Wild Man Creek

Virgin River Book # 14
September 29, 2015
MIRA Paperback

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Wild Man Creek

SOMETIMES LOVE TAKES ROOT IN UNEXPECTED PLACES—IF YOU’LL ONLY LET IT GROW

Colin Riordan came to Virgin River to recuperate from a horrific helicopter crash, the scars of which he bears inside and out. His family is wonderfully supportive, but it’s his art that truly soothes his troubled soul.

Stung personally and professionally by an ill-advised affair, PR guru Jillian Matlock arrived in town via golden parachute. She’s bought an old Victorian with a promising garden and is looking forward to cultivating something other than a corporate brand.

When Jillian finds Colin at his easel in her yard, there’s an instant connection. But both are holding romance at arm’s length—looking to simplify, not complicate, their lives. And Jill may yet be lured back to Silicon Valley…

No one arrives in Virgin River without a story, and no one leaves—if they ever do—unchanged.

Originally published February 2011.

Excerpt

Prologue
Jillian Matlock was a natural in the business world; it had become typical for her to anticipate surprises and challenges. One thing that had never once occurred to her was that she’d be tricked. Set up. Taken for a fall.

As if to drive the point home that she could be thoroughly conned, Jillian wondered only briefly why Kurt Conroy didn’t show up for work. Kurt worked for her in Corporate Communications at the San Jose software manufacturer, Benedict Software Systems. He was the director of PR. He was also her boyfriend, though no one in the company knew that. She’d talked to him the night before; he never mentioned a thing about not feeling well or taking some personal time.

She answered a summons from the president of BSS; such summons for the vice president of Corporate Communications was fairly routine. Jillian had several face-to-face meetings with Harry Benedict weekly. He was her boss, mentor and friend. She gave his door a couple of short courtesy raps before entering. One question was immediately answered when she found Kurt seated in front of the president’s desk.

“Well good morning,” she said to Kurt. “I wondered where you were. You didn’t mention taking the morning off.”

It took several beats for her to notice that Kurt looked briefly away and Harry was frowning darkly. Then she sat in the other chair provided and it still didn’t quite register that something was wrong. Very wrong.

“We have a situation,” Harry said, looking first at Kurt, then at Jillian. “Mr. Conroy has notified me that he intends to file a sexual harassment complaint, has hired an attorney to represent him and is here to suggest a settlement of terms that will help us all avoid a lawsuit.” He swallowed and his frown darkened.

For another long moment Jillian was on another planet. Someone had been sexually harassing her boyfriend? “My God,” she said, stunned. “Why didn’t you say something, Kurt? Who would do this to you?”

He smirked at her. “Funny, Jillian,” he said. “Very funny.”

She unconsciously drew her eyebrows together. “What’s going on here?” she asked, looking between Kurt and Harry.

“Mr. Conroy alleges that you are the guilty party, Jillian.”

What?” she said, automatically shooting to her feet. “What the hell…?” She stared at Kurt. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Have a seat, Jillian,” Harry said. Then he looked at Kurt and said, “Take the rest of the day off, Kurt. I’ll be in touch later.”

Without a word to her, without a glance, he rose and left the office of the president, quietly closing the door behind him.

Jill looked at Harry. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“I wish,” Harry said. “I can’t wait to hear your take on this, Jill.”

She gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “My take? I thought I had a boyfriend! Harry, Kurt and I have been seeing each other for months! It was completely consensual and only became…” She struggled for the right word. “…serious… very recently! He pursued me! And trust me, our private relationship had nothing to do with work! He had been promoted long before I ever went out with him.”

“You were seeing him secretly?” he asked.

“I’d prefer to describe it as discreet, since I helped Human Resources put together the corporate policy years ago, when the company was so young. No problem with dating or marrying inside the company, but not within the same department. According to that policy, one of us would have had to change departments. Obviously Kurt would, since he’s the subordinate. But his only experience is in PR and my department was the only place he had a good fit. We worked well together! Or so I thought…”

Harry shook his head. “You were instrumental in putting that policy in place. In fact, if I remember, it was your idea.”

She scooted to the edge of her seat. “Not because of the threat of sexual harassment! Sexual harassment is never consensual, and it’s never confused with ‘dating;’ it’s always extortion of some kind. We… I mean the Human Resources team… we were concerned about complaints inside departments from other employees alleging promotion based on favoritism. That’s why dating within a department was a bad idea. We also created policy saying employees shouldn’t be late, shouldn’t dress inappropriately and shouldn’t park in the president’s spot!”

