Shelter Mountain

Virgin River Book # 2
January 29, 2013
MIRA Paperback

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Shelter Mountain

For the second time in a year a woman arrives in the small town of Virgin River trying to escape the past.

John “Preacher” Middleton is about to close the bar when a young woman and her three-year-old son come in out of a wet October night. A marine who has seen his share of pain, Preacher knows a crisis when he sees one—the woman is covered in bruises. He wants to protect them, and he wants to punish whoever did this to her, but he knows immediately that this inclination to protect is something much more. Paige Lassiter has stirred up emotions in this gentle giant of a man—emotions that he has never allowed himself to feel.

But when Paige’s ex-husband turns up in Virgin River, Preacher knows his own future hangs in the balance. And if there’s one thing in the marines’ motto of Semper Fidelis—always faithful—has taught him, it’s that some things are worth fighting for.

Originally published May 2007.

Excerpt

Chapter One

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. Those 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, had gone for the night. 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 intimidating—he 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… I’m sorry. I saw the sign…”

“Yeah, come on in. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be out tonight. I was about to close up.”

“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 just 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—he 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 that sometimes grim countenance he was shy.

“Thanks,” she said again. She transferred the child to the pillows on the table. He immediately curled up small 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 real rosy; 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 on 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?”

“I…” 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 any place 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 first—you want something to drink? Eat? I’ve got a good soup tonight. Bean and ham. And bread. I made bread today. I like to do that when it’s cold and rainy. How about a brandy to warm you up first?”

“Brandy?”

“Or whatever you feel like…”

“That would be good. Soup would be good, too. I haven’t eaten in hours. Thanks.”

“Sit tight.”

He went to the bar and poured a Remy into a snifter—fancy stuff for this place. He hardly ever used the snifters on the usual crowd—but 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 bread—some of his best; soft, sweet and hearty—and 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 took the food to her and put it 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 pony tail. 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 at it ravenously. Halfway through with 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 just 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.” And then 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 kidding—if 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 nervous—and 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 onto 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. So—what’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…”

“We have a nurse in town, a midwife. She can give medicine, see patients… She takes real good care of the women around here. She’d come in ten minutes if I called her. 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 names around here without being afraid.”

“Your name?”

“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 straight-laced and up tight.”

“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 nuns—my mother was real devout. None of them ever went to mass, that I remember. And I kind of hung back when the boys 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 awhile since anyone called me that.”

She lowered her eyes for a moment, then raised them again. “I really appreciate this, John. You staying open and everything.”

“It’s not a big deal. Most nights we’re open later than this.” Preacher inclined his head toward the boy. “He going to wake up hungry?”

“Maybe,” she said. “I had some peanut butter and jelly in the car, and he went through that pretty fast.”

“Okay, there’s an extra room upstairs, right above the kitchen. You help yourself in the kitchen—I’ll leave a light on for you. Anything you want. There’s milk in the refrigerator. And orange juice. Cereal, bread, peanut butter, more of that soup in the fridge and a microwave. Okay?”

“That’s very nice of you, but—“

”Paige, you look like you could use some rest, and if the boy’s coming down with something, you don’t want to take him out in that cold, wet mess.”

She thought about it for a second and then said, “How much?”

He laughed in spite of himself, then sobered quickly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. It’s just that—it’s my old room. It’s not a hotel room or anything. I lived up there for two years, but then Jack moved out and I got his apartment out back. That room over the kitchen—smells a little like bacon and coffee in the morning, but it’s a good size, with a big bathroom. It would do for a night.” He shrugged. “Just being a good neighbor. Okay?”

“That’s generous,” she said.

“I’m not putting myself out any—it’s just an empty room. Glad to help out.” He cleared his throat. “Got a suitcase I can get for you or anything?”

“Only one, in the back seat.”

“I’ll get it for you. You get your brandy there,” he said. “Give yourself another shot if you need it. If I were you, I’d need it, after driving through these hills in the rain.” He stood up. “Bring it with you and I’ll show you the room. Upstairs. Um—you want me to carry the kid up for you?”

She stood as well. “Thanks.” She stretched her shoulders—as if stiff from a long drive. “If you don’t mind.”

“Not a problem,” he said. “Listen, so you don’t worry, your room and my apartment aren’t even connected—we’re separated by the kitchen and stairs. You just lock your door and rest easy.” He gently and clumsily lifted the little boy into his arms. His head went onto Preacher’s shoulder and it felt odd. Preacher didn’t have a lot of experience with carrying around children, but he liked the way it felt. He gave the boy’s back a few long, slow strokes. “This way.”

He led the way through the kitchen and up the back staircase. He opened the door and said, “Sorry. It’s kind of a mess. I left some things up here, like my weights. But the sheets are clean.”

