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Rich Timm drove into Virgin River a mere ten hours after leaving San Diego. He'd made excellent time because he tended to ignore little things like speed limits. And
he had been trapped in the Ford truck with his twin sister, Becca, all day and had had about enough.
As Becca gazed out the window at the town, she muttered, "Seriously?"
"What?" Rich said.
"This is the place Denny never wants to leave? It isn't exactly
Rich pulled up to the only bar in town, right next to a truck he knew belonged to one of two other buddies from the Marines who were meeting him here. "Maybe that's not what he was looking for." Rich put the truck in Park. Before he turned off the ignition, he turned in his seat and said to his sister, "Since you wouldn't let me warn Denny you were coming along, promise me you won't make trouble."
"Rich," she said with a laugh. "Why would I make trouble?"
"Oh, I don't know," he said, rolling his eyes. "Because you're his ex-girlfriend? Because this is a guys' hunting trip and you're not a guy and everyone will have to take care of you?"
"No one has to take care of me," she said indignantly. Then she smiled very sweetly. "I'm anxious to meet your other friends. And to huntI'm anxious to hunt."
He scowled. "Right," he said. "You expect me to believe you're going to shoot a duck and pluck it?"
If I have to pluck it with my teeth to be convincing, she thought. "Of course! I'm a little more excited about fly-fishing, though. I can't wait to try that." She opened her door. "You about ready?"
He grunted. "Do not be a problem. Do not be a pain in my ass for a week!"
"Do not be a jerk," she countered.
Becca had arrived at Rich's town house at three in the morning, big suitcase and shotgun in hand. When he opened the door, wearing nothing but boxers, she said, "Guess what? I don't have anything to do this week, so I'm coming with you. I've never been duck hunting or fly-fishing."
"You're out of your mind, right?" he said, scratching his hair, which was crazy from bed. "Didn't you tell Mom and Dad you were going home with Doug for Thanksgiving?"
She shook her head. "That isn't going to work out and I don't want Mom and Dad to cancel their trip plans just so I'm not alone on Thanksgiving."
"Why isn't it going to work out?"
"Doug's way too busyhe's going all the way to the East Coast for two days. Come on, this is a great idea. A little last minute, but it'll be fun. Be a sport."
"And what about Denny?" he asked. "Your ex?"
She put a hand on her hip. "It's time we all moved on from that, don't you think? I have no hard feelings and I'm sure he doesn't. He probably has a girlfriend. This is a perfect opportunity to make sure it's all cool between us. I mean, reallysince you guys are good friends and all
And it was a long time ago."
"Yeah, but it was brutal," Rich said, looking down at her suspiciously.
"We were young," she said with a shrug.
"And what does Doug think about this?" Rich asked.
"Doug isn't the jealous type. He told me to have a good time. Anyway, Doug is not your problem."
"I know," Rich said. "Apparently, you 're my problem." He let her come into his town house.
"You better know what you're doing," he said. "If you screw up my hunting trip, you're going to pay."
Becca's decision really hadn't been as spur of the moment as she had pretended. A lot of planets had converged and she found herself planning, quickly. Rich had been talking about this hunting trip for weeks, with good old Dennythe guy she once thought she was going to marry. The guy who broke up with her three years ago. The guy she still thought about way too much. Then the elementary school where she taught shut down, due to financial issues they just couldn't resolve, and she found herself suddenly unemployed. And Doug, the law student she'd been seeing for the past year, asked her to look at engagement rings.
She would have had nothing to do besides look for work during the Thanksgiving holidaysa dismal prospectand worry about the fact that Doug was probably leading up to a marriage proposal while the last guy was still on her mind. All the time.
She didn't get it. Why did she still think about Denny, dream about him? Was it just wanting what was out of reach, rather than appreciating what was right in front of her? When Denny broke up with her before going to Afghanistan, she had been devastated. By the time he looked her up two years later and suggested they give it another try, she had been furious and told him he was too late, she wasn't interested. Then she met Doug Carey a year ago, a good-looking, second-year law student, and her mother had been so relieved! Beverly Timm found Doug so much more appropriate for her daughter. Doug had it all. He was a good guy. Becca enjoyed spending time with him. He had a bright future. He came from a successful, financially secure family. He loved her. His family had their own sailboat! It made absolutely no sense to continue to think about Denny.
