Montana Cherries…

Chapter One

“Twenty cupcakes, purple sprinkles, princess wand,” Dani Wilde muttered to herself as she peered into the box on the counter, the homemade treats aligned with military precision. She closed the lid and laid her niece’s sparkly wand across the top. “Perfect.”

Turning from the cupcakes, she surveyed the rest of the kitchen to ensure that all was in order. Only to find a pile of women’s dry cleaning dumped on one end of the ten-person table. She stared up at the ceiling as if she could see right through it. Most likely, Michelle would claim another headache and wouldn’t be able to run her own errands again today. Including delivering the cupcakes to the preschool for Jenna’s last day of day camp.

Dani sighed, grabbed the pile of mail for her clients and the flyers for the summer sale at The Cherry Basket, and shoved it all into her Cinderella tote. Jenna had given her the tote last Christmas. The four-year-old loved Cinderella above all else.

Then Dani headed for the stairs.

When her father had moved into town six years earlier, stepping aside and leaving her brother, Gabe, to manage the family orchard, Gabe and Michelle had taken the opportunity to move into the master suite. But having Michelle in her parents’ room often reminded Dani of her mother. Carol Wilde had suffered from headaches, too. Only . . .

Dani shut off her thoughts. Possibly Michelle really had migraines. Who was she to say?

And if they were anything like Dani’s mother’s had been, then driving a car was the last thing she needed to be doing. That had been proven by the accident that had brought Dani back home from college.

Reaching the far end of the hallway, Dani knocked on the closed door and waited for a reply.

“Yes?” a muffled voice answered after several seconds. Dani cracked open the door to find the Vera Wang bedspread pulled over a slim mound in the middle of the bed and the shades drawn on the windows.

“Do you need me to take the cupcakes to the school?” Dani asked quietly.

“Do you mind?” Michelle didn’t even lift her head.

Guilt tugged at Dani. The woman was probably experiencing severe pain, and here she was being judge and jury. “I don’t mind,” she admitted. And she didn’t. She loved being there for Jenna. “There’s dry cleaning on the table . . .”

“Gabe took it down for me. Can you drop it off?”

Michelle rarely left the house in anything that didn’t need to be dry-cleaned.

“No problem.” Dani glanced at her watch. “I need to run in to see Mrs. Tamry anyway.”

Mrs. Tamry was one of their best customers at The Cherry Basket, but had been unable to come in for the last few weeks due to chemo treatments. Her husband would be happy to stop by for his wife’s favorite treat, but Dani preferred to take the fresh cherry scones herself. The weekly errand was the least Dani could do.

There wouldn’t be a lot of time for visiting with the Tamrys today—not with needing to drop off Jenna’s cupcakes—but adding in a run to the dry cleaner wouldn’t cost her more than a few minutes.

“Anything else I can do for you while I’m out?” Dani asked.

Several seconds of silence passed and Dani decided that Michelle had gone back to sleep, but then the covers shifted and she peeked out from behind her silk sleep mask. “Will you take care of Jenna tonight? I don’t want her coming in here and bothering me.”

The words cut Dani in a way that almost bent her over. She so wished she had the power to do something about Jenna’s mother. That was the only worry she had about her upcoming move from Montana to New York. She would be leaving her niece on her own. And this request wasn’t uncommon in the girl’s life.

Dani had never understood why Michelle had decided to conceive if she didn’t want to be a mother.

“Sure,” she nodded, even though Michelle had already disappeared back under the covers. “I’ll make sure we do something quiet once we’re back at the house.”

Everything about that sentence bothered Dani.

She shouldn’t have to keep Jenna quiet. She shouldn’t have to take care of Jenna.

If Michelle were a decent human being, she’d have an actual interest in seeing her own daughter grow up. But so far, that didn’t seem to be the case. What Gabe had ever seen in his wife, Dani had no idea. Or any sense as to why he continuously put up with her.

Dani backed out of the room, pulling the door silently shut as she exited, then shoved her tactless thoughts out of her mind. She checked her email as she hurried back down the staircase, one hand holding the phone up in front of her as the other slid along the stair rail. There were five emails from local marketing clients, three more from potential clients she simply didn’t have the time to take on, and one from San Francisco.

Similar to the marketing firm she’d be joining in New York City next month, she’d done freelance work with the San Francisco company for the last three years. She hated the thought of giving up any of her clients, especially considering the potential attached to the one in San Francisco, but the contract she’d be signing with her new employer would force her to do just that. Not to mention, she’d likely have zero time left over for anything else. She had to prove herself when she got to New York. That was priority number one.

