Much Ado in Montana, Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

Timothy Swanson stamped the dirt from his boots and shoved open the swinging doors to the Red Dog Saloon.  He was glad he hadn’t given into the admittedly juvenile impulse to wear his normal Saturday night duds tonight.  He’d have been as out of place here in Italian wool and leather as his Prius was out in the Red Dog’s gravel and mud parking lot.

Still, he had to resist the impulse to shoot the cuffs of his flannel shirt, one of several he’d bought specifically for this visit.  At least it wasn’t plaid.  This one was navy blue, shades darker than his jeans.  Tim hated flannel.  He’d grown up in flannel shirts.  Gone to college in them.  But as soon as he could ditch them and still fit in, he had.  Stupidly enough, they made him feel like a hick.  But when in Rome…

No one had noticed him yet.  Tim couldn’t decide if that pleased him or ticked him off.  The big, low-ceilinged, wood-paneled room was packed with people.  Everyone looked as if they’d just come off shift at the mill or in the forest, which most of them probably had.  Peanut shells littered the scarred plank floor.  Country music poured from enormous speakers that looked like they dated from thirty years ago because they did.  The place smelled like beer and sweat, and, whether he wanted to or not, Tim felt himself relaxing after the eight-hour drive from Seattle.

Then one head turned, and another, and another, astonishment chased by ear-splitting grins and shouts.  Tim braced as he was engulfed by the crowd.  As he fielded their boisterous greetings.  Got slapped on the back.  And was yanked forward as the door swung shut behind him.  A mug of, yes, that was Budweiser, was shoved into his hand – Tim hid his grimace as he took his first sip and wondered if the Red Dog had anything else on tap these days.

He was home again.  Whether he wanted to be or not.  Then he saw her face, and froze.

*  *  *

It took him longer than he’d have liked to break free of his impromptu welcome-home party and make his way to the table where Tara Hillerman sat, big as life and twice as beautiful, as if she was holding court at one of the battered tables.  She leaned forward, an elbow on the red-checked plastic cloth covering the rough planks, and watched him approach.

At least she looked as astonished as he felt.  Her gray eyes were wide, and, as he came closer, she almost seemed to shrink away, even though he could have sworn she hadn’t moved.

The last time he’d seen Tara had been at the University of Washington five years ago.  She’d been snuggled under the arm of a fellow library school student.  The guy could have won a “least likely to be taken for a librarian” contest with no problem whatsoever, given his abundance of tattooed muscles and shaved head.  The last Tim had heard, not that he’d tried to find out or anything, she’d been planning to follow him, and a job, to Portland.

Tim glanced around.  No bald heads stuck up out of the crowd, but then most heads here were covered with cowboy hats or gimme caps.  Maybe she was visiting home on her own.  But why this weekend?  Tim almost felt like that line in Casablanca.  “Of all the gin joints, in all the world,” he muttered, “you had to walk into mine.”

Tara’s expression of consternation didn’t last long.  By the time he reached her table, her expression had gone from shocked to sly.  But she shifted in her seat.  Was she uneasy to see him?  No, of course not.  After all, he wasn’t nervous about seeing her again after five years.  Then again, she’d dumped him, not the other way around.

“You came a long way for a party,” Tara commented dryly.  “I try to draw the line at a three-hour drive unless it lasts overnight.”

Tim leaned forward onto the back of a wooden chair on the opposite side of the table and set that gawdawful beer down.  The chair’s occupant, little Becky Thorstein, picked up her glass of soda and toasted him.  Tim grinned at her briefly before aiming his gaze back across the pitchers of beer at Tara.  “The drive or the party?  Or do you make a habit of spending all night on a three-hour drive?”

Tara glowered at him.  “I suppose you terrorized the state police and got here in six?”

Tim straightened and folded his arms in front of him.  “I’m a law-abiding citizen these days.”

“Meaning that you’ve got enough traffic tickets to make you worry about losing your license.”

Her smug expression made him long to wipe it off her face.  “Who was it almost took a header into the Ship Canal trying to beat the drawbridge?”  He could hear snickering, wanted to laugh himself but it wasn’t worth ruining the effect.

“Better than getting caught by the campus police popping wheelies in Husky Stadium.”

Her smug expression was back.  Of course she’d have a comeback, he thought.  Why would he expect things to change in five years?  “Which didn’t do any damage.  That bridge will never be the same.”

“Neither will you, Tim,”  said a new voice.  Tim turned to see Jack Rasmussen striding towards him, the saloon doors of the Red Dog swinging behind him.  He was brown from a summer in the plains of eastern Montana digging for dinosaur bones, and it looked as if he’d come straight here, not bothering to change clothes and get cleaned up on the way. His jeans and plaid flannel shirt wore dust like a badge.  His worn boots crunched on the peanut shells and other debris strewn over the plank floor as he came closer.  Voices rose in welcome again, this time sounding more like the people in the bar on that old TV show.  Jack was obviously known and loved here.  Tim was not envious of that fact.  Jack went around the table slapping backs, and gradually made his way back to Tim.

Jack clapped Tim on the back. “I figured you wouldn’t be in town till at least next week.”

