Home > Return to Virgin River (Virgin River #19)

Return to Virgin River (Virgin River #19)
Author: Robyn Carr


KAYLEE SLOAN TOOK three days to drive from Newport, California to Humboldt County. She could have done it in one and change, but she didn’t even try. She visited a couple of friends on the way—Michelle, who lived in San Luis Obispo, and Janette, who lived in Bodega Bay. Yes, they were her beloved friends and had been since she was small, except they had really belonged to her late mother. Not only were they each a welcome respite in a long drive, she needed some of their nurturing.

Kaylee was headed into the northern mountains for a six-month escape to write. She had packed as much as possible and leased a house in Humboldt County from old friends of the family. The nearest town was an isolated little burg called Virgin River, a place she knew only vaguely. She’d been to this mountain house before, twice with her mother and twice on her own. It promised no distractions. She was a suspense novelist and was facing a hard deadline on a book. Her writing had been slow and difficult for the past year, during her mother’s declining health and since her death.

As she drove north from Bodega Bay, the landscape became more and more impressive. It was as she remembered—soothing. The redwoods were majestic, the mountains lush and green, the sky a rich blue and the ocean vast and endless. Kaylee made her home in Newport Beach so was no stranger to the ocean, but these trees! They were huge and powerful.

The house in Virgin River belonged to old friends of her mom’s—Gerald and Bonnie. They’d used it as a summer house for over thirty years. When she mentioned to Bonnie that she thought it would be a good idea to get away, to change the scenery and perhaps escape the constant reminders of her mother’s death, Bonnie offered her the use of the house.

“The family will stop going up there after July,” Bonnie said. “I doubt anyone will be going in the fall. Maybe a couple of the kids and their families might want to for a long weekend, but that’s iffy.”

Kaylee could handle that, no problem. She was fairly close to the Templeton kids. She’d known the four of them all her life. And she knew that their cabin was spacious and inviting, warm and comfortable. It was full of leather furniture, soft blankets, lots of decorative accent pillows and deep and cushy area rugs surrounding a big stone fireplace. And the porch was perfect; the views it offered were extraordinary—mountains and valleys and magnificent sunsets to the west. In fall the changing colors would knock her socks off.

She desperately needed to separate herself from Newport Beach, to isolate herself enough to force concentration on the book she was under contract to finish. Living in her mother’s house was too overwhelming and seemed to invite her continued mourning; she felt she had to shake things up to get a fresh start.

Kaylee was raised as an only child. Her parents separated when she was five and divorced when she was six. Her father had very little contact with her after the first couple of years and seemed like more of an acquaintance than a parent. He had remarried and had a new group of children; he later divorced again and yet again. She thought it was only a matter of time before wife number four appeared. On those few times Kaylee met her father’s subsequent families she was polite, but disinterested. She never did understand how her father could leave her spectacular mother, Meredith, for those poor substitutes. She never became close to him or any of his wives or children. He hadn’t really even been in touch, until recently. Her mother’s illness seemed to have had a startling impact on him. It was as if he was suddenly interested in the family he left behind so long ago. With Meredith’s death came even more intense interest from Howard Sloan.

Meredith had been a wonderful constant in Kaylee’s life. It was just the two of them and Kaylee’s childhood had been rich with happiness and perfectly normal. Her mother had been everything to her—her best friend, protector, cheerleader and idol. And then Meredith was diagnosed with lung cancer, though she’d never smoked or lived with asbestos nor worked in a high-risk environment. The doctors pronounced her chances of recovery and survival excellent; everyone expected her to triumph over the disease, but they were wrong. She passed away six months after her diagnosis.

Kaylee was pitched into a well of despair. During the six months of Meredith’s treatment and the six months of grieving that followed her mother’s death, Kaylee hadn’t written a word. She was moderately well-known as an author of suspense novels. She wasn’t rich and famous, but she was known among writers, librarians and reader groups. She managed to earn a respectable living, and she had worked very hard to get to that point. Her publisher, so understanding and supportive, had granted her several extensions on her deadline and offered to help in any way she needed. She knew, however, that their patience would eventually come to an end and they would not be able to schedule her next book until she actually delivered a manuscript. At this point in her career, to not publish a book for a couple of years could have a very negative impact. Thus the need for a change of scenery and her determination to get back to work. She knew it was what her mother would want. Meredith had been her biggest fan and her most ardent supporter whether she was trying to get a book published or dating a new guy. She had always been there, always on her team.

