In case you missed Chapter 1, please go here.
The gathering lasted until the wee hours. Which would have been fine if the party hadn’t been on top of the eight-hour drive from Seattle. Tim felt like propping his head on the Prius’s steering wheel and going straight to sleep in the middle of the rutted meadow the Red Dog called its parking lot.
At least he hadn’t had too much to drink, even if the microbrew Charlie’d served him had been as tasty as anything he’d drunk in Seattle in spite of being called Moose Drool. Tim had rationed himself carefully enough to draw attention from Jack, who’d razzed him about it, but he wasn’t about to take a chance with his brand-new car. It was the first car he’d ever bought new, and he loved it, not just because it was good for the environment and economical, the latter a necessity because of his med school loans, but because it was his. Wiping it out somewhere on the fifteen miles of one-lane gravel road into town would break his heart.
Tim was just about to turn the engine on when he heard a tap on his window. He glanced up to see who it was and found himself staring squarely at two silver gray eyes gazing right back at him. He tapped the window opener. “Tara? Cripes, you about gave me a heart attack.”
“Hi.” She gave him a wavering grin.
“Hi,” he replied cautiously, and waited. Nothing more seemed to be forthcoming from her. Tim watched her curiously. She hadn’t spoken to him since he’d returned from the bar. As a matter of fact, he’d have sworn she’d deliberately ignored him the entire evening, as busy gabbing with old friends she’d no doubt not seen in – how long since her last visit here? He wondered if she came home on a regular basis, then wished he hadn’t. He wasn’t going to feel guilty about how few and far between his own visits had been. His father had gone through med school and residency, too, once upon a time. He understood. “What’s up?”
She gestured vaguely. “I, uh, lost my car keys.”
And she was asking him for a ride? “Do tell. Don’t you have a cell phone? Or did you lose that, too?” He glanced around. The parking lot had emptied remarkably quickly. His car and a little blue jeep that must be Tara’s were the only rigs still occupying it, and the Red Dog’s windows were dark. How long had he been sitting here? Tim pulled his own cell phone out of his pocket and blinked at the too-bright readout. No service out here in the boonies, but at least he could see what time it was. He should have known. He glanced back up at her and sighed. “I suppose you want a lift.”
She grinned at him again. This one seemed to have a bit more oomph behind it. He eyed her, sniffed. Was it his imagination or was the smell of beer stronger since he’d rolled down the window? She leaned on the door. He sniffed again. Nope. Not his imagination.
“Do you mind?”
“Of course not.” He wouldn’t leave her out here on her own. He wouldn’t leave his worst enemy out here to fend for himself. Well, obviously, he thought. They were one and the same, weren’t they? He’d thought so for the last five years, anyway. Tim tapped the button to unlock the doors on her side and his. He climbed out of the car and walked around to open the passenger door for her. She was still standing by the open door on the driver’s side, so he went back and took her by the arm.
“Your seat is over here.”
The hazy glow in her eyes blinded him worse than his cell phone’s light.
“Oh. Thanks.” She allowed him to lead her around the car and help her in.
He rested an arm on top of the open car door. “Just tell me if you’re going to be sick so I can stop. Chances are I won’t forgive you if you heave in my car.”
She gave him a vaguely puzzled look. “Just too much beer. That’s all.” Her voice was starting to sound slurred.
That she’d had too much beer was becoming more obvious by the moment. It was also so unlike the Tara he’d known, even in their hell-bent college days, that Tim began to wonder if this was a new habit or a special occasion. The stray thought occurred to him that he might be the special occasion.
No, that couldn’t be right, as he was sure she’d inform him if he ever demonstrated enough stupidity as to mention the possibility to her.
Surely, since she’d been the one to dump him, since she’d had no problem replacing him so quickly his head had spun, and, most importantly, since it had been five years since he’d lost her in the first place, for him to be any kind of a special occasion to Tara Hillerman had to be a dream on his part. Or a nightmare.
When Tim realized that he’d been standing there leaning on the car door long enough for a curious expression to filter through the haze in her eyes, he told her, “It’s okay, I’ll take you home,” and closed the door firmly.
He walked back around to the other side of the car, slid into the driver’s seat, and glanced over at his passenger. She was already curled up in the leather seats he’d had put in, her warm brown curls contrasting with the black material.
Tim sighed, started the engine, and gently edged the Prius over the rutted grass out onto the gravel road. This was an interesting development, to say the least.
* * *
Tara didn’t have any more to say, and, indeed, looked to be sound asleep by the time the car rumbled over the Flathead River bridge and into town. Tim drove down the late-night-deserted main drag, vaguely noticing some new sidewalks and changed businesses. Under the cosmetic changes he was still in the same Campbell he’d always known and, well, not hated. But definitely not loved, not the way his father loved the place. The silhouette of the Cabinet Mountains rose in front of him, silver snow and black rock against the moonlit night, silent walls of the jail he’d once felt so trapped inside of.
