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Sunny Archer was seriously considering a legal name change.
"Come on, Sunny," her uncle Nathaniel said. "Let's go out on the town and see if we can't put a little of that legendary sunshine back into your disposition!"
Out on the town? she thought. In Virgin River? A town of about six hundred?"Ah, I think I'll pass "
"C'mon, sunshine, you gotta be more flexible! Optimistic! You can't lick this wound forever."
Maybe it was cute when she was four or even fourteen to say things like "Sunny isn't too sunny today!"
But this was December 31 and she had come to Virgin River to spend a few quiet days with her uncle Nate and his fiancee Annie, to try to escape the reality of a heart that wouldn't heal. And if the hurt wasn't bad enough, her heart had gone cold and hard, too. She looked at her watch4:00 p.m. Exactly one year ago at this time she was having her hair and makeup done right before slipping into a Vera Wang wedding gown, excited, blushing and oblivious to the fact that her fiance Glen was getting blitzed and ready to run for his life.
"I'm not really in the mood for a New Year's Eve bash, Uncle Nate," she said.
"Aw, sweetheart, I can't bear to think of you home alone, brooding, feeling sad," Nathaniel said.
And feeling like a big loser who was left at the altar on her wedding day? she wondered. But that's what had happened. How was she supposed to feel?
"Nate," Annie said under her breath, "this might be a bad night to push the party idea.. "
"Ya think?" Sunny said sarcastically, noting to herself that she hadn't been so irritable and sarcastic before becoming an abandoned bride. "Listen, you guys, please go. Party like rock stars. I actually have plans."
"You do?" they both asked hopefully.
"I do. I'm planning a ceremonial burning of last year's calendar. I should probably burn three years' worth of themthat's how much time and energy I invested in the scumbucket."
Nate and Annie were speechless for a moment; they exchanged dubious looks. When Nate recovered he said, "Well all-righty then! We'll stay home and help with the ceremonial burning. Then we'll make some popcorn, play some monopoly, make some positive resolutions or something and ring in a much better new year than the last."
And that was how Sunny, who wasn't feeling at all accommodating, ended up going to the big Virgin River blast at Jack's Bar on New Year's Evebecause she just couldn't let her uncle Nate and sweet, funny Annie stay home to watch her sulk and whimper.
There had been a long history in Sunny's family of returning to the Jensen stables for a little rest and rejuvenation. Sunny and her cousins had spent countless vacations around the barn and pastures and trails, riding, playing, inhaling the fresh clean air and getting a regular new lease on life. It had been Sunny's mother's idea that she come to Virgin River for a post-Christmas revival. Sunny's mom was one of Nate's three older sisters, and Sunny's grandpa had been the original owner and veterinarian of Jensen's Clinic and Stable. Now Uncle Nate was the vet and Grandpa was retired and living in Arizona.
Sunny was her mama's only child, age twenty-five; she had one female cousin, Marywho it just so happened had managed to get her groom to the church. Since Uncle Nate was only ten years older than Sunny at thirty-five, she and her cousin had had tragic crushes on him. Nate, on the other hand, who had grown up with three older sisters, thought he was cursed with females.
Until he was thirty, anyway. Then he became a little more avuncular, patient and even protective. Nathaniel had been sitting in the church on New Year's Eve a year ago. Waiting, like everyone else, for the groom to show, for the wedding to begin.
The past year had passed in an angry, unhappy blur for Sunny. Her rather new and growing photography business had taken offa combination of her kick-ass website and word of mouthand rather than take a break after her personal disaster, she went right back to work. She had scheduled shoots, after all. The catastrophic twist was that she specialized in engagement, wedding, anniversary, belly and baby shotsfive phases of a couple's life worth capturing for posterity. Her work, as well as her emotional well-being, was suffering. Although she couldn't focus, and she was either unable to sleep or hardly able to pull herself out of bed, she pressed on the best she could. The only major change she'd made in her life was to move out of the town house she had shared with Glen and back into her mom and dad's house until she could afford something of her own. She had her workroom in the basement of her parents' place anyway, so it was just a minor shift in geography.
