In the two weeks Aiden Riordan had been in Virgin River, he'd hiked over a hundred miles and grown himself a pretty hefty dark red beard. With his jet-black hair and brows and his bright green eyes, this legacy of his ancestors gave him a wild look. His four-year-old niece, Rosie, who sported a full head of red curls to go with her green eyes, had said, "Unca Aid! You're a Wide Iwish Rose, too!"
For a man without a mission for the first time since he could remember, this lay-back time was working out to his liking. Since undergrad in premed, he hadn't been without incredibly stiff goals. Now, at age thirty-six, after fourteen years in the navy, he was between jobs, completely unsure where he'd land next, and he felt good about it. Motivation interruptus had turned out to be a delightful state of being. The only thing he was certain of, he wasn't leaving Virgin River before the middle of summer. His older brother Luke and sister-in-law Shelby were expecting their first child, and he damn sure wasn't going to miss that. His brother Sean would soon be home from Iraq and planned a short leave before heading with his wife, Franci, and daughter, Rosie, to his next assignment, and Aiden looked forward to a little time with him, as well.
The June sun beat down on him. He wore fatigue pants, hiking boots and a tan T-shirt with salty perspiration rings under the arms. He was wet down his chest and back and smelled pretty ripe. He carried a camouflage backpack for protein bars and water, and strapped to his belt, a machete for clearing any brush that got in his way. He had a ball cap on his head and his black hair had already started to curl out from under the edges. A four-foot-tall walking staff had become his constant companion, and since a chance encounter with a too-confident mountain lion, he now carried a bow and a quiver of arrows. Of course, if he ran into a real cranky bear, he could be toast.
He wandered up a winding dirt road. It looked like it could be someone's driveway or an abandoned logging road, he was never sure which. He was aiming for a ridge he'd seen from below. At the end of the drive, he came face-to-face with what appeared to be an abandoned cabin. Experience had taught him the differenceif the path to the outhouse facilities was overgrown and it was especially run-down, it was probably vacant. There were no guarantees on that, however. He'd made that assumption once and an old woman had leveled a shotgun at him and ordered him to scram. Now, he gave the place a wide berth and walked through the woods toward the ridge.
Of course, there was no path; he used the machete to chop away some of the overgrowth. He came out of the other side to the most amazing, intoxicating sight. A woman wearing very short khaki shorts was bent over at the edge of her deck, backside pointed right at him. Even given his expertise in that department, he couldn't tell her exact age, but that was one beautiful booty on top of a couple of magnificent, long, tan legs. By the collection of ceramic pots and a watering can on the deck, he assumed she was potting plants. One flowerpot was balanced on the deck railing above her. She appeared to be digging in the earth, scooping dirt into a big pot.
He did know a couple of things. That butt and those legs belonged to someone under the age of fifty and there didn't appear to be a shotgun in sight. So, he chopped his way through the trees intending to say a friendly hello.
Still bent over, she looked at him through her legs. A beautiful strawberry blonde, which made him smile. She let out a huge, bloodcurdling scream, straightened abruptly and hit her head on the deck railing, knocking off a ceramic pot, which hit her on the noggin. And down she went. Splat!
"Damn," he muttered, running toward her as fast as he could. He dropped the machete and staff about halfway there.
She was sprawled facedown, out cold, so he gently rolled her over. She was stunning. Her face was as gorgeous as the rest of her. Her pulse was beating nice and strong in her carotid artery, but her forehead was bleeding. He'd seen the pot hit her in the back of the head, but she must have struck her forehead on the sharp edge of the deck going down, because in the center of that lovely brow, right at her hairline, there was a gash. And it was gushing, as head wounds like to do.
Aiden pulled out his handkerchief, which was, thankfully, clean, and pressed his hand over her cut to stanch the bleeding. She moaned a bit, but didn't open her eyes. With his thumb, he peeled back her lids one at a time; her pupils were equal and reactive to light, a good sign so far.
While applying pressure to the wound, Aiden shrugged off his backpack, quiver and bow. Then he scooped her up in his arms and carried her across the deck and through the French doors that were standing open, into the cabin. "Anybody home?" he called as he walked inside. Since there was no answer, he assumed the woman lived here alone and that the big Lincoln SUV was hers.