“It looks fine,” she said. “I’ll get out first thing in the morning.”

“Don’t worry about it. If you need a couple of days, we can work it out. Like I said, it’s not exactly for rent or anything. Just sits empty. I mean, if the kid’s got a little bug or something…”

He lay the boy gently on the bed, strangely reluctant to put him down. The warmth of the child against his chest was comforting. He couldn’t resist touching his floppy blond hair. Beautiful little kid. “How about some car keys? Might as well go get that suitcase…”

She dug around in her quilted bag, which looked kind of like a diaper bag, although the boy was too big for diapers. She passed him the keys.

“Just be a minute,” he said.

Preacher went to her car, a little Honda, and got in. He had to put the seat all the way back and his knees still rubbed against the steering wheel. He pulled it around to the back of the building and parked it beside his truck where it couldn’t be seen from the main street in case someone was looking for her. He wasn’t sure how he’d explain that—he wouldn’t want her to be afraid.

He plucked the suitcase out of the back; it was way too small for someone who was taking a trip. It was the right size for someone getting out with the clothes on her back.

When he was back in the upstairs room, she was sitting tensely on the edge of the bed, her son behind her. He put down the suitcase, placed the keys on the bureau right inside the door, and shuffled a little in the doorway. She stood up and faced him. “Look. Ah. I moved your car—put it right out back by my truck. Off the street. It’s out of sight from the road now. So if you get up or look out, you’re not confused about that—it’s right out back. I recommend you sit tight, wait out this rain, travel in dry daylight. But if you get—you know—nervous, the bar only locks on the inside and here are your keys. It’s no big deal if you… Like if you can’t relax and have to leave, it’s no big deal if the bar door’s left unlocked—this is a real quiet, safe place. Sometimes we forget to lock up, anyway. I’ll get it locked for sure tonight, you and the kid being here. Um… Paige… you don’t have to be worried or anything. I’m a pretty reliable guy. Or else Jack wouldn’t leave me with the bar. Okay? Just get some rest.”

“Thank you,” she said, and it was barely a sound.

He pulled the door closed. He heard her move the dead bolt, protecting herself. For the first time since coming to this little town, he wondered why that dead bolt had ever been installed.

He stood there a minute. It had taken him about five seconds to conclude someone—ninety-eight percent chance a boyfriend or husband—had belted her in the face and she was on the run with her kid. It wasn’t like he didn’t know that stuff happened. It happened all the time. He just never understood what satisfaction a man could get out of hitting a woman. It made no sense to him. If you have a pretty young woman like that, you treat her right. Hold her safe against you and protect her.

He went to the bar, turned off the lights, checked the kitchen, leaving a light on in case she came downstairs, then went to his apartment behind the kitchen. He was only there a few minutes when it occurred to him that there were no longer clean towels up there—he’d emptied the bathroom and moved all his downstairs. He went to the bathroom, gathered up a stack of clean white towels and went back upstairs.

The door was open a crack, like maybe she’d already been down to the kitchen. He could see a glass of orange juice sitting on the bureau inside the door and it pleased him that she’d helped herself. Through that space of an inch, he saw her reflection in the bureau mirror. Her back faced the mirror and she had pulled her bulky sweatshirt up over her head and shoulders, trying to get a glimpse of her back and upper arms in the mirror. And she was covered with bruises. Lots of big bruises on her back, one shoulder and upper arms.

Preacher was mesmerized. For a moment his eyes were locked on those purple splotches. “Aw, Jesus,” he whispered in a breath.

He quickly backed away from the slit in the door and got up against the wall outside, out of sight. It took him a moment to collect himself; he was stricken. Horrified. All he could think was, what kind of animal does something like that? His mouth hung open because he couldn’t imagine this. He was a warrior, a trained fighter, and he was pretty sure he hadn’t done that much damage to a man equal to him in size, in a fair fight.

Some instinct kicked in that told him he shouldn’t let on that he’d seen. She was already afraid of everything, including him. But there was also the reality—that this wasn’t a woman who’d been smacked. She’d been pummeled. He didn’t even know the girl, yet all he wanted was to kill the son of a bitch who’d done that to her. Kill him. After five or eleven months of beatings, then death for the sorry bastard.

She shouldn’t know he was feeling that; it would scare her to death. He took a few deep breaths. Composed himself. Then he tapped lightly on the door.

“Huh?” he head her say, sounding startled.

“Just some towels,” he said.

“One second, okay?”

“Take your time.”

Momentarily she opened the door just a tiny bit further, her sweatshirt back in place.

“I forgot, I took all the bathroom stuff out,” he said. “You’ll need some towels. I’ll leave you alone now. Won’t bother you again.”

“Thank you. John.”