Kaylee wondered if she’d ever recover from the loss. She hoped six months in the mountains would signal a new beginning, but she hadn’t been sure what to do about her mother’s house, now her house. Her friend Lucy Roark offered a solution. Lucy worked for a vacation rental management company. Kaylee met her for a drink and Lucy casually asked, “Have you thought about renting your house for a few months? It would make a fantastic short-term rental. I could manage it for you. In fact, we have a network that spans the continents, in case you’d like to go away for a few months.”

“And how is that done?” Kaylee had asked. “Do I just lock it up and leave?”

“Our owners usually pack up their personal items. People are always looking for furnished rentals in Newport Beach.”

It didn’t take her long to accept the Templetons’ offer to rent their mountain home, and she had to insist they take the rent money. They were inclined to let her have it because they loved her. Then Lucy hired a crew to pack up and store Kaylee’s items. That alone served many purposes. The thought of a hideaway in the mountains was encouraging and it helped her accomplish the overwhelming task of finally going through her mother’s things, giving away what she didn’t want to keep. The house was beautiful—Meredith had been an interior designer—and with a deep cleaning and some fresh paint and polish, it was show ready. A couple well-known to Lucy’s firm was excited to rent the house for six months as they had grandchildren nearby. Kaylee was happy to let them have it through the Christmas holidays. She could barely stand to think about Christmas. Without her mother, the holidays would be unbearable.

Kaylee was about eight the first time she and Meredith spent several weeks at the mountain house with the Templetons. She thought of Bonnie and Gerald as family, and their kids were like cousins to her. Over the next twenty-six years, Kaylee had visited a few more times. The nearby town was small with hardly any services available. The last time she was there, ten years ago, there was a bar and grill fashioned out of a cabin—that had been a welcome discovery. The place would have no distractions for her and she found herself looking forward to the rest of the summer and fall.

Now Kaylee prayed she could set things right, eke a life out of this tragedy, carry on as Meredith would want her to. The idea had seemed impossible. But as she drove up into the mountains past Fortuna and the trees overwhelmed her, she began to feel hopeful for the first time in a long time. The place was filled with lovely memories that were coming back to her. She had been visualizing the cabin filled with old china, colorful quilts and solid hardwood floors covered with plush area rugs and knew it was the perfect escape. She remembered laughter and good food and long walks. She had fished in the river with Gerald and a couple of the Templeton kids.

She followed the directions as her GPS chirped them out. The road was narrow and shrouded by large trees. Every now and then she’d pass a break in the trees and the sunlight would blast her eyes. Off in the distance, she saw a curl of smoke. She hadn’t thought about the risk of forest fires and hoped that wasn’t anywhere near the Templetons’ house.

She remembered the house was perched on a hillside. As she drove upward, her desire to settle in and write grew and grew. Her writing was usually at its best in winter, when it was cloudy and damp and chilly enough for her to light a fire at six in the morning and hunker down for a long day of writing. Winter in Newport was usually mild and sunny, but when those dark, cloudy winter days came on, Kaylee burrowed in and lost herself in her story. It was August now so it wouldn’t be too long until the weather would start to change. Soon, with the changing of the leaves, she’d be entering months of cozy fireplace days.

Another twenty minutes and half as many miles brought her to the road on which she’d live. There were only a few widely separated homes, all sitting above the road with fairly long drives leading to them. She could see that one was surrounded by fire trucks, the drive blocked, rivers of water soaking the road. A lot of pickup trucks were blocking the road and there, at the end of the drive, was a house, or what was left of one. The firefighters were reeling in their hoses. The house, a two-story, was charred on one side, and it looked like flames had licked the outside from the dormer windows.

“Those poor people,” she said aloud.

The flowers that lined the front walk and what was left of a porch were trampled and drowned; mud flowed in rivers and a gang of men were standing around the front of the house.

“Your destination is on the left,” said the GPS voice.

She slowed to a stop and looked around for another house. But there wasn’t another house. And the number on the mailbox confirmed the bad news. Her getaway, her mountain villa. It was one big smoldering pile of ash.

“Oh shit,” she said.

She pulled over down the road, out of the way of the fire trucks. One was labeled Virgin River Volunteers and the other, bigger truck said Cal Fire. She walked up the drive and headed for that gang of men. Some were wearing yellow turnouts, those thick flame-retardant overalls. Others were in jeans and denim or plaid shirts and she assumed they were just observing.

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