The leather sofa looked like a good betbetter than a bed or even what appeared to be a very new and expensive designer area rug and not something she'd want to bleed on. He placed her carefully on the couch, her head slightly elevated.
He looked around. From the outside, the place looked like an ordinary old cabin with new siding and a freshly painted, covered, railed deck with chairs. Inside, it was a richly furnished, very classy showplace.
He gingerly lifted the handkerchief; the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. There was blood on her white T-shirt, however. The first matter at hand was ice, then a bandage of some kind. He was in a large combination living/dining/kitchen area. A table sat in front of the opened French doors out of which he now saw the view he'd been in search of. He'd been so taken with that fine butt, he hadn't noticed the cabin was built right on the ridge.
Aiden looked around for a phone, but didn't see one. Then he washed his hands and rummaged through the freezer for ice, which he wrapped in a couple of dish towelsone for the front of her head, one for the back. The dish towels still had price tags on them. He propped her head against one ice pack and laid the other on her forehead. Even the application of cold didn't rouse her, so off he went in search of a bandage.
The kitchen was on the west end of the cabin, but on the opposite side were two doors. The one on the left led to a good-size bedroom, and on the right, a large bathroom. From the bathroom, the most obvious place to find first-aid supplies, another door connected to the bedroom.
Sure enough, under the sink, he found a blue canvas zipper bag with First Aid emblazoned in white on the canvas. He grabbed it and hurried back to the woman. In his experienced hands, it took only seconds to apply a little antibacterial cream and a butterfly to close the wound, covered by a Band-Aid. He reapplied the ice pack.
The next immediate order of business was getting her to an emergency room for a head CT; the loss of consciousness after a blow to the head could mean trouble. The longer she stayed unconscious, the more it concerned him, but he had moved fastshe hadn't been out more than a couple of minutes so far. He saw a purse on the kitchen counter and went to rifle through it for a phone, car keys, ID, anything. He unceremoniously dumped the contents and was bent over the counter, sifting through the loose items, when a shriek rent the air. His head came up sharply and he whacked it on the cupboards that hung over the counter. "Ah!" he yelled, grabbing the back of his head. He pinched his eyes closed hard, trying to get a grip through blinding pain.
But she continued to scream.
He turned toward her. She was scooting away from him on the leather couch, screaming her head off, her ice packs spilled to the floor.
"Shut up!" he ordered. She stopped abruptly, her hand covering her mouth. "We're both going to have brain damage if you don't stop doing that!"
"Get out of here!" she commanded. "I'll call the police!"
He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Great idea. Where's the phone?" He lifted a cell phone from the things on the counter. "This one has no signal."
"What are you doing here? Why are you in my house? In my purse?"
He walked toward her, her purse hanging in his hand. "I saw you hit your head. I brought you inside and put ice and a bandage on the wound, but now we have to"
"You hit me in the head?" she screeched, digging at the sofa with her heels to scoot away again.
"I didn't hit youapparently I startled you when I came out of the forest and you jumped. You hit the back of your head on the deck railing and one of your pots fell on your head. I think you got the cut on your forehead when you hit the deck on the way down. Now where's the phone?"
"Oh God," she said, her fingers going to the bandage, touching it carefully. "The phone's going to be installed tomorrow. Along with my satellite dish. So I can have Internet and watch movies."
"That isn't going to help much. Listen, it's a small cut. Head wounds bleed a lot. I doubt it'll even leave a scar. But losing consciousness is"
"I'll give you money if you just won't hurt me."
"I bandaged your head, for God's sake! I'm not going to hurt you and I don't want money!" He lifted the purse in his hand. "I was looking for your car keysyou need a CAT scan. Maybe a couple of stitches."
"Why?" she asked, her voice quivering.
He sighed. "Because you lost consciousnessnot a good sign. Now, where are your keys?"
"Why?" she asked again.
"I'm going to drive you to the emergency room so you can get your head examined!"
"I'll do it," she said. "I'll drive myself. You can just go now. Right now."
He took a couple of steps toward her. He crouched so he wouldn't be looking down at her, but didn't get too close because he wasn't sure of her. She appeared to be a bit unstable. Or maybe scared of him. He tried to put himself in her positionshe woke up with blood on her shirt, a wild man plowing through her purse. "What's your name?" he asked softly.
