“People will think I’m your girlfriend.”
“That’s what I want people to think. I’m going to start right away. We’re going to go out. We’ll drive into town to look at Christmas decorations, go to Virgin River to check out the tree and have some of Preacher’s dinner, and then I’m going to take you to a nice restaurant on the weekend. And anything else you feel like doing.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I want everyone to know you’re with me. I want everyone to know you’re not Sundays and Mondays—you’re every day.”
Again she pulled back on the reins and stopped her horse. “What’s sexier than a string bikini, Nathaniel?”
“Are you kidding me?” He reined in beside her. His voice grew quiet and serious. He rubbed a knuckle down her cheek, over her jaw, gazing into her dark eyes. “Denim turns me on. Long legs in jeans and boots astride a big horse, making him dance to subtle commands. A rough workshirt under a down vest, feeding a newborn foal with a bottle because the mare isn’t responding.” He threaded his fingers into her hair and said, “Silk, instead of cotton candy. A fire on a cold, snowy night. A woman in my arms, soft and content, happy with the same things that make me happy. Help making homemade pizza—that turns me on. A woman who knows how to deliver a calf when there’s trouble—that blows my horn. A woman who can muck out a stall and then fall into the fresh hay and let me fall right on top of her. I’d like to try that real soon.”
Her eyes clouded a bit. “Are you just leading me on? Because when Ed pulled his trick, my brothers wanted to kill him, but I wouldn’t let them. You? If you’re lying, I’m going to let them. You’ll suffer before you die.”
“I’m not lying, Annie. And you know it.”
“Well, okay, then answer this—if you like me, why haven’t you liked someone before me? Because these hills are full of girls just like me—sturdy farm girls who have pulled their share of foals from the dams, fed them and kept them warm and—”
“No, there aren’t,” he said. “I’ve been looking. Just like you, I haven’t had a whole lot of dates because there really wasn’t anyone like you. You’re one of a kind, Annie McKenzie. I’m sorry you don’t seem to know that. But now that I’ve found you, we need to date…..and a whole lot more.”
“Be warned,” she said. “I’m not casual about this stuff.”
“Me, neither,” he said.
After they put up the horses’ tack and brushed them down, when it was time to change for dinner, he suggested they share a shower.
“I don’t think so, Nate. Not yet,” she said. “Does my door lock?” And he laughed at her.
On the way to Arcata they enjoyed the multicolored Christmas lights all along the coastal towns and up into the mountains. The Arcata square was decorated with lights, lit-up trees and a life-size nativity scene. Many of the shop windows were also decorated and filled with Christmas ornaments, gaily dressed mannequins and animated toys. Just as he’d promised, he held her hand everywhere they went. He had chosen an Italian restaurant on the square, and as it happened, it was one of her favorites. It boasted homemade pasta, robust red wine and excellent tiramisu.
“When are your brothers and their families arriving?” he asked over dinner.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “By the way, you’re invited to dinner. Please be cool around my brothers and don’t give anything away. They haven’t grown up at all since you knew them, despite the fact they have sons of their own.”
“I’ll be cool, all right,” he promised. “Don’t you worry.” And then he grinned.
It was a successful date, proved by the way they were in each other’s arms, kissing deeply, before they were even in his house. It was still early enough to get in a good, long session of kissing on that soft, deep, inviting couch, and they fell on it together, taking turns helping each other out of boots and jackets without hardly breaking the kiss. Within moments they were in their favorite position on that great sofa, lined up against each other, exploring the inner softness of their mouths. Her body grew predictably supple and soft while his grew more urgent and hard.
Nathaniel whispered, “Annie. Come to my bed.”
And she said, “No.”
“No?” he answered weakly. “Annie, you don’t mean that.”
“I do mean it. No.”
“But you kiss me like you’re ready. Why not?”
She pushed herself up on the couch just slightly so she could look at his eyes. “We’ve only known each other three weeks, for starters.”
“I’ve kind of known you my whole life, even if I haven’t known you since you got your braces off. But I’ve known you intensely for three weeks.”
“We knew each other superficially for one week and intensely for the next two weeks. I might require a little more than that.”
“Because I just broke up with Ed. Six months ago. It isn’t that long.”
“It’s forever,” he said. “I should have made you forget he ever existed by now.”
“I think in another couple of weeks, I will have forgotten. And I’d kind of like to know how you feel after you’ve had your chance to lie on the beach surrounded by beautiful bodies in very small bathing suits.”
“Oh, that. Listen, that’s not even part of the equation,” he said. “Really. That trip has nothing to do with how I feel.”