The Montana Doctor

by

Paula Altenburg

Moving on is never easy…

Small-town doctor and Endeavour Ranch co-owner Dr. Dallas Tucker has very few problems in life—other than a shortage of time and an inheritance he doesn’t believe he deserves. He loves volunteering at the local nursing home and is planning to open a clinic on the ranch. But when he discovers the woman who loved and left him has moved to Grand, Montana, he sets out to win her back.

Brewmaster Hannah Brand still regrets her impulsive mistake at her sister’s wedding. After discovering her high school sweetheart had cheated on her, she had a passionate one night stand with a charming doctor and left town. Determined to pursue her dream of opening her own brewery, Hannah moves back to Grand and is determined to move on with her life—single.

But when the same handsome doctor walks through her door—and clearly makes house calls—Hannah’s past comes flying back. When old doubts resurface, Hannah wonders if time really can heal all wounds…

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“I’ll kill him,” Blaise said.

Her brother wore a smile for the benefit of anyone watching, but Hannah Brand knew he was serious. As a teenager, he’d always been too quick with his fists. Maybe the meet-and-greet for their baby sister’s bridal party hadn’t been the best place to tell him about Tim’s affair, but he’d asked why Tim wasn’t with her and she’d stumbled.

Heat stretched the skin too tight on her cheeks as she struggled through a fresh wave of shock over discovering someone she’d loved since she was fifteen had cheated on her with a woman from his work. Then, since getting that off his chest must have felt good, he’d told her there’d been another girl right after they’d first moved in together.

She didn’t tell Blaise that part, though. She didn’t want him going to prison.

“Don’t say anything, please,” she begged him. “I don’t want to upset Alayna.” Not so close to the wedding, when Alayna was already stressed about her mother-in-law-to-be’s control issues. Mrs. Campbell had turned the wedding into Sweetheart’s social event of the year and poor, shy Alayna was out of her depth.

“Alayna is fine. Tim’s the one you should worry about.” Blaise tossed a piece of cubed cheese from the buffet beside them into his mouth. “I’ve always hated that asshole.”

Hannah hated him too, and for more than the affairs, although those were definitely the worst. They’d been in the process of buying a building in Grand, Montana, to convert into a brewery. She’d worked hard to become the head brewer at her job in Bozeman in preparation. She’d put him through college so he could manage their business. She’d drafted the business plan he’d used as a class project. They’d been set to move out on their own. And now this.

“Where does this leave you and your brewery?” Blaise asked, tapping into her thoughts with the uncanny sixth sense of a sibling.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

Blaise’s gaze drilled into her. “Don’t give up on your dreams, Hannah. You don’t need him. You never did. He needed you.” Their older brother Damon, across the main room in the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch lodge where the Campbells were hosting the party, raised an arm and signaled for Blaise to join him and the groom. They were up to something—something to do with the wedding—but Hannah didn’t know what. “Don’t you give up,” Blaise commanded again, touching her arm.

He moved off, leaving her alone at the buffet. She clutched her empty plate like a shield, summoned a smile she didn’t feel, and prepared to mingle with other guests. The crowd was small, confined to the bridal party and their significant others.

She no longer had one of those. A flutter of panic tickled her throat. She didn’t know how to be single. Maybe she could sneak out without anyone noticing. Blaise would make excuses for her.

Before she could act, one of the groomsmen approached the buffet and cut off her exit. They’d never met, but since she’d met everyone else, he had to be Dallas Tucker. Alayna talked about him quite a bit. He liked to tease her—probably because she was shy—and she thought he was funny. He’d recently opened a small medical practice in Sweetheart.

Alayna hadn’t mentioned how attractive he was, however. Tall, with black, curly hair, and direct hazel eyes set against sharp cheekbones and full, sexy lips, he looked more like an underwear model than a small-town family physician.

And he was looking at her in a way that said he liked what he saw.

“Hey,” he said, leaning past her to grab a plate. His shoulder brushed hers—cool, crisp cotton against bare, sensitive skin. “You must be Hannah. I hear you and I will be walking down the aisle together.”

Funny. She saw why Alayna liked him so much.

“And you must be Dallas. Alayna calls you Doctor Dancy Pants,” she replied, blurting it out because her brain couldn’t believe he was flirting with her and didn’t know how to react.

