Virgin River Book # 13
April 28, 2015
WHENEVER ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS.
After years spent on ranches around Los Angeles, Clay Tahoma is delighted to be Virgin River’s new veterinary assistant. The secluded community’s wild beauty tugs at his Navajo roots, and he’s been welcomed with open arms by everyone in town—everyone excerpt Lily Yahzi.
Lilly has encountered her share of strong, silent, traditional men within her own aboriginal community, and she’s not interested in coming back for more. In her eyes, Clay’s earthy, sexy appeal is just an act used to charm wealthy women like his ex-wife. She can’t deny his gift for gentling horses, but she’s not about to let him control her. There’s just one small problem—she can’t control her attraction to Clay.
But in Virgin River, faith in new beginnings and the power of love has doors opening everywhere…
Originally published January 2011.
He drove on, curious, and pulled over. Then he got out and walked past a number of vehicles toward a large flat-bed truck, blocking passage down that road. There were men standing around watching as a forklift with a large cable was backing away from the edge of the road. If this scenario occurred on the reservation, he’d get out and talk about it with the men, offer his help. Even though he was Navajo and wore his hair to his waist and none of them appeared to be native, he did what he always did. He approached the first one — tall as Clay, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, boots and ball cap. “Whatcha got, friend?” Clay asked.
“One of our town slipped off the road and got stuck — luckily came up against a big tree not too far down the hill. That’s how he managed to get out and climb back up.”
“Whose pulling him out?” Clay asked.
“Aw, one of our boys has a lot of construction equipment. He’s a contractor up this way.” The man put out his big hand. “Jack Sheridan. You from around here?”
“Name’s Clay Tahoma, originally from Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation. Lately from L.A. I’m up here to work with an old friend, Nathaniel Jensen.”
Jack’s face took light at that. “We know Nate! Friend of mine, too! Pleasure to meet you.”
Clay was introduced to some other men who were standing around — a guy named John who went by Preacher, Paul who owned the crane, Dan Brady who was Paul’s foreman, Noah — the minister whose truck slipped off the road. Noah smiled sheepishly as he shook Clay’s hand. And right at that moment the old blue Ford truck began to clear the edge of the road.
“Don’t you guys have a Highway Department or Fire Department you could call to do this?” Clay asked.
“If we had all day,” Jack said. “We tend to take care of ourselves out here. But the big problem is that weak shoulder. Highway Department reinforces it every time we have a slide, but what we really need is something more permanent. A wider road and a guard rail. A long and strong guard rail. We’ve requested a lot — but this road doesn’t see a lot of travel so our request just gets ignored or denied.” He nodded toward the stretch of road he was talking about. “We had a school bus slide down that hill a couple of years ago; minor injuries, but it could’a been horrible. Now I hold my breath every time there’s ice on the road.”
“What’s the hold up on the guard rail?”
He shrugged. “Real small population in an unincorporated town in a county in recession that has bigger challenges. Like I said, we get used to taking care of things the best we can.”
“There’s no ice in August,” Clay said. “What happened to the pastor?”
“Deer,” Noah said. “I came around the curve and there she was. I hardly swerved, but all you have to do is get a little too close to the edge and you’re toast. Ohhhh, my poor truck,” he said as the vehicle made it to the road.
“Doesn’t look any worse than it did, Noah,” Jack said.
“What are you talking about?” Noah returned indignantly. “It’s got several new dents!”
“How can you tell?” Jack asked. “That old truck is one big dent!” Then he turned to Clay and said, “Go easy around these curves and tell Doc Jensen I said hello.”
He sniffed the air; he smelled hay, horses, dirt, flowers, contentment. There was honeysuckle nearby, his nose caught it. He got close to the ground, sitting on one boot heel, touching the dirt with his long, tan fingers. He was filled with a feeling of inner peace. This was a good place. A place with promise.
“Is that some old Navajo thing you’re doing there?” Before he could rise Dr. Nathaniel Jensen was walking out of his veterinary office door, wiping his hands on a small, blue towel.