During the past year at her parents', Sunny had a revelation. The driving reason behind most young women her age wanting their own space, their independence and privacy, was their being involved in a serious relationship. Since she was determined not to repeat past mistakes by allowing another man into her life, there was no need to leave the comfort, security and economy of her parents' house.
She was trying her hand at photographing sunrises, sunsets, landscapes, seascapes and pets. It wasn't workingher images were flat and uninteresting. If it wasn't bad enough that her heart was broken, so was her spirit. It was as if her gift was lost. She'd been brilliant with couples, inspired by weddingsstills, slideshows, videos. She saw the promise in their eyes, the potential for their lives. She'd brought romance to the fat bellies of pregnant women and was a veritable Anne Geddes with babies! But now that she was a mere observer who would never experience any of those things firsthand, everything had changed. Not only had it changed, it pierced her heart each time she did a shoot.
When she confessed this to Annie, Annie had said, "Oh, darling, but you're so young! Only twenty-five! The possibilities ahead are endless if you're open to them!"
And Sunny had said, "I'm not upset because I didn't make the cheerleading squad, Annie. My fiance dumped me on our wedding dayand my age doesn't matter a damn."
The town was carpeted in a fresh blanket of pretty white snow, the thirty-foot tree was lit and sparkling as gentle flakes continued to fall, and the porch at Jack's Bar, strung with lights and garlands, was welcoming. There was a friendly curl of smoke rising from the chimney and light shone from the windows.
Nate, Annie and Sunny walked into the bar at 8:00 p.m. and found the place packed with locals. Jack, the owner, and Preacher, the cook, were behind the bar. There was a festive table set up along one whole wall of the room, covered with food, to which Annie added a big plate of her special deviled eggs and a dill-speckled salmon loaf surrounded by crackers.
"Hey, looks like the whole town is here," Nate said.
"A good plenty," Jack said. "But I hope you don't see anyone here you want to kiss at midnight. Most of these folks won't make it that long. We have a strong skeleton crew that will stay late, however. They're busy getting all the kids settled back at Preacher's house with a sitterit's going to be a dormitory. Vanessa and Paul's two are bunking in with Preacher's little Dana, my kids are sleeping in Preacher's room, Cameron's twins are in the guest room, Brie and Mike's little one is borrowing Christopher's room because he's planning on sitting up until midnight with the sitter. Oh, and to be very clear, the sitter is there for all the little kidsnot for Chris," Jack added with a smile. "He's eight now. All man."
"Jack, Preach, meet my niece Sunny. Sunny, this is Jack and Preacher, the guys who run this place."
She gave them a weak smile, a nod and a mumbled nice to meet you.
"Hop up here, you three. As soon as you contribute your New Year's resolution, you get service," Jack said. "The price of admission is a food item and a resolution."
Sunny jumped up on a bar stool, hanging the strap of her large bag on the backrest. Jack leaned over the bar and eyed the big, leather shoulder bag. He peered at her with one brow lifted. "Going on a long trip right after the party?"
She laughed a little. "Camera equipment. I never leave it behind. Never know when I might need it."
"Well, by all means, the first annual New Year's Eve party is your canvas," Jack said. He slid a piece of paper and pen toward her.
Sunny hovered over it as if giving it careful thought. She knew if she said her resolution was to get this over with as soon as possible, it would open up the conversation as to why she now and would forever more find New Year's Eve the most reprehensible of holidays.
"Make it a good one, Sunny," Jack said. "Keep it generic and don't sign itit's anonymous. There's a surprise coming right after midnight."
Sunny glanced at her watch. God, she thought. At least four hours of this? I'll never make it! She wrote on her slip of paper. "Give up men."
Drew Foley was a second-year orthopedic resident at UCLA Medical and had somehow scored ten days off over Christmas, which he'd spent in Chico with his two sisters, Marcie and Erin, their guys Ian and Aiden and his new nephew. The three previous Christmases he'd spent with his family, and also his former fiancee, Penny. That somehow seemed so long ago.