She stopped by the kitchen to scoop up the cupcakes and clothes, then headed out the back door. Peering across the field, she wondered if her brother was within cell service, and couldn’t help letting her gaze hang on the Salish Mountains on the far side of Flathead Lake. She’d lived in Montana her entire life except for the eight weeks of freshman year at Columbia University. She’d made it to New York City briefly. And she would do it again.

She’d miss this place, of course. A lot. But New York was her dream. She had to do it. If not for herself, then for her mother.

Not seeing any sign of her brother, she settled the desserts into her car before sliding behind the wheel. She dialed his cell as she turned the vehicle around and headed down the long drive.

“Yeah?” Gabe always answered as if he had no time to talk.

“Michelle’s in bed, I’m taking the cupcakes to the school.”

He didn’t reply at first, then grunted out a single “Thanks.”

“You know she eventually has to do these things herself, right? I am leaving, Gabe. In a month.”

She’d discussed making a permanent move to New York for so long, it had crossed her mind that her family might not believe she’d really do it. She’d been a constant for them, here for the last fourteen years. But things were different now. Jaden had just graduated college; everyone else had their own lives. They didn’t need her anymore.

In fact, of her five brothers—all younger—Gabe was the only one still at home. And that was because he ran the farm. He’d been one year behind her in school, and where she’d come home from college to take over responsibility for the house, he’d gone off to college to ensure he had the most up-to-date knowledge to run the farm. It had been a given since childhood that he’d one day take over for their dad, and since graduating, he’d done an incredible job. Production on the farm had increased—they now rivaled any of the other orchards running along the coast of the lake—and they’d introduced two new cherry varieties in the last five years.

“I know,” Gabe said in her ear, bringing her back to the present. “And she will. I promise. I’ll talk to her.”

What went left unsaid was “again.” He’d talk to her again.

And what Dani didn’t respond with was, “It won’t do any good.” They both knew it wouldn’t.

“Jenna needs her,” she said instead.

“I know,” he bit out.

And you do, too.

But she wouldn’t say those words. That would really set him off. He’d been snapping at her for weeks, a situation she attributed mostly to whatever was going on in his marriage. Things had been going downhill for a while there.

But she’d also wondered if her upcoming departure didn’t play into his bad mood, too. They’d struggled once, around the time their mom had died. They’d fought a lot. But things were good between them now. They had been for years. And she didn’t want that to change because of something she might do.

“I do know, Dani,” he reiterated, this time more polite. “I’ll talk to her.”

That’s all she could ask. “Want me to stick around until the party is over and bring Jenna home?”

“Could you? I need to get this tractor working or we’ll be short one come harvest.”

Harvesting the fifteen acres of cherries on their farm would start in about two weeks, lasting for another two weeks, into the first days of August. Then she’d board a plane and start her new life. “Will do,” she confirmed.

She disconnected and headed down the road. Due to the mountains immediately to their west, the climate in the area was more temperate than in the rest of the state, making it the ideal location for the many orchards running along the eastern coast of Flathead Lake. Dani loved how the whole community came together at this time of year. The Cherry Festival was next weekend, migrant workers would soon move in, then picking would commence up and down the entire lake region—weeks filled with roadside stands and trucks weighted down with cherries, all heading to the packing plant.

Because of the cherries, the lake, and the fact that the town curved around the most gorgeous bay in the state, Birch Bay became a popular little tourist attraction in the summer months.

Pride swelled in her as The Cherry Basket came into view. Her days of living here might be coming to an end, but just because she was leaving didn’t mean her past accomplishments would disappear with her. The Cherry Basket had been her creation from the ground up. Not only did they serve fresh-baked items made with fruit from their very own orchard, but they had mixes, cookbooks, jams, jellies, and pretty much any culinary delight one could want. They held cooking classes, and they’d even partnered with a big-name chef to develop their own line of kitchen utensils. It had been a proud moment for her when the doors had opened for the first time.

But it would continue without her. She’d made sure of it.

She’d worked hard to ensure that only the best employees were in place for both the local and online businesses. It was a well-oiled machine. Plus, it’s not like she wouldn’t check in on them. She wasn’t cutting Montana out of her heart. Just her everyday life.


Later that afternoon, after a roomful of four-year-olds got buzzed on cupcakes and sugary drinks, Dani turned her reliable four-door sedan into the winding driveway of the Wilde Cherry Farm. She glanced in her rearview mirror at her niece. Jenna was waving her wand in the air in front of her, her pink tutu bunched up in her lap.

“Your teacher told me how great you did this year, did you know that? She was very impressed with how smart you are.”

Jenna’s blonde head bobbed up and down. “She liked me.”

“Yes,” Dani said, chuckling. “She liked you a lot. Because you’re such a great little girl.”

“I know,” Jenna said almost matter-of-factly. Then the girl’s gaze darted in the direction of the house and the joy on her face lessened. “Do you think Daddy’s done working yet?”

