A fierce and unseasonably cold September wind blew chilly rain against the windows. Preacher wiped down the bar, and while it was only seven-thirty, it was already dark. No one in Virgin River would be out on a night like this. After the dinner hour was past, people tended to stay in on cold, wet nights. The campers and fishermen in the area would be locked down tight against the storm. It was bear-and-deer-hunting season, but it was unlikely any hunters would pass en route to or from lodges and blinds at this hour in such weather. Jack, his partner and the owner of the bar and grill, knowing there would be little if any business, was tucked away with his new wife at their cabin in the woods. Preacher had also sent home their seventeen-year-old helper, Rick. As soon as the fire burned down a little more, Preacher planned to switch off the Open sign and lock the door.
He poured himself a shot of whiskey and took it over to the table nearest the fire, then turned a chair toward the hearth and propped up his feet. Quiet nights like this were to his liking. He was a solitary kind of guy.
But the peace was not to be. Someone pulled on the door, causing him to frown. It opened a little bit. The wind caught the door and it flew open with a bang, bringing him instantly to his feet. Entering and then struggling to close the door was a young woman holding a child. The woman wore a ball cap and had a heavy quilted bag slung over her shoulder. Preacher went to get the door. She turned, looked up at him, and they both jumped back in surprise. She was likely startled because Preacher looked intimidatinghe was six foot four, bald with bushy black eyebrows, a diamond stud earring and shoulders about as broad as an ax handle was long.
Under the bill of the baseball cap, Preacher saw a pretty young woman's face bearing a bruise on her cheek and a split lower lip.
I'm sorry. I saw the sign
"Yeah, come on in. I wasn't expecting anyone to be out tonight."
"Are you closing?" she asked, hoisting up her burden, a little boy, not more than three or four years old. He was asleep on her shoulder, his long legs dangling limply. "Because I
Are you closing?"
"Come on," he said, stepping back for her to pass. "It's okay. I don't have anyplace better to go." He extended an arm toward a table. "Sit by the fire there. Warm up. Dry off."
"Thanks," she said meekly. She went to the table by the fire, and when she saw the drink, said, "Is this where you're sitting?"
"Go ahead. Take it," he said. "I was having a shot before calling it a night. But there's no hurry. We don't usually close this early, anyway, but with the rain
"Did you want to get home?" she asked him.
He smiled at her. "I live here. Makes me real flexible on the hours."
"If you're sure
"I'm sure," he said. "If the weather's decent, we usually stay open till at least nine."
She took the chair facing the fire, the boy's gangly legs straddling her lap. She let her quilted shoulder bag drop to the floor and pulled the child closer, hugging him tight, stroking his back.
Preacher disappeared into the back, leaving her to warm herself for a minute. He came back with a couple of pillows from his bed and the throw from his couch. He put the pillows on the table next to her and said, "Here. Lay the kid down. He's probably heavy."
She looked up at him with eyes that seemed to want to cry. Oh, he hoped she wouldn't do that. He hated when women cried. He had no idea what to do. Jack could handle it. He was chivalrous; he knew exactly what to do with a woman under any circumstance. Preacher was uncomfortable around women until he got to know them. When you got down to it, he was inexperienced. Although it wasn't intentional, he tended to scare women and children simply because of how he looked. But they didn't know that underneath his sometimes grim countenance he was shy.
"Thanks," she said again. She transferred the child to the pillows on the table. He immediately curled into a ball and put a thumb in his mouth. Preacher stood there, lamely holding the throw. She didn't take it from him so he put it over the boy and tucked it around him. He noticed the boy's cheeks were rosy and his lips bright pink.
When she reclaimed her chair, she looked around. She saw the stag's head over the front door and flinched. She turned full circle, noting the bear skin on the wall, the sturgeon over the bar. "Is this some kind of hunting place?" she asked.
"Not really, but a lot of hunters and fishermen pass this way," he said. "My partner shot the bear in self-defense, but he caught the fish on purpose. One of the biggest sturgeons in the river. I got the buck, but I'd rather fish than hunt. I like the quiet." He shrugged. "I'm the cook here. If I kill it, we eat it."
"You can eat deer," she said.
"And we did. We had a great winter of venison. Maybe you should have a drink," he said, trying to keep his voice soft and nonthreatening.
"I have to find a place to stay. Where am I, anyway?"
"Virgin River. Kind of out-of-the-way. How'd you find us?"