Clay laughed and stood up. “Listening for Calvary,” he said.
“How was the drive?” Nathaniel asked Clay. Nate stuffed the towel in his pocket and stretched out a hand.
Clay took the hand in a hearty shake. “Long. Boring until I got closer — some guys from Virgin River were hauling a truck up a hill. The town minister slid off avoiding a deer. No injuries, just a lot of grumbling.” He stuck out his hand in greeting. “How’s the building coming?”
“Excellent. I’ll get you something to drink, then take you on a tour.” Without letting go of Clay’s hand he added the other hand to his shoulder and said, “I’m really sorry about Isabel, Clay.”
Clay smiled with melancholy. “If we hadn’t divorced, I wouldn’t be here. Besides, not much has really changed between us, except that I moved out of L.A.”
“A divorce that hasn’t changed much?” Nate asked, tilting his head in question. “Never mind,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t tell me. It might be more than I want to know.”
Clay laughed in good humor, though he wasn’t sure it was funny. He and Isabel weren’t right for each other, but that hadn’t stopped them from falling in love. They were nothing alike and had little in common beyond the equine industry — completely different ends of it. She was a rich horsewoman, a breeder and equestrienne of Swedish descent, a ravishing, delicious blond who had grown up privileged, while he was a Navajo farrier and veterinary technician who had been raised on a reservation. They had been impossibly attracted to each other, married, and then encountered predictable problems in communicating and lifestyle choices. Then there was the resistance from her family, who probably thought he was simply marrying her money. He found the suggestion of divorce from Isabel inevitable and he didn’t argue. Clay knew it was for the best and agreed to her terms, but he hadn’t stopped caring about her. They hadn’t stopped sleeping together either. But Isabel’s father probably slept better at night since his beautiful, wealthy daughter was no longer legally attached to a Navajo of simple means and some old tribal notions.
Nate Jensen had worked with Clay years ago in Los Angeles, long before Nate had taken over his father’s veterinary practice near Virgin River. It made sense that Nate would call Clay to ask if he could recommend a good vet tech; Nate’s tech was retiring after working first for Nate’s father and then himself.
“I can think of a number of excellent people,” Clay had replied. “But I’m looking for a change and I have family up that way. Any chance you’d consider me?”
Nate jumped on that; Clay was a much sought after tech and could function as a farrier as well. And so here they were.
“I have tea and lemonade in the house,” Nate said. “Can I help you unload anything?”
“I think I’ll leave everything in the trailer for now,” Clay said. “You’re sure you don’t mind if I just use the tech’s overnight quarters?”
“It’s yours for as long as you want it. There are other options, of course. You’re welcome to share the house with me and Annie — it’s just the two of us and there’s lots of room. If you want something larger for yourself, we can help you find a house. It’s all up to you, my friend. I’m just so damn glad you’re here.”
Clay smiled warmly. “Thank you, Nathaniel. The tech’s quarters will be fine. Let’s test that lemonade and look around.”
“Dinner with us tonight, Clay?” he asked.
“It would be a privilege. I can’t imagine a woman who would be willing to marry you — I look forward to meeting her.”
“Annie will blow you away. She’s amazing.”
He grew up in the mountains and canyons around Flagstaff on a large family ranch on the Navajo Nation. There was plenty of poverty around the reservation, but there were families that did well. The Navajos didn’t erect casinos but they were rich in land, magnificent land. The Tahoma family was well off by comparison to most. They lived simply, then saved, invested, expanded, built and increased the value of what they had. They were not considered wealthy but Clay grew up in a fine, comfortable home with a sister in a family compound that included aunts, uncles and cousins.
