Montana Promises

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Chapter One

Nate Wilde watched the activity on Main Street from where he stood on the second floor of the new storefront, amazed that this late in the day, the grand reopening still had people lined up, anxious for a sampling from his family’s cherry-themed gift store. He was equally amazed at the number of items, both packaged and prepared foods as well as utensils, cookbooks, and the like, that he’d witnessed being purchased before he’d retreated to the quieter space above the sales floor.

But what didn’t surprise him—and how he understood enough about her to know this, he wasn’t sure—was the way Megan Manning continually coaxed customers back into The Cherry Basket. Even after they’d left.

From his perch at the one-hundred-year-old window, Nate had watched more than a handful of people step outside the front door, bags weighted with their purchases and their bank accounts clearly having been relieved of a chunk of change, only to be stopped on the street by Megan. She’d smiled, enveloped them with her obvious charm, and a short time later, a good number of those very people had turned around and headed right back into the store. And they’d exited the second time with another bag!

He shook his head in disbelief. She was like some sort of mystical sales goddess who’d been sent to them at the best—or more likely . . . the worst—possible time.

Actually, what she was, was the recent ex-girlfriend of his youngest brother. The brother whose proposal to another woman had kicked off the day’s festivities. And that blew his mind, as well. Because Megan—who was also friends with the new girlfriend, now fiancée—didn’t seem to be in the least fazed by the recent turn of events. In fact, she’d helped plan it.

Nate shook his head again, silently swearing that he’d never understand women, then glanced over his shoulder at the sound of footsteps coming up the narrow back stairs.

Five seconds later, one of his older brothers appeared in the office doorway.

“How’s Dad?” Nate asked. Cord was a doctor, in town from Billings for only a couple of days, and had headed to the rehab facility to check on their dad shortly after the ribbon cutting.

“Wishing he were here,” Cord answered. He stepped into the room. “But he’s also making progress. The pain is less today.”

Their dad had lost his leg—and damned near his life—ten days prior in a tractor accident on their family orchard. “Gloria still planning to keep staying with him?” Gloria was their dad’s wife of two years.

“Says she intends to stay until they release him. They brought in a bed for her.”

“He’s in good hands then.” That was one less thing for Nate to worry about.

He turned back to the window, and Cord crossed to stand beside him. Neither said anything else for a few minutes, as they both got drawn into the activity below. Jaden—he of the new fiancée—was making his way back from the other end of Main Street, Arsula and her parents in tow, all four of them looking as bright and shiny as new pennies. And Nate couldn’t help but be annoyed at the sight. Not that he begrudged Jaden love. Nor a fiancée. Hell, if that’s what the man wanted, then more power to him.

But damn. Jaden had met Arsula only two months before. The same night he and Megan had broken up. And, he and Arsula had broken up two weeks before today. This was a make-up, take-me-back type of engagement, and one that Nate worried about.

“You think that’ll last?” Cord voiced Nate’s thoughts, and Nate glanced at his brother.

“You don’t?”

Cord didn’t look at him. “I didn’t say that.”

“Then what are you saying?” Nate turned back to the window, his gaze flicking between Megan—who remained just outside the store’s front door, looking as bright and shiny as a penny herself—and Jaden. Neither of them seemed in the least concerned about the other, yet Nate couldn’t help but believe it couldn’t be that easy to get over someone. Not after dating for four years.

“I’m not saying anything, I guess,” Cord said under his breath, and Nate followed along with his train of thought. Jaden was in love. He was happy. Life was good.

But he was also their little brother, who thought he had life all figured out.

Who’d also thought he had life figured out just two months before.

Someone in their family had to maintain some common sense.

“You next in line, then?” Nate asked, unable to contain the ghost of a smile.

“For marriage?” The sentiment finally pulled Cord’s gaze from outside. His eyes narrowed along with the thinning of his lips. “Tell you what. I’ll board that train just as soon as you do.”

Nate snorted. Their other four siblings, as well as their dad and Gloria, had all gotten married over the last few years. All blissfully in love. All seeing stars and rainbows and freaking glittery unicorns. It was like a damned epidemic around there.

