hold her, whisper to her.
Walt had the diaper bag slung over his shoulder and was headed for the car. "Vanessa, you spend too much time talking to that grave. We should've put him somewhere else. Out of sight."
"Oh, dear," she said, lifting a curious eyebrow, the corner of her mouth twitching. "Matt hasn't been complaining that I'm bothering him, has he?"
"Not funny," he said.
"You worry too much," she told her dad, taking the baby from him to put him in the car seat. "I'm not brooding. There are some things no one but Matt should hear. And gee, he's so handy..."
"Vanessa! For God's sake!" He took a breath. "You need girlfriends."
She laughed at him. "I have plenty of girlfriends." She had lots of girlfriends from flying days and, even though they didn't live nearby, they were great about visiting and staying in touch, giving her every opportunity to talk about Matt, about grief, then about the baby and recovery. "You'll be happy to know Nikki's coming up for the weekend," she said. "A girlfriend."
Walt hefted himself into the driver's seat. "We've been seeing a lot of Nikki lately. Either she can't stay away from the new baby or things aren't going so well with her and that... that..." Walt couldn't seem to finish.
"She can't stay away from the baby and no, things aren't going well with Craig. I smell a split coming," Vanessa said.
"I never liked him," Walt said with a grunt.
"No one likes him. He's an ass," Vanni said. Her best friend, too sweet for her own good, wanted a husband and children, but instead was stuck with a live-in arrangement that had gone flat years ago, leaving her almost as alone as Vanni.
Vanni had other friends besides fellow flight attendants. She'd begun to grow close to some of the women in town—her midwife, Mel Sheridan; Paige, who worked alongside her husband in the only bar and grill in town; Brie, Mel's sister-in-law. Still, there were some things only Matt would understand.
When you live in a place like Virgin River where the doctor's office only makes appointments on Wednesdays, it's a pretty good bet there won't be any waiting around. Sure enough, Mel was standing in the reception area right inside the door waiting for them to arrive. Her face lit up in delight as they walked in and she immediately reached for the baby. "Ooooh, come heeeere," she sang. "Let me look at you!" She lifted him as if weighing him. Then she cuddled him close. "He's looking good, Vanni. Getting nice and fat on the breast." She looked at Walt. "How's Grandpa doing?"
"Grandpa could use more sleep," Walt grumbled.
Vanessa made a face. "There's no reason in the world he has to get up. He certainly can't help me nurse the baby."
"I wake up, that's all. And if I'm up and Vanni's up, I might as well see if she needs anything."
Mel smiled at him. "That's a good grandpa," she said. "He'll be sleeping through the night before you know it."
"When did David sleep through the night?" Vanni asked of Mel's one-year-old.
"The first time or the last time?" Mel asked. "You might not want to ask that—we have sleeping issues at our house. And now Jack lets him in the bed with us. Take my advice, don't start that!"
Vanessa peered at Mel's growing tummy. David had just turned a year and their second baby was due in May. "I hope you have a really big bed," she said.
"There will be plenty of room when I kick Jack out of it. Come on—let's look at Mattie first and take care of his shots." Mel carried the baby back to the exam room with Vanessa following behind.
Mel had delivered little Matt right in Vanessa's bedroom and their bond had grown deep and strong. It didn't take long to determine the baby was at a good weight and in excellent health. "I'll take him out to Walt while you get into a gown, how's that?"
"Thanks," Vanni said.
A few minutes later Mel was back. "Your dad took the baby over to Jack's for a cup of coffee. And some male bonding, I suppose."
Vanni had taken her place on the exam table, and Mel checked her heart, blood pressure, and got her in position for a pelvic. "Everything looks great. You had a wonderful delivery, Vanni—you're in excellent shape. And boy, did you lose weight quickly. Isn't breast-feeding a miracle?"
"I'm not back in my old jeans yet."
"I bet you're close. Go ahead, sit up," Mel said, offering a hand. "Anything we should talk about?"
"Lots of things. Can I ask you something personal?"
"You can always ask," Mel said while writing in the chart.
"I know that before you married Jack, you were widowed..."
Mel stopped writing. She closed the chart and looked at Vanni with a sympathetic smile. "I've been expecting this conversation," she said.
"How long was it?" Vanni asked, and Mel knew exactly what she was referring to.
"I met Jack nine months after my husband's death. I married him six months later. And if you confer with the town historian and gossips, you'll learn that I was at least three months pregnant at the time. Closer to four."
"We have a town historian?"
"About six hundred of them," Mel said with a laugh. "If you have anything you'd like to keep secret, you should consider moving to another town."
"Matt's only been dead a few months, but he's been gone almost a year... Mel, he wasn't on a business trip. He was in combat, out of touch. I talked to him a total of three times, saw his face once on live video cam. The letters were short and sparse. It's been a really long time since—"
Mel touched Vanni's knee. "There's no rule of thumb on this, Vanessa. Everything I've read, and I've read a lot about widowhood, says that when people enter new relationships relatively soon after losing a spouse, it indicates they had happiness in their marriage. Being married was a good experience for them." She smiled.