He assimilated with the horses at an early age — he seemed to understand them and they understood him. It made sense that he would end up in the horse industry, but he didn’t start there. Clay attended Northern Arizona University and began studying business. Classmates who weren’t Navajo asked him why he wasn’t enrolled in Native American Studies. He said, “You’re kidding me, right? I’m a Tahoma — I grew up in Native American Studies.” After a couple of years of college, he went on the road with some farrier skills — he worked rodeos, stables, farms, eventually being trained as a vet tech and had more formal farrier training than what he’d learned from his father and uncles. There were some real rough patches along the way, but by the time he was twenty-nine he was settled in a good position with a Southern California breeder of race horses. He was in charge of the stable and several hands worked under his supervision. He was the one they went to when there was a problem of any kind with a horse.
And he married the breeder’s daughter, Isabel.
The call from Nathaniel, looking for a vet tech and assistant for his relatively small operation came as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have. Nathaniel Jensen had always aspired to own and operate a large equine clinic, breeding horses for competition and racing. His father’s large animal practice had been built around the care of the local livestock, including horses, and the practice became Nathaniel’s when his father retired. With the right help, he could do both. He was expanding, building a second barn that would be complete within weeks. Nate’s fiancée, Annie, was an accomplished equestrienne who could teach riding; Nate was a talented vet. The location might be a bit off the beaten track and serve mainly farmers and ranchers who made their living off the land, but there was no reason Nathaniel couldn’t make a significant impact on the racing and show industries.
Clay got calls all the time. Offers of employment and requests for help. Owners, breeders and vets all wanted him and he’d been quoted salaries that would put what Nate was paying him to shame. Besides his technical skills, there was a rumor he was careful never to exploit — that he communicated with the thousand-pound beasts. That he read their minds and they read his. That he was a horse whisperer.
Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. He had luck with horses, but then he never hurried them or took them for granted and they appreciated that. There were three reasons he’d taken Nathaniel’s offer without hesitation. Clay’s sister lived in the area — Ursula Toopeek was married to the police chief in Grace Valley, a nearby town. Clay was close to Ursula, Tom and their five children. Reason two — Clay respected Nathaniel’s skill and ethics and thought the veterinarian would be successful in this expanded endeavor and Nate wasn’t hooking his potential success to any mystical ability Clay might have.
And three… it was time to make a break from Isabel.
There was a industrial sized washer and dryer in the stable, but Clay was invited to use the set in the residence so he wouldn’t be mixing up his laundry with animal excretions and blood. Clay laughed. “Like I won’t have plenty of that on my clothes in any case.”
“Still,” Nate said. “Maybe it’s psychological. Clay, I’m afraid you won’t be happy in the stable quarters for long.”
“How do you know?” he asked, lifting a black brow.
“It’s too small. There are no amenities. No TV or stereo. Nothing for the long term. And I don’t want you resigning because you’re cramped. We have options,” Nate said. “If you won’t bunk in with us in the house, we can always bring in a mobile home; lots of property here. When the new stable is finished in just a few weeks, we could knock out a wall and enlarge the quarters.”
Clay chuckled. “Before I hand in my resignation because my digs aren’t fancy enough, I’ll think about that.” He laughed some more, remembering. “You have no idea how I lived when I followed the rodeo around, and in some ways I was happier than I’d ever been.”
“That was then. This is now.”
Right, Clay thought. Because at a point a man had to have stability if not roots. He’d lived in Isabel’s big house, the cooking and cleaning done on a daily basis by a woman named Juanita and her daughter. It was a beautiful home, but he’d never been comfortable there. It was too much house and designed more for entertaining than for daily living. Isabel had many wealthy and influential acquaintances in the horse business and beyond.
Clay had met her six years ago when he went to work for her father, moved in with her five years ago, married her four years ago, agreed to her divorce two years ago and when it was final, a year and a half ago, he rented a small cabin on the other side of her family’s property. But he was frequently invited back to Isabel’s big house, back to her bed. And when he wasn’t invited, she sometimes braved his cabin. There seemed to be too many complications for them to make a marriage work, but there was undeniable chemistry between them. The only way that was going to stop was this way — Clay moving hundreds of miles north.
