Page 2

Author: Robyn Carr

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….”

“My buddy, the guy who owns this place, his wife is a nurse. A special nurse—she can give medicine, see patients…. She takes real good care of the women around here. She’d come in ten minutes. 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 name 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 straitlaced and uptight.”

“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 the boys ever went to mass, that I remember. And I kind of hung back when they 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.”

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“John,” she said. “Okay?”

“If you want. Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I like that. Been a while 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 and Mel got married 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 an empty room. Glad to help out.” He cleared his throat. “Got a suitcase I can get for you or anything?”

“Only one, on the backseat.”

“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 laid 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. She was covered with bruises. Lots of big bruises on her back, one on her 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. After five or eleven months of beatings, then death for the sorry bastard.