“I’m not sure.” Dani readjusted her own gaze, taking in the house and the land beyond it. Her dad’s truck was parked behind Michelle’s car, alongside a black SUV she didn’t recognize.

“Mommy might not feel like playing,” Jenna murmured from the backseat.

“That’s okay.” Dani winked at her niece as she shifted the car into park and took in the California plates of the SUV. There was a car seat in the back of the vehicle. “I’ll play with you all afternoon. How about that? We’ll play in my room.”

She made the proposition of playing in her room sound exciting. Instead of saying that she didn’t want Jenna to go upstairs because it might upset her mother.

“Who’s here?” Jenna asked as she unbuckled the seat belt and climbed from her booster.

“Looks like Pops is,” Dani said. Which didn’t surprise her. Max Wilde and his longtime girlfriend, Gloria, often showed up for Friday-night dinners. “But I’m not sure who else.”

Shooting a final glance at the shiny, new-looking SUV, Dani took the little girl’s hand and they headed for the back deck of the two-story log home. Her parents had built the house after her fifth and final brother had been born, but only guests and strangers approached by way of the wide-sweeping front porch. The back deck led directly into the family room and had become the main entrance years ago.

As she stepped inside the house, she released Jenna’s hand. Gabe was, indeed, in from work, and Michelle had even made it downstairs. She wore a flattering pair of designer jeans and a silk top that, if Dani remembered correctly, she’d picked up on a weekend anniversary trip to Seattle last fall.

The elder Wilde sat in his favorite recliner near the stone fireplace with Gloria perched in another chair close by. And on the sprawling leather sofa sat a little girl about Jenna’s age, back straight and looking scared.

Beside her was a man Dani hadn’t expected to ever see again. Outside of magazines.

Benjamin Browning Denton.

Dani’s pulse let her know that she was still very much a woman, and very much alive, as she took in the insanely gorgeous man who stood at the sight of her.

With slightly rumpled hair a shade darker than hers, and casual jeans with a white button-up, the man came from good stock and he wore it well. He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves to reveal toasty-warm skin, and both jeans and shirt looked made to fit.

Despite the testosterone practically waving like a flag, his smile was uncertain.



They spoke at the same time. He inclined his head in a half nod, fondness radiating from his green, green eyes. “It’s great to see you, Dani.”

It had been ten years since she’d seen him. Ten years since she’d lost her virginity.

“You too.” A short laugh came out of her, tight and higher pitched than normal. A fact she attributed to the embarrassment that suddenly flooded her. Good grief, she’d thrown herself at this man.

She shot a questioning look at her brother, who’d moved to her side and picked up Jenna. “What’s going on?” she muttered to Gabe.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want the others to hear the question, but she was confused. And she didn’t like being caught off guard. Ben had returned to Los Angeles after he and Gabe had graduated from Montana State, and as far as she knew, he hadn’t been back in Big Sky Country since.

He hadn’t even made it to Gabe and Michelle’s wedding. He’d been at a shoot on one of the Pacific islands.

Ben was a photographer to the stars, mostly models, and often showed up himself on the pages of national magazines. Usually with some of the same beauties he captured through his lenses. He’d even been romantically linked with a foreign princess at one point.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Gabe asked while Jenna giggled at his nuzzling kisses.

“Come home anytime he wants,” her father added from across the room. “I told him that years ago.”

Only, it had never been Ben’s home.

Though it had probably been closer to a home than anything else he’d ever had. He’d spent three summers and two Christmases there during his college years, due to his A-lister movie-star mother rarely being in one place for very long. And Ben wanting to be around her even less.

“So when he called,” Gabe continued, “I invited him to stay for a few weeks.”

A few weeks?

“No.” Dani gulped, trying her best not to look upset. She wasn’t. Merely shocked. And wishing she’d taken more time that morning with her appearance. “You did not mention it.”

Had a houseguest been mentioned, she would have prepared a room for him.

Or for them, she corrected herself as she took in the child not quite by Ben’s side. Clearly this was the daughter recent tabloids had rumored to exist. She looked just like him. But with such a gap between the two, both physically and what seemed like emotionally, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine they’d never met.

She pulled her gaze from the dark-haired, terrified-looking child and turned to Ben. He remained standing, an overly large, bright-pink stuffed bunny in his right hand. “So the rumors are true?” she couldn’t help but ask. The tabloids had recently claimed that a model he’d hooked up with years ago had shown up on his doorstep last month with quite the surprise.

“The rumors are true.” He tipped his head toward the girl, but didn’t look at her.

Dani glanced back at the child, and though she didn’t say it, all she could think was, Wow. Ben Denton had a kid. That would surely put a damper on his globe-trotting-bachelor ways.

