“People will think I’m your girlfriend.”
“That’s what I want people to think. I’m going to start right away. We’re going to go out. We’ll drive into town to look at Christmas decorations, go to Virgin River to check out the tree and have some of Preacher’s dinner, and then I’m going to take you to a nice restaurant on the weekend. And anything else you feel like doing.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I want everyone to know you’re with me. I want everyone to know you’re not Sundays and Mondays—you’re every day.”
Again she pulled back on the reins and stopped her horse. “What’s sexier than a string bikini, Nathaniel?”
“Are you kidding me?” He reined in beside her. His voice grew quiet and serious. He rubbed a knuckle down her cheek, over her jaw, gazing into her dark eyes. “Denim turns me on. Long legs in jeans and boots astride a big horse, making him dance to subtle commands. A rough workshirt under a down vest, feeding a newborn foal with a bottle because the mare isn’t responding.” He threaded his fingers into her hair and said, “Silk, instead of cotton candy. A fire on a cold, snowy night. A woman in my arms, soft and content, happy with the same things that make me happy. Help making homemade pizza—that turns me on. A woman who knows how to deliver a calf when there’s trouble—that blows my horn. A woman who can muck out a stall and then fall into the fresh hay and let me fall right on top of her. I’d like to try that real soon.”
Her eyes clouded a bit. “Are you just leading me on? Because when Ed pulled his trick, my brothers wanted to kill him, but I wouldn’t let them. You? If you’re lying, I’m going to let them. You’ll suffer before you die.”
“I’m not lying, Annie. And you know it.”
“Well, okay, then answer this—if you like me, why haven’t you liked someone before me? Because these hills are full of girls just like me—sturdy farm girls who have pulled their share of foals from the dams, fed them and kept them warm and—”
“No, there aren’t,” he said. “I’ve been looking. Just like you, I haven’t had a whole lot of dates because there really wasn’t anyone like you. You’re one of a kind, Annie McKenzie. I’m sorry you don’t seem to know that. But now that I’ve found you, we need to date…..and a whole lot more.”
“Be warned,” she said. “I’m not casual about this stuff.”
“Me, neither,” he said.
After they put up the horses’ tack and brushed them down, when it was time to change for dinner, he suggested they share a shower.
“I don’t think so, Nate. Not yet,” she said. “Does my door lock?” And he laughed at her.
On the way to Arcata they enjoyed the multicolored Christmas lights all along the coastal towns and up into the mountains. The Arcata square was decorated with lights, lit-up trees and a life-size nativity scene. Many of the shop windows were also decorated and filled with Christmas ornaments, gaily dressed mannequins and animated toys. Just as he’d promised, he held her hand everywhere they went. He had chosen an Italian restaurant on the square, and as it happened, it was one of her favorites. It boasted homemade pasta, robust red wine and excellent tiramisu.
“When are your brothers and their families arriving?” he asked over dinner.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “By the way, you’re invited to dinner. Please be cool around my brothers and don’t give anything away. They haven’t grown up at all since you knew them, despite the fact they have sons of their own.”
“I’ll be cool, all right,” he promised. “Don’t you worry.” And then he grinned.
It was a successful date, proved by the way they were in each other’s arms, kissing deeply, before they were even in his house. It was still early enough to get in a good, long session of kissing on that soft, deep, inviting couch, and they fell on it together, taking turns helping each other out of boots and jackets without hardly breaking the kiss. Within moments they were in their favorite position on that great sofa, lined up against each other, exploring the inner softness of their mouths. Her body grew predictably supple and soft while his grew more urgent and hard.
Nathaniel whispered, “Annie. Come to my bed.”
And she said, “No.”
“No?” he answered weakly. “Annie, you don’t mean that.”
“I do mean it. No.”
“But you kiss me like you’re ready. Why not?”
She pushed herself up on the couch just slightly so she could look at his eyes. “We’ve only known each other three weeks, for starters.”
“I’ve kind of known you my whole life, even if I haven’t known you since you got your braces off. But I’ve known you intensely for three weeks.”
“We knew each other superficially for one week and intensely for the next two weeks. I might require a little more than that.”
“Because I just broke up with Ed. Six months ago. It isn’t that long.”
“It’s forever,” he said. “I should have made you forget he ever existed by now.”
“I think in another couple of weeks, I will have forgotten. And I’d kind of like to know how you feel after you’ve had your chance to lie on the beach surrounded by beautiful bodies in very small bathing suits.”
“Oh, that. Listen, that’s not even part of the equation,” he said. “Really. That trip has nothing to do with how I feel.”