Except, their dad was now down a leg, and the orchard stood on the brink of disaster.

So much for happily-ever-afters.

Nate jammed his hands into his jeans’ pockets. “I suspect that’s one train destined to spend eternity in the boneyard.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

They turned back to the street again, this time with Nate catching sight of a group of senior citizens, most with balloons bobbing above their heads. They’d formed a line behind the stage that had been set up for the day and were waiting for the bus that would return them to their retirement community. Along with the group of retirees, two of Birch Bay’s fire trucks had also shown up, as well as the entire police force, the mayor, most local business owners, and all of the town councilmen. And, of course, darn near every person who lived within the confines of their small town—and quite a few who didn’t.

Megan voluntarily giving up her high-paying computer programming job last month and asking to stay in Birch Bay as the permanent store manager might have surprised them all, but that had been nothing compared to her plans for making sure the citizens of Birch Bay, Montana, had only positives to associate with The Cherry Basket.

And dang . . . what a way to kick things off.

Too bad all the hard work might be for nothing.

The back door on the first floor slammed, the sound barely audible above the clamor of customers’ voices and the continuous shuffling of product being pulled from shelves, and in the next instant, several sets of footsteps headed up the stairs. Nate watched out the window as Jaden glanced down at his phone then up to where Nate and Cord remained at the window, and with a quick kiss to his fiancée’s cheek, he turned and headed for the store.

“Guess we can’t put it off any longer,” Nate muttered. He turned to face the door.

“Family meeting at its finest.” With a less than excited tone, Cord also turned. Both of them waited, leaning back against opposite sides of the window frame and tucking their hands into their jeans’ pockets, and both wore long faces of concern.

All six of them had spent the last ten days focused on any and everything not related to the subject utmost on their minds. The last four weeks, really. Ever since the arctic blast that had blown through town on the tail end of a warm spell, dropping the temperature from a mild sixty degrees to negative forty in a record-breaking matter of hours, no one had talked about the what-ifs.

What if it wasn’t just a manageable portion of the orchard’s trees they lost due to the weather . . . but the majority of them?

What if it wasn’t financially feasible to replant?

What if their dad had died when he’d gone out before dawn to check on the trees instead of merely turning his tractor over and losing his leg?

Nate swallowed, still not wanting to think about the last one. And even while understanding all they needed to talk about today—and the potential impact of every single what-if hanging out there—he still planned to add his news to the mix. Because he’d already caused too much damage by sticking around too long.

His sister, Dani, was the first to make it down the hallway, her shoulders pulled back as she entered the room as if going into battle. She was followed by Gabe, the next oldest sibling. Nate’s twin Nick came in after them, and then the runt of the litter could be heard thumping loudly up the stairs in his recently acquired walking boot.

Jaden, slightly out of breath once he reached the small room but still looking as damned happy as he had since Arsula had accepted his ring, pushed his way in and closed the door behind him. Nate opened his mouth, ready to begin the conversation and get the whole topic over with, but then he closed it again when he realized that Cord had shifted to stand with the rest of them. Five sets of blue eyes, all matching Nate’s own, now stared back at him.

“What?” How had he become the focus of this meeting? This was supposed to be a discussion on the future of their farm. On the fact that their dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s—as well as having hallucinations with the disease—and not a one of them had known about it until they’d shown up at the hospital ten days before. “Did you all change this to some kind of intervention and not tell me?” he joked. It had been years since he’d needed one.

“Of course we didn’t—” Dani began, and then she frowned. “Is there a need for an intervention?”

Nate didn’t bother to answer. “Then what’s going on?”

As soon as the question passed his lips, he had another thought.

He jerked his gaze to Cord’s. “Is it Dad? Did something happen that you didn’t tell me?”

“No,” Gabe answered before Cord could. He held both hands up and took a single step forward. This positioned him slightly in front of everyone else. “Dad is fine.” He looked briefly lost before adding, “As fine as he can be, anyway.”

