In all of Montana, from the heights of the Rockies to the width of the plains sprawling under the Big Sky, surely there were worse places to be.
Staked out naked on one of the reservations, for instance.
Gabe Wilson tipped back his sweat-stained Stetson and considered that possibility. He added his comfortably broken-in Tony Lamas to the mental picture. And his Stetson. To a Western man, there was naked and then there was naked.
“Tell me again why we’re here,” he said.
Chet Andrews raised a sardonic brow. There wasn’t an ounce of compassion in his face or in his eyes. Eyes that reflected the same deep blue as the wide Montana sky.
“We’re here for the culture.”
He delivered this statement in a way that Gabe found difficult to trust. No, make that impossible. As impossible as trying to think of a worse place they could be in than the Seattle-light coffeehouse called Lemon Espresso, according to the fancy sign outside, and more appropriately “the Lemon” by Missoula’s old-guard Montana element.
The other element, the renegades of new Montana who kept drifting over the border from the general direction of degenerate Seattle, surrounded and outnumbered the cowboys. The locals blamed John Updike for mouthing off to the world about Missoula as a center for artists and intellectuals, dubbing it the new Paris. Word spread and the newcomers kept coming.
“You mean we’re here to raise some hell,” Gabe stated in a flat voice. Not that he had any objection, in principle. It was just that somebody might have seen them come in. Somebody besides the group of flakes assembled for the poetry reading. Somebody they knew.
Right this very minute, rumors of his advanced mental deterioration could be flying like sand on the wind.
He’d never be allowed to live it down. The next time he walked into the Alibi, he’d get a tiny little china cup of coffee instead of a long cold beer. Served with roaring laughter from Eric the Red, the big Scandinavian-looking bartender with a long memory and a short imagination.
In fact, Eric was so short on imagination that the gag could conceivably continue each and every time he walked through the door. For the rest of his life.
He’d have to start drinking at The Hole in the Wall Saloon.
Gabe leaned back in his seat, depressed at the very thought of The Hole in the Wall. There were worse places to be than the Lemon after all.
Reuben Black, the third member of the trio they’d formed back in childhood, didn’t say anything. Coming to the Lemon this Saturday night had been his idea, but whatever his reason, the former Army Ranger was keeping it to himself.
The sweet smell of clove cigarettes mingled with the scent of rich coffee and incense. Honest-to-God incense. It was like a bad sixties flashback, not that he’d been around in the sixties.
Love beads hung in the doorway off the main room, roping off the hall to the bathrooms, which were marked with the symbols for masculine and feminine. Little circle, little arrow. On the plus side, the bathrooms did have real doors that closed and locked instead of more of the long beaded strings.
Gabe wondered idly how many times those doors had been closed to conceal a hurried and clandestine coupling. It seemed like the kind of thing that would happen at the Lemon. If so, it would certainly liven up the evening.
Here in the coffeehouse’s center, cushions and chairs and tables were scattered in an eye-jolting geometry and clash of colors. Fabrics in orange and purple, in patterns that must have been conceived by a blind man on acid, were matched with chartreuse and screaming yellow.
The inhabitants of the cushions and chairs were similarly hard on the optics.
Young women with hair in colors nature never intended and low-riding jeans that exposed pierced navels. Skinny intellectual guys with hair that would have embarrassed any sane man and pallor that could mean the onset of some wasting disease. Not one of them looked like they’d last a day on a ranch.
Gabe winced at the sight and directed his attention to the stage out of self-preservation.
An emaciated reader who appeared to be in the full-blown frenzy of either poetic ecstasy or epilepsy was finishing up his godawful poem, punctuated by wild gestures as he clutched at his heart and tore at the black shirt and suit jacket that must have been incredibly hot, considering the weather. Montana summers weren’t as hot as, say, hell. Or Texas. But hot enough.
“Love—love—love—for love, I die.”
“For love of my ears, I’d get a gun and help him,” Chet volunteered.
“For love of poetry, he deserves to die,” Gabe agreed. Teaching English to junior high kids should have steeled him to any abuse of the mother tongue, but his students wrote better stuff than this.
Reuben scowled at both of them. He probably didn’t consider guns or death laughing matters. Or maybe it was love he was touchy about. Hard to tell with Reuben.
The enthusiastic applause that greeted this public massacre of the English language was proof of the crowd’s low taste.
The human crow bowed and retired to a faux fur beanbag chair.
And then it happened.
Gabe heard music. He saw the room slow and spin in a soft-focus fantasy with white lights that faded and blurred everything except the vision that filled his sight.
Beauty. She was beauty, Byron’s poem, come to life. Gabe cheered up. If women who looked like that hung out here, maybe Reuben was on to something.
Long dark hair sweeping behind her, she walked to the stage dressed in a filmy white shirt and sinfully tight, low-riding hip-hugging blue jeans that showcased her heart-shaped ass.
When she turned to face the room, Gabe imagined he could see a hint of the darker rose of her nipples under the white fabric. Not wearing a bra? By the time she opened her mouth to read, he would have forgiven her assaulting his ears with any awful verse for the pleasure of resting his eyes on her.
Her introduction told him her name, Willow Daniels. That she was a poet in residence with an impressive string of publishing credits, including two small volumes of poetry. And then she read.
Her voice was as lovely as her face and her body, but it was the poem that commanded Gabe’s attention. Her poem was an invitation for a lover to seduce her, first in words and then in deeds.
By the time she was done reading, he had to shift lower in his chair to hide the fact that his jeans were suddenly too tight for comfort. She had an impressive command of the language. She’d seduced him with a poem. Made him hot. Made him want to answer her invitation and then let their bodies do the talking.
