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Once the sun went down in Virgin River there wasn't a whole lot of entertainment for Sean Riordan, unless he wanted to sit by the fire at his brother Luke's house. But sitting all quiet and cozy while Luke and his new wife, Shelby, snuggled and said sweet little things to each other was a special kind of torment he could do without. Sometimes they just faked being tired so they could slip off to bed at eight o'clock at night. More often than not Sean just made it easy on them—he'd head over to a larger town on the coast where he could enjoy the sights and do a little window-shopping, maybe meet a woman of his own.
Sean was a U-2 pilot stationed at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, a few hours south of Virgin River. He had accumulated a ton of vacation and could only carry over ninety days to the next fiscal year, so he had a couple of months to kill. His brother had just gotten married and Sean had been his best man. After the wedding, Sean decided to stay on in Virgin River and use up some of his leave. Given the fact that Luke and Shelby had been together about a year, Sean didn't feel as if he was interfering with the honeymoon by hanging around. All that lovey-dovey stuff was not so much about them sealing the deal, as it was about them still being hot to trot, as if they'd just met.
And there was a lot of talk about baby making, something that surprised Sean about Luke. However, Luke's willingness to step up and try to nail that egg, night after night after night, that did not surprise Sean in the slightest.
During the daytime, Sean always had lots to do. There was plenty of upkeep on the cabins Luke and Sean had bought together as an investment and which Luke now managed and rented full-time. There was hunting and fishing—it was still deer season—and the salmon and trout were fat; the river ran practically outside the front door. Luke and his helper, Art, were catching so many fish that Luke had to buy a shed, run some wiring to it from the house and invest in a big freezer.
There was no denying the appeal of the Virgin River area for a guy with time on his hands. Sean was an out-doorsman at heart and the October colors in the mountains were awesome. It wouldn't be all that long before the first snowfall, and soon after that he would have to get back to Beale. So, in the meantime, all he wanted to do was find a nice bar with a fireplace to relax next to—one without his brother and sister-in-law cuddling up in front of it.
"Ready for another drink, pal?" the bartender asked him.
"I'm good, thanks. I didn't come in here to check out the architecture, but the detailed carving in this place is impressive," Sean replied.
The bartender laughed. "Two things are obvious about you. You're not from around here and you're military."
"Okay, I admit the haircut is a giveaway. But the rest—?"
"This is lumber country and this bar is wall-to-wall oak. When it was built, the wood was probably cheaper than the nails. The craftsmanship? Common around here. So, what brings you to town?"
Sean took a sip of his beer. "Burning off some leave. Visiting my brother. I have a little over six weeks of leave left. I used to hit the bars with my brother, but his running days are over."
"War injury?" the bartender asked.
"Battle of the sexes. He just got married."
The bartender whistled. "My condolences."
Tonight Sean had landed in a large upscale bar and restaurant in Arcata. He occupied a spot at the end of the bar where he could get a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree view of the place. So far it appeared as if all the women were with husbands or dates, but that didn't diminish his pleasure—Sean wasn't always looking for a pickup. Sometimes it was nice to simply appreciate the view. Since he was going to be spending some time in this part of the world, he wasn't opposed to the idea of getting to know a girl, take her out, maybe even get a little up close and personal.
All such thoughts were suddenly stopped and were replaced by, Ah! Looks like I just hit the jackpot.
There was a ripple of female laughter as the door swung open and a group of women, who were obviously having a good time, entered. Even across the large restaurant, he could appreciate their assets. The first one was short, dark, a little on the round side and deliciously so. She appeared lush and soft and brought a smile to Sean's lips. The second one was tall, thin, athletic looking, with straight, silky, unfussy blond hair. Obviously a gymnast or runner—a fine-looking woman. Next came a medium-sized redhead with a curvaceous figure, twinkling eyes and a bright smile. A feminine smorgasbord, he thought appreciatively. Sean did not discriminate—he was attracted to all kinds of women, not just one type. Next was—
Nah, couldn't be, he told himself. He was just hallucinating again. He thought he'd seen her many times before but it was never her. Besides, Franci wore her hair long and straight and this woman's mahogany hair was in one of those hyper-short cuts that, on anyone else, might look butch, but on her? Oh, man, it just couldn't get any sexier. It made her dark eyes look huge. The woman shed her coat and she was thinner than Franci, but not by that much. But her eyebrows were exactly the same as Franci's—a nice, thin, provocative arch over those big, heavily lashed eyes. It got him missing Franci all over again.
She slid out of her coat and revealed a filmy dress. Maybe not filmy, but certainly silky. It was dark purple and fell loosely from her shoulders and was belted at the waist, then flowed again to her knees. The dress accentuated her perfect breasts, narrow waist, slim hips and long legs. Franci had rarely worn dresses but Sean hadn't minded—her long legs and tight butt in a pair of fitted slacks used to blow his mind. But this dress was good. Very good.
The four women took a table near the front of the restaurant by the window. They were carrying boxes, shopping bags and party bags—a birthday dinner out? The one who looked like his old girlfriend crossed her legs and revealed a slit in the skirt of that dress that exposed a scrumptious thigh. Whoa. His eyes were glued to that shapely leg. His groin tightened.
Then she laughed. God, it was Franci. If that wasn't Franci, it was her twin. The way she tilted her head back and let go was a laugh with passion. Franci had always laughed from deep inside her. That was how she cried, too.
Sean was suddenly infused with mixed emotions— remembering the wonderful laughs they'd shared in bed after their typically great sex counterbalanced with how he remembered making her cry, and he was sorry he had ever made Franci cry.