" She shook her head and a small laugh escaped. "I got off the highway, looking for a town with a hotel
"You got off the highway a while ago."
"There aren't many places wide enough to turn around," she said. "Then I saw this place, your sign. My son
I think he has a fever. We shouldn't drive anymore."
Preacher knew there wasn't anyplace to get a room nearby. This was a woman in trouble; it didn't take a genius to figure that out. "I'll fix you up with something," he said. "But firstyou want something to drink? Eat? I've got a good soup tonight. Bean and ham. And bread. I made the bread today. I like to do that when it's cold and rainy. How about a brandy to warm you up first?"
"Or whatever you feel like
"That would be good. Soup would be good, too. I haven't eaten in hours. Thanks."
He went to the bar and poured a Remy into a snifterfancy stuff for this place. He hardly ever used the snifters on the usual crowdbut he wanted to do something special for the girl. For sure she was down on her luck. He took her the brandy and then went back to the kitchen.
The soup was put away for the night, but he took it out of the refrigerator, ladled out a scoop and put it in the microwave. While it warmed, he took her a napkin and some utensils. By the time he got back to the kitchen, the soup was ready and he got out the breadsome of his best: soft, sweet and heartyand nuked it for a few seconds. He put that and some butter on a plate. When he came out of the kitchen he saw her struggling out of her jacket, like maybe she was stiff or sore. The sight of it stopped him briefly and made him frown. She threw a look over her shoulder, as if she was caught doing something bad.
Preacher put the food in front of her, his mind spinning. She was maybe five foot five and slight. She wore jeans and her curly brown hair was tucked through the back of the ball cap like a ponytail. She looked like a girl, but he guessed she was at least in her twenties. Maybe she'd been in a car accident, but it was more likely someone had smacked her around. The thought alone got him a little hot inside.
"That looks great," she said, accepting the soup.
He went back behind the bar while she ate. She shoveled the soup in, smeared the bread with butter and ate it ravenously. Halfway through with her meal she gave him a sheepish, almost apologetic smile. It tore through him, that bruised face, split lip. Her hunger.
When she'd sopped up the last of her soup with the last of her bread, he returned to her table. "I'll get you some more."
"No. No, it's okay. I think I'll have some of this brandy now. I sure appreciate it. I'll be on my way in a"
"Relax," he said, and hoped he didn't sound harsh. It took a while for people to warm up to him. He transferred her dishes to the bar, clearing her place. "There isn't anywhere around here to get a room," he said when he returned to the table. He sat down across from her, leaned toward her. "The roads aren't so good out this way, especially in the rain. Really, you don't want to head back out there. You're kinda stuck."
"Oh, no! Listen, if you'll just tell me the closest place
I have to find something
"Take it easy," he said. "I got an extra room. No problem. It's a bad night." Predictably, her eyes widened. "It's okay. It's got a lock."
"I didn't mean
"It's okay. I'm kind of scary-looking. I know it."
"No. It's just"
"Don't worry about it. I know how I look. Works great on guys. They back right off." He gave her a small smile, not showing any teeth.
"You don't have to do this," she said. "I have a car
"Jesus, I couldn't stand to think of you sleeping in a car!" he said. "Sorry. Sometimes I sound as bad as I look. But no kiddingif the kid's not feeling so good
"I can't," she said. "I don't know you
"Yeah, I know. Probably makes you wonder, huh? But I'm way safer than I look. You'd be okay here. Better here than at some hotel on the freeway, guaranteed. A whole lot more okay than out in that storm, trying to deal with those mountain roads."
She looked at him hard for a minute. Then she said, "No. I'm just going to press on. If you'll tell me how much"
"Pretty rough-looking bruise you have there," Preacher said. "Can I get you anything for that lip? I have a first aid kit in the kitchen."
"I'm fine," she said, shaking her head. "How about if we settle up and"
"I don't have anything for a kid's fever. Except a room. With a lock on the door so you feel safe. You don't want to pass up an offer like that in this weather, with a kid who might be coming down with something. I look big and mean, but I'm about as safe as you get. Unless you're wildlife." He grinned at her.
"You don't look mean," she said timidly.
"It can make women and little kids real nervousand I hate that part. You on the run?" he asked her.
She lowered her eyes.
"What d'you think? I'm gonna call the cops? Who did that to you?"
She immediately started to cry.
"Aw. Hey. Don't."
She put her head down on folded arms on the table-top and sobbed.
