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Love between Friends

A Friends to Lovers Silver Plum Romance

Book one of the "Silver Plum" series.

By Deb Goodman

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Chapter One

Time in the town of Silver Plum, Idaho, had a way of warping around the edges. They were a little behind out here. Twice that day in her work as a commodities broker, Tory Hall refereed a squabble between clients who’d known—and hated—each other their whole lives. Then Mrs. Kenton down the street asked for the office fax number.

Fax. That dusty, noisy thing in the back corner that Tory’s uncle wouldn’t let her get rid of. An unholy number of people in Silver Plum still faxed.

Silver Plum’s stubborn grasp on tradition was sometimes a thorn in Tory’s side. But what her hometown lacked in modernity, it made up for in charm. Storybook-perfect historical buildings lined Main Street. Victorian and quaint cottage-style homes graced the side streets. And miles of farmland and white farmhouses quilted the scenery at the base of Mount Lyman of the Palisades Range.

Shifting in the lush leather sofa inside Kiefer Trade Group, she pressed a hand along the buttons of her fitted azure sports coat. Satisfied they were still neatly buttoned, she took in a breath. As a commodities broker, she spent her days researching markets and honoring pricing guidelines from her clients. But on occasion, she was forced to become equal parts therapist, legal advisor, and priest.

Stiff as a board, Mr. Tilton sat across from her on a matching sofa. “That’s not how things are done,” he said, drawing out the last word. A generation older than Tory, he’d been born and raised in Silver Plum as she had.

That’s not how things are done. Traditions. The very reason he couldn’t let go.

Tory managed both Mr. Tilton’s and his neighbor, Mr. Steffen’s, livestock purchases. The ranchers had shared property lines since the dawn of time, and she’d been called upon to smooth out herding issues between them more than once.

“Mr. Tilton, if you get thirty head up there by the end of the month, I’m confident Mr. Steffen would back down.”

He leaned forward on his knees, a faint puff of dirt drifting from his Wranglers. “But see, then he wins, doesn’t he?”

Tory winced. Balancing a client’s right to justice with common sense was one of the more difficult parts of her job. Holding back a retort, she took another deep breath. “No. He’d only win if you keep at this. If you press the issue, he’ll be forced to involve an attorney, which we both know is a bad idea.”

Behind him and from across Tory’s large craftsman-style desk, her sometimes-assistant and all-the-time best friend, Hannah, grinned and gave her two thumbs up.

“I’m not afraid of the law,” Mr. Tilton said. But something in the cadence of his voice gave away the beginnings of desperation.

This was it. She smoothed her skirt across her knees, stood, and began to pace. “Give him the thirty head. Walk away. You’d rather be on his good side, and you know it.”

“But—“ Tilton glared at her, brushing his thinning hair to one side.

“Being weak and being smart enough to know when to walk away are two very different things.” She reached the front windows and gazed out at the quiet and quaint street. “It was your lack of communication with your foreman that caused these problems in the first place. And it was your foreman who inadvertently sold off Steffen’s cattle instead of yours.”

She whirled around to face him. “Steffen has a case against you. Give him the thirty head, I’ll give you ten percent off your next order, and then you call yourself lucky you’re not going to court.”

Mr. Tilton’s posture stayed firm. The only sign of his acquiescence was in the reddening of his neck. He stared past her, his lips in a tight line. At last, he spoke. “Fine. But I’m making plans to move out of that area anyway.”

“Good. That will lessen the risk of this happening again.”

A familiar tingle crept through her. She hustled so hard all the time that an imminent victory sometimes threatened to undo her. That hustle and her performance-oriented approach to life did little to staunch the feeling of unworthiness that plagued her, though.

She couldn’t imagine anything she did making up for the mistake that had haunted her for most of her life. So like always, she waved the thought away like a wisp of smoke tickling her ear.

“I’ll let Steffen know.” Her voice softened. “This is the right move.”

A grunt was the only thanks she got, that and his continued business. Before leaving, he asked her to find him a buyer for his September potatoes.

She made a note of it, peeled off the top slip of paper from her sticky note cube, and strode to Hannah’s desk, sealing it to the glossy top with a firm slide of a finger.

“Nice.” Hannah’s head bobbed up and down. “Way to show him who’s boss.”

Tory laughed and stretched her neck from side to side to ease the ache. The decorative fountain she’d installed along the north wall of the office splashed gently, calming her. Time to move away from cattle problems and on to the next big crisis of the day.