Gabe and Nick had also gone out to the rehab center after the ribbon cutting, while Dani had stuck around to help at the store.

“This isn’t about Dad,” Gabe continued.

Dani shifted so she stood with Gabe. “Not completely.”

Nate looked from one to the other, unsure what to say next. What to do next. Clearly, they all had something on their minds other than the future of the farm. And clearly, they’d all been talking about it without him . . .

Talking about him . . .

He blanked any expression. “Then what is it about?”

Jaden’s gaze slid off to the side, his jaw going tight, and the entire thing suddenly made Nate snap.

“Just spit it out,” he barked.

Dani reached out for him, but Nate shrugged out of her reach. “Nate—”

“Don’t,” Gabe interrupted their sister, and Nate, tired of whatever game this was, ignored both Gabe and Dani and turned to his twin.

He scowled at his brother, and without preamble, Nick said, “We need you to stay.” The words landed flat.

“You need me to stay?” Nate repeated. He looked at each of his siblings in confusion. They never “needed” him for anything. And it was too damned bad if they did, anyway. He’d been there for two months. He’d stayed too long as it was. “For what, exactly?”

And why were they bringing this up now? He hadn’t even told them yet that he was leaving.

“To help with Dad,” Gabe answered.

Nate frowned at his oldest brother, then he eyed their sister. “You said this wasn’t about Dad.”

“I said not completely.”

“So, you lied.”

She made a face. “Quit being prickly before you even hear us out.”

“Quit being prickly?” If he hadn’t already been standing with his back to a wall, he’d have put several additional feet between them. “We’re all here today,” he reminded them, “because we’re supposed to be having a meeting about the farm. About the fact that our dad very nearly lost his life because we tossed that very responsibility back into his lap three years ago due to none of us being willing to deal with it any longer.” Their dad had originally passed the farm on to the six of them when he’d retired almost a decade before. However, none of them had ever truly appreciated the “gift.” “Yet you five show up,” he went on, “all staring me down, as if I’ve done something wrong? And you accuse me of being prickly?”

He shook his head, knowing instinctively that he didn’t need to hear anything else.

“I’m not being prickly, dear sister. I’m being me. I don’t like whatever the hell this is, and I’m not going to smile and pretend it’s okay.” He shoved his way between Dani and Gabe, finished with the conversation, and elbowed Nick to the side. But as his hand closed around the time-aged brass doorknob, Jaden finally spoke.

“We know you’re planning to leave. I saw you put your bag in the truck this morning.”

Nate stopped. That’s where this had come from? He and Jaden had both been staying at the farm together the last couple of weeks, so it would be hard to go unnoticed even if he wanted to.

He turned back. “So? I always leave. What’s the big deal this time?”

“Dad lost a leg, Nate.” Dani’s soft words punched him in the gut.

And their dad hadn’t just lost a leg. Due to a hallucination while he’d been out on his tractor, he’d steered directly into a decades-old tree. And then he’d lain there bleeding out . . . none of them the wiser. All because . . .

Nate forced a neutral expression, not wanting to go back to that morning. To that fear. “I’m aware of what happened to our father, Dani.” He was also aware that it was entirely his fault.

“He also has Parkinson’s.” This came from Gabe. “And that isn’t going anywhere. You can’t just disappear again. Not when we don’t yet know how Dad’s going to be able to get around. How much help he’ll need.”

Nate glanced around the group of them again, noting that Cord had yet to say anything and also taking in the fact that Nick had slid to his right, putting himself between Nate and the door. “So, what are you saying?” Nate once again faced Gabe. “That you need me to stick around and play babysitter?” He knew the words were harsh, but he couldn’t let himself be soft. Not right now.

“We’re saying that we need you”—Dani began, then she let out a shaky sigh, and the pain suddenly darkening her eyes had Nate glancing away—“we just need you, okay?” she finished in a hoarse whisper. “To be here. To be one of us.”