Well, hell, he might have made her cry, but hadn't she infuriated him until he wanted to punch a hole in the wall? She could be maddening. Why was that again? He'd think of it, given a minute. That had been almost four years ago. What was she doing here in Arcata? After the breakup—which had been ugly— he'd looked for her. But he had let too much time slip by before doing so and she wasn't where he expected her to be. They'd met in Iraq when he was deployed in the F-16 and she was an air force flight nurse who regularly appeared to take the injured out of the theater. Later, when he'd been transferred to Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix as an instructor in the same jet, she was there, assigned as a nurse in the base hospital. They had dated exclusively for two years when a big shift occurred in their individual lives—her service commitment was up and she was planning to separate from the air force and return to civilian life. He was going to cross-train in the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft—the spy plane. He didn't see how either of those events should effect any change. He told her he'd be relocating to Beale AFB in Northern California. He thought she could probably find work there if she was interested.
That had been the beginning of the end. After dating for two years, she, at twenty-six, was ready for a commitment. She wanted marriage and a family, and he didn't. Well, there was nothing new there—she'd been honest about that since the beginning of their relationship. Franci had always hoped to marry and have children. And that wasn't something he needed more time to consider—he really didn't see himself settling into that sweet little domestic trap. Ever. She'd been good about not pushing that too hard, but she'd never backed down, either. For Sean's part, he was monogamous. He told her he loved her because he did. If he occasionally glanced at and appreciated a pretty girl, it went no further. Even though they each maintained their own home, they spent every night together unless one of them was away from the base. But when it came to marriage and children, she was in, and he, at twenty-eight, was out.
She had said something like, "It's time to take this relationship to the next level or end it completely."
You don't want to be drawing a line in the sand in front of a young fighter pilot. Jet jockeys didn't take orders from girlfriends. Of course, it was no surprise that they fought and he made her cry with senseless, stupid comments like, "Not in this lifetime, babe. If I were interested in getting married, we'd be married," and, "Look, I'm just flat-ass not doing the rug-rats thing, all right? Even with you." Oh, yeah, he was brilliant.
She had said things, also in anger, probably things she didn't mean. Well, that wasn't exactly correct, as he recalled now, looking across a crowded room at her as she laughed and talked with her girlfriends. "Sean, if you let me go now I'll be so gone—you'll never see me again. I need a committed partner or I'm taking the walk."
And Sean, being the cocky genius he was, said, "Oh, yeah? Don't let the door hit you in the ass." He winced at the memory.
They had gone their separate ways, bitterly. He went to Beale because it looked as if getting a promotion and command position in the U-2 was more likely than in the highly competitive F-16. He was an Air Force Academy graduate; becoming a general was in his sites if he made the right moves. Franci had exited the air force.
Sean assumed, incorrectly, that he'd be able to find her at her mother's, or at least near her mother's, in Santa Rosa. A few months later, when his training in the new aircraft was complete and he was ready to talk about their situation, sanely and calmly, she was long gone. So was her mother. And there appeared to be no forwarding address.
So, flash-forward four years. Arcata, California? It really didn't make sense, but that woman across the room was definitely Franci Duncan. He could tell it was her by the way his heart pounded and he felt hot all over. And by the way he was fighting an erection just looking across the room at her.
She and her friends had all ordered frothy after-dinner drinks, and were joking with the young waitress. They leaned toward one another to whisper, sitting back to laugh—they were gossiping and having fun. One member of the group pulled a silky wrap out of a colorful bag and put it around her shoulders, admiringly. The birthday girl? There weren't any men around them and he could only pick out one wedding ring in the group, and it wasn't on Franci's hand. Not that it meant anything; people didn't necessarily wear wedding rings all the time these days.
"You still okay on that drink, pal?" the bartender asked to no avail.
As Sean watched the proceedings he missed her so bad he ached with it. Letting her get away was one of the great tactical errors of his adult life. He should have found a way to convince her they'd be fine together without marriage, without a bunch of ankle-biters. But at twenty-eight, pumped up on his fighter-pilot prowess, he'd been overconfident. He had especially not been ready for some woman to be calling the shots. Now, at thirty-two, he realized how stupid he'd been at twenty-eight. In those four years there had been other women, and not one of them had come close to what he'd felt for Franci. For what he'd felt with Franci. And he was willing to bet she hadn't found anyone as good, either.
He was hoping that. He probably shouldn't bet on it. Franci was incredible; there had probably been a long line of able-bodied, good-looking, more-than-willing men lined up at her front door—wherever that was.
"You still on my planet, pal?" the bartender asked.
"Seems like something besides my skill at pouring a drink has your attention."
"Yeah," he said, looking back at Franci. "I think maybe I know one of them," he said, tilting his head toward the table of women.
"How's your drink?"
"I'm good," Sean said, his eyes uncontrollably drawn to the woman across the room.
The women had a second order of frothy coffees. There was a lot more laughing, talking, rummaging through the gifts, and they were oblivious to anything else happening in that bar. They certainly weren't trolling for guys. They never even glanced toward the bar.
If she looked his way, even once, he'd have to think of something clever to say. He'd have to smile, walk confidently across the room to their table, say hello and get friendly. He'd have to make them laugh and like him, because he couldn't let her get out of here without finding out where she lived. She might be visiting one of those women, which meant that after she left, she'd be totally gone again. He couldn't let that happen. He needed to see her, talk to her. Touch her. Hold her.
"Why don't you go over there? Say hello?" the bartender asked.
He looked up at his new friend. "Yeah… well… The last time we talked, I wasn't her favorite person."
The bartender laughed. "Hard to imagine," he said.