They exited the new construction into the corral. “The stable quarters will be fine, Nathaniel,” Clay said. “Just let me get acclimated and then maybe I’ll look around. By the way, I brought a flat screen and I have a small but functional stereo and my iPod. There’s also the guitar and flute….”
“Just let me know how I can help,” he said. “Hey, there’s Annie.” He strode across the corral toward a tall woman near the original stable. She was brushing down a handsome Thoroughbred.
Clay followed. He smiled appreciatively, maybe enviously as Nathaniel slipped an arm around her waist and gave her a brief kiss on the cheek. All the while she was looking over Nathaniel’s shoulder at Clay, her smile instant and her eyes sparkling. She transferred the brush to her left hand and stuck out her right. The kiss was barely finished as she said, “You must be Clay! At last! I’m so happy to meet you!”
She’s so pretty, he thought. She had earthy beauty; she was long-legged and slim, tall in her boots, and she had shiny dark red hair, bright green eyes and a rosy, freckled complexion. Her smile was strong as was her hand when she grasped Clay’s. “Nice to meet you,” Clay said. “How’d he get you to agree to marry him?”
She didn’t bite at the joke, but rather chuckled and said, “We’ve been so excited for you to get here. Nate’s been telling me stories about some of the experiences you’ve had together. I understand you have a special relationship with the horses and I have a couple who could use some lessons in manners if you’d just have a word with them.”
Clay tipped his head back slightly, smiling, silent and tolerant.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve been told you’d rather not advertise that ability.”
“If I could count on it, I might. Some animals are more private than others. I’d hate to crush expectations. I have other skills.”
“As I’ve also been told. Best farrier in the business, complete with digital diagnostic equipment to use in examining gaits, alignment and sports performance. I can’t wait for a demonstration.”
His grin widened at that. “It’s the ONTRACKEQUINE software. I can’t wait to show you.”
“But I want to hear about the other. The whispering.”
He tilted his head. “Do you garden?” he asked her.
“She’s a farmer’s daughter; she can grow anything,” Nathaniel answered for her.
Clay focused on Annie. “Do you talk to plants?” When she nodded he asked, “And do they respond by becoming tall and healthy? Robust?”
“I’ve heard it’s the oxygen you breathe on them,” she said.
He shook his head. “You emit more carbon dioxide than oxygen. Perhaps it’s the sound of your voice or your intention or even hypnosis,” he said with a shrug. “Whatever that is, it’s been working since the sun first warmed the ground. Sometimes it’s better not to question but just accept. And also accept that there are no guarantees on anything.”
She edged closer. “But if I promise not to advertise this magical thing that works sometimes, will you tell me a little about it? Some of your experiences? Friend to friend?”
“Yes, Annie. I’ll tell you training stories as long as you promise to remember no one knows if the horse and I communicated or if the horse was done screwing around and decided to get in the program.”
“Promise,” she said with a laugh. “I’d better get in the shower,” Annie said. “I’ll have dinner ready in an hour and a half. Is there anything you need in the meantime?”
He shook his head. “I’ll grab my duffle. Nathaniel will show me where to park the truck and trailer and maybe I’ll get my own shower before dinner.”
There had been no settlement in the divorce; he didn’t want anything of hers and she couldn’t get away with asking a farrier for money when she had so much personal wealth. It was interesting that they hadn’t put together a pre-nup, that she trusted him in marriage and in divorce. He briefly wondered if he’d remembered to thank her for that. Trust was more valuable to Clay than money. But he regretted that he hadn’t asked for the bed. That was a good bed. Firm like the ground, not hard like a rock but with a little give like the earth. Spacious. Generous. Long.
Clay pulled clean jeans out of his duffle and a fresh denim shirt. He cleaned up his boots and combed his long, damp hair back into its pony tail. With his bronze skin, high cheek bones and long, silky black pony tail there was no need for him to drive the point home with Native American affectations, but his cowboy hat sported an eagle feather. When he updated hats because one had been worn to death, he moved the feather. Finding an eagle feather was good mojo.