She got a smile out of Harry for that. It was a small smile.

“I thought, given time and training, Kurt might be a good successor. And before you ask, not because I liked him. There was no one else more qualified. I know how you hate to go outside the company to fill positions if there’s opportunity for our employees.” She lowered her head into her hand.

“Well, what a coincidence,” Harry said, passing her a folder. “He sees himself as your successor as well. Have a look.”

Her hands actually trembled a bit as she lifted the cover of the folder and looked at a collection of memos, emails, print-outs of text messages and miscellaneous junk. The first email she looked at came from her and it said, How am I doing? I could use shoulder rub! “Harry, this had nothing to do with a relationship! After a grueling meeting, he emailed and asked me how I was holding up! In fact…” She looked closely at the date. She shook her head. “I wasn’t even dating him then!” She would have to plow through months of old emails. Months of deleted emails.

Then there was a page of text exchanges and highlighted in yellow, from her phone, was, I miss you! “But this is completely innocent,” she said, turning it toward Harry. “I’d have to check my calendar, but I think I was out of town. And I did. Miss him!” And in that instant she knew what he’d done — he’d set her up.

“God,” she muttered. “Playful junk between boyfriend and girlfriend who worked for the same company. How did I never smell this coming?”

A glance through some of the pages revealed similar brief, affectionate comments that any woman might have made to the man in her life, and there was no way of knowing if they were sent during work hours or at other times. Errors in judgment or innocent romantic gestures that were non-threatening? She couldn’t find a single thing pointing a finger at Kurt.

He was the seducer; possibly all his comments were verbal. And untraceable.

“Harry, he said flirtatious and seductive things to me, but the difference is, he might have always said them! I was never afraid to send an email or text like this — I trusted him.” She shook her head. “Do you see how slim this file is, Harry? You’d think in months of dating there would be a lot more, wouldn’t you? But we were very professional around the office. I’ll have to go through my records of emails and texts, but surely I’ll find what I need to reveal that he was his sexy, flirtatious self and I responded because I believed we were a couple!”

“I don’t suppose you can remember anything significant off the top of your head?” Harry asked with a lift of his bushy, graying eyebrow.

“Well, there’s a jewelry store manager who’d probably be happy to testify that Kurt was just as attentive and romantic as could be when he talked me into looking at rings after dinner one evening, but that wouldn’t be in print, would it,” she said with an unhappy laugh. “We had agreed to keep our relationship private until one of us had identified a part of the company to which we could move. I was the more likely candidate to make a move. You’ve been tempting me with VP of Marketing for a year now and I warned Kurt that if that came through for me, he might not be ready to take on Corporate Communications, or that you might not by ready to give it to him. He told me our relationship was far more important than his next promotion.” She dropped her chin and fought tears. “This isn’t happening.” She looked up. “I believed him, Harry!”

“He also has office mates who have witnessed inappropriate touching and… And he’s kept a log. A very detailed log of events.”

All the women in the office loved him; he was funny and charming and oh so helpful. Jillian thought she had behaved perfectly in the office; she was very conscious of the need for that level of professionalism. But had she given his shoulder a loving pat? Touched his back in a quick caress? Smiled into his eyes? Kurt was a couple of years younger, handsome, sexy and bright — she’d had no idea how bright! To orchestrate something as complex as this took planning and brainpower. He should have used as much on his job!

Oh how she wished the denial would hang on a bit tighter, longer. As her eyes watered she bit down on her lower lip to keep her chin from quivering. “Does it say in his log that he had to ask me a dozen times to even meet him for a drink after work, which is completely appropriate between co-workers? Or how about a few nights ago, when he drew a bath for me and—”

Harry held up a hand. “Stop. I’m not an idiot and I’m not angry with you. I know what’s happening here. You’ve been with me from the beginning, Jill. You helped build this company. I know you wouldn’t do something like this. But unless you have some compelling evidence to the contrary, we have ourselves a problem. And keep this in mind, please — if an accusation like this was his objective, dating him probably wasn’t necessary to the equation. He could have singled you out as his victim without your cooperation.”

“But why?” she asked desperately.

“I don’t know,” Harry said earnestly. “Maybe an investigation will reveal that.”