“Not to his face, I don’t!” Alayna, who was standing within earshot, protested, her cheeks turning bright red.

“Interesting,” Dallas said, still focused on Hannah. Amusement, not embarrassment, colored his tone. “Did she explain why?”

“No, but I assumed it’s because you like to dance.”

“I do. In fact…” He dug out his phone, flicked his thumb over the screen, and seconds later, her favorite James Arthur song had heads turning toward them. He tucked the phone into his shirt pocket. Then he took her empty plate and set it on the table along with the one he hadn’t used. “If we’re going to hit the floor at the wedding together, I think we should put in some practice while we still can. What do you say?”

Her stupid brain came up blank. She’d run out of witty responses. Spontaneity wasn’t one of her strengths and she’d used up about thirty years’ worth of reserves. And while it was flattering, particularly right now, Dr. Tucker was coming on a bit stronger than she was used to, as well.

Then, she heard Tim’s voice in her head. “All you do is work. You aren’t any fun, anymore. When’s the last time we had sex?”

They might have had it more often if he wasn’t already having it with somebody else.

Something inside Hannah snapped. She could be fun. She could be spontaneous and bold. And here was a smart, sexy man offering up the perfect opportunity to prove it. In your face, Tim Ryder. I’ll show you fun.

She ratcheted up her smile and met those intense, hazel eyes. She let interest slide into hers. She reached for his hand. She liked the feel of his fingers and the firm way they closed around hers.

“I say lead on, Dr. Tucker. Practice makes perfect.”

Dallas

Ten months later

Dallas Tucker had paid for medical school by stripping at bachelorette parties and he’d had more dollar bills dipped in his G-string than duck bills in water.

But when faced with a ruthless female tabloid reporter determined to interview the three new owners of the Endeavour Ranch about the billions of dollars they’d inherited from some judge they’d barely known, he’d decided this might be a good chance for Sheriff Dan McKillop to take center stage. The Endeavour’s open house had been his bright idea, after all. Dallas had better places to be.

And as far as places to be on the ranch went, the garage wasn’t half bad. It was air-conditioned. Sunlight pooled in through the skylights in the high ceiling and the vibe was more automobile dealership than workshop. Ryan O’Connell liked fancy cars—although he no longer stole them, he bought them—and they offered a comfortable place to sit and reflect. Normally there were six vehicles, but Ryan, who disliked publicity as much as he liked cars, had disappeared for the day in his favorite—an older-model, steel-blue Mercedes AMG that he’d already owned before they inherited the money.

The garage door opened.

Dang, Dallas had forgotten to lock it. Ryan had specifically asked that the garage not be part of the open house tour.

“Dallas? You in here?”

“Simone. Hey.” Relieved, he scrambled out of a black AMG with a grill on the front that put him in mind of Bane, one of DC’s Batman villains. “Can you lock the door?”

Simone Parker was a former girlfriend of Dan’s and they all sometimes hung out at Lou’s Pub together. She was pretty, in a chain-smoker, biker chick kind of way, and right now, he was happy to see her. He didn’t deal well with boredom and she played a mean game of darts. There was a board set up on one wall.

“I thought I might find you in here,” she said. The door closed with a click. The bolt shot across, which was good, because now Dallas didn’t have to worry about anyone else walking in. “I heard you have a Spider and I hoped you might show it to me.”

She meant Ryan’s Ferrari 488 Spider, custom-painted in British racing-car green, and hot off the lot. Dallas’s car, on the other hand, was a four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee because medical emergencies never seemed to happen when the weather was fine.

“The cars are Ryan’s hobby, not mine, but feel free to look. Just don’t touch,” he warned her. “He’s got a thing about fingerprints on the paint. Ask me how I know.”

She laughed as she walked slowly around the two-seater convertible, appreciation in her eyes as she admired its lean, powerful lines. While not a car guy, he completely got the attraction. Ryan might not be crazy about people handling the paint, but he had no problems whatsoever with letting Dallas take them out for a spin, and the Ferrari really was sweet.

He was so absorbed in policing the paint that he failed to notice when her appreciation transferred to him. It wasn’t until his lungs filled with hairspray that he discovered she’d crossed personal boundaries and invaded his airspace.