Tim turned gratefully from Tara’s frustrated glower to the mile-wide grin on the face of one of his oldest friends. “Plans change.  I see you got home from the back of beyond in one piece this time.”

“Sure did.  Found some interesting stuff, too, but I won’t bore you by dragging you out to see it.”

Tim chuckled.  “Thanks.  I appreciate that.”

“Is that your itty bitty rice burner out there?”  Jack nudged Tim away from the back of Becky’s chair, leaned down, and kissed her.

Hello, Tim thought, watching Becky wrap her arms around Jack, dust and all, and return the kiss with interest.  What’s going on here?

A few long moments later, Jack pulled up a chair, placing it as close as humanly possible to Becky’s.  He pulled her hand into his lap, where she seemed quite content to let him play with her fingers.  He then resumed the conversation as if nothing had happened.  “I sure wouldn’t want to take a toy like that up the Yaak,” he said, referring to the rugged, sparsely populated area north of town.

“Huh?”  Tim tore his eyes away from the unexpected display and took a surreptitious glance around the table.  No one else seemed surprised.  He guessed it was what he got for staying out of touch so long.  What were they talking about?  Oh, yes.  The Prius.  “I wouldn’t want to take anything with less than two feet clearance up the Yaak, Jack,” he replied, as the half dozen people seated around the table groaned at the familiar rhyme.  “I drove here from Seattle on one tank of gas.”

“I’m sure you did.”  Tim turned back to Tara as she spoke.  His surprise at Jack and Becky had only deepened the smug look on her face.  “And you probably even managed to cram a change of clothes in there, too.  So, to what do we owe this rare appearance in our fair city?”

Tim cleared his throat, prepared for a small dose of crow.  “Ah, I came home for a visit.  Dad’s going to be seventy-five this month.  The least I could do was show up to celebrate it with him.”

Tara eyed him.  “You can’t possibly be here for that party yet.  It’s still three weeks off.  People were taking bets –”  She broke off, blushing slightly.  Tim wondered that she had the grace to be embarrassed.  He suddenly remembered why he hated small towns.  Everyone knew everyone else.  Butting in on private business was a common pastime.  And no one was ashamed to wager on anyone else’s behavior.

Well, he had to salvage something.  “How much money did you just lose?”

“What do you mean?”  Tara tried to look innocent, but Tim wasn’t buying it.

He leaned forward on the narrow table across from her and watched with satisfaction when she pulled back in her chair.  “How much money did you lose because I showed up?”

“None of your business.”

“Must have been a lot.”  Someone snickered. Tim ignored it, the same way he ignored the heads following the conversation as if it were a pingpong match.  Having Tara on the defensive was something he hadn’t been able to accomplish frequently.  Certainly not often enough to be blasé about it.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“Children, children.”  Becky glanced up from where she’d been gazing at Jack as if he was a mirage and laughed, but the sound was distinctly uncomfortable.  Tim could hear her tone over the female singer belting out how she wished she hadn’t shot him, the rattle of glasses, and the half-dozen loudly-conducted conversations in his immediate vicinity. Becky Thorstein had never been very fond of the way Tim fought with her best friend.  All the way through their lives.  Right up till five years ago.  “You don’t have to kill each other tonight.”

Tim smiled down at her and noticed the look of relief in Becky’s eyes.  And then, inevitably, his gaze wandered back over to Tara, who naturally looked triumphant.  “No, I suppose not.  But don’t ask us to declare a truce, Becky.  You might get struck by lightning.”  As he went to the bar to get himself a real beer, Tim shook his head.  The more some things changed, the more they stayed the same.

Tim couldn’t see that five years — or her bald, tattooed librarian — had changed Tara one bit.  Her gray eyes still shot sparks, and she still had a line of malarkey a mile long.

She’d never been classically beautiful.  Her features were too strong for that description.  When Tim had been young and stupid, they’d always struck him as being perfect for her quick intelligence, even when she’d used it to aim snarky barbs at him.  Her mouth, though, was another story.  Her mouth was a work of art, wide and pink and soft, and it brought back unwanted memories that didn’t involve snark or barbs.  She’d left it unpainted tonight, the way he’d always liked it.  He refused to wonder if bald-and-tattoeed liked it that way, too.

The little he could see of her figure hadn’t changed, either.  He wondered, absently, if she would still fit against him as well as she had five years ago, and brought himself up sharply as he reached the bar.

The chances of him finding out if Tara Hillerman was still as desirable as he remembered in his fantasies were less than none.  And if he was to maintain his sanity over the next few weeks while he figured out what had his mother so upset, he’d better remember that.

Too bad, though.

“Any microbrews, Charlie?” he shouted to the bartender over the noise.

“Got some Moose Drool –”  The beefy man in the dirty apron turned around and beamed.  He stretched out a huge damp paw.  “Tim Swanson!  Come home to take over your daddy’s practice?”

Sighing inwardly, Tim shouted back the answer he knew he’d be repeating till his eyes crossed.  Till he managed to escape back to Seattle.  “Nope.  Just visiting.”

Charlie frowned.  “Your dad said you were.”