“Of course I’m one of you.” He’d been born to the same parents as the rest of them, after all. And if being siblings and growing up together wasn’t enough, the six of them also had plenty of shared miserable experiences.

Yet biology and a shit childhood didn’t take away from the fact that he had also always felt like an outsider. And even more so since the day he’d turned eighteen.

“Dad has Gloria,” Nate reminded them. “Who isn’t about to let him want for anything.” He forced his tone to be calm and soothing, in the way one might address a child. “As well as four out of the five of you, each who lives within five miles of him. You don’t need me. He’ll be back home in a matter of weeks, and you all know as well as I do that at least one of you will be stopping by every day. He’s going to have plenty of help.”

“Then stay for me,” Jaden added, and Nate literally laughed out loud.

“Stay for you?” He looked down his nose at his baby brother, peering into the lenses that only Jaden had been burdened to wear. “I stayed for you two months ago when you snapped your ankle in two, remember?” Jaden had been in for Gabe’s wedding, and due to the accident, he had been unable to return to Seattle. “Even though the last thing you wanted was my help.”

“It wasn’t that—”                                                                                                                

“I stayed,” Nate interrupted. “I’ve been here to play chauffeur—which is the only thing you’ve ever allowed me to do, by the way—and now I’m leaving. End of story. Your fiancée can drive you wherever you need to go at this point.”

“Then stay for the farm.” Nick’s words held no emotion, and once again Nate laughed.

“The farm?” He turned in a full circle, taking in the agreeing nods, before stating what no one had yet been willing to verbalize. “Only fifteen percent of our trees currently have any buds on them. That’s no longer a farm. That’s a hobby.”

“No,” Gabe argued. “It’s early yet. There might still be more that make it. We won’t know for a couple more weeks.”

Nate twisted his mouth. “You don’t believe that any more than I do.”

“Well, even if it is only fifteen percent”—Dani jumped back into the conversation—“that’s still enough to supply the store. The farm is still viable.”

Nate shifted his gaze to his sister then, the movement slow, and found himself feeling bad for what he was about to say. He knew how much she wanted both the orchard and the store to last. How much she always had. He also knew that she had a history of not exactly seeing reality at first glance.

“That was enough to supply the store,” Nate explained. “Before we moved it here. Before we became the new ‘darlings of downtown.’”

“Hey.” Jaden’s chest puffed up at the mimicked catchphrase Megan had coined. “Don’t blame Meg for this. All she’s done is try to help. She didn’t know we were going to lose the trees.”

Nate turned back to his youngest brother. “And how about you don’t take up for her? You broke up with her, remember?”

The words fell into silence, with more than one of his siblings now wearing a perplexed expression.

“Fine.” Nate rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the moment. “I know. She’s the one who broke up with him. And the two of them are still great friends.” Whatever. It still annoyed him how they both acted as if their feelings had just turned off.

No one said anything else for several seconds, and Nate simply waited, still standing in the middle of them, being surrounded as if they’d closed in bully-style instead of their earlier firing squad attack.

And then someone did speak.

And the words could have knocked him over.

“Is something . . . going on . . . with you and Megan?” Nick asked the question slowly. Carefully. And Nate just as purposefully turned his head and stared at his twin.

“Something . . . like what?”

He narrowed his eyes at the person who knew him best, and Nick wisely didn’t voice any more of his thoughts. But Nate could feel the question now not only pulsing through Nick but also circling around each of his siblings. Disgust rolled through him.

Really? This was what they thought of him?

“Fuck you all,” he gritted out. He did not have the hots for his baby brother’s ex.

And he owed Nick an ass-kicking for even going there.

He forced his way back between Dani and Gabe and crossed back over to the window, then he pulled in a deep breath and once again turned to his family. His patience had vanished. “We’re supposed to be talking about the farm,” he repeated his earlier reminder. “Have all of you forgotten that? We’re supposed to be addressing the fact that our dad almost died because of the farm. Not ambushing me. Not bringing up”—he shot Nick a scathing look—“ridiculous accusations.”

“No one is accusing you,” Cord finally joined the conversation. “Nor ambushing you.”

