Val stood back and examined the finished work. The Rustlers Room was designed for kids or a group of friends enjoying a weekend away. Taking advantage of the long space, she’d lined four twin beds along the room, each with a matching dresser across from it on the far wall. She’d decorated in a sophisticated western theme using reds, blues, plaids and stripes along with wood pieces in a polished oak. Coordinating rugs warmed the wood floor and the window treatments framed the view to the park across the street. The beds were thick with bedding and pillow,s and lamps on bedside tables between them completed the space. The carpenter she’d hired had knocked out a wall to create a doorway to a bathroom that she’d also decorated in matching western motif.
She nodded and stepped out of the room. Another space completed. She was beginning to see the end of the massive project she’d taken on. There was still plenty to do, but now she was past the halfway point. She could end the day feeling good about where things stood.
She avoided looking in the direction of the Honeymoon Suite at the end of the dark hallway. It stood unfinished. She hadn’t had the heart to go in there after everything that had happened—or hadn’t happened—with Matt.
After turning off the upstairs lights, she went downstairs, making mental notes as she went of various items she saw that still needed attention. Besides the Honeymoon Suite, there was another suite upstairs to complete and her own private apartment downstairs. Painters were coming tomorrow to tackle the outside of the house. After that she needed to finish the outdoor lighting and start taking pictures of the fnished spaces, launch a website and start an entire booking campaign. She wanted boarders lined up for January 2. Then the whole backyard needed attention as well as the porch. She made her way to her office thinking of all that needed to be done.
The phone rang and she sat down behind her desk to pick it up.
“Hi there, Friend.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Calling to say hello to my dear friend.”
She noted the slight slur to his words and frowned. “Matt Schaffer, are you drunk?”
“No. I might have had a beer or two . . .”
“What if you get called in?”
“I have another doctor on call. It’s my week off. My vacation.”
She leaned back in her chair, forcing the tension to leave her body. She hadn’t actually talked to him since the Fourth of July. Now he was calling her, drunk.
“So why don’t you go somewhere? Give yourself a break?”
“Oh I’m leaving. Trust me, I have to get away from here. This is my first night off and I’m heading out tomorrow.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to lie on a beach in Mexico and try to forget everything about Bluebonnet Creek.”
She stared ahead of her, not seeing the shelves of books or the open french doors that led to the hallway. All she could see was his face as he stared at her across the street that day outside the tearoom.
“Are you taking your new girlfriend?” she asked softly.
There was a long silence and she felt her heart sink knowing what that meant. “I just wanted to tell my friend good-bye before I left.”
“Well, that’s nice of you. I hope you have a good time,” she choked out.
There was more silence. Val wished she could say what her heart felt but her mind wouldn’t allow it.
“Was there anything else, Matt?”
“No. I’m sure you’re busy. It’s Friday night. Chad’s probably there.”
“Have a nice trip, Matt.” She hung up the phone before he could say anything else. It was too painful. Everything was too damn painful.
She stood up suddenly. She needed to walk. Some exercise would do her good and get her out of the house and away from the phone in case Matt called her back. She went to her apartment next to the office and grabbed her tennis shoes and a flashlight before setting out. Her backyard was long and after a flat space for a nice lawn and garden, it sloped down to the river. It turned out that the flashlight was unnecessary. The moon wasn’t full but there was enough to provide her with a faint light to see the path worn along the riverside. A jogger went by and waved to her. Val didn’t know her, but she didn’t know everyone yet. The time she’d spent working on the house had kept her from really getting to know the town again.
She was glad of her ponytail. Though the August sun had set it was hot still and slightly muggy. She walked quickly, determined to burn off the frustrated energy Matt’s call had built inside her.
After a while, she slowed down and turned to make her way back. The river drifted slowly beside her, the water level low as it always got this time of year. It had been nearly two months without rain, but that was typical, too. She thought about Matt’s beach vacation and decided if she could go anywhere now it would be to the cool mountains.
That thought led to thinking about him lying on the beach beside his pretty new girlfriend. Val’s pace slowed to almost a standstill. She stared at the water, not really seeing it as she visualized Matt with another woman. What do you expect him to do, she scolded herself. If you won’t have him someone else should. He’s a great guy.