And so it begins, Tim thought ruefully, as he tried to explain over the racket to Charlie that, no, he hadn’t changed his mind, that, yes, he’d just taken on a perfectly good practice at Harborview Hospital in Seattle now that he was done with his residency, and, much as he liked the good people of Campbell, he didn’t want to come back to the sticks to live.  Or words to that effect.

It was going to be damned hard to keep explaining all this without hurting anyone’s feelings.

* * *

Tara surreptitiously watched Tim from her spot at the table as he leaned over the bar, yakking with Charlie.  Nice butt, she thought wistfully.  But then he’d always had a world-class butt.  It matched his world-class temper.

Tim Swanson had come home.  It made her wonder if there wasn’t a fatted calf roasting over coals in the county somewhere.

He wouldn’t stay, though, Tara thought, more wistfully than she realized.  The gossip running through town like wildfire recently notwithstanding.  Most of it originated in the clinic, anyway, and anyone with any sense at all would know better than to believe Tim’s father’s wishful dreams.

Tara would bet her life on it.  Timothy Swanson was too sophisticated for Campbell, Montana, population two thousand, six hundred, and fifty-three, sixty miles east of Idaho and eighty miles south of Canada.  A hundred and twenty miles from the nearest mall and the nearest hospital, and – okay, Tara thought, enough already.  It was big enough to have a library, wasn’t it?  Her library.

She’d memorized all the statistics during her high school years, while she waited to make the great escape herself.  It was just that, for her, the wide world had become too lonely.  Her attempts at adventure had been just that, attempts made because she couldn’t simply give in to her own nature without at least saying that she’d been a rabble-rouser once.  A nature that craved home and security more than it did the troublemaking she’d caused during her brief college years in the big city.  She’d tried, but without Tim, she’d found that the wide world wasn’t what she wanted.  She’d rather have the comfort of people who knew her.  Family nearby.  And friends.

Still, he was awfully good-looking.  Eight years hadn’t darkened that beach-boy blond hair, now clipped short and stylishly.  The last time she’d seen him his hair had been carelessly dragging at his collar, because, as she well knew, he couldn’t be bothered to get it cut regularly.  The closely-trimmed beard, just a bit darker than the hair on his head, was new, too.  It looked good.  Gave him a layer of class.  His baby face was gone forever.

The last time she’d seen him, he’d been an unformed college boy, out to raise hell, and darned attractive then.  Now, with a man’s build, a man’s strength, and a man’s awareness, he was far more than just attractive.  Compelling was the word.

Gorgeous, maybe?

No.  Never.  And even if he was, she hoped he never found out she thought so.

No, his hair was no closer to dirty dishwater blond than it had been then.  She’d wished that on him, along with warts and klutziness and anything else she could think of when he’d betrayed her.  His face was smooth-skinned where his beard didn’t cover him and he was athletically graceful.  So much for wishing curses on him.

Some people were born with it, and some weren’t.  Dr. Timothy Swanson had it in spades.  But then he always had, in her book.  Even back when they were kids, best friends palling around together.  Before puberty arrived and made them aware of each other as more than just buddies, before it made them uncomfortable unless they were fighting.  Long before she’d started noticing his physical attributes.  Before he’d started noticing her.

She’d have been better off if he hadn’t noticed her in that way at all.

He wouldn’t be around long, though.  Long enough to celebrate his dad’s birthday with him, then Tim would shake that infamous Campbell sawdust off his feet again.

She could survive his father’s matchmaking efforts till then.

Because that’s what she’d been putting up with lately.  Dr. Swanson – the other Dr. Swanson, Tim’s father – had visited the library a record number of times during the last month, chatting up the big question, which was, of course, whether or not Tim would show up for the party.  Tara had to give the good old doctor credit, though.  There were very few people in town whose first impulse wasn’t to run for their lives when she and Tim were in the same state, let alone the same room.

Tara sighed.  It wasn’t that she hated Tim, exactly.  She just wanted to skewer him with his own scalpel for what he’d done to her.  Then wipe that smirk off his face with a kiss he’d never be able to get over.  Nature could then take its course.  Maybe with a tornado.  It was probably the kindest thing nature could do.

Tara deliberately reached for an empty glass and the pitcher of beer Jack had plunked on the table moments ago, ignoring both her soda and the curious glance Rebecca aimed at her.  Carefully she poured the lager, stopping just short of spilling foam all over her fingers.

So what if the last – and first – time she’d had a beer was two sips at a microbrewery in Portland four years ago when Hans insisted she at least give his favorite substance on the planet a try?  So what if she’d hated the stuff so badly she thought she’d never want to taste it again?  She needed some kind of courage to deal with Tim, even if it was the dutch variety.

Making a face, Tara took a mouthful and gulped it down like medicine.  It insulted her tongue and burned all the way to her stomach.  And the smell…  Taking a deep breath, she swallowed another gulp.  Anything had to be better than dealing with Tim.  Even getting drunk on beer.  Deliberately Tara turned towards Rebecca’s friend Cindy, seated next to her, and started a conversation as Tim headed back towards the table.  If he found out she’d been watching him, he’d never let her live it down.

Available at all the usual retailers, April 1, 2014.