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Walt Booth was feeling lonely. He'd been widowed over five years ago when his kids were twenty-six and fourteen. Now that he was sixty-two, the kids were on their own. Vanessa was married to Paul and they lived on the property on the other side of the stable, and Tom had nearly completed his first year at West Point. Walt's niece, Shelby, had been staying with him, but during the February freeze she had left to vacation in Maui before pursuing her education in San Francisco.
But that only scratched the surface. He'd recently begun a relationship with his neighbor, a beautiful, vivacious, mischievous movie star just a few years younger than he was. Muriel St. Claire. Their liaison was just getting interesting, just heating up, when she was lured back to Hollywood to make another film. He was left with her two Labrador retrievers and her two horses. He'd had one phone call since she'd departed for L.A. via private jet, a call in which he had heard the background noise of a party. There was music, chatter, laughter, the clinking of glasses, and Muriel sounded on top of the world.
The truth of the matter was, he'd gone and fallen in love with her. She had trapped him by being nothing like his perception of a movie star. She'd come to Virgin River almost a year ago, moved into an old farmhouse with her animals and restored it, almost entirely by herself. He'd never seen her in anything but slacks, usually jeans and boots, often painter's overalls. She was a crackerjack horsewoman, an expert shot and was training her own bird dogs for hunting waterfowl. Earthy. Basic. Yet her wit was sophisticated and her beauty natural and unforgettable. And right now, while he sat by the window in his great room, scratching her dog behind the ear, she was making a movie with Jack Nicholson. The truth? He wondered if she'd come back.
His doorbell rang and he hefted himself up to answer it. Two weeks ago he'd felt like a sixteen-year-old boy, looking forward to seeing Muriel every day. Today he felt old and short on time.
He opened the door to Luke Riordan and frowned. This was just about the last person he'd like to see right now. Luke and Shelby had had a romance that didn't work out, which Walt suspected was her reason for leaving.
"Morning, General," Luke said with a slight nod. "Got a minute?"
"I guess," he said, standing back from the door.
"No thanks, sir," Luke said, stepping into the house. "It's just that- Well, I owe you an apology."
"That so?" Walt asked. He turned and walked back into the great room. The dogs spied Luke and immediately put the rush on him. Luce, the chocolate Lab, sat in front of him politely, but her tail wagged so violently it sent her whole body into a quiver, while Buff, less than a year old, lost all control and just barreled into him, jumping up and head butting for attention. "Buff! Down!" Walt admonished. It didn't do much good. The yellow Lab was pretty much out of control where visitors were concerned.
"Whoa," Luke laughed, grabbing the Lab behind the ears and sitting him down. "Got yourself some company here?"
"These are Muriel's dogs. She's out of town and I'm taking care of them."
"Out of town?" Luke asked, straightening.
Walt sat in his chair and clicked the dogs back to his side by snapping his fingers. He didn't volunteer any more information about Muriel's whereabouts. With a Lab on each side of him, he indicated the chair facing his. "Take a seat, Riordan. I'm anxious to hear about this apology."
Luke took his seat uneasily. "General Booth, sir, I'm the reason Shelby left a little over two weeks ago. I apologize, sir. She had every reason to think her future wasn't secure with me and she left."
Walt settled back. Shelby was twenty-five to Luke's thirty-eight and Walt had been concerned that his niece's involvement with this tough-edged Blackhawk pilot might end with her being hurt. "How does that not surprise me?" Walt said churlishly.
"I let her go, sir. I thought she might be better off.
I hated to think she'd bet everything on someone like me."
Walt smirked. He couldn't have put it better himself. "I should've just shot you," he said. "I gave it serious thought."
Luke couldn't suppress a huff of silent laughter. "I figured you did. Sir." Luke hadn't been out of the army quite long enough to relax about that rank thing. The general was a general till he died and was accorded appropriate respect, even when he acted like a son of a bitch and threatened Luke's life.
"You should be apologizing to her, not me," Walt said.
"I've taken care of that, sir. Unbelievably, I'm forgiven."
"You talked to her?"
"Yes, sir. She came back. She was pissed as hell, but I threw myself on her mercy and she's given me another chance. I plan to do better this time."
Walt's eyes had grown wide and his bushy black eyebrows shot up high. "She's back?"