She had to grit her teeth to keep from crying. She’d never cried in front of Harry. She was his right arm, his side kick, his protégé. One of the things she was most proud of was that, young as she’d been when she’d started with Harry and a brand new company, she’d never wimped out. Their products were in the category of wealth management software, everything from customized accounting systems for businesses to budget and bill-pay software for the average home computer. Some of their clients were huge and brought a lot of money and often challenge to the company; she was tough and faced each crisis with courage and ingenuity. Awful things could happen on the job — like failed software or the threat of losing a big client to a competitor. In PR, Jill’s job was to keep a positive face on the product, on the customer service. They’d been in tight spots from time to time when the future of the company hung in the balance, but Jill didn’t cry. She fought!

Her boss saying he still believed in her, that almost did it. Almost made her cry. She stiffened her spine. “What does he want?” she asked weakly.

“A settlement of some kind. And your resignation.”

She lifted the folder of incriminating evidence. “Is stuff like this even admissible?”

“In civil court, very probably. In the newspapers, absolutely.”

“Harry, I thought he cared about me. He flirted first, for a long, long time! Are we going to let him win?”

Harry leaned forward, clasping his hands on the top of his desk. “I’d like nothing better than to stand and fight, Jill. Never once, in ten years, have I seen any indication that you were less than professional, loyal or honest. I never had an employee put in longer hours, work harder, give me more of her personal life. You’ve become a member of my family! If there’s some part of you that would pull something like this, I never saw it. Either I’m no judge of character or the little bastard conned us all. And if I’m no judge of character, I managed to build a real successful software manufacturing company in spite of it.

“So this is our reality — it looks like he’s stacked the deck pretty good. We’ve faced issues like this before and try to manage them in house if we can. HR and our attorneys will look at the complaint and evidence and meet with him. If they find it’s potentially damaging, I will do everything in my power to keep you and the company out of court. Bear in mind — we have twenty-five hundred employees who shouldn’t have to take this risk with us. Much as it galls me, we might have to cut our losses.”

“And that means?”

“At the moment, I want you to take the rest of the week off. I want you to go home knowing that I’ll do everything I can to protect the company and you in the clinches. If I have to make a sacrifice, Jill, I won’t let you down. I’m not going to throw you to the sharks. At the very least I’ll make sure a confidentiality agreement is a priority in any settlement so your future prospects won’t hear about this mess. Half my competitors have been after you for the past five years anyway.”

“But I made my choice a long time ago. I chose BSS.”

“I know this,” he said. “Get yourself a lawyer, Jill. Just in case you need one. Don’t go through this alone and don’t rely on me when I have a whole company to protect.”

“Will you give him a ton of money?”

“Not if I can help it.”

She laughed ruefully and wiped a hand under her nose, though she kept the tears at bay. “You’ve made me rich,” she said. “He’d have been better off marrying me. He’s not that good in PR. He was coming along, but he had a lot to learn. You’re getting the worst end of the deal.”

“Even if he wins, no way he’ll stay here,” Harry said confidently. “We’re a stepping stone. My bet is he would flaunt his title, take credit for some work he didn’t do and land himself a bigger job with Microsoft or Intel. Where he will promptly fall on his face.”

“Unless he finds a woman to seduce,” she said quietly.

“I know you don’t see this now, but you’re going to survive this. You’re smart, you’re good and you’re going to land on your feet. Try to be patient while we work this out. Just keep your head.”

And your heart, she thought.

“Take the week for now,” Harry said. “If there’s any way out of this, believe me, we’ll take it. I just want you to be prepared for the worst. In case. And obviously, you can’t discuss this with anyone — litigation pending.” Harry stood. The meeting was over. He stuck out his hand. “I’m sorry this happened. I wish you’d have come to me about the relationship a long time ago. Dating someone isn’t that big a deal. We could’ve worked with that. You’re not the first office romance, you’ll hardly be the last. But by keeping him secret for professional reasons, you gave him opportunity.”

“I thought I was covering for you,” she said. “I just didn’t want to put you in a difficult position because of a choice I made.”

When she clasped her mentor’s hand, he held on. “This is so unlike you. My biggest worry about you was that you had no life! What was it about him, Jill?” he asked softly. “How did he get you to take chances like this?”