“The real question,” she said softly, “is how do you feel about fingerprints all over you?”

The next thing he knew, she had her tongue in his mouth—he was a doctor, so he had all kinds of issues with that—and was tugging his shirt from his shorts.

“Whoa. Hey, hang on a sec,” he said, wrestling his lips free. He caught her hands by the wrists and eased them from under his shirt. She used to sleep with a guy who was like a brother to him, he longed to point out. And that was only one of the reasons this was so not going to happen. “Why don’t we play darts?”

She shrugged. “If that’s what we’re going to call it.”

“I mean that kind of darts.” He pointed at the board on the wall. It was electronic, with soft-tipped plastic darts to protect Ryan’s cars from drunks and people who just had bad aim.

She planted her hands on her hips. Her eyes narrowed. “Seriously, Dallas? That’s the game you’d rather play?”

Right now, he’d rather play dumb. He cut her the smile that got him homemade cookies from elderly patients and reached in his pocket for a quarter to flip.

“Heads, you have to keep score,” he said, and tossed the coin into the air.

Hannah

While Hannah’s fledgling microbrewery rarely distributed beyond a few local restaurants, and she relied mostly on the taproom for income, the open house at the Endeavour Ranch had been a business opportunity too good to pass up. All of the locals, as well as at least ninety percent of Custer County, would be here at some point throughout the day, hopefully sampling her products.

And all she had to do was get in, unload, and get out while avoiding Dallas Tucker completely.

What were the odds they’d both end up in Grand?

Ryan O’Connell had placed the beer order. She’d promised him delivery around one o’clock—the brewery didn’t run itself, and on the weekends, she was its labor—and received instructions to deliver the kegs to the outdoor kitchen at the back of the house. Someone would be around to show her where to place them.

She’d arrived right on schedule, and as per instructions, followed the driveway between the ranch house—or more precisely, the mansion—and an enormous garage. At that point, the paved drive converted to a dirt lane that led to a machine shop and several outbuildings, then curved downward to the bottom of the lawn.

She backed the truck into the space in front of the machine shed doors to turn it around so she could back down the lane. She’d bought the extended cab truck secondhand and it had a few quirks. One of those quirks was that the tailgate didn’t always stay latched. She hit a bump and it dropped.

“Poopy-sticks,” she muttered under her breath, then shifted the truck into park and got out to close it.

“All this time, you’ve been jerking me around?”

Hannah looked up. The voice was high and so angry it carried. The accusation wasn’t leveled at her, though. The garage door was open and a woman stood in it with her back to Hannah, shouting at someone inside.

Hannah recognized her. It was Simone, a casual friend who hung out in the taproom at the brewery far more than she should. Hannah drove her home on a regular basis—often enough that she might have to start charging for what had initially been intended as an emergency courtesy shuttle service. Right now, Simone was getting the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech from someone much more soft-spoken.

Hannah winced in sympathy. She’d suffered through the humiliation of that particular speech. The last thing she wanted was to be caught witnessing Simone’s. She slammed the tailgate again—it couldn’t be helped—and dove for the driver’s door of the truck.

The truck door, unlike the tailgate, had a tendency to stick. She tugged at the handle, but it was no use. She’d have to climb in through the passenger side. She practically hurdled the front of the truck in her haste, but as she rounded the hood, Simone emerged from the garage and there was nowhere for her to hide. Two red flags rode high on Simone’s cheeks. She reeked of outrage.

Behind Simone sauntered an Adonis sporting a mass of black curls badly in need of a trim. He crammed the tail of his rumpled med school, navy-colored T-shirt into shorts, leaving no confusion as to what had just taken place.

Their gazes collided—surprise in his, no doubt horror in hers. A broad smile of pleased recognition stretched across his too-handsome face. “Hey, Hannah. Fancy meeting you here in Grand.”

“I—” Hannah said, lost for words.

“You two know each other?” Simone asked, not looking particularly pleased by the discovery.

“We’re both from Sweetheart. Hannah’s sister is married to a good friend of mine,” Dallas replied. “We met at their wedding.”

Hannah blushed. She couldn’t help it. His tone said they’d done a lot more than meet—which they had.

