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Wayne Hammond figured two factors were responsible for the standing-room-only crowd at tonight's school board meeting: a visiting celebrity and the rumor of a big donation. He doubted it was a sudden curiosity about educational policy or campus maintenance that was filling the high school auditorium's dented metal chairs as fast as they could be unfolded.
Most of the folks who'd turned out on this cold September night in Tucker, Montana, had likely come to gawk at the man seated opposite Wayne's chairman spot on the board's makeshift dais. Hollywood superstar Fitz Kelleran slouched in his boneless style on a front row seat, his long, jeans-clad legs crossed at the ankles. One arm was slung across the back of his wife's chair, where he toyed with the tail of her thick reddish braid with casual and absentminded affection.
Ellie Harrison Kelleran was a very lucky woman, and it wasn't only because the widow had lassoed a marriage proposal from the handsome actor who'd arrived at her family's ranch for a summer location shoot three months ago. It was because she'd deflected a potential proposal from Wayne.
He frowned down at the meeting agenda, remembering how he'd been easing his way into a courtship. He'd figured he'd keep things practical at first, pointing out the logic of a match between two longtime friends and neighbors, a match that would remove some of the fence line between their spreads. Ellie would gain a new daddy for the young daughter Tom Harrison had left behind when he died, and Wayne would get a head start on the family he'd always wanted.
Not the most romantic approach, maybe, but then he hadn't thought Ellie was the kind of woman who needed it. That was before Kelleran had arrived at Granite Ridge Ranch and swept her right off her feet.
Wayne had been wrong about a woman before, and his own marriage's failure was a painful testament to that. He'd thought fun-loving Alicia would settle into life on his ranch and quit her pining for the round-the-clock social whirl of LasVegas. Looking back on it all, he could see what a fool he'd been to toss aside his usual caution and rush headlong into a relationship with a woman who craved the kind of attention he couldn't provide.
But like most of the single men in Tucker"and likely some of the married ones, too"Wayne had taken one look at Alicia and fallen head over heels in lust. When he'd regained his balance, he'd found himself married to a woman who didn't care for life on a ranch, wasn't in a hurry to start a family and didn't want to stay through another Montana winter. He didn't intend to lose his footing again.
At the moment, however, he was thinking he might have slipped into a mess of a different kind. The audience continued to swell in a shifting, murmuring mass with dozens of staring faces, and a familiar discomfort had him hunching in his seat and poring obsessively through the thin stack of paperwork before him.
Stage fright. It unnerved him enough to keep him from the spotlight, but, on occasions such as this, he hunkered down and refused to let the panic prevent him from participating in community events or taking advantage of business opportunities. Tonight he'd force himself to sit with his fellow board members and remind himself, over and over, that no one had come to ogle him. He'd concentrate on the business at hand and the familiar faces in the front row and ignore the ocean of bodies beyond.
"Here comes trouble." Board member Trace Bardett shoved a knobby black microphone into a short plastic stand under Wayne's chin and jerked his head toward the woman striding down the crooked center aisle. "Ms. Hell-on-Heels."
Maggie Harrison Sinclair. She had her mother's blond hair and blue eyes, and her father's rangy height and angular build, but her agile mind and uptown attitude were all her own. Throughout their high school days she'd made it clear that she was aiming for bigger landscapes and broader horizons. Plenty of classmates had dreamed of similar, exciting futures, but only Maggie had scrounged up the gumption and the guts to make her dream happen.
And now she seemed as out of place in this Stetsoned and Wranglered crowd as a Lotus at a stock car race, sleek and exotic and meant for something other than circling a dirt track.
She'd come back to Granite Ridge in June for her niece's birthday celebration, and she was still there, camped out in the guest cabin. Rumor had it she was lying low, licking the wounds of a nasty divorce" some unfortunate tangle of infertility and infidelity, though Wayne hadn't paid much attention to the gossip over which ex-partner had been guilty of which. Still, no one in Tucker had expected Maggie to stick it out this long, and even after she'd agreed to fill a temporary teaching vacancy at the high school, the local consensus was she'd head back to Chicago at the earliest opportunity. Exactly what that opportunity might be had been the source of lively conjecture.
Ignoring the curious glances cast her way, she aimed her fancy leather briefcase through the crush, marched to the front of the room and slid into the empty seat beside her former sister-in-law. Wayne caught himself staring and lowered his eyes, but a pair of flirty pink bows on sexy black heels hovered within his peripheral vision. And a few seconds after one endless leg lifted gracefully to cross over a shapely knee, the scent of some richly seductive perfume flowed over the papers lying below his unfocused gaze.
"Lordy." Charlie Simms, seated to his left, leaned in with a gravelly whisper, and the extra-onions-on-theburger smell riding on his breath went a long way toward banishing Maggie's spell. "Legs like that should be locked up for inciting a riot."
A few moments later Shelby Ingersoll and Alice Landry took their seats next to Charlie and Trace at the board table, and Trace reached over and flipped on the microphone. Everyone groaned as the sound system squealed abuse through the speakers tacked up near the stage curtains behind the dais, and Wayne waited for the worst of it to subside before calling the meeting to order. The crowd shuffled to its feet for the flag salute and then shifted back to wait through the routine of roll call, agenda adoption, minutes approval and reports.