He heard the grinding of an engine and distant barking of a dog. Of course his immediate thought was that it was a patient. He put the hat on his head and exited the stable in time to see an old Ford pickup back up to the barn’s double doors. It was full of hay and feed. As he watched, a young woman jumped energetically out of the cab, ran around to the back, donned heavy work gloves, dropped the tail gate on the pickup and grabbed a fifty pound bale. She was short and trim, maybe five-foot-four and a hundred and fifteen pounds, but she pulled that bale out of the truck, hefted it and carried it into the stable.
Clay backtracked into his new quarters and grabbed a pair of work gloves from the duffle. He joined her at the back of her truck when she returned.
She stopped in her tracks when she saw him. She looked more than surprised. It was almost as if she’d seen a ghost. “Nate didn’t mention he had a new hand,” she said, eyeing the work gloves.
“I’m Clay,” he said, introducing himself. “Let me give you a hand here.”
“I have it,” she said, moving past him to the truck. She jumped up on the tail gate and pulled another bale toward her.
Clay ignored her dismissal but he smiled at the sight of her hefting that heavy bale and marching into the stable. She was wearing a denim jacket and he would bet that underneath it she had some shoulders and guns on her that other women would kill for. And that tight round butt in a pair of jeans was pretty sweet too. But the kid didn’t make five and a half feet even in her cowboy boots. Tiny. Firm. Young.
He grabbed two bales and followed her into the stable. She actually jumped in surprise when she turned around and found him standing there behind her with a fifty pound bale in each hand. She seemed to struggle for words for a second and finally settled on, “Thanks, but I can handle it just fine.”
“Me too,” he said. “You do the feed delivery all the time?”
“Mondays and Thursdays,” she said, lowering her gaze and quickly walking around him, back to the truck. She reached in after another bale, leaving only a couple of feed bags.
He followed her. “Do you have a name?” he bluntly asked.
“Lilly,” she said, pulling that bale toward her out of the truck bed. “Yazhi,” she added with a grunt.
“Hopi?” he asked. His eyebrows rose. “Blue-eyed Hopi?”
She hesitated before answering. You had to have blue-eyes on both sides to get more blue eyes, and Lilly’s father was unknown to her, but her mother had always thought she was one hundred percent native. “About half, yes,” she finally said, hefting the bale. “Where are you from?”
“Flagstaff,” he answered.
“Navajo?” she asked.
He smiled lazily. “Yes, ma’am.”
“We’re historic enemies.”
He smiled enthusiastically. “I’ve gotten over it,” he said. “You still mad?”
She rolled her eyes and turned away, carrying her bale. Little Indian girl didn’t want to play. Once again he couldn’t help but notice the strain in her shoulders, the firm muscles under the jeans. “I don’t pay attention to all that stuff,” she said as she went into the barn.
Clay chuckled. He grabbed two fifty pound bags of feed, stacked one on top of the other and threw them up on a shoulder, following her. When he caught up with her he asked, “Where do you want the feed?”
“Feed room, with the hay. When did you start here?”
“Actually, today. Have you been delivering feed long?”
“Part time, a few years. I do it for my grandfather. He owns the feed business; he’s an old Hopi man and doesn’t like his business out of the family. Trouble is, there’s not that much family.”
Clay understood all of that, the thing about her people and family. First off, most people preferred their tribal designation when referred to, and family was everything; they were slow to trust anyone outside the race, the tribe, the family.
“Couple of old grandfathers in my family also,” he said by way of understanding. “You’re good to help him.”
“If I didn’t, I’d never hear the end of it.”
He began to notice pleasant things about her face. She wore her hair in a sleek, modern cut, short in the back and longer along her jaw. Her brows were beautifully shaped. Her blue eyes sparkled and her lips were glossy. She wasn’t wearing makeup and her skin looked like tan butter. Soft and tender. She was beautiful. He guessed she was in her early twenties at most.