Simone wasn’t stupid. She took one look at Hannah’s hot face and put two and two together. “A word of advice, Doctor Tucker,” she said, sticking her nose in the air. “Don’t even think about playing games with the women in Grand. We talk amongst ourselves.” On that cryptic note, she stalked off.

A crowd had formed at the side of the house facing the garage. It looked like Dan McKillop was giving an interview. The tall, pretty girl with the short, spiky blond hair at his side must be Jazz O’Reilly, the manager who ran Custer County airport’s new smoke jumping base. Everyone was talking about her. They’d have a whole lot more to talk about now. A few keen observers who’d overheard Simone’s parting words politely pretended they hadn’t.

“Why don’t I give you a hand unloading the truck?” Dallas suggested, apparently oblivious to the negative energy swirling around them. When they’d first met, she’d admired his ability to ignore other people’s opinions. Now, not so much.

Since he was the customer, however, she didn’t have a whole lot of choice. “Thanks.”

She backed the truck down the dirt drive. He met her at the foot of the lawn and opened the finicky tailgate. She climbed in the back of the truck and rolled the keg dolly to Dallas, who lifted it to the ground. They unloaded the first two kegs without any trouble.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her gloved hand and tried to ignore the clammy feel of it trickling down the gully of her spine. It seeped through her white cotton shirt and puddled at the waistband of her shorts. Long, sticky tendrils of hair, freed from her braid by exertion, clung like wet spaghetti to the sides of her jaw and neck.

Jeez, but Grand, Montana, was hot in the summer.

She lowered the third of ten pony kegs from the tailgate of her pickup into Dallas’s waiting hands. He loaded it onto the keg dolly and she watched him wheel the dolly across the carefully coiffed lawn. Ninety pounds didn’t sound like a whole lot until multiplied by ten.

Two hundred and seventy pounds down, six hundred and thirty to go. Would this day never end?

She wrestled the fourth keg to the lip of the tailgate. Dallas trotted toward her. He dragged the now-empty keg dolly behind him.

He was every bit as beautiful as she remembered. So many more memories emerged. His quiet voice, coaxing her into easing already lowered inhibitions thanks to a few fortifying drinks. His hands on her thighs. His warm breath on her skin. His tongue on her…

And he’d just been with another woman.

She lost her grip on the keg. It toppled just as Dallas bent down to adjust the wheel lock on the dolly. It bounced off his shoulder, knocking him flat, and hit the ground on its side, then rolled a few feet.

She was far less concerned about the keg than she was for Dallas, who sprawled in the dirt. A ninety-pound pony keg, dropped from a height of four feet, could pack quite a wallop. She didn’t think she’d dropped it on purpose, but she couldn’t be sure. She scrambled from the back of the truck, hoping she hadn’t damaged or killed him. It would cause her one more regret where he was concerned. “Are you hurt?”

He was already on his feet again, however, and rubbing his shoulder where the rim of the keg had struck him.

“I’m fine,” he said. He smiled at her to prove it.

Maybe she should have pushed the keg a teensy bit harder, at that.

They got the last of the kegs unloaded without any more mishaps. He loaded the empty dolly into the back of her truck and slammed the tailgate into place.

“You should stick around,” he said, leaning against the truck. “Dan’s got a sheep rodeo planned for the kids. There’s going to be head injuries for sure.”

“I like kids,” Hannah said. “I’m not nearly as excited by the prospect of head injuries.”

Dallas grinned. Sunlight hit his eyes and brought out the amber. Holy cow. Not much wonder she’d had no trouble dropping her panties for him.

Simone hadn’t had any, either.

“Believe me, I’m not excited,” he said. “I already told Dan it was a bad idea, but it seems his nieces and nephews are invested. You could keep me company while the disaster unfolds.”

He had to be kidding. Half of Grand had just seen him leave the garage with Simone.

“I’ve got to get back to work,” she said. Picking up where they’d left off was not going to happen. She walked around him to get to the door of her truck.

He followed. “I could give you a call.”

Thankfully, the door opened. She slammed it behind her. The air conditioner didn’t work so the window was down.

“Enjoy the open house,” she said.

End of Excerpt

The Montana Doctor is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-03-2

April 25, 2022

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