“It has to do with how I feel,” she said.
“Annie, if I hadn’t made arrangements for this vacation long before I met you, I sure wouldn’t plan it now. And it was a lot more than wanting to be lost in bikinis, believe me. It was a very convenient, very convincing plan, so I wouldn’t find myself held hostage on a cruise ship with all my sisters and their kids. I explained—my brothers-in-law are great, but when their wives are around….”
“They have to act like husbands and fathers?”
“As opposed to regular guys,” he clarified with a nod. “We’ve been on a couple of fishing trips together and I’m telling you, these guys are the best. They are my brothers. But when my sisters and the kids are around…..”
“Husbands and fathers,” she said helpfully again.
“But I’m not,” he said. “I’m bored out of my mind. The only reprieve I get is a brandy and cigar with my dad and a conversation about veterinary medicine. Come on, don’t you feel sorry for me? It’s murder.”
“So, you’re not looking forward to seeing all your old buds?” she asked.
“That? Sure, that’ll be great. We used to study together several nights a week. And then after graduation, we went off in all directions. This was a great idea Jerry had, but I can think of things I’d rather do.” He lifted one eyebrow and grinned lasciviously.
She laughed at him. “Still, I’m not ready. Not till after your Club Med vacation.”
“It’s not Club Med, I told you. Are you waiting for me to say I love you, because if you’re waiting for that, I—”
She put a finger to his lips and shushed him. “Don’t go out on a limb here, Nathaniel.”
“I’ll call the travel agent in the morning and get you a ticket,” he said. “Come with me.”
She laughed, actually pleased by the offer. “My goodness, you’ll go to a lot of trouble and expense for sex.”
“For you,” he clarified. “Not just for sex, for you.”
“I am kind of impressed, but no thank you.”
“Ordinarily, if it were another time of year, I would, but not this time. Plus, I don’t get to be with the whole family that often. The boys have it worked out that they do either Thanksgiving or Christmas with our side, the other holiday with their wives’ side. So it’s been a couple of years since we’ve all done Christmas together and I love that. My mom and I knock ourselves out to make it great.”
He kissed her deeply. He pressed her down into the sofa with his body and held her hands at her sides, entwining his fingers with hers. “How about if I decide not to go on that vacation?”
“That you’ve paid for? To see your old best friends from school? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Then come with me.”
“Then I won’t go,” he said.
“You have to go. This is important, Nathaniel. You should get away, broaden your horizons. You’ve probably forgotten how much you miss your friends, how much you’d like to see a hundred tiny bikinis on perfect women. You have to go. I’m kind of interested in what you’ll be like when you come back.”
He thought about this for a few seconds. “Okay, then,” he whispered. “A compromise.”
“I’ll go to the stupid beach without you, my virtuous girlfriend, you’ll have Christmas with your family, and tonight you come to my bed.”
She laughed. “No. Not till you’ve passed your time with the bikinis. And the women vets you used to date. Are they pretty?”
“Tina and Cindy? Oh, yeah, very pretty, but like I said, we were better as study partners. Honey, I’ve completely lost interest in bikinis. Unless you want to put one on for me just for fun.”
“I don’t know that that will ever happen.”
“Annie, I’m not interested in bikinis. Not now. I’m only interested in you. Hey! This doesn’t have anything to do with skinny Susanna, does it? Because I’m not all weirded out by Ed, who’s really much stranger than Susanna.”
She shook her head. “The only thing about Susanna that I still have to get over is that she was beautiful, feminine, small—except for her apparently exceptional boobs—and fancy, while I’m flat-footed and can cut the head off a chicken. But I’m working on that.”
“They weren’t real,” he said. “She bought herself a pair for her twenty-first birthday. I’d much rather touch smaller real ones.”
She kissed him, a short one on the lips. “Well, Nathaniel, if this works out, I like your chances.” Then she grinned at him.
He was quiet for a moment and his eyes were serious, burning into hers. “You know, if I hadn’t already paid for the whole damn thing, I’d cancel that trip. It’s not what I want right now.”
“Hey, I want you to go, and you’ll have a good time. I’m not really worried about the bikinis. Not that much.”
He pressed himself against her, proof that he was still all turned on. “It turns out three weeks is enough time for me,” he said. “I’d rather just not go.”
She put a hand against his cheek and smiled at him. “Even a grand gesture like that wouldn’t get you lucky tonight.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to be away from you for ten days. I barely found you. What if stupid Ed comes around and somehow proves to you that he’s worth another chance?”