“Well, it sure as hell feels like it.” He glared. “And I am leaving, by the way. Tonight. If someone needs to stick around to care for Dad, then how about you do it? You’re the doctor.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Right. Like you would, anyway.” A muscle jerked in Nate’s jaw. Cord had been the first of them to move away.

“You’re right.” Nick pushed his way forward until he stood directly in front of Nate. “We can take care of Dad. And yes, one of us will likely be over there every day once he gets home. But we do need help with the orchard.”

Again, Nate laughed. “What orchard?” He stretched his arms wide, and his voice took on heat. “We. Have. No. Orchard.”

The rest of them went quiet again, everyone contemplating the reality in their own way, before Cord finally cleared his throat. They all dragged their gazes to his, and hesitantly, he brought up the question they each knew had to be addressed. “Is it time we discuss selling?”

Everyone else remained silent, but slowly, one-by-one, they all glanced at Dani.

Eventually, she spoke. “Not yet.” She shook her head. “We never wanted to—”

You never wanted to,” Gabe corrected softly.

“And you do?” Dani shot him a look, and the two of them locked into a full-fledged stare off.

“First things first. Dad will need a place to come home to.” Nick’s tone was genial, but it did little to ease the tension. “It’s been his home again since Dani and Gabe turned over running the farm, so whatever happens in the future, we can’t just kick him out right now. And whether we do decide to sell down the road, or whether we replant, at the moment there’s still fifteen percent of the trees that need tending to.”

Nate scowled at his twin. “I am not sticking around to run a non-existent orchard.”

“Well, it’s not like you’ve been doing anything else lately.” Nick fired back, and as Jaden had done when the conversation first started, his gaze immediately shifted off to the side.

Nate swore as realization dawned.

“Jaden told us that you haven’t been out on a crab boat in over a year,” Dani offered.

“And crabbing isn’t the only thing that I do,” Nate rebutted. “It’s seasonal. Did you all forget that?” He didn’t take his eyes off Jaden. He knew he never should have admitted anything to his “all-too-helpful” brother.

“Do you have something lined up that you actually need to get to?” Nick asked. “Or are you just running?”

Exhaustion suddenly swamped Nate at the no-nonsense tone, and he dragged a hand down over his face. “What would I possibly be running from, Nick?”

Two beats later, Dani said, “Us?”

Though the question came as a surprise, Nate didn’t even have to consider the answer. Not like he once would have.

He shook his head, the lump in his throat keeping him from speaking at first. The truth was, he didn’t have to go. And he didn’t even know where he might end up. But he also couldn’t stay.

“I’m not running,” he denied. Not from them, anyway.

He was running to save them.

“Then stay.” Nick nodded in encouragement. “Even if only fifteen percent survive, that means eighty-five percent won’t. We’ve all been so focused on getting the store moved and reopened that we haven’t looked past today. Dad’s going to need a ramp put in. Other modifications. The orchard will need a wood chipper working overtime. I can help around my classes and work. We all will help. But we need someone there full time.”

Nate replayed the words before reacting. Thought about what really may need to be done for a seventy-year-old who was down a leg and had rapidly progressing Parkinson’s.

His siblings may be asking him to stay simply because it was the easiest option for everyone, but they weren’t wrong. This wasn’t the time to have anything less than all hands on deck. If he did this one last thing before he went . . .

He stared at his brother and promised himself that he wouldn’t stick around for longer than a couple more weeks. He wouldn’t get to the point where he’d rather stay.

“The fifteen percent,” he finally spoke. “If the trees actually make it and don’t need to be cut down themselves, I’m not sticking around to take care of them. I’m not running a dilapidated orchard.”

“Fine.” Cord spoke up before anyone else could. “Then stay long enough to hire someone to do it. Or to hire someone to replant. Whatever is decided. But stay to help get Dad settled.”

“And then leave if you have to,” Nick added. He shared a knowing look with Nate. “Whatever you need to do. We’re here for you. But we need you to be here for us right now.”

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