But she didn’t want anyone else to have him.
She turned back in the direction she was walking that would take her to her own backyard. That was when she noticed a dark figure walking toward her along the path. Her heart rate accelerated. It had never occurred to her that she wouldn’t be safe here in this quiet town, but maybe she’d been rather foolish to go walking in the dark.
She debated stepping behind a tree and out of sight but before she could do it, the person was too close and she suddenly recognized him.
It was Matt.
He stopped right in front of her.
She stared at him.
He stared back.
He looked tired and very sad.
She wished everything could be different.
“I’m not going to Mexico with anyone. I’m going by myself.”
He didn’t sound drunk anymore but she hardly noticed for the relief that flowed through her.
“Oh,” she said quietly.
“I just wanted you to know that.” He continued to stare at her and she held his gaze, not certain what to say next.
So she waited.
“Does that matter to you at all, Val? I really need to know. I need you to be very honest with me. Do you really care about who I’m with or who I’m not with?”
No, no, no, her head screamed at her to say but her heart spoke for her before she could shut the damn thing up. “Yes,” she breathed.
He nodded, suddenly looking very relieved. “Okay, that’s good to know. I’m glad you told me that.” He glanced at the river as if noticing it there for the first time. Then he turned back to face her. She was glad he held his position and didn’t step closer. If he did she might fling herself into his arms.
“And you should know something about me. If I ever see that Chad guy around you again, I will smash his face in. I’ll have to repair the damage, I know, because, after all I’m a doctor. But I will smash it and you should have some towels ready or something.”
“I haven’t seen Chad since he installed my cabinets and I handed him a check. And that was the extent of our relationship.”
Matt nodded again, though she could tell he was trying very hard to keep his emotions hidden from her. She wondered if hers were written all over her face.
“Okay, another good bit of information. Especially, since breaking people isn’t really something I should be doing.”
He shoved his hands in the pocket of the cargo shorts he wore, the outfit reminding her that he was heading out of town. “So, knowing these pieces of information about one another, Val, can you tell me what I’m supposed to do here? We seem to be at a crossroads. I’m in love with you, and no matter what I’ve done to distract myself from you, it hasn’t worked. You seem to care about me, too, to what extent I can’t really be sure. So why are we not back at your house with me making love to you right this second to show you how I feel?”
His words couldn’t have been more powerful if he’d spoken with passion. But delivered in this business-like, no-nonsense manner, they enflamed her. He’s got a point! You should go get his opinion on the apartment! You already bought the bed! Try it out!
She knew she was staring at him like an idiot and he continued to study her, waiting for her answer.
“So what is it, Val,” he pressed. “Why aren’t we together?”
“Because you’re a doctor, Matt.”
His emotions finally showed. He frowned, he scowled and then . . . he looked confused.
“I don’t understand.”
“My father was a doctor and he had the same passion and love for his job that you have for yours. My mother was the loneliest person I knew.”
She waited for him to put that together.
“You think that I wouldn’t have time for you? Is that it?”
“Matt, you’re job will always be first. It has to be. That’s what you pledged to do. It’s not fair of me to demand more of you.”
“Just so we understand each other, you’re looking ahead, to beyond the dating, aren’t you? Because that’s where I see us, Val. You are the woman I was meant to be with and I think you know that. But you’re seeing our future and you see yourself alone. Right?”
“But it wouldn’t be like that, Val. You wouldn’t be lonely.”
As if on cue, she could hear the soft buzz of his pager vibrating on his waistband.
“Damn it,” he softly swore and checked it. “I’m not on call. Why are they calling me?”
“Because they need you. Everyone will always need you and you can’t tell them no.”
He stared at her wildly. “We can work this out, Val. I’m glad you told me, but we can work it out.”
The pager buzzed again.
She shook her head. “No, Matt, we can’t. I won’t live my mother’s life.”
She stepped past him, brushing against him on the narrow path, but he didn’t make a move to grab her.
“This isn’t the end of it, Val,” he called after her in the darkness.
And as she hurried back to her home, knowing he was hurrying the other way to get to his office, she had a feeling he was right.
He’d just declared war on her and she’d better prepare her bunker.