At the first stoplight, one of three in town, Tim leaned over and shook Tara by the arm. “Are you staying with your folks?”
“Mmbghmph.” She pulled her arm back and curled up again.
“Tara.” The light turned green. Not that it mattered. His car was the only moving rig in sight. Tim pulled over to the side of the empty street, anyway, and took the car out of gear. He reached over to shake her again.
“What?” Her voice sounded petulant and warm and sleepy, a tone he wished he didn’t remember in a completely different context. He wondered exactly how much she’d had to drink. And still, exactly why she’d done it tonight.
He nudged her, her shoulder soft beneath the cotton sweater she wore. “I don’t know where you’re staying. Are you at Becky’s?”
Her eyes slowly focused on him. “Why would I be staying at Rebecca’s?”
“How should I know?” he replied, frustrated. “Where are you staying while you’re here?”
That startled him. “I didn’t know you had one here.”
She stared at him curiously, then rubbed her eyes with a fist. “Of course I do. I live here.”
“No, you don’t. You live in Portland. With what’s his face.” What’s his face had been the only reason Tim hadn’t gone after her once he’d gotten over the shock of her thinking she could just dump him like that. Well, that and his pride. Mostly his pride, he thought ruefully.
Tara stared at him. “Who?”
Tim shook his head in frustration. “The bald guy. The one with all the tattoos. Where is he, by the way?”
“Hans? How should I know? I haven’t seen him in years.” She blinked at him, then licked her lips.
Tim absorbed the shock. So she’d dumped bald and tattooed, too. Tim could almost rustle up some sympathy for the guy. Almost. He wondered if he and Hans were only the first two in a long line of dumpees. Or if she was in a relationship now. No one had been cozying up to her at the Red Dog. It was none of his business, he decided firmly. He wasn’t going there. No matter how tempting that beautiful mouth was. “If that’s the case, may I have some directions?”
Three minutes later he pulled up in front of a little white frame house on the edge of town. Two enormous Douglas fir trees swept the ground in front of it, partially blocking the moonlight and the mountains.
Tara appeared to have spent the time doing her best to wake up, and she was out the door before he could make it around the car to open it for her. He trailed her to her front door, anyway. Some habits of good manners simply refused to die.
Her smile was a bit sheepish, but a little less fuzzy. “Thanks for the ride, Tim. I’m glad I didn’t make a mess in your car.”
Tim chuckled. “I’m glad you didn’t, either. I didn’t know you’d come back home –”
She interrupted him. “I’m sure I’ll see you around while you’re here.” She fumbled with her key in the lock until Tim took it gently from her. He unlocked the door, noticing that her car keys were still on the ring with her house key. He was glad she’d asked him for the ride, anyway. The last thing he wanted was for her to end up in his father’s clinic, or worse, airlifted to the hospital in Kalispell after wrecking her car.
She turned to face him, leaning on the doorframe. “I hope you realize I don’t make a habit of this.”
“What, accepting rides from ex-boyfriends? That’s probably a good idea.”
She smiled up at him. Tim sternly ignored it. One, she was drunk and probably had no clue she was aiming that lethal smile at him. Two, when she was sober she probably still hated him. And three – three went completely out the window when Tara tilted her head up, reached a cool hand around behind his neck, pulled him down to her, and kissed him.
Ohmygod. Where the hell had this come from?!? Warm soft lips and warm soft breath and sensations he’d thought relegated to his dreams for the last five years. She tasted like beer and peanuts and deep dark turbulent Tara, and she kissed as if the world had stopped spinning. Maybe that was because it had, Tim thought dazedly. His world certainly felt like it.
No soft breeze in the trees, no gentle light from the porch lamp. More like a tornado with fireworks attached. The cataclysm only got more disastrous when she opened her mouth on him. Her tongue came searching for his, and he gave it up without a whimper.
He’d completely forgotten how wonderful she tasted. And felt. But his body hadn’t. Tim felt his arms wind possessively around her of their own accord as she swayed against him. Felt her soft breasts flatten against his chest, felt himself stiffen against her. Half of him waited for her to realize how far things were going and pull away. The other half simply took the good fortune and ran with it.
Just as he was about pick her up, open the door, and carry her inside, even if it would have been the most idiotic thing he’d ever done, the inevitable happened. Tara saved him from his own stupidity by breaking the kiss. She lifted her hand from its warm clasp of his nape and stepped back out of his embrace. Tim braced himself, ready to withstand anything from tears to a slap.
He didn’t think he could be shocked any more than he had been in the last five minutes, but then she grinned sloppily at him and glanced down at the keys in his hand.
“What do you know? There’s my car keys. Silly me.” She turned to open the door. Reached out and hooked the keys from his limp hand with a finger. “‘Night.”
She vanished into the house, leaving Tim standing dumbfounded on the doorstep.
Much Ado in Montana will be available on April 1st.