There was a time when Becca had dreamed of a Christmas proposal and a beautiful ring under the tree. Christmas was her favorite seasonthe sparkling lights, the carols, the time with her family. Now she feared it. She wanted to want to marry Doug Carey, but she just couldn't commit to him while this ghost haunted her. It would be so wrong. So unfair to both of them.
So she had decided. She was going to force Rich to take her with him to this Virgin River, the place Denny had chosen as his home. She'd hunt and fish and try to figure out why she just couldn't let go of the guy. She would see him again and come to the conclusion that it had been a crush, a first love between a couple of kids, that she had idealized in her mind. Then she'd go home to the perfect man, finally appreciating him as much as he deserved.
They would live happily ever after and the image of Denny would disappear.
She looked around the town once more as she went up the steps of the log-cabin bar where they were all meeting. "Seriously?" she said again under her breath. It was kind of a dumpy old town; the houses were small, a lot of them had peeling paint. There weren't even streetlights or sidewalks. Besides a little grocery store and the bar, there didn't appear to be any other businesses. What did these people do for entertainment? For fun? "Hunting and fishing," she reminded herself.
Yeah, she was hopeful. Just a look at this backwoods little town was promisingshe'd figure out what happened with Denny, where it all went so wrong and why. They'd been so different in the first place. Now she had to find a way to move on, so she could happily marry a man with a law degree and his own sailboat.
Denny Cutler had come to Virgin River in search of roots, and a year after stumbling into Jack's Bar, he was sure he'd found the place where he would live for the rest of his life. He had friends who were as tight as family. He also had a career, one he had never in his craziest dreams en-visionedhe was a farmer! An associate in Jilly Farms, an organic farm that promised to grow strong and profitable.
It had been Jack's idea that Denny reach out to a couple of his buddies, maybe from the Marine Corps, where he'd spent four years, and invite them to Virgin River for a little guy stuffhunting, fishing, poker. Jilly Farms wasn't too busy in late fall and could spare him for a few days. He knew exactly which guys he wanted to invite. Troy, Dirk and Rich had been like brothers to him during his deployment to Iraq. Dirk Curtis and Troy were both reservists and lived near Sacramento. Rich Timm, also known as Big Richie or sometimes just Big, was from San Diego, where Denny grew up, though Denny hadn't met him until the Corps. Rich got out of the Marines after two years, finished college and was now an engineer who worked for the highway department in San Diego, building freeways and bridges. All three of these guys loved camping, hiking, fishing, huntinganything a little rugged. They would love Virgin River.
There was only one downside to his friendship with Richhe was Becca's twin brother. That's how Denny had met his old girlfriend, through Rich, while they were on leave together back in San Diego, years ago. After Denny and Becca broke up, the continued friendship put Denny a little too close to all available news about Becca.
Rich only passed along info if he asked, of course, which he couldn't seem to keep himself from doing, even though he wanted to forget her as thoroughly as she'd forgotten him.
When plans fell together for the four guys, it turned out Thanksgiving week was the best time for everyone. "Perfect," Jack said. "We've got Riordan cabins on the river and my guesthouse is availableplenty of room. We have duck hunting, fishing and Preacher always serves a big Thanksgiving dinner at the bar. The day after Thanksgiving, we go out into the woods to chop down a thirty-foot Christmas tree to put outside the barthat's a circus you don't want to miss."
So the plans were set. Troy, Dirk and Rich were due to arrive on the Sunday before Thanksgiving and depart a week later.
Denny had had a few rough years before settling in Virgin Riverhis mother had died, he reentered the Corps and was deployed to Afghanistan, he broke up with Becca after they'd been together for over three yearsbut finally, at the age of twenty-five, things were finally falling into place for him. Life was good. He was happy.
Troy and Dirk arrived by four o'clock on Sunday afternoon. Denny was on hand at the bar to greet them and serve them up a beer, and both Jack and Preacher made a point to be around. Dirk and Troy were going to stay in one of Luke Riordan's cabins, so Luke and Colin Riordan dropped by for a quick beer to be part of the welcoming party. Preacher had a hearty meal planned, but since it was the Sunday night before a big family holiday week like Thanksgiving, there weren't too many out-of-towners in the barjust four hunters over in the corner at the table by the hearth, enjoying a pitcher of beer.
