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Playing Doctor by Julie Rowe

Chapter One

“Is this one of those I-love-the-smell-of-napalm-in-the-morning moments?”

Doctor Abby Westward paused with a stick of dynamite in one hand and a lighter in the other. She glanced over her shoulder at the man standing twenty feet away, give or take a few, on the dock. He stood with both feet spread and braced and his arms crossed over his chest. His blond hair was longer than she remembered, feathering over his forehead, making him look like the dangerous version of a laid back surfer.

He’d had to have caught on a ride of a hell of a rogue wave to end up on the shore of Lost Lake outside of Bandit Creek, Montana.

Surprise could only hold her immobile for so long.

She turned away, lit the dynamite then threw the stick into the air as hard as she could toward the center of the lake. Two seconds later, an explosion sent water in all directions.

“I prefer the smell of burnt sawdust,” she said, turning around to talk to her audience. She hadn’t expected to see him again. Not after the hell they went through in Afghanistan. Those memories were something she didn’t want to face in the bright morning light. “What brings you out this way, Smitty?”

“Well, the Sheriff gave me a ten minute head-start. He said if I could get you off the lake and any dynamite you might have in your possession out of sight he won’t arrest you.” Smitty shrugged his large shoulders. “Otherwise, he said he was going to throw you into lock-up for a week.” Smitty paused. “This time.”

Abby grunted, but didn’t say anything. What to do, what to do? She looked out over the lake, but it was as still as open water could be.

“This time, Abby?”

“Hmm? What?”

“This time?” he repeated.

“Last time was only 48 hours,” she said with a cheeky grin. She’d learned long ago that often the only way to get out of trouble was to own up and put a bow on it.

“48 hours?” he frowned.

It didn’t look like Smitty was buying it. “The time before that was barely 24.”

“24?” Smitty’s frown turned into a full on scowl.

“You got a hearing problem?” she asked. The oars were warm and worn under her hands, the short trip to the dock enough to loosen up the muscles in her back. Smitty moved over to the section of dock where she parked and she tossed him the rope. He tied it off and held out his hand to help her out of the boat.

She took it without hesitation.

He probably didn’t understand how significant that was. She hadn’t touched anyone voluntarily, outside of her office hours, since the day she got home.

She stared at their joined hands, not feeling panic or fear or rage, and relaxed a little more.

“Abby, you okay?”

She glanced up. Smitty was staring at her as if he’d never seen her before, or maybe it was horror making his eyes so careful.

She smiled at him. At least she assumed it was a smile on her face. He already knew the answer to his question. “I’m so far from okay I’d need a map to get there.”

His face never changed. Not even a little.

Smitty always had a good grasp on reality. Given the crap they’d been through, maybe too good. A chuckle trickled out from between her lips.

His face still didn’t change.

How wonderfully absurd. She burst out laughing, bending over at the knees, tears raining down her face. Smitty kept hold of her hand the entire time.

“Where’s that dynamite?” He looked over her shoulder into the boat.

She held out the bag in her left hand.

“Geez, Abby where’d you get all this?”

“If I told you I’d have to…” Her voice died before she could say the words. Killing was not an act she could joke about. “…do something bad to you.”

“Kinky.”

She laughed again, letting go of Smitty’s hand to plop herself on the ground.

Smitty shook his head and walked away, setting the bag of dynamite in the back of an old, battered and malnourished Jeep. He was on his way back to her when the Sherriff’s truck drove up to the dock. He stepped out, looked at her sitting on the ground still chuckling then looked in the boat.

“He actually got you to give up the dynamite?”

Now that was a truly amusing statement. She sniggered. “When did you get to be such a stick in the mud, Sherriff?”

“Shortly after I turned eight year’s old.”

“I need to get you a sandbox for your office.”

He grunted. “Not a bad idea. My wife thinks one of those Zen rock gardens would be good for me.”

“I thought it was a goldfish?”

“Different self-help book.”

“Ah.”

Smitty joined them. “How long has this been going on?” he asked the Sherriff.

The Sherriff sighed. “Since a week or so after she got home from Afghanistan.”

“You know,” she said leaning back on her hands and crossing her ankles. “I am right here.”

“She’s been tossing dynamite and scaring the shit out of fish for two months?”

“Wow, Smitty, you make it sound like I’ve been murdering people for fun.”

“What the hell do you want me to do?” the Sherriff asked him. “Keep her in jail? I can’t. She’s one of only two doctors in town.”

“Sherriff, if you don’t calm down your wife’s going to have to buy another self-help book,” Abby said.

He glared at her. “This isn’t funny, Abby. You could kill yourself or someone else playing with explosives the way you do.”

“Does it look like I’m laughing?” Another snigger wiggled its way out. “Oh. Wait. I am. Okay, better question. Do I really look like I could hurt someone else?”