"Aw. Come on. Don't do that. I never know what to do." Hesitatingly, squeamishly, he touched her back and she jumped. He touched one of her hands, very lightly. "Come on, don't cry. Maybe I can help."
"No. You can't."
"Never know," he said, lightly patting her hand.
She lifted her head. "Sorry," she said, wiping her eyes. "I'm exhausted, I guess. It was an accident. It was really stupid, but I was struggling with Chris" She stopped suddenly and looked around nervously, as though worried about being overheard. She licked her lower lip. "I was trying to get Christopher in the car, hanging on to stuff, and I opened the door right into my face. Hard. You shouldn't be in a hurry, you know? It was just a little accident. It's fine." She lifted the napkin to her nose.
"Right," Preacher said. "Sure. Too bad about that. Looks sore."
"It'll be fine."
"Sure it will. Sowhat's your name?" When she didn't answer for a long moment, he said, "It's okay. I'm not going to repeat it. If anyone came looking for you, I'd never mention seeing you." Her eyes grew round and her mouth stood open slightly. "Oh, damn, that was the wrong thing to say, wasn't it?" he said. "All I mean is, if you're hiding or running, it's okay. You can hide or run here. I won't give you up. What's your name?"
She reached out and ran her fingers gently through the boy's hair. Silent.
Preacher got up and flipped off the Open sign and threw the latch on the door. "There," he said, sitting down with her again, the little boy taking up much of the table beside them. "Try to take it easy," he said softly. "No one here's gonna hurt you. I can be a friend. I'm sure not scared of the weak dick who'd do that to a woman. Sorry."
She looked down to avoid eye contact. "It was the car door
"Not afraid of any mean old car door, either," he said.
She gave a little huff of laughter, but had trouble looking him in the eye. She picked up her brandy with a slightly trembling hand and lifted it to her mouth.
"Yeah, there you go," Preacher said. "If you think the boy needs a doctor tonight, there's one right across the street. I could go get him. Or take you over."
"I think he's just coming down with a cold. I'm keeping a close eye on him."
"If he needs medicine or something."
"I think he's okay
"My buddy, the guy who owns this place, his wife is a nurse. A special nurseshe can give medicine, see patients
. She takes real good care of the women around here. She'd come in ten minutes. If a woman makes a difference, under the circumstances."
"Circumstances?" she asked, a panicked look floating across her features.
"Car door, and all that."
"No. Really. It's just been a long day. You know."
"Yeah, must've been. And the last hour or so off the freeway, that must've been pretty awful. If you're not used to those roads."
"A little scary," she admitted softly. "And not having any idea where I am."
"You're in Virgin River now, that's what matters. It's just a little crimp in the road, but the people are good. Help out where they can. You know?"
She gave him a small, shy smile, but her eyes were downcast again.
"What's your name?" he asked again. She pursed her lips tight, shaking her head. Her eyes welled up again.
"It's okay," he said softly. "Really."
"Paige," she whispered, a tear running down her cheek. "Paige," she repeated in a small voice.
"Yeah, that's good. That's a pretty name. You can say your name around here without being afraid."
"John," he said, then wondered why he had done that. Something about her, he guessed. "John Middleton. No one calls me John, though. I'm known as Preacher."
"You're a preacher?"
"No," he said with a short laugh. "Way far from it. The only one ever to call me John was my mother."
"What did your father call you?" she asked him. "Kid," he said, and smiled. "Hey, kid," he emphasized. "Why do they call you Preacher?"
"Aw," he said, ducking shyly. "I don't know. I got the nickname way back, when I was just a kid in the Marine Corps. The boys said I was kinda straitlaced and uptight."
"Really? Are you?"
"Nah, not really," he said. "I never used to curse at all. I used to go to mass, when there was a mass. I grew up around priests and nunsmy mother was real devout. None of the boys ever went to mass, that I remember. And I kind of hung back when they went out to get drunk and look for women. I don't know
I never felt like doing that. I'm not good with women." He smiled suddenly. "That should be obvious right away, huh? And getting drunk never really appealed to me."
"But you have a bar?" she asked.
"It's Jack's bar. He watches over people real good. We don't let anybody out of here if they're not safe, you know? I like a shot at the end of the day, but no reason to get a headache over it, right?" He grinned at her.
"Should I call you John?" she asked him. "Or Preacher?"
"Whatever you want."
"John," she said. "Okay?"
"If you want. Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I like that. Been a while since anyone called me that."