They practically had the place to themselves.
Finally the door to the bar opened and Big Richie stepped inside. He stood just inside the entrance wearing a look on his face that Denny could describe only as apologetic. Then she stepped inside, right behind him.
What the hell? Denny stood behind the bar, next to Jack, his mouth hanging open. She lifted her chin and smiled at the gathering.
Rich gave a lame shrug.
God, she sure hadn't gotten any worse looking, Denny thought. Five-seven, slim, large blue eyes. Her sun-streaked hair was pulled back in a clip that left it flouncing in large, loose curls on the back of her head with little wisps around her face. She was tanned, of course. She was a beach bunny. The memory of how she looked in a very tiny bikini came instantly to Denny's mind, although those long legs and perfect butt sure did justice to a pair of jeans and boots.
He was in a complete daze. Except for the physical response. He was so glad he was standing behind the bar.
Smiling, she walked around her brother and approached the bar. She barely looked at Denny. "Hi," she said, putting out her hand first to Troy. "I'm Becca, Rich's sister. I hope I'm not intruding."
Dirk and Troy knew of Becca, but they'd never actually met her. Troy took her hand and a smile slid slowly across his face. "Not. At. All," he said smoothly.
She grinned at him as he hung on to her hand.
"Bet you have a name," she said.
I'll think of it in a seconds"
"Troy," Denny said impatiently. "His name is Troy."
"Nice to meet you, Troy." She offered her hand to Dirk.
"Dirk Curtis," he said. "Nice to finally meet you."
"Becca, what are you doing here?" Denny asked.
She lifted one shoulder and tilted her head. "Well, I guess it's going to be either duck hunting or fly-fishingtwo things I've been dying to try. I need to expand my horizons a little bit. Thanks for including me."
"I didn't include you."
"Rich said it would probably be okay, and thanks." She looked between Dirk and Troy. "You guys don't mind, do you?"
"It's a pleasure," Dirk said.
Troy leaned an elbow on the bar, his head on his hand. "I take it you don't hunt or fish?"
"She surfs" Denny said sharply, glowering.
"And I sail, among other things," she added pleasantly. "If you guys show me the hunting and fishing ropes, I'll be glad to teach you to surfI'm much better at it than Rich, although he might be a slightly better sailor. Don't do anything different because I'm alongI'm just one of the guys on this trip. I promise not to get in the way."
"Right," Denny said.
"Seriously," she insisted, narrowing her eyes at him.
"You're going to be sorry you said that when one of these clowns decides to pee on a bush," he said snidely, lifting one eyebrow.
A bark of laughter came from Colin Riordan, which marked the first time Denny remembered there were others present. Just a second after Co-lin's laugh, a giant hand came down on his shoulder and Preacher said, "Give me a hand in the kitchen, would you, Den?"
He treated her to one final, withering glare before following the big cook into the kitchen. Once there, he found himself face-to-face with a man who could easily top him for fierce, intimidating stares. Preacher said, "What the hell, Dennis! Were you raised by apes?"
"She's my ex-girlfriend, all right?" Denny said by way of explanation.
"We got that," Preacher said, his hands on his hips, his bushy black eyebrows drawn together in a scowl. "And your excuse for acting like an ass is.?"
"It was complicated," he said. "My mom died, I closed up and wouldn't talk, shut Becca out when she wanted to help. Then, I rejoined the Corps and told her after the fact. About which she was very pissed. So I broke up with her before I deployed so she could date other guys while I was gone."
As he was finishing that tale, Jack entered the kitchen and got the last of it, but he didn't need the details. He'd actually heard the story before. Now Jack wore his upside-down, contemplative smile, nodding. "Makes perfect sense," he said.
"It does?" Denny asked.
"Of course. You can't stand to even see her shake hands with another guy in a public bar, so you cut her loose to date someone else. Oh, yeah.
"It was not a smart time in my life," he admitted. "After my two-year commitment, I went straight to her and apologized, asked if maybe we could try again."
"And she said?" Jack asked.