“And when you’re not delivering feed on Tuesdays and Fridays?” he asked. “What do you do then?”
“Mondays and Thursdays,” she corrected. “Pay attention. I work in the feed store.”
“Bagging feed?” he asked, his eyebrows lifted curiously.
She put her hands on her hips. “I do the books. Accounts payable and receivable.”
“Lilly! How’s it going?” Nate yelled out, approaching from the house, followed by three trotting border collies. “I didn’t hear you pull up. I see you met Clay, my new assistant.”
“Assistant?” she asked.
“Tech, farrier, jack of all horse trades,” Nate clarified. “While we’re getting business up, Clay can function in a lot of roles.”
“Where’s Virginia?” Lilly asked.
“She made good on her threats and retired. She wants to spend more time with her husband and the grand kids. And since I intend to expand the equine operation, I added a few requirements to the job description. I’ve known Clay for a long time; he has a good reputation in the horse industry. We worked together years ago in Los Angeles County.”
“Last time I talked to Virginia, she was thinking about retiring next year,” Lilly said.
“I admit, my plans pushed her into an early decision. She just wasn’t in a place to increase her workload even if I hired additional help. She’s been talking retirement for at least a couple of years now but until I found Annie, she wouldn’t leave me alone on the property. She thought I’d mess up the practice.” Nate shook his head in silent laughter.
“You’ll miss her,” Lilly said.
“I know where to find her if I miss her. She promises regular cookies.”
“Let me get your vitamin supplements,” she said, turning to pull a very large plastic jar out of the truck bed. She handed it off to Nate and then fetched her clipboard from the cab so he could sign off on the feed.
“I’m taking delivery on a horse in a couple of days, Lilly. An Arabian. He’s coming for boarding and training, though I think the owner is going to need more training than the horse. Increase the feed for my next order, please. And tell your grandfather I said hello.”
“Absolutely. See you later,” she said, jumping in her truck to head out.
When the truck had cleared the drive, Clay asked, “Is she always in and out of here that fast?”
“She’s pretty efficient. She’s always on schedule. Yaz counts on her. I don’t know if there’s other family; as far as I know, only Lilly works in the business.”
“There’s a new horse coming?” Clay asked. “What’s that about?”
“Last minute deal,” Nathaniel said. “A woman who doesn’t know much about horses but has an unfortunate excess of money bought herself an expensive Arabian from a good line, learned about enough to keep him alive but can’t get near him. Her stable hand can barely get a halter on him and saddling him is out of the question. If they can get him in the trailer, the hand is going to bring him over here to board so we can work with him. The owner wants to ride him, but if that doesn’t work out she’s thinking of selling him to replace him with a gentler horse. She thinks the horse is defective.”
Clay lifted a brow. “Gelding?”
“Oh no,” Nate said with a laugh. “Two year old stud colt from the national champion Magnum Psyche bloodlines. I had a look at him — he’d be too much horse for a lot of people.”
“She bought herself a young stallion?” Clay asked, then whistled.
Nate slapped a hand on Clay’s shoulder. “Did I mention I’m glad you’re here?”
“I haven’t unpacked and you have a special project for me,” he said, trying to disguise his pleasure.
Nathaniel grinned. “You don’t fool me. You were a little afraid of being bored and relieved that there’s a difficult horse coming. It’s written all over your face. Come on — Annie made pot roast. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.”
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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Clay Tahoma—Born in Flagstaff, Arizona, this 34-year-old divorced Navajo horse whisperer/farrier comes to Virgin River to work as a veterinarian assistant for his old friend, Nate Jensen. There he falls for Lilly Yazhi.
Lilly Yazhi—The Hopi woman who delivers feed and does the books for the feed store owned by her grandfather, Yaz, who raised her after her mother ran off. Not enamored with old-world, male-dominated tribal relationships, especially one with a Navajo with traditional ways, she nonetheless finds the new Navajo farrier irresistible.
Gabe Tahoma—Clay’s son from a teenage relationship.