Cattle problems. In a world stranger than fiction, they’d suddenly become what she lived and breathed. That and potatoes, grains, and dairy commodities.

Risks. Futures. Bushels. Hedging.

She hadn’t grown up on a ranch or a farm. And she certainly never thought she’d be managing supply and demand of the most lucrative commodities her home state of Idaho offered.

But here she was. When a person lived in a rural area and was good at math and telling people what to do, becoming a commodities broker somehow worked out, especially with her uncle Rick encouraging her. It wasn’t glamorous, but she loved seeing how the geopolitical landscape affected price actions. She enjoyed helping her clients make a profit.

“Get accepted into the Agricultural Commodity Risk Management Program at the University of Idaho,” her uncle had told her years ago. She’d been a go-getter freshman, and he’d promised a decent base salary plus commissions as soon as she graduated. He’d even paid for her housing costs since her full scholarship took care of her tuition.

Tory had been working for him at Kiefer Trade Group for over two years when he and his wife, her mom’s oldest sister, Jeannie, left to see the continental US out of their luxury RV, leaving Tory in charge of the business. The initial panic she’d felt when he gave her the news, that they were finally doing what they’d been threatening, had softened over the last six months into a quiet thud of uncertainty.

As she lived and breathed, she was surprised they were still turning a profit. The place hadn’t burned down yet. Not that she would ever share her surprise with anyone. That would be bad for business.

“This is all yours now, Tory,” Rick had said, leaning back in his swivel chair with his hands behind his head, his gaze taking in the two-story room. “I’ll be back, eventually. Brokering is in my blood, and this isn’t an official retirement. But Jeannie’s health isn’t what it was, and we want to do this now while we can enjoy it.”

At Tory’s stutter of surprise, he’d stood and walked over to her desk. Patting her hand, he said, “Don’t worry. You’re ready.” With a wink, his graying mustache twitched in a grin. “Besides, you’re definitely mean enough.”

Tory preferred to believe she was firm. Strong. Direct. Her line of work was all about leverage and relationships. She had to handle the clients with iron fists in kid gloves—gently but firmly. And in situations where Rick was the more merciful one—throwing in a few extra bushels of this or that for old friends just to be nice—she’d been forced to be the voice of justice. Someone had to protect the firm’s bottom line.

Hannah ran a feather duster over a few surfaces in the work space, dust motes swirling in the springtime sun. “I need to go, but I couldn’t leave in the middle of you laying the smackdown on Tilton.”

Tory’s cheeks registered a touch of heat. “It’s not that I want to intimidate him.” She waved a hand. “It’s part of the job.”

Hannah gave up a breathy laugh. “You’re good at it. Even I was scared.” She hung the feather duster on a hook in the back room and cocked a smile at Tory before heading out onto Silver Plum’s Main Street. It was empty, as it usually was in the late afternoon.

Main Street consisted of twelve businesses, the true center of town. Tory’s dad joked that if you blinked while driving through Silver Plum, you’d miss it. It’d grown a little over the years, but it also felt the same. In fact, the brightly painted buildings on Main were the same. The exact stuck-together brick buildings with the carved, ornate, painted-lady-style fronts helped Silver Plum win awards for “Most Charming Main Street” in the country off and on for years.

Thanks to the internet and email, Tory had never even met most of her clients. People only came in off the street a few times a day.

But not long after Hannah left for the day, the bell above the door jingled. Tory’s chair faced the street entrance, so she saw him right when he walked in. His shock of brown hair that stood on end yet was still somehow clean cut, the clear blue eyes, the chiseled shoulders.

“Liam?” She shook her head as a smile parted her mouth. “You really are back.”

It had been over a year since he’d last come home for a visit. Seeing him never got old.

Liam Olson’s gaze searched her. “Tory.” Squaring his shoulders, he made a beeline past the leather seating to the front of her desk, his smile beaming.

At least he seemed happy to see her.

She stood and stepped around the desk, leaning in for a hug. She couldn’t stop herself. It was Liam.

His embrace crushed her in the perfect way—not too tight, but not too weak either. She tried not to inhale his Liamy scent, but it didn’t work. Of course she smelled him, and the minty-pine thing he had going on affected her like it always did.

She reminded herself that she was mad at him. A couple of weeks ago, he’d moved back from a three-year stint in California. The whole town had been abuzz about it.

But he hadn’t contacted her. They’d seen each other every day in high school, and they’d texted when they were at separate colleges and then again while he’d lived in LA. But she’d heard nothing from him since he’d gotten back. Rude.

