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Shelby was within ten miles of her Uncle Walt's ranch when she had to pull over to the side of highway 36, the busiest stretch between Virgin River and Fortuna, behind an old pickup truck that looked vaguely familiar. Although 36 was the highway that ran across the mountains from Red Bluff to Fortuna, it was mostly two lane. She put her cherry-red Jeep SUV in Park and stepped out of the vehicle. The rain had finally stopped, giving way to a bright summer sun, but the road was wet and splattered with muddy puddles. She peered way up the road to see a man wearing a bright orange vest holding a stop sign toward a long string of cars, closing both lanes. The turnoff to her Uncle Walt's would be on the other side of the next hill.
She picked her way around puddles to the truck parked in front of her, intending to ask the driver if he knew what was going on. When she got to the driver's window she smiled. "Well, hey, Doc."
Doc Mullins looked out the open window. "Hey, yourself, little girl. Up here for a weekend of riding?" he asked with his usual grumpy tone.
"Not this time, Doc. I sold my mother's house in Bodega Bay," she said. "Packed up the bare essentials and am moving in with Uncle Walt for a while."
"Nah. For a few months, though. I'm still in transition."
Doc's grimace melted slightly, but only slightly. "Once again, condolences on your loss, Shelby," he said. "I hope you're doing all right with that."
"Better all the time, thanks. My mom was ready to go." She tilted her head up the road. "Have any idea what's holding us up here?"
"Soft shoulder gave out," he said. "I passed it on my way to Valley Hospital. Dumped half this lane down the hill. They're repairing."
"Guardrails would be nice," she observed.
"Only around the tight curves," he said. "On a straightaway like this, we're on our own. Damn lucky a car or truck didn't go with that soft shoulder. It's going to be like this the next few days."
"Once I get to Walt's, I'm not planning to be on this road again, for a while anyway," she said with a shrug.
"What are you planning, if I might ask?" Doc said, lifting one of his bushy eyebrows.
"Well, while I'm visiting the family, I'll be making applications to schools. Nursing," she said with a smile. "A fairly obvious choice for me after taking care of my mother for years."
"Ach, just what I need," he said with his usual scowl. "Another nurse. Drive me to drink."
She laughed at him. "At least we won't have to drive you far."
"There's just what I mean. Another impertinent one, at that," he clarified.
She laughed again, loving this ornery old guy. Shelby turned, Doc leaned out of his window and both of them watched a man approach from the truck that had stopped behind Shelby's Jeep. He walked toward them. His hair was shaved down in that military fashion she'd been accustomed to all her life; her uncle was a retired army general. A black T-shirt was stretched tight over broad, hard shoulders, his waist narrow, his hips slim and legs long. But what fascinated her was the way he came toward them, with an economy of movement. Deliberate. Confident. Cocky. His thumbs were hooked into front pockets and he sauntered. When he got closer, she could see his very slight smile as he looked at her, or looked her over, to be more precise. Sizing her up with glowing eyes. In your dreams, she thought, which caused her to smile back.
As he passed her Jeep, he glanced inside at all the packed-up boxes, then continued to where she was standing beside Doc's open window. "That yours?" he asked, jutting his chin toward the Jeep.
"Where are you headed?" he asked.
"Virgin River. You?"
"The same." He grinned. "Any idea what's going on up there?"
"Collapsed shoulder," Doc said with a grunt. "They have us down to one lane for repairs. What's your business in Virgin River?"
"I have some old cabins along the river there." He glanced between them. "You two live in the town?" he asked.
"I have family there," Shelby said. She stuck out her hand. "I'm Shelby."
He took her small hand. "Luke. Luke Riordan." He turned toward Doc, putting out his hand again. "Sir?"
Doc didn't extend a hand, but rather gave a nod. His hands were so twisted with arthritis, he never risked a handshake. "Mullins," he said.
"Doc Mullins has lived in Virgin River all his life. He's the town doctor," Shelby explained to Luke.
"Nice to meet you, sir," Luke said.
"Another jarhead?" Doc asked, lifting one white, spiking eyebrow.