“No problem. Paige. Get some good rest.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Paige pulled the bureau carefully, as quietly as possible, in front of the door. She really hoped John hadn’t heard that, but as close as she could figure out, the kitchen was right beneath this room. And—if the man meant her or Christopher any harm, he could have already delivered it, not to mention the fact that a locked door and empty bedroom dresser couldn’t possibly keep him out.

As much as she’d have liked a hot soak in a tub, she felt too vulnerable to get naked. She couldn’t talk herself into the shower either, she might not hear the door knob rattle or Christopher call out to her—so she washed up in the sink and put on clean clothes. Then, leaving the bathroom light on, she lay carefully on the bed, on top of the covers. She knew she wouldn’t sleep, but after a little while she calmed down. She stared at the ceiling, the wood slates forming a perfect V over her head. What came to mind was that this was the third time in her life she’d lain in bed looking at such a ceiling.

The first time was in the house she grew up in—and the beams were bare, unfinished, pink insulation puffing out between them. The house was small, only two bedrooms, and already old when her parents moved in, but the neighborhood had been clean and quiet then, twenty years ago. Her mother moved her into the attic when she was nine; she shared her space with boxes of stored household goods pushed back against one wall. But it was her space, and she escaped to it whenever she could. From her bed she could hear her mother and father arguing. After her father’s death when she was eleven, she could hear her older brother Bud argue with their mother.

From what she had learned about domestic battery in the last few years, she should have expected to end up with an abuser, even though her father never hit her or her mother, and the worst she ever got from Bud was a shove or slug in the arm. But man, could the men in her family yell. So loud, so mad, she wondered why the windows didn’t crack. Demand, belittle, insult, accuse, sulk, punish with the meanest words. It was just a matter of degrees; abuse is abuse.

The next time she had found herself staring at a ceiling like this one was after she left home. She’d gone to beauty school after high school and stayed home with her mother, paying rent, until she was twenty-one. Then she and two girlfriends—also beauticians—rented half an old house. Paige had happily taken the attic bedroom, though it wasn’t even as large as her childhood room and most of the time she had to crouch to keep from hitting her head on the slanted walls.

Tears came to her eyes because she remembered those two years with Pat and Jeannie as the happiest in her life. Sometimes she missed them so much it made her ache. Three hairdressers—mostly broke after rent, food and clothes—it had seemed like heaven. When they couldn’t afford to go out, they’d buy popcorn and cheap wine and make a party of it at home, gossiping about women whose hair they cut and frosted, about boyfriends and sex, laughing till they couldn’t sit up straight.

Then Wes came into her life, a successful businessman six years older. With a shock she realized he’d been the age she was now—twenty-nine. Yet he’d seemed so worldly, mature. She’d been styling his hair for only a couple of months when he asked her out and took her to a restaurant so fine, the hostesses were better dressed than she was. He drove a brand new Grand Prix with cushy leather seats, darkly tinted windows. And he drove too fast, which at twenty-three didn’t seem dangerous. It was thrilling. Even though he yelled at and flipped off other drivers, it seemed his right—he was powerful. By her standards, rich.

He had a house already, which he didn’t even have to share with roommates. His career was trading stocks and commodities; an exhausting job that required brilliance and high energy. He wanted to go out every night, bought her things, pulled his wallet out of his pocket and said, “I don’t know what you really want, what little thing would just make you cry it’s so perfect, so I want you to shop for yourself. Because you being happy is the only thing that matters to me in the world.” He’d peeled off a couple of bills and handed her two hundred dollars, a veritable fortune.

Pat and Jeannie didn’t like him, but there was hardly a mystery in that. He wasn’t all that nice to them. He treated them like wallpaper, furniture. Answered their questions with one word when he could. In fact, she couldn’t remember what they said about him when they tried to warn her off.

Then came the insanity of her life spiraling out of control that to this day seemed impossible: He’d hit her before they married, and she married him anyway. They’d been in his fancy car, parked, having an argument about where she was living—he thought she’d be better off at home with her mother rather than that old half a house in a questionable neighborhood with a couple of dykes. It got pretty nasty; she’d said her share of ugly things to him. He said something like, I want you with your mother, not in some little whorehouse in the ghetto.

Just who the fuck do you think you are, calling where I live a whorehouse?

How do you use that language with me?

You called my best friends dykes and whores and it’s my language you criticize?

I’m just thinking about your safety. You said you wanted to marry me someday, and I’d like you to still be around when that happens!

Well up yours, because I love living there and you can’t tell me what to do! And I’m not marrying anyone who can talk about my best friends like that!

There was more. More. She vaguely remembered calling him a bad name, like prick or asshole. He called her a bitch, a difficult bitch. In any case, they both contributed, she was sure of that.