She looked at him doubtfully. "Erin," she finally said.
"Well, Erin, it isn't a good idea for you to drive yourself. If you have a serious or even semiserious head injury, you could lose consciousness again, get dizzy or disoriented, get sick, suffer blurred vision, any number of things. Now, try not to be nervousI'll take you to the E.R. Once I get you there, you can call a friend or family member. I'll have someone pick me up."
"And you think it is a good idea for me to get in a car with some homeless guy?"
He stood up. "I'm not homeless! I was hiking through the woods!"
"Well, then, you've been hiking a long time. Because you look like you've been living in the woods!"
He crouched again, to get on her level. "Number oneyou have to hold the ice packs I made on the front and back of your head. I don't see how you can do that while you drive. Number two, it's too risky for you to drive yourself, as I have very patiently explained. And number three, stop being so goddamn prissy and get in the car with a smelly hiker, because your brain could be swelling as we speak and you could be hopelessly disabled for the rest of your pigheaded life! Now, where are the fucking keys?"
She looked over her shoulder. There was a hook by the door; her keys dangled from it. "How do you know that stuff? About brain swelling?"
"I was an EMT in collegea long time ago," he said, which was the truth. He wasn't sure why he didn't just tell her he was a physician. Maybe because he didn't look like one at the moment. As she had pointed out, he looked like a homeless guy. But there was also the fact that his area of expertise was a long way from the headand he didn't feel like getting into that. She was already spooked. Being spooked didn't stop her from being bossy and bitchy, however. His head hurt, too. And he was fast losing patience with this patient. "Now, let's gather up your ice and little towels and hit the road."
"If you turn out to be some kind of homicidal maniac, you're going to have one pissed-off ghost on your hands," she threatened as he stooped to gather her ice off the floor. When she stood up, she wobbled slightly.
He was beside her instantly, arm around her waist, steadying her. "You took a mean knock on the head, kid. This is why you're not driving."
He walked her outside, grabbing the keys and slamming the door on the way out. That was the first time he realized that the front of the house faced the road. He had to lift her into the front seat and help her arrange the ice in the dish towels so she could put them against her lumps. He noticed that she wrinkled her nose; okay, so it was obvioushe might've generated a little body odor.
"I need my purse," she said. "My insurance cards and ID."
"I'll get it," he said. "I have to close the doors to the deck anyway." But he took the car keys with him, for safety reasons. He scraped things off the counter and back into her purse, returned to the car and put the purse in her lap. Then he got in and started driving. "You might have to give me some directions
. I'm not from around here."
She groaned and dropped her head back. "I'm not from around here, either."
"Never mind, I can fake it," he said. "I can find Highway 36 from Virgin River. What are you doing here, if you're not from around here?"
"Taking a break from work and trying to enjoy solitude," she answered, exasperation in her voice. "Then Charles Manson came through the trees, carrying a three-foot-long knife, and startled me. So much for peace and quiet."
"Come onI let my beard grow, that's all. I'm on vacation and didn't feel like shaving, so sue me."
"As it happens, I could. I've been known to sue people on occasion."
He laughed. "I should've known. A lawyer. And by the way, I was carrying the machete for cutting away the brush so I could get through the woods when there's no path."
"Why are you here?" she asked him.
"Visiting family. I have a brother who lives around here. He and his wife are getting ready to be parents for the first time and I'm
" He cleared his throat. "Let's just say I'm between jobs."
She laughed. "Unemployed. Big surprise. Let me guessyou've been between jobs for a while now."
She was pissing him off. He could've leveled with her, that he was a doctor planning his next move. But she was snooty and superior and he just didn't feel like it. "At least long enough to grow a beard," he said evasively.
"You know, if you cleaned up a little, you might be able to land a job," she advised very sagely.
"I'll certainly take that into consideration."
"The beard is a little crazy," she said. "It'll put off potential employers." Then under her breath she added, "Not to mention the smell
"I'll bear that in mind. Although my niece likes it." He turned to peer at her. "The beard, that is."
"I thought you said your brother was having his first child."
"She's a different brother's child."
"Ah, so you have more than one brother. Just out of curiosity, what do your brothers think of this, um, between-jobs lifestyle?"