"Yes, sir. She said to tell you she'd be right over. She had something to take care of and I wanted a word with you first."
"To apologize," Walt groused. "I'd like to see my niece, if you don't mind."
"She'll be here pretty soon. But there's another thing. I'd like your permission to ask Shelby to be my wife."
Walt ground his teeth. "You're really pressing your luck."
"Oh, you don't know the half." Luke chuckled before he could stop himself. "Almost thirty-nine years old and I'm buying into the whole program. It's not even one of her conditions-it's one of mine. General Booth, she's everything to me. I can't live without her. I thought I could and I tried, but it's too late for me. I'm in love with Shelby. I'm going to be in love with her for the rest of my life."
Walt was sitting straighter. He moved to the edge of his chair. "What about her education? What about a family? I think my niece wants a family and I heard you say that wasn't-"
"You probably heard me say a lot of things I thought I meant and didn't, sir. Shelby can have anything she wants, do anything she wants-I'll support her. I'm not going to waste her time, sir. If she'll marry me, I'll give her everything I have, go anywhere she needs me to go. She won't ever again leave my house thinking I don't care about her. That could have been the biggest mistake of my lifetime."
Walt smiled in spite of himself. "Learned your lesson, did you, boy?"
Luke didn't mind so much being called a boy by this military icon, but the truth hit him pretty hard. "Oh, man," he said, shaking his head. "You have no idea."
Walt leaned back. "I like seeing you humbled a little bit, Riordan. What if I withhold my permission?"
"Oh, I'll ask her anyway. I'll tell her you disapprove and ask her to overlook that. But I'd like to do this right, sir. I've made enough mistakes-I don't want to make one more."
"Hmm," Walt hummed. "I guess I can still be surprised
"I didn't figure you for intelligence."
Luke just shook his head. Well, this was no less than he deserved. He'd taken the general's niece into his bed, telling her he just wasn't the kind of man who could settle down. He used every rationalization he could think of to make that all right, but he knew all along that was going to be real tough for the general to swallow. He also knew if Shelby were his niece, he wouldn't have stood for it. Now Walt was obviously going to torture him for a while. Luke supposed it was his just due.
The front door opened and Shelby breezed in. Both men shot to their feet, but Luke got to her first, slipping an arm around her waist. "Take care of everything?" he asked quietly.
"Uh-huh," she said, smiling up at him. "I got off easy." Shelby had left Virgin River without saying goodbye to Luke's helper, Art. That in itself wasn't such a crime, but Art was a thirty-year-old man with Down syndrome and things like disappearing without an explanation or goodbye could seem like abandonment to him. "He wasn't angry with me-just worried."
Then she went to her uncle. "I'm sorry I didn't call and let you know I was coming back, Uncle Walt. I had business to take care of with Luke first."
Walt looked at her beautiful, shining face. Her hazel eyes glowed, her cheeks were flush with love. But looking at Shelby wasn't the startling part. One look at Luke told the rest of the story. Luke had always had that bad-boy edge, an aura of danger and a short fuse.
No more. All the rough edges had been ground down and his expression was docile as a puppy.
Walt just laughed as he pulled Shelby into his arms. He hugged her fiercely. "Shelby, Shelby," he said. He held her away from him and, grinning, he said, "Looks like you've tamed him. He doesn't have any fight left in him."
"Thank God," she said. "I don't think I could take much more. He's been a real handful. But Luke still needs a little work, so I'm going to be staying with him now. I'll be over to help you with the horses every day, just like always."
"That would be nice, honey," he said. "There are a lot of horses. Muriel's out of town and I've got the dogs and horses."
Shelby reached down and gave each Lab a little scratch. "Where is she?"
"She's gone back to Hollywood for a while. Going to make a movie."
"Really?" Shelby asked, grinning hugely, her eyes lighting up. "Wow. How awesome."
She would find that exciting news, Walt thought. He had told Muriel she had his devoted support in achieving everything her heart desired, but in fact he wasn't feeling real supportive. He was feeling jealous and lonely and out of sorts. And this news about Shelby and Luke just added to his misery.
He shook it off. "Luke?" he asked, looking at the man. When he had Luke's attention, Walt gave his chin a firm nod. And that was all it took to make Luke Riordan's eyes light up as though beacons shone from within.