Jenna’s dog, Mike, chose that moment to come barreling down the stairs and race for his mistress, still high in her daddy’s arms. At the same time, Michelle pulled a photo album from the shelves between the two sets of floor-to-ceiling windows, and glided across the room. She set her sights on Ben and sidled in close. Too close, actually.

“Tell me about Hollywood,” Michelle purred, her eyelash extensions fluttering as she looked up at him. “What’s it like working with models every day?”

Gabe had met Michelle in LA when he’d gone home with Ben during spring break of their senior year. They’d dated long distance for a couple of years before he’d married her and moved her to Montana. She’d been whining about wanting to return to California ever since.

“Well,” Ben started. He glanced at Michelle’s French-tipped nails where they’d landed on his bicep. “It’s a job,” he added, sounding uncomfortable. “Lots of travel, long hours. But there are perks.”

Dani almost snorted. She’d just bet there were perks.

Ben gave a subtle shrug of his shoulder, and Michelle’s hand slid from his upper arm . . . to his forearm. She goaded him to the couch, where she settled in beside him and opened her album.

“Let me show you pictures of when I lived there,” she cooed, “and you can tell me what’s changed.”

Pictures of her, no doubt. That was pretty much the only thing in that particular album.

Dani looked at Gabe, who was hunkered down now, he and Jenna both accepting Mike’s sloppy kisses while the dog’s tail slapped wildly against Dani’s legs. Gabe seemed oblivious to the fact that his wife was coming on to his friend.

Finally, Jenna looked up from Mike and the two of them marched determinedly across the room to stand in front of the other girl. The newcomer’s hair had fuzzed into a knot on one side, looking as if it hadn’t been combed in a couple of days, and her top didn’t match her shorts. Her gaze had silently followed every movement Jenna and Mike had made.

“My name is Jenna,” Dani’s niece announced. “And this is Mike.”

Uncertain eyes darted to her daddy. When she got no help, she finally whispered, “I’m Haley.” She bit down on her lip and dropped her gaze to her lap.

Poor kid.

Michelle didn’t pause from her story while the two kids introduced themselves to each other, but Dani did notice a wrinkle in her brow like she was annoyed with the distraction.

“Did you wanna play with me?” Jenna asked.

Mike nudged his nose into Haley’s lap, and she glanced at her daddy a second time. This time Ben looked back, but that’s all. No nod of encouragement. No pat on her shoulder to show a bit of support. He did wear a similar uncertainty in his own gaze, though. As if he had no idea what he was supposed to do when his daughter looked at him like that.

And he once again shifted the arm nearest Michelle, this time succeeding in easing her hand away from his body.

“How about all three of us go play,” Dani jumped in. She was unable to watch the fear on the little girl any longer without trying to help. Moving forward, she held a hand out for both children. “We’ll play in Jenna’s room while the grown-ups have silly grown-up talk,” she said. “And we’ll take this wild and crazy dog with us.”

Haley almost smiled at that, and slid off the couch to reach for one of Dani’s hands.

“I’ll fix the guest room for you,” she told Ben as she edged past him. Though there were three unused bedrooms upstairs, her remaining four brothers would soon return for the harvest.

All Wildes did their best to make it home every July, even their father’s sister—though she was now in her seventies. Aunt Sadie, who’d lived in Colorado since before Dani had been born, normally took the guest room on the main floor across from Dani’s bedroom, but since she and her husband had recently taken a fiftieth-anniversary trip, she’d decided to sit this year out.

As Dani and the girls moved toward the hallway, she looked back at the sound of a feminine laugh from the far side of the room. Her dad and Gloria were leaning in toward each other, talking softly, both wearing tender expressions of affection. It was sweet. She supposed.

She only wished her mother were still around so it could be her mom and dad cuddling like that.

Before turning back, Dani took one more peek at Ben. He was watching her.

Her pulse ratcheted up once again as she thought about the past. He may have been Gabe’s best friend, but something different had happened between them over those summers. Not romantic—

Well . . . no.

Though she did have sex with him that one time.

The bigger thing had been the friendship that had developed. Not buddy-buddy as he’d been with her brothers. And not simply looking for a good time the way he’d done with the other girls in town. What had been between them was more akin to him being able to see inside her head. Or maybe her heart. As though he’d been able to simply understand who she was.

Which was funny, because at that time in her life she’d had no idea who she was.

She’d just been sad. And missing her mom. And certain that everything that had ever gone wrong in her life had been her fault.

She turned back to the girls. Possibly what had been between her and Ben during those summers had simply been about her going through losing her mom while he’d been busy avoiding his. Whatever it had been, the two of them as friends had worked.

And that’s what she’d missed when he’d left that last time. Her friend.