"I didn't even know for sure I was pregnant when Matt left for Iraq last May. I'm not thinking about another marriage, of course," Vanni said. "But I am thinking about— Well, what I'm thinking is that I don't want to be alone forever."
"Of course you shouldn't be alone forever. You have a lot of life to live."
Vanni smiled. "Should I be thinking about birth control?"
"We can talk about that. You wouldn't want to be as unprepared as your midwife. Especially with having a baby to take care of. Believe me." She took a breath and ran a hand over her big belly. "I wouldn't let myself think ahead! I remember when my sister said, 'I know widows who have remarried, and are happy.' I almost took her head off. I was appalled. I wasn't at all hopeful life could go on."
"It sure went on for you," Vanni said.
"Boy howdy. I came here absolutely determined to live out my days lonely and miserable, but that damn Jack— he ambushed me. I think I fell in love with him the minute I met him, but I fought it. As though I might somehow be unfaithful to my husband's memory by moving on, which was absurd. I had the kind of husband who would have wanted me to have love in my life, and I bet you did, too."
"You don't send a man off to war without talking a few things through—my parents taught me that. One of the first ways Tom and I figured out the general was headed for a possible deployment was when the paperwork came out. Wills, trusts, etcetera. Not just in case something happened to him, but what if he was away in some jungle or desert war zone and something happened to Mom?" She smiled a bit wistfully. "Matt didn't dwell on the worst-case scenario, but he was quick and to the point. He said I wasn't the type to wallow and he'd be disappointed in me if I did. He had a few requests—where he wanted to be buried, what to do with his favorite personal items, to make sure his parents got regular visits especially if we had children. And—if a good man showed his face, I was not to hesitate." She took a breath. "My requests of him were almost identical." She straightened. "If I'm lucky enough to run into another man half as wonderful as Matt, I should be ready."
"Absolutely. It's not at all impossible, even in little old Virgin River. Let's get you something reliable while you're considering all this. You want a pill you can take while breast-feeding? Can I hook you up with a diaphragm or IUD? Have you given the options any thought?"
Vanni smiled gratefully. Of course she'd thought about it. "Yes. IUD please."
"Let's go over the models," Mel said. Then she smiled. "By the way, you're all cleared for intercourse. Should you find..."
Vanni laughed. "Thanks," she said.
"You have good judgment. Make sure there's a condom involved. We don't want the transmission of any—"
"I have good judgment," Vanni repeated. "And extremely good taste."
There was a man on Vanessa's mind, he was the reason she'd found herself imploring Matt for help and blessings. Matt's best friend; her best friend. Paul.
He spent months in Virgin River, supporting and comforting her, spending Christmas away from his parents, brothers and their families. They spent a lot of time talking about Matt; crying about Matt, lost in hours of sentimental remembering. Without Paul's strength, she'd never have gotten through the worst of it. He was her rock.
Her relationship with Paul went back much further, of course. It wasn't as though they became friends because of Matt's death. In fact, that night long ago when she met Matt, it had been Paul across the room who'd first caught her eye. He was so tall, his legs so long and hands so big, it was hard for him not to stand out in a crowd. There was that willful, sandy hair that had to be kept short because it would defy any kind of styling. Not that Paul was the kind of man to fuss with his hair—it was obvious even from a distance that he stuck to basics. It was his masculinity she noticed; he looked like a lumberjack who'd cleaned up to go into town. He had an engaging smile; one tooth in front was just a little crooked and he had a dimple on the left cheek. Heavy brown brows, deep chocolate eyes—details she discovered a bit later, of course. She hadn't even noticed Matt...
But it was Matt who put the rush on her, swept her off her feet, made her laugh, made her blush. While Paul hung back, shy and silent, Matt charmed her to her very bones. And shortly after the charm, he made her desire him madly, love him deeply. He was hardly a consolation prize—he was one of the best men in the world. And a devoted husband, so in love with her.
She loved Paul before Matt's death, grew to love him more deeply afterward. When little Mattie was born, she said to Paul, "I will never love anyone but Matt." But as the weeks passed she realized that she didn't have to stop loving Matt any more than Paul should. Matt would be with them both forever. And it was like the natural order of things that Paul should step in now. But there was no indication from him that he felt anything more than a special friendship. She had no doubt that Paul loved her, loved little Matt, but it didn't appear to be the kind of love that could warm her on cold nights.
She'd called him several times since he'd returned to Grants Pass; polite and entertaining conversations about the baby, the town and his friends here, about her dad and brother, even sometimes about Matt.
"The baby's gained a pound and a half already," she told him. "He's already changed so much."
"Who does he look like?" Paul asked. "Is his hair still dark or does he have a patch of fire on his head, like his mom?"