He’d slapped her, open palm. Then he immediately broke down, collapsed, cried like a baby, said he wasn’t sure what had happened to him, but maybe it was because he’d never been in love like this before. It was wrong, he knew it was wrong to overreact that way, he was crazy, he was ashamed. But… he wanted to hold her in his arms every night, take care of her for the rest of her life, never lose her. He apologized for what he’d said about the roommates—maybe he was just jealous of how loyal she was toward them. In his mind he just couldn’t see past her; there was no one in his life he valued like he valued her. He loved her so much it made him nuts, he said. She was the first person he’d ever felt that way about. Without her, he was nothing!

She believed him. But she never used profanity around him again.

She hadn’t told Pat and Jeannie because even though she was stupid about what was happening, she knew better than to risk their further disapproval. It only took her a couple of days and his pitiful regret to get over that slap. It wasn’t that much of a slap. It didn’t take more than a month for her to almost forget it happened and trust him again; she thought him handsome, exciting, sexy. He was edgy and confident. Smart. Passive men couldn’t get the kind of success he had. She wasn’t attracted to passive men.

Then he said, “Paige, I don’t want to wait. I want us to get married as soon as you’re ready. A nice wedding—screw the cost, I can afford whatever you want. Ask Pat and Jeannie to stand up for us. And you can quit your job—you don’t have to work anymore.”

Her legs hurt; she was getting bunions. Fixing hair six days a week was no easy job, even though she had liked it. She’d often thought how much more she’d like it if she only had to do it about six hours a day, four days a week, but that seemed an impossible dream. She could barely make ends meet as it was and her mother had been working two jobs since her father died. In her mother, she saw her future—alone, weak and worked to death. A picture of her surly roommates wearing pretty satin at her wedding, smiling, envious of her good fortune and the cushy life she’d have. And she’d said yes.

He hit her again on the honeymoon.

Over the next six years she’d tried everything—counseling, police, running away. He got out of jail right away, if they even bothered to take him in; he found her in hiding, and it just got worse. Even her pregnancy and Christopher’s arrival hadn’t stopped the abuse. She discovered by accident that there might be a little more to this equation—a certain chemistry that gave him such energy to work those long hours and wear himself out keeping track of her, the fits of euphoria, the skull splitting temper—some white powder in a small vial. Cocaine? And he took something his personal trainer gave him, though he swore it wasn’t steroids. A lot of traders used amphetamines to keep up with the demands of the job. Cocaine users tended to be reed thin, but Wes was proud of his body, his build, and worked hard on his muscles. A coke and steroid regimen, she realized, could make his temper hair-trigger short. She had no idea how much, how long. But she knew he was crazy.

This was her last chance. Through a shelter she’d met a woman who said she could help her get away, change her identity and flee. There was an underground for battered women and children in hopeless situations. If she and Christopher could just get to the first contact, they would be passed along from place to place, collecting new ID, names, histories and lives along the way. The upside was—it worked a lot. It was nearly foolproof when the woman followed instructions and the children were young enough. The downside was, it was illegal, and for life. Life like this, covered in bruises, afraid I’ll be killed everyday—or a life of being someone else, someone who isn’t hit?

She started squirreling away money from her grocery allowance and packed a bag that she hid with a contact from a shelter. She managed almost five hundred dollars and fully intended to get herself and Christopher out before another bad episode occurred. With the last beating, she knew she was nearly too late.

And here she was, looking at her third V-shaped ceiling. She knew she wouldn’t sleep; she’d hardly slept in six years. No worries about the drive—with so much adrenalin going on, she’d make it.

But then, she woke up to sunlight and a regular thwacking noise outside. Someone was chopping wood. She sat up cautiously and smelled coffee. She had slept after all. And so had Christopher.

The dresser was still pushed against the door.

© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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Character Sketches

John (Preacher) Middleton—The 32-year-old cook at Jack’s Bar, this Marine friend of Jack’s is as tender as he is strong. Preacher is known for his pies and fancies himself a bit of a gourmet.

Paige Lassiter—Twenty-nine-year-old beautician on the run from her abusive husband, Paige and her three-year-old son, Christopher, find shelter and protection in the person of Preacher Middleton at Jack’s Bar.

Mike Valenzuela—Having served in the Marines with Preacher and Jack, then shot while a sergeant in LAPD’s gangs division, Mike, 36, comes to Virgin River to recover from his injuries and eventually becomes the town constable.

Brie Sheridan—Jack’s youngest sister whose police detective husband left her for Brie’s best friend. A 30-year-old county district attorney, Brie comes to Virgin River to recover after losing a big trial. In Virgin River, a romance blossoms between Brie and Mike Valenzuela.

David Sheridan—Jack and Mel Sheridan’s first baby.