At last the time arrived for new business. Wayne stared at his papers and cleared his throat, and then winced when the speakers whined in protest. "The board is pleased to announce," he said, "that the newest member of our Tucker community, Mr. John Fitzgerald Kelleran, has generously pledged the sum of twentyfive thousand dollars to the local school district, specifically for improvements to the high school campus."
Several whistles punctuated the applause that followed, nearly drowning out the feedback squawking in sync with the din. Kelleran shot Ellie a rueful glance before rising from his chair to face the audience and nod a brief and modest acknowledgment. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and tugged him back into his seat.
Wayne smiled at her reaction. Marriage to a millionaire would never change Ellie. He only wished he could feel equally confident about Tucker. He was as grateful as any of them to have the money for the school, but a bit worried about the effect such largesse"and the deep pockets of its source"might have on the local economic balance.
He waited for things to settle down a bit before he continued with the business end of the proposition. "Mr. Kelleran requests that his donation be applied toward one specific purpose, whether that be for academic, athletic or structural use. The board is to consider the proposals presented to it, and to make its recommendation to Mr. Kelleran for his approval no later than the first of the coming year."
"Shouldn't take three months to figure out a way to spend the money," Boot Rawlins called out from the back row. "I can think of a dozen ways between now and next week."
Laughter and a buzz of conversational commotion followed Boot's interruption, and Trace tugged the microphone closer. "Since there aren't any other items of new business," he said, "I move that we proceed to the next item on the agenda"communication from the floor."
"I second that motion," said Charlie.
The ladies of the board agreed, and Wayne settled back into his chair, coasting along with the political maneuver and preparing to consider the one proposal he expected to hear tonight. News of Kelleran's offer had leaked the moment he'd made it, and it hadn't taken long for a groundswell of support to rise in favor of one particular use for the windfall. It wasn't a purely democratic system, but it seemed to work just fine for the folks in and around Tucker. No one liked to rock the boat"unless enough of them thought it should be capsized and sent to the bottom.
He reclaimed the microphone to recognize Frank Guthrie, father of two Tucker High students"a varsity lineman and an all-county first baseman"and president of the athletic boosters' organization.
Guthrie strode to the front of the room and hitched up his silver rodeo-prize belt buckle before turning to face his fellow parents and community members. "In anticipation of a certain amount of money being suddenly made available to the high school," he said, "it just so happens I have here a list for some equipment and materials, along with bids for the construction and labor required for setting things up."
He raised a handful of papers. "I propose that the board approve the purchase of a new football and baseball scoreboard for the high school field, along with new metal stands to seat a crowd of two hundred."
More whistles accompanied the cheering for Guthrie's speech, and he bobbed his head and clapped with the others, crushing the edges of his list. "And it just so happens," he continued, "that the total for these improvements is only a tad bit over twenty-five thousand dollars. The members of the booster club figure they can cover the excess amount with the proceeds from a barbecue dinner served up as part of the halftime celebrations during this season's homecoming football game."
With a flourish, he turned and handed Wayne the wrinkled papers and moved back down the aisle toward his seat.
"Are there any other proposals this evening?" Wayne asked as Guthrie's copies were passed to everyone at the board table. He glanced down at a shopping list that seemed a little short on the details and a touch optimistic on the math.
"Oh, hell," said Trace.
Wayne's head snapped up, and he smothered a groan as one of the people in the front row raised her hand.
"The chair recognizes Maggie Sinclair."
She stood and began to pull thin, colored folders from her briefcase.
"Lordy," Charlie whispered. "What the hell do you think she's up to?"
"This better not take long," Trace murmured none too quietly. "I told Janie I'd finish up here in time to fetch her mother home from bingo at St. Veronica's."
Maggie stepped to the front and angled herself to face the audience and the board. Her long, slim form, outlined in a snug pink jacket and skirt of some kind of lumpy burlap-like fabric, was no-nonsense straight.
"In anticipation of Frank's anticipation," she said, inclining her head toward Guthrie and his cronies on the other side of the room, "I've come here tonight prepared to make an alternative proposal for the use of the funds pledged by my brother-in-law."
"Pushing the family connection," Charlie muttered as Maggie handed some of her folders to Alice.
"She's got the balls for it," said Trace.
His comment crackled faintly over the speakers, and sniggers spread in a wave through the room. Kelleran coughed behind his fist and sank lower in his chair, and Ellie glared at the three men at the board table.
Maggie flashed a cool smile at Trace and stepped closer. "Ladies and gentlemen of the school board," she said. "Please take a good look at the stage behind you."
Wayne swiveled with the others to gaze at the darkened area. He saw what he'd always seen there: winered curtains, a bedraggled backdrop and scraps of lumber tilted against cobwebby corners. He turned back in time to see Maggie hand Kelleran one of her neat packets.
"If you were to look more closely," she continued,
"you'd see curtains so threadbare they're on the verge of disintegration. Lighting so old and damaged it poses an electrical hazard. Mice nesting among the flats and a questionable supply of costumes and props that should be hauled to the nearest landfill. As for the sound system, well, that's the one thing that isn't in a state of disrepair."