Luke straightened. "I beg your pardon," he said. "Army. Sir." Then he looked at Shelby. "Another marine?"
"A few of our friends who work in town are marines. Retired or discharged. Their friends come around sometimes—some of them are still active or in the reserves," she explained. "But my uncle, who I'll be living with for a while, was Army. Retired." She grinned. "You won't stand out that much with your hairdo. I don't know what it is with you guys and the buzz cuts."
He smiled patiently. "We've never been checked out on those dryer things."
"Ah. Blow-dryers. Right."
As they waited in their stalled lane, the second lane was opened up to let a big yellow school bus pass. Judging by the number of vehicles waiting in their lane, they weren't going anywhere anytime soon, so there was no great rush to get back to their cars. They remained standing on the road, which ended up being a big mistake for Luke. As he saw the bus barreling down the other lane, Luke also noted a sizable puddle in front of it. He quickly put himself between Shelby and the bus, pressing her up against Doc's open window. With a hand on each side of her, he covered her with his body, barely in time to feel the splat from the puddle against his back.
Shelby stifled a chuckle. Macho man, she thought with some humor.
Luke heard downshifting, then the squeal of brakes. "Jesus," he muttered as he backed off the girl and glared after the bus.
As Luke turned and scowled at the bus, the driver leaned out the window. A round-faced woman in her fifties, rosy cheeked with a cap of short dark hair, grinned at him. She grinned! "Sorry, buddy," she said. "Couldn't hardly help that."
"You could if you went a lot slower," he yelled back at her.
To his astonishment, she laughed. "Aw, I wasn't going too fast. I got a schedule, y'know," she yelled. "My advice? Stay out of the way."
His scalp felt hot under his short hair and he really wanted to swear. When he turned back to Shelby and Doc, he found her smiling behind her hand and Doc's eyes twinkling. "You got a little splatter on your back there, Luke," she said, trying to keep control of her lips.
Doc's face was the same—cranky and impatient, but for the glittering eyes. "Molly's been slinging that big yellow tube around these mountains for thirty years now, and ain't nobody knows these roads better. Guess she didn't see a pothole this once."
"It's not even September yet!" Luke protested.
"She drives year-round," Doc said. "Summer school, special programs, athletics. Always something going on. She's a saint—you couldn't pay me enough to do that job. What's a mud puddle here and there?" Then the old doctor put his truck noisily in gear. "Our turn coming up."
Shelby jogged back toward her Jeep. Luke started to walk back toward his truck, which pulled a camper. Then he heard Doc, shouting at his back, "Welcome to Virgin River, son. Enjoy yourself." And it was followed by a cackle.
Shelby McIntyre had been fixing up her deceased mother's house for months, but she'd been able to drive up to Virgin River from Bodega Bay nearly every weekend through the summer to ride. And her Uncle Walt had paid many a visit to her to oversee renovation work that he'd personally contracted. By the end of summer Shelby had roses on her cheeks. She had rolled up her shorts and her legs were tanned. Her thighs and butt had developed firm riding muscles and her eyes sparkled with health. It had been years since she'd benefited from that type of regular exercise.
But when she pulled up in front of Walt's house now, in mid-August, it was a completely different feeling. The house was sold, her belongings were in the back of her Jeep, and at the age of twenty-five, she was embarking on a brand-new life. She gave the horn a toot, got out of her Jeep and stretched. In just moments, Uncle Walt came out the front door, stood there with his hands on his hips, a big grin on his face. "Welcome back," he said. "Or should I say, welcome home?"
"Hey there," she said, walking into his arms. Walt was six feet with thick, silver hair, dark bushy brows and shoulders and arms like a wrestler's. He was a powerfully built man for just over sixty.
He hugged her tight. "I was just about to go to the stable and saddle up. You too tired? You hungry or anything?"
"I'm dying to get on a horse, but I think I'll pass after riding in a Jeep for over four hours," she said.
He laughed. "Backside pretty well broken in?"
"Ohhh," she said, rubbing her butt.
"I'm just riding down along the river for an hour or so. Vanni's down at the new construction, getting in Paul's business, but she's going to be back in time to cook you a nice welcome-home dinner."