When surgical residents get days off, they aren't real days off. They're merely days on which you're not required in surgery, clinic, class, writing reports or being verbally beaten to death by senior residents and attending physicians. But there was still plenty of studying to do. He'd been hitting the books straight through Christmas even with the distraction of family all around, including Marcie's new baby who was really starting to assert himself. With only a few days left before he had to head back to Southern California, he borrowed the family's isolated cabin on the ridge near Virgin River so he could study without distraction. He'd managed to focus completely for a couple of days and had impressed himself with the amount of academic ground he'd covered. As he saw it, that bought him a New Year's Eve beer or two and a few hours of satellite football on New Year's Day. On January 2 he'd head back to Erin's house in Chico, spend one more evening with the family, then throw himself back into the lion's den at UCLA Medical.
He grabbed his jacket. It was New Year's Eve and he'd spent enough time alone. He'd swing through town on his way to Fortuna to collect his beer, just to see what was going on. He'd be surprised if the only bar and grill in town was open, since Jack's Bar wasn't usually open late on holidays. In fact, the routine in Virgin River on regular days was that Jack's shut down before nine, open till ten at the latest, and that was only if there were hunters or fishermen in the area. This was a town of mostly farmers, ranchers, laborers and small-business owners; they didn't stay out late because farm chores and animals didn't sleep in.
But to his surprise, once in town he found that the little bar was hopping. It made him smilethis was going to save him some serious mountain driving and he'd get to have a beer among people. When he walked into the packed bar he heard his name shouted. "Ho! Doc Foley! When did you hit town?"
This was the best part about this place. He'd only been up here maybe a half dozen times in the past couple of years, but Jack never forgot anyone. For that matter, most of Jack's friends and family never did either.
He reached a hand across the bar in greeting to Jack. "How's it going, Jack?"
"I had no idea you were up here!" Jack said. "You bring the family along?"
"Nah, I was with the family over Christmas and came up to get a little studying done before I have to get back to residency. I thought I'd better escape the girls and especially the baby if I intend to concentrate at all."
"How is that baby?" Jack asked.
Drew grinned. "Red-headed and loud. I'm afraid he could be a little rip-off of Marcie. Ian should be afraid. Very, very afraid."
Jack chuckled. "You remember my wife, Mel."
"Sure," he said, turning toward the town's renowned midwife and accepting a kiss on the cheek. "How are you?"
"Never better. I wish we'd known you were up here, DrewI'd have made it a point to call you, invite you."
Drew looked around. "Who knew you folks ripped up the town on New Year's Eve. Is everyone here?"
"Pretty good number," Jack said. "But expect this to change fairly quickmost of these folks will leave by nine. They start early. But I'm hanging in there till midnight," he assured Drew. "I bet I can count on one hand the number of Virgin River residents willing to stay up for a kiss at midnight."
And that's when he spotted her. Right when Jack said kiss at midnight he saw a young woman he'd be more than willing to accommodate when the clock struck twelve. She was tucked back in a corner by the hearth, swirling a glass of white wine, her golden hair falling onto her shoulders. She seemed just slightly apart from the table of three women who sat chatting near her. He watched as one of those women leaned toward her to speak, to try to include her, but she merely nodded, sipped, smiled politely and remained aloof. Someone's wife? Someone's girl? Whoever she was, she looked a little unhappy. He'd love to make her happier.
"Drew," Jack said. "Meet Nate Jensen, local vet."
Drew put out his hand, but didn't want to take his eyes off the girl. He said, "Nice to meet you," but what he was thinking was how long it had been since just looking at a beautiful woman had zinged him in the chest and head with almost instant attraction. Too long! Whoa, she was a stunner. He'd barely let go of Nate's hand, didn't even catch the guy's response because his ears were ringing, when he asked Jack, "Who is that blonde?"
"That's my niece," his new acquaintance said. "Sunny."
"Married? Engaged? Accompanied? Nun? Anything?"
Nate chuckled. "She's totally single. But"
"Be right back," Drew said. "Guard my beer with your life!" And he took off for the corner by the hearth.