She laughed without humor. Ironically, there had been obvious flaws, but she overlooked them because no one’s perfect. He was cute and seemed thoughtful, but he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. If he hadn’t pursued her, she might not have noticed him! She just shook her head pathetically. Was it because he was the only man she’d had time for? No wonder office romances flourished. They were convenient! “You might not believe this, Harry, but he had to invest a lot of time to get me to take a chance on him. And maybe it all boiled down to that — he was relentless and I was lonely. If he wins this battle, you’ll be getting one lousy Corporate Communications exec. He can barely tie his shoes or make a phone call without leadership. You’re going to have to fire him.”

“I’m sure he’s figured all that out,” Harry said.

“God, I’m sorry,” she said. “Harry, I’m sorry. I feel like such a fool!”

~~~~~~~
Jill defied instructions about confidentiality to talk to one trusted intimate, her sister and best friend, Kelly. Kelly was a busy sous chef in a five star San Francisco restaurant and their time together might be limited, but they talked and texted daily. The greatest comfort in her secret dialogue with her sister was that Kelly wanted to kill Kurt.

Of course, Kurt had gone missing. Oh, he’d been allowed to show up at work after being given a week off, but Jill didn’t dare phone him there — he apparently had secret accomplices in his scheme. But despite her better judgment she tried to contact him. He did not answer his cell or his door and after she’d left about fourteen voice mails in a barely controlled voice she realized she was only making her situation worse. Wasn’t the plot clear? He’d benefit from her hysteria! She’d look guiltier! She made herself stop.

She met with a lawyer who put himself in touch with Harry, the head of HR and the BSS General Counsel. She had turned over a back up of her personal hard drive and her company computer, turned over her phone and the contents of her desk. Since Jill had not been trying to set up a sting, her evidence against Kurt was just not there. But, if nothing else, Jill’s legal counsel should be able to keep the investigation in the company at the HR level and not let it get as far as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a civil court.

A week turned into two and Jillian was nearly jumping out of her skin in her San Jose townhouse with nothing to do but surf the Internet on her new laptop.

And then Harry called.

“It’s looking good for our side,” he said. “By far the most damaging case against you is going to be the testimony of two employees who believe they witnessed harassment; two employees who shall remain nameless. And to be fair, if he was manipulative enough, they might think that’s what they saw.”

“Right,” she replied with sarcasm. There were only fifteen employees in Corporate Communications; she could guess exactly who the women were. Both older than Jillian by a good fifteen years, they tended to sparkle stupidly when he was around.

“What I’d like you to do is step out of the fight, Jillian. Rather than a resignation, I’d like you to take a leave of absence. At least three months. I’m going to put someone else in the position you’d be vacating — I’m going to bring in a consultant. Kurt will get his vested options and, unsurprisingly, he’s agreed to a confidentiality agreement.”

“Unsurprisingly?”

Harry laughed. “He doesn’t want his complaint against his supervisor to follow him anymore than you’d like it to follow you. I’m telling you — he’s going to be moving along. And I’m not done looking into his past.” Harry lowered his voice and said, “You never told him what you’re worth, did you?”

“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I don’t think so; it’s not something I talk about. Why?”

“Because if you had, he’d never settle this easily. He’s getting a nice option package, but it’s nothing by comparison to what you’ve made in ten years. He should have taken the time to read old prospectuses or stolen a look at your portfolio.”

Jillian had a clever financial planner; she’d engaged her services after her first modest bonus. Together they decided that twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week was enough to give one company. It made no sense to sit on the stock and options, so Jillian exercised or sold them and invested her money elsewhere. While she made more and more money from BSS, her planner made more and more in other investments.

The money hadn’t mattered to her as much as the job. As much as Harry’s vision and faith in her.

“What am I supposed to do for three months?” she asked him.

“I don’t know. Take a breather. You have plenty of money; take a trip or a few classes or something. Unwind and let this fade, take some time to think about where you want to go. Don’t leap — I know you love to leap! Try to learn to relax and enjoy life; get your strength back. I’d venture to say that in a few months he’ll be out of here and there’s nothing in our settlement preventing you from coming back if you feel like it. There’s also nothing preventing you from making a change. You have your life back, Jillian. Think about that.”