Shelby looked at her watch. It was only three-thirty. "Tell you what—I'm going to run into town while you go for your ride and Vanni inspects her new house. I'll say hi to Mel Sheridan and see if I can talk her into a beer to celebrate my change of residence. I'll be back in time to help with the horses before dinner. Should I get this stuff out of the Jeep first? Take it inside?" she asked.
"Honey, leave it be, no one's gonna bother it. Paul and I will unload you before supper."
She grinned at him. "Let's make a date for tomorrow morning. We'll have that ride together."
"Good deal. No trouble closing on the house?"
"It was a little more emotional than I expected. I thought I was ready."
She turned her large hazel eyes up to his face. "I cried for the first fifty miles," she said. "And then I started to get excited. I'm sure about this."
"Good," he said, giving her a squeeze. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Just for a few months. Then I'm going to travel a little and get a head start on school. It's been so long since I've been a student."
"Life here is usually pretty laid-back. Take advantage of it."
"Yeah—" she laughed "—when you're not having shoot-outs or forest fires."
"Well, hell, girl, we want to keep things interesting!" He walked her to her Jeep.
"Wait for me to get back to muck the stalls and feed the horses."
"Enjoy a little girlfriend time," he said. "It's something you haven't had enough of the past few years. You'll have plenty of horseshit to muck while you're here."
"Thanks, Uncle Walt," she said and laughed. "I won't be too long."
He kissed her forehead. "I said, take your time. You took good care of my sister. You've earned piles of it."
"See you in a couple of hours," Shelby said, heading for town.
Luke Riordan pulled into Virgin River, his Harley strapped into the back of his extended-cab truck, pulling his small camper. It had been seven years since he'd seen this town and there had been a few changes. The church was now boarded up, but what he remembered as an old, abandoned cabin in the center of town was renovated, had cars and trucks parked around the front porch, and an Open sign in the window. It looked like some construction was under way behind the cabin; it was framed for an add-on. Since he was considering a renovation project of his own, he wouldn't mind having a look at what had been done to this place. He parked off to the side, out of the way, and got out of the truck. He went into the camper and changed out of his muddy shirt before going inside.
The August afternoon was warm, with a cool, refreshing breeze; the night would be chilly in the mountains. He hadn't been out to the house he planned to live in, which had been vacant for a year. If it was uninhabitable, he had his camper. He took a deep breath. The air was so damn clean, it stung the lungs. Such a huge change from the deserts of Iraq and El Paso. Just what he'd been needing.
He walked into the renovated cabin and found himself in a good-looking little country bar. He stood just inside the door and looked around appreciatively. The hardwood floors gleamed, hot embers glowed in the hearth, hunting and fishing trophies hung mounted on the walls. There were about a dozen tables and a long, shiny bar behind which there were shelves full of liquor and glasses surrounding a stuffed king salmon that must have weighed about forty pounds at the catch. A television, mounted high in a corner, was tuned to national news, the volume turned down. A couple of fishermen, identifiable by their khaki vests and hats, sat at one end of the bar playing cribbage. A few men in work shirts and jeans were having drinks at a nearby table. Luke looked at his watch: 4:00 p.m. He walked up to the bar.
"What can I get you?" the bartender asked.
"A cold draft, thanks. This place wasn't here the last time I was through town."
"You've been away a while then. I've been open more than four years now. I bought it and turned it into this."
"Well, you did a helluva job," he said, accepting the beer. "I'm going to be doing some remodeling myself." He stuck out his hand. "Luke Riordan," he said.
"Jack Sheridan. Pleasure."
"I bought some old cabins along the Virgin that have been sitting empty and going downhill for years now."
"Those old Chapman cabins?" Jack asked. "The old man died just last year."
"Yeah, I know," Luke said. "I was back here hunting with one of my brothers and a couple of friends when we first saw them. My brother and I thought the location, right on the river, might be worth some money. We noticed the cabins weren't in use and wanted to buy 'em and fix 'em up for a quick resale, turn 'em fast and make a couple of bucks. But old Chapman wouldn't even listen to an offer…."