At 1:00 a.m. the phone rang next to Walt's bed. He thought first of Shelby; she'd thrown her lot in with Luke and Walt hoped nothing had gone wrong. He thought next of Vanessa, Paul and little Matt, his grandson. Young Tom crossed his mind-but a middle-of-the-night phone call from West Point was highly unlikely.
"Walt?" came Muriel's voice before he could gather his wits and say hello. "Darling, I'm sorry-I know what time it is."
Darling? Did she call him darling? Oh, those Hollywood types probably called everyone darling. "It's all right," he said sleepily. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm okay. This is honestly the first chance I've had to call in days. But it's not going to stay this crazy. I hope."
"What's going on?"
"Well, everything. The production company has been staging small parties in key places all over town, trying to create some preproduction buzz about the movie by having cast members show up. I've been researching the character, spending some time with the writer, rehearsing lines they'll only rewrite the second I have them down, looking at wardrobe and set sketches with the production designer, and generally going out to lunch, drinks, dinner, drinks, and talking till midnight. Then I fall into bed and sleep like a dead woman till 5:00 a.m. when I get up and jump on the treadmill."
He just shook his head in confusion. "What's the treadmill got to do with anything?"
She laughed. "I have to be in good shape. And I don't have the dogs or horses to help me do that. I hired my old trainer back to firm things up a bit. I know it doesn't sound like it, but I'm working my ass off."
"Well, stop going out for all those drinks and you'll feel better."
"I stick to club soda when I'm meeting with actors, producers, promoters, et cetera. They're not catching me with my pants down."
He smiled and felt instant shame for having baited her like that. And pride; she was a consummate professional-he should have known that. "That's my girl."
"Tell me what's going on there."
"Shelby came back," he said.
Silence answered him. "She did?" Muriel finally asked in a shocked breath.
"Yes, ma'am. And apparently Luke did enough groveling to satisfy her, because she's moved in with him. And this morning he paid me a visit, asked my permission to propose."
"Get out of town! Did you grant it?"
"No. I told him to go to hell. I should have just shot him. I told him that."
"Oh, you'd like me to believe you're that kind of bully, wouldn't you?"
"The silly girl seems to love him. And you should see him. Whipped into shape that fast. I bet if we pulled up his shirt, there would be lash marks all over his back. He's limp as a noodle."
"I bet he's not," she said with a laugh. "Well, good for Shelby. That maneuver never worked for me. When
I stomped off into the night, they just said, 'Okay, bah-bye.'"
"What's Jack Whatshisname like?"
"Are you ever going to say his last name?" she asked with a deep sigh.
"He's a nice man. Professional, punctual, talented, and very much enjoys the way people fall at his feet. And they should. He's got the gift. I like him. I think working with him again will be a good experience."
"Muriel," he said softly, "when are you coming home?"
Equally soft, she answered, "I don't know, Walt. And yes, I miss you."
Jack's bar was the place in Virgin River where the locals gathered. Not that everyone was there every night, but you could always count on seeing a friend there. There was a military backbone to this community since Jack Sheridan, a Marine who'd done his twenty, had opened the bar. Following him to the town was one of his best friends, John Middleton, known as Preacher, who was his partner and the cook at the bar. Next to arrive was Mike Valenzuela who'd served with Jack in Iraq twice and was now the town constable. Walt's son-in-law, Paul, was one of Jack's boys from way back and had also served with him twice. Even Luke Riordan, being ex-army, was welcomed into this brotherhood. It was the kind of place Walt felt he belonged.
Since Muriel had left, he'd been going low profile, generally fixing himself a little dinner at home by himself. Since talking with her for a while last night, he was feeling a little more secure about things and decided on Jack's for dinner. In fact, he got there a bit early, before the dinner crowd. The TV perched high in the corner was on so Jack and anyone who cared could keep up with the news, with the action in Iraq.
Jack was toting his son David in the backpack while he served. "General," he greeted. "Good to see you, sir. Been a while."
"I guess it has," Walt said, hopping up on a stool. "What do you hear from Iraq?"
"Rick writes at least every couple of weeks. He doesn't scare me, but CNN and Fox News make me shiver. There were just a couple of big bombings over there. Casualties on our side."