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As spotlighted by Kate Cuthbert in the February Romance Buzz. Click here to see all of Booktopia's Newsletters.
With her beloved younger siblings settled and happy, Erin Foley has got empty nest syndrome. At age thirty-five.
So she's hitting the pause button on her life and holing up in a secluded (but totally upgraded, she's not into roughing it) cabin near Virgin River. Erin is looking forward to really getting to know herself... not some shaggy-haired mountain man she meets wandering the woods.
In fact, beneath his faded fatigues and bushy beard, Aiden Riordan is a doctor, recharging for a summer after leaving the Navy. He's intrigued by the pretty, slightly snooty refugee from the rat race - meditating, journaling and definitely keeping him at arm's length. He’d love to get closer... if his scruffy exterior and crazy ex-wife don't hold him back.
But maybe it's something in the water - unlikely romances seem to take root in Virgin River... helped along with some well-intentioned meddling, of course.
In the two weeks Aiden Riordan had been in Virgin River, he'd hiked over a hundred miles through the mountains, the valleys, along the Pacific coast, and grown himself a pretty hefty dark red beard. With his jet black hair and brows, 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 pre-med, 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 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 be home from Iraq soon and planned a short leave before heading with his wife and 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 tee 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 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 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 difference - if 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 leveled a shot gun at him and told him to scram. He gave the place a wide berth and walked through the woods towards 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 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 flower pot was balanced on the deck rail 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 blond, which made him smile, showing all his glaringly white teeth like a slash in his red beard. And she let out a huge, blood curdling scream, straightened abruptly, hit her head on the deck rail, 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 to her.
She was sprawled face down, out cold, so he gently rolled her over. She was stunning. Her face was as gorgeous as the rest of her. And 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 hit 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 liked to do.
Aiden pressed his hand over her cut to stanch the bleeding. With his other hand, he pulled out his handkerchief, which was thankfully clean. He replaced his hand with the white hanky, pressing down. 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 bet - better 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, it 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 tee shirt, however. The first matter at hand was ice, then a bandage of some kind. He was in a large combination living/dining/kitchen. 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 towels - one for the front of her head, one for the back. The dish towels still had price tags from Williams-Sonoma 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 sized bedroom and on the right, a large bathroom. Inside the bathroom, the most obvious place to find first aid supplies, a door connected the bedroom to the bath.
And sure enough, under the sink, a blue canvas zipper bag with First Aid emblazoned in white on the canvas. He grabbed it and hurried back to her. In his experienced hands, it took only seconds to apply a little anti-bacterial 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 fast - she 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 contents, when a loud shriek rent the air. His head came up sharply and he whacked 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 contents of the purse. "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 it, 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 you - apparently I startled you when I came out of the forest and you jumped; you hit the back of your head on the porch rail 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, gingerly touching it. "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 keys - you need an x-ray. Maybe a couple of stitches."
"Why?" she asked, her voice quivering.
He sighed. "Because you lost consciousness - not 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 position - she woke up with blood on her shirt, a wild man plowing through the contents of 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 semi-serious 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 nervous - I'll take you to the ER. 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 one - you 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 pig-headed 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 college - a 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 sure didn't look like one at the moment. In fact, 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 head - and 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. 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, stooping to gather her ice off the floor. When she straightened, she wobbled slightly. "Whoa."
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 west side of the house with a deck faced the ridge, but 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 obvious - he 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 the contents off the counter and back into her purse; he 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 having 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 on - I 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 a 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... I'm..." He cleared his throat. "Let's just say I'm between jobs."
She laughed. "Unemployed. Big surprise. Let me guess - you'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."
"A different brother's child likes it."
"Ah, so you have more than one brother. Just out of curiosity, what do your brothers think of this lifestyle? This... um... between jobs lifestyle."
"I think you should be quiet now," he said. "Save whatever brain cells you have left. We have a forty minute drive to Valley Hospital, west of Grace Valley. Rest. Silently."
"Sure," she said. "Fine."
What did his brothers think of his decision? They thought he was nuts. He'd been totally committed to the Navy; he loved the Navy. But the military gives with one hand and takes away with the other.
When Aiden had been a brand new MD, compliments of a Navy scholarship, his first assignment was as a GMO - General Medical Officer - aboard ship. It was a two year assignment that dry docked every six months for a few months. They put into port regularly, during which time he could see the world and feel earth beneath his feet, but his life was spent aboard ship. The medical officer was under a great deal of pressure 24/7 - being the only doctor in charge of a complete medical staff and the only officer aboard who could relieve the ship's captain of duty. He knew the pressure was extreme when he found himself taking his duty phone into the shower with him - that was over the top. They spent their share of time in the Persian Gulf, which meant also giving emergency medical treatment to civilians in trouble - mostly fishermen or ship's crewmen who didn't speak English.
His reward for that duty was his residency in OB-Gyn, which obligated him to more commitment to the Navy. But it had been worth it - he took care of the female military personnel and wives of active duty and retired sailors and marines. It was a good life. He had stayed in one place for a long time - San Diego.
He was due a promotion, and the Navy felt it was time for him to go to sea again. It would mean General Medical Officer again - not in his specialty. There wasn't a lot of call for an OB-Gyn aboard an aircraft carrier. Aiden didn't mind being out to sea so much, but he was thirty-six. It wasn't something he talked about, but he felt there were things missing from his life. A wife and family for one thing, and he wasn't likely to meet a woman who could fill that bill on a big gray boat. He needed to be on land.
Sometimes he asked himself why that even mattered - it's not as though being on dry land had worked so far. Right after his stint as a GMO, at the age of twenty-eight, he'd met and quickly married Annalee, who was a total nutcase. They were married for three whole months, during which she demolished every breakable object they owned. She had been volatile, crazed, jealous and insane - her moods shifted faster than the sands of time.
That experience left him gun-shy and slowed him down a little, but a couple of years later he was ready to get back in the game, feeling older and wiser. Still, he didn't meet any women who were contenders for the exalted position as his wife and the mother of his children.
But it wasn't going to happen at sea.
He just plain wasn't ready to commit anymore time to the Navy. His brothers thought fourteen years, only six from his twenty and retirement benefits, made him nuts to get out. But in his mind, these were his best years. He was still young enough to be an involved husband and father if he ever met the right woman. The retirement age of forty-two would be pushing it.
He glanced at Erin. Her eyes were closed and she held his ice packs on her forehead and the back of her head. He'd like a woman who looked like that - but she'd have to be sweet and far less arrogant. He was looking for someone soft and nurturing. You don't go looking for a hard ass to be the mother of your children, and this one was a hard ass. Of course, what was he to expect? She admitted it - she was a lawyer.
He chuckled to himself. She was probably a medical malpractice attorney.
Series: Virgin River
Number Of Pages: 409
Published: 1st March 2010
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 3.18 x 10.8 x 16.51
Weight (kg): 0.2