She had thought about that. It terrified her. She longed for the days they worked till four a.m., snarfing down cold pizza and Red Bulls to keep going, a public offering or board meeting with a critical vote in the morning. She loved the deadlines, the crush to bring up the company profits before the quarterly report, the chilling fear-slash-excitement of the audits, the gatherings of the suits to put together the prospectus. It was Jillian who was the PR guru, who brought the spin on the company’s viability to the Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the brokers, the public. It was Jill who scrambled and took all Harry’s hard work and vision to the finish line with him.

She wasn’t sure how to slow down. She was pretty sure she didn’t want to.

“Kurt better never try to have a meal in my restaurant,” Kelly said hatefully.

“I’m sure he knows better,” Jill replied. “He’s figured everything else out.”

“I’m just saying… I know how to make it look like an accident…”

“Shush, for all I know he’s recording my phone!” Jill took a breath. “And now, having realized that’s actually a possibility, you have to let him live.”

“Bummer,” Kelly said. “He’s a pig. I never liked him, did I tell you that?”

“No, you did like him! He charmed you, too, which makes us equally stupid. Ah, God, what happened to me? I mean, I’m no Einstein but I’ve never been so naive! Truthfully? I didn’t think he was smart enough to do something like this!”

“You’re impulsive,” Kelly said. “You always have been. You see something you want and you just go for it.”

“I wasn’t that impulsive,” she argued. “He courted me for a long time before… Oh never mind. Harry was right — even if I fought and won, it would become public and his accusation would taint me for a long, long time!”

“Here’s my biggest question — how could he get one over on everyone and be such a dud in PR? Isn’t all that good PR? Knowing how to put a good spin on things, sell things, convince people they want what they don’t even know they want?”

“In a nutshell,” Jill said wearily. “He should have applied as much energy to his job.”

“Well — you built that little empire,” Kelly said. “And it didn’t turn out the way you wanted, but you made a ton of money and your money made a ton of money. A whole bunch of software and dot com corporations sputtered out, but yours did great. You should be able to get anything you want! What’s your first, best idea?”

“I’m taking Harry’s advice. A little time off,” she said. “Then I’ll rethink the next job…”

“That surprises me. My little sister would usually hit the ground running! In spite of Kurt’s efforts to wipe you out, your reputation is sterling; if anyone calls Harry for a recommendation, it’ll glow! You can go just about anywhere you—”

Jillian’s voice was so soft Kelly barely heard it. “But I’m still too wounded.”

Kelly was silent for a moment. “Oh, baby…”

“You know what I felt so guilty about while I was seeing Kurt? I worried that he cared far more for me than I did for him! But all the while he was loving me, he was plotting how he could really screw me.”

“He’s a bastard…”

“I never had trust issues,” Jillian said very quietly. “I always had good instincts about who couldn’t be trusted. I felt like I knew whether I could trust a person the minute I met them, and I was seldom wrong. But now…”

“You just need a little time,” Kelly said.

“Now,” she repeated, “I’ll never trust another man. If I do, it’ll be a miracle.”

There was silence between them.

“I’m taking off for a while, Kell,” Jillian said. “A vacation, some peace and quiet, a break in the action. Harry’s right — I owe it to myself to think.”

“Where will you go?” Kelly asked. “Do you need me with you?”

Jillian chuckled at the offer. “I know you can’t leave work. No, I’m going to make this trip solo. I don’t know where I’m going yet but don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I just need a little time to absorb this. A little time to heal.”

Kelly sighed into the phone. Then she said, “Seriously, he better never look for a meal in my restaurant because I do want him dead. And I hope he got that on tape!”

© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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Character Sketches

Colin Riordan—Retired Army Blackhawk pilot, seriously injured when shot down, comes to Virgin River to recuperate. Younger brother of Luke Riordan.

Jillian Matlock—VP of Corporate Communications for Benedict Software Systems, on a leave of absence after being falsely accused of sexual harassment, comes to Virgin River.

Kurt Conroy—Former employee and one-time love interest of Jillian Matlock, who accuses her of sexual harassment.

Denny Cutler—A 24-year-old who has served in the Marines and comes to Virgin River to find his biological father.

Kelly Matlock—Older sister to Jillian Matlock, a sous chef in San Francisco.

Lief Holbrook—Widowed stepfather of 13-year-old girl and writer from Los Angeles.

Courtney Holbrook—Thirteen-year-old stepdaughter of Lief Holbrook.

Luca Brazzi—Mentor and owner of five-star San Francisco restaurant where Kelly Matlock works.

Shiloh Tahoma—Cousin of Clay Tahoma; artist and gallery owner in Sedona, AZ.