Ease down, cowboy, he thought. It was just a poem. Words. No need to take them to heart as if she’d written them for him, a personal invitation.
Then again, she had made eye contact with him while she’d read. She’d looked at him a bit longer than was strictly polite. A sign of interest. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to introduce himself to her later on.
Although if she really wanted an eloquent man, Montana wasn’t exactly the place to find one. It was a place of vast silences. In the West, a man’s word was his bond. It wasn’t given lightly. A man said only what needed to be said, and actions spoke louder than words. Although action was what she really wanted, if he understood her poem correctly.
“What’s he doing?” Chet interrupted his thoughts, nudging him with an elbow to the ribs and indicating Reuben with the tilt of his head.
Gabe leaned back to see their friend making his slow, steady way toward the coffee counter. Two women were behind it, both in blue jeans and identical lemon yellow tank tops.
One of the women, a blonde, was operating the espresso machine with expert speed and no wasted motions, her body swaying to the beat of the music playing in the background.
The other, with brown hair too light to be called brunette, was reaching up to get a five-pound bag of coffee beans on a high shelf above her head, arms outstretched and extended to the limit, and it wasn’t quite enough. The tips of her fingers brushed against the bag, unable to grasp it.
Reuben walked up behind her, close enough that his body brushed against hers, and took the bag down. As he lowered it in front of her, his arms enclosed her on either side.
“Being helpful,” Gabe said.
“The hell he is. He’s hitting on her. He never does that. He never notices women.” Chet eyed the pair in some consternation. “No wonder he kept dragging me in here all the time and then insisted we come here tonight. He was getting ready to make his move. Should we warn her?”
“That he hasn’t had a relationship in recent memory and she should check the expiration date on his condoms?”
Chet frowned at him. “No, that he’s not a man to mess around with.”
Gabe considered the woman and the way Reuben’s body enfolded her. Protective. Whatever Reuben intended, it wasn’t dangerous. Well, possibly to her heart, but that was the way of things. She was slender with delicate features, so she created the illusion of fragile. But her hands were work worn and the clearly defined muscles in her bare arms told the real story.
“He doesn’t hurt women. And she’s stronger than she looks.” Gabe shifted to the more important point, in his mind. “If Reuben’s been bringing you to this place for a while, why drag me along tonight, too?”
“Because if I have to listen to bad poetry, you have to suffer with me,” Chet said. “This is the first time he’s wanted to come to a reading.”
Reuben’s head dipped down, putting his mouth level with her ear. He said something to her. Probably a suggestion to get a stepladder from the hardware store in the morning, knowing Reuben. Then he placed the bag in her hands, let her go, and walked back to their table.
Gabe let his attention drift back to the poet. The more he considered it, the more Gabe thought he needed to pursue this Willow Daniels. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but she was inspiring.
His thoughts were interrupted once again, this time by a woman’s voice.
“Problem, cowboy?” The blond woman who’d worked the espresso maker like a pro was now standing in front of their table, hands on her hips, giving Chet a challenging look.
He scowled at her.
That was so uncharacteristic of the man’s normal easygoing charm that it got Gabe’s attention, dragging it away from his mental debate over whether or not Willow had a bra on and if her nipples were a deep, dark berry or a light dusky rose and what he might have to say to her to find out.
“You were speeding on the highway again,” he accused the barista. “I saw you.”
She gave him a long look. “Montana had fewer fatalities when there was no highway speed limit.”
“Doesn’t mean you can drive like you’re trying to put your foot through the floor. Cattle get loose and wander onto the highway. You hit one, your sweet little tattooed ass is in a sling.”
Chet, ranting at a stranger for speeding? A man who risked broken bones on a daily basis? And how did he know she had a tattooed ass, anyway?
A downward glance showed him that her tank top had ridden up and her jeans rode low enough to expose the beginnings of a colorful design that wrapped around and disappeared under the denim. Not too much of a deduction to guess that the tattoo did in fact decorate her backside. Still, the two of them had obviously met before tonight.
Chet and Reuben were both acting out of character, now that Gabe thought about it. And he’d known them long enough to judge. They’d been raised on neighboring ranches, gone to school together, grown up together. The three of them now worked their own ranches, although Gabe was the only one with a regular job.
Chet broke horses for extra cash, not exactly a low-risk occupation. He wasn’t known to get worked up over little things like risking life and limb. Why did he care if some city woman who’d moved to Montana drove too fast? And why was Reuben suddenly making moves? What the hell was in the Lemon’s damn designer coffee?
“My ass isn’t your business and neither is my driving,” Chet was told.
“How about if I make it mine?”
The blonde leaned forward, putting her cleavage at Chet’s eye level, lifted his Stetson off, and trailed a long-nailed, red-tipped finger through his hair. “You think you’re up to my speed?”
“Think you’re up to mine?” Chet came around the table and planted his hat on her head.
She tilted her head back. “I’m ready to cowboy up and ride.”
“You off work now?”
“Good.” Chet scooped her up into his arms and headed for the door. “Night, Gabe, Rube,” he called over his shoulder.
Just like that, Gabe thought, bemused. He still hadn’t gotten to hello with the luscious Willow, and Chet was carrying off a hot blonde with a tattoo. Some men had it easy.
Before he’d recovered himself, Willow walked over. “Are you going to read tonight?”
“Yes,” he said before he could stop himself.
Which was how he came to be standing on the stage at the Lemon, looking straight into Willow Daniels’s dark eyes, delivering the old and well-memorized lines, “She walks in beauty like the night . . .”
This better get him into Willow’s good graces, because it was going to destroy his reputation completely.
Copyright © 2007 by Charlene Teglia. All rights reserved.