He glanced around the room. “This place looks nice.” He whistled. “Rick must have hired a decorator, because I was not expecting this.” He motioned to the earth-tone décor, a mix of textured linen art pieces on the walls, and the dulled brass lamps with globe lightbulbs.

A flash of pleasure swept through her. At first, her uncle was resistant to any changes. It’d been his father’s farmer co-op office, and he’d wanted things to stay the same. But Tory’s eye for balance and her welcoming and professional style won him over, and he let her switch out the 1970s polyester look.

“Rick finally let me redecorate.” Tory took in the room as she returned to her chair. “I like how it’s come along. Oh, and Rick’s not even here anymore. He’s—“

“Gallivanting around with Jeannie. That’s right. I heard that.” Liam’s gaze bored into her. “So, is this place officially yours yet?”

She’d wanted to go to law school. She’d always said she was going to make it out of Silver Plum if it killed her. But her uncle’s summer job after senior year of high school gave her a taste of brokering, and during the summers home from college, she’d helped more and more, going from answering phones and filing papers to managing partner.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m moving towards full ownership. When Rick and Jeannie get back, he’ll be able to retire. That’s how much I’ll turn this place around.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Laughter burst through him, and he threw his head back. That Liam laugh. No one could resist joining in. He stepped back to the sofa and settled in. “I’m glad you’re staying in the SP.”

“I’m glad you’re back in the SP. We’ve missed you around here.”

For a moment, their gazes locked. His face was Liam-cheerful, but there was something in his eyes, a searching.

They had a history—a pull of interlocking years. They’d been friends since the fifth grade. A dozen bits and pieces of memory coiled in her head—a flash of his gaze across the room at prom, laughing as she stole his favorite afghan when she was at his house watching a movie. All of it tumbled through her.

But she shrugged, not wanting to feel anything even remotely touchy-feely. He wasn’t hers, not really.

She sifted through a stack of papers, sliding gold-colored paperclips onto them. “How have you been? I heard you moved back, but I didn’t see you at KNO.”
And you didn’t text.

Ever since junior year of high school, their group of friends had eaten out every month at the Clucky Spud, calling it Kids’ Night Out or KNO. Tory, Liam, Hannah, Mack, Anjali, Ruby, Zane, and Mabel. When they’d gone away to their respective colleges, the group dwindled, sometimes down to only two or three attendees a month. But it still happened. And with Liam back, the group was complete again.

“KNO at the Clucky Spud.” Liam nodded and grinned. “So many memories. I’ll be there next time. It’s still the first Saturday of the month?”

“Always.” She looked down at her paperwork.

Hannah had seen him at the grocery store. She’d said he’d looked better than ever, but Tory didn’t want to be caught studying him to see if it was true. “You still swindling people out of their money for a living?”

At his quiet sigh, she looked up. He rubbed his knuckle on the corner of his mouth, his shoulders drooping. “You know it. Six days a week. Even on Sundays sometimes.”

With his beefed-up six-foot frame and strong jaw, his appeal only increased since she’d last seen him. He still had a whole lot of things going on. Not that she’d be telling him that.

How was he still single? Why were any of them still single? A group of eight attractive, decent singles in a small town was fire to a flame. Fodder for gossip. And town gossips had a field day with this.

Most of the members of their Kids’ Night Out group had left after graduation for college or work, but they’d slowly returned. They were still the same—the same jokes, the same tiffs and rivalries, the same ease of having friends who accept you.

That was what Liam was. A friend. A good-hearted, good-natured, good-looking friend. When they were younger, she wouldn’t have necessarily hated the idea of more. But that was a long time ago. Besides, he’d never said or done anything that made her think he was ever interested in claiming her as his own.

“So, this has been fun and all, but…” She let her voice trail off.

He rubbed his palms down his knees—his jeans fit him just right—and cleared his throat. Was he nervous? Liam never got nervous about anything.

He reached his hand around to his back pocket and pulled out a worn, folded piece of paper. “Is that code for, ‘Get outta my office?’ Can’t two friends have a nice conversation?”

“Of course, you big lug. Anyone who wants to come in and chat is welcome. But, I do have work to do.”

“Okay, then. I’ll get right to it.” Liam’s brows creased down over his eyes, and he unfolded the paper carefully. He glanced over it and then above Tory’s head, taking in the railing along the second-story loft. He gave a short laugh. “Why am I nervous?” he murmured, and she leaned forward to catch his words.

Shaking his head, he took another deep breath and let it out in a burst. “I need a favor.”

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