“The only person you’re willing to hurt is yourself,” Smitty said with no trace of mirth in him at all.

“Good grief. Did the two of you go to some let’s-rain-on-her-parade class or something?” She shook her head and sighed. “You got your money’s worth that’s for sure.” She got to her feet. “By the way, have you two met?”

“We sort of introduced ourselves to each other in town,” Smitty said.

“Does that mean you got further than first names?” She giggled. “Maybe first base?”

Both men looked scandalized. “What have you been smoking?” Smitty asked.

“Nothing, unfortunately.” She sighed and started walking away from the lake toward town.

“Where are you going?” Smitty asked.

“Home. I need a shower.” She sniffed her shirt sleeve. “I smell like sawdust and fish, not a great combination.”

“After that?” Smitty called out.

“The office. I have patients to see.” She lifted her right hand and wiggled her fingers good-bye.”

“Do you want a ride?” he yelled.

“Nope.”

The walk would be good for her. The air here smelled sweet and held so many bird songs. She could feel her worries wilting, falling off, trailing behind her. Not gone, but not riding her like they did when she woke up.

It always felt like this after her morning ritual was done. But the nightmares always came back by nightfall.

Still it was worth it for the few hours of peace during the day.

The Sherriff’s truck passed her. A minute later, Smitty’s Jeep crawled by.

“Sure you don’t want a ride?” he called out the window.

“Stop mother-henning me. You don’t have the right equipment for it.”

“You’re a stubborn woman Abby.”

“What gave you your first clue?”

“The fact that you came back for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan.”

So had he, and now he was in Bandit Creek. “Why are you here, Smitty?”

He grinned. “Well, it’s not to make omelettes.”

“Ha ha.”

He drove off to town.

A half hour later she reached her house near the outskirts, a small bungalow her grandmother had owned until she passed away. She’d left it to Abby, saying the town doctor needed an escape. Nan’s house was definitely that. The house itself was cute, but the backyard was fabulous. A whimsical flower garden and vegetable garden all rolled into one. There was even a fish pond.

She should invite the Sherriff over.

After a shower and a sandwich, she headed over to the clinic at a brisk walk. She turned down the back alley so she could enter through the back door, but there was a body lying across the doorway. She stopped a couple feet away.

“JD, wake up.”

He rolled over and presented her with his back.

“JD, get up.”

“Go away, I’m sleepin’,” he grumbled.

“Not in my doorway you’re not.” She put her foot on his back and pushed.

He swatted at her one-handed, then curled back up into a ball. “I wouldn’t have to be sleepin’ if you weren’t so noisy in the mornings.”

“Noisy?”

“Dynamite isn’t known for being quiet.”

“Hey, I make sure there isn’t anyone on or in the lake before I…start.”

JD turned over and gave her the evil eye. “Not the fish.”

She put her hands on her hips. “So, what, you’re protesting on behalf of the fish?”

“Is there a problem here?”

Abby glanced up. Smitty was charging toward her.

“No, he’s mostly an annoyance.”

Smitty came up along side her and frowned at JD. “Who’s this?”

“Smitty, I’d like you to meet a Bandit Creek native and legend. This is the infamous Jack Daniels.”

“Infamous?” Smitty asked.

“Yeah,” JD said as he staggered to his feet. “I’ve lived here a long time. Got more right to sleep here than anyone else.”

“Doesn’t give you the right to be rude to a lady,” Smitty told him.

JD snorted. “Ladies need defending.” He angled his thumb at Abby. “She doesn’t. She would cheerfully gut and fillet you. If you deserved it o’course.”

Smitty’s eyebrows rose.

JD turned to Abby. “Don’t do it, girl.”

“Don’t do what?”

“This one,” he said angling a thumb at Smitty. “He’s dangerous.”

“To me or you?”

“Yep.” With that JD stumbled away.

Smitty watched him leave. “He’s nuts.”

“Yep.” Abby smiled. “JD is JD. My parents have known him all their lives, my grandmother knew him and my great-grandmother knew him.”

“Um, so what, he’s a hundred years old?”

Abby shrugged. “Either that or the torch gets passed from one bum to another.”

“Interesting.”

“I think you mean creepy.”

“Yeah that.”

She walked into the clinic with Smitty on her heels. “Are you planning on following me around all day?”

“Pretty much.”

His blasé answer triggered alarm bells in her head. She turned slowly to regard him. “Why would that be?”

“Oh come on, we’ve been friends for a while now.”

“So. This is the first time you’ve come to see me since we got back from A-stan. Why now?”

He sighed. “Okay, I’m just going to tell you, but I want you to remember this was not my idea. I was asked.”

“You were asked to do what?”

“Keep you out of trouble.”

“Excuse me?”

“The town of Bandit Creek has hired me to keep you out of trouble.” He put air quotes around keep you out of trouble.

“The town hired you to babysit me?”

“Yep.”

“Over my dead body.”