Montana Dreams

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Chapter One

 

“Can we just sit a minute before we go in? Catch up a little?” Jaden Wilde rested his hand on his girlfriend’s forearm, halting her escape from the front seat of his rental. She paused before opening the door, and when she glanced back, he offered his signature head-tilted, you-know-you-love-me look.

“It’s your brother’s wedding, Jay,” Megan pointed out. “And we’re already very late.”

He caressed his thumb over her arm, wishing it weren’t February and they didn’t have to be bundled up for the weather. He wanted to touch her skin. “But I haven’t seen you in seven weeks, Meggie. I miss you.”

Resolved, Megan reversed position and covered his hand with hers. “And I haven’t seen you in seven weeks. I get that. It’s been a while. We’re not used to that.” Though dating for more than three years, this was the first time they’d been separated for any real length of time. “But you’re the one who didn’t make it in for the rehearsal last night. You’re the one who barely picked me up in time to even make it to the wedding tonight.”

“I can’t help that my flight got canceled.” Jaden motioned to the falling snow outside the car. “Or that an unexpected snowstorm slowed my drive from Missoula.”

“Yet you were supposed to arrive Wednesday, Jay. You observed your last counseling session that morning. You should have been here days ago.”

“I had to meet with my professor before leaving town. You know that. And he only had yesterday afternoon available.”

“And you couldn’t have arranged any earlier appointment had you set it up weeks ago?”

Megan’s eyes narrowed with annoyance, and Jaden blew out a frustrated breath. It seemed all they did lately was argue. Ever since Megan had stayed in Birch Bay after Christmas. He was tired of fighting with his girlfriend. Tired of not having his girlfriend at his side.

And if she’d been in Seattle, she’d likely have reminded him to make that appointment weeks ago.

“Can’t we just . . . be for a minute?” He tried again. “Just enjoy each other’s company?”

He didn’t want to go into the surprise he had planned for later by starting the evening off like this.

“We’re already here,” he went on. “We’re sitting in the church parking lot.” He looked at his watch. “And the wedding doesn’t start for another ten minutes. We have time to say hello to each other. To smile at each other.”

The annoyance in her eyes shifted, but instead of the pleasure he’d hoped to see, thinly veiled anger shone back. “That’s exactly my point.” She enunciated her words a little too clearly. “The wedding starts in ten minutes. We don’t have time to say hello to each other. Not right now. You’re in the wedding party, and you haven’t even met the woman you have to walk down the aisle.”

She once again reached for her door handle.

“Then tell me you’ll come home with me after this weekend,” Jaden hurried to say. He gripped her hand when she looked back. “You’ve been here helping out for weeks. My family appreciates it. They’ve told me so. They love you, and The Cherry Basket needed you when Sarah first left.” He gave her a pleading smile. “But it’s time to come home now. I need you now.”

Her lack of opening the door didn’t exactly reassure him. “Are you aware we found out this week that Sarah isn’t coming back to work at all now? She’s staying in Bozeman to take care of her mother indefinitely. Which means the store is no longer only temporarily without a manager. It’s completely without one.”

“But you’re not even in retail, Megan. Both of your degrees are in technology.” It was becoming increasingly difficult to remain calm about this whole situation. “That’s it.” He sliced his hands through the air as if calling a batter safe at home. “I’m drawing the line. It’s not like it’s the busy season right now, anyway. Someone else can handle things until a new manager is hired. They’ll be fine without you.”

Megan’s glare turned to ice. “First of all, Jaden Wilde, you don’t draw lines. Not for me. Ever. And second . . . quit being a selfish ass for once in your life, and think about your family.”

“Selfish ass?” He reared back. “Are you kidding me? I always think about my family.”

“You only think about how you can help them emotionally.”

He clenched his jaw. The accusation was unfair.

“You know that’s not true.” He took a calming breath and brought his voice back to a normal volume. This argument was rapidly getting out of control. “I think about a lot more than that, and you know it. I care about all of them. About the orchard, the store. I only want us all to be happy and healthy for once in our lives.”

“And together,” Megan said softly. “You want all of you to be together.”

He wasn’t sure what her point was. “Of course I do.”

He didn’t talk about his family a lot, but Megan was aware of their history. He and his five siblings hadn’t had the best childhoods in the world. Their mother had been narcissistic, and her manipulations had affected all of them. It had even played into their relationships with their father, because Max Wilde had done more dodging and hiding from his wife than having a backbone and helping his children.

But they were on the path to healing now. At least, some of them were. His sister, Dani, and their dad had both been through counseling after the past had reared its head three years before. Dani still kept weekly appointments, and she was happier now than Jaden had ever seen her. She was also firmly rooted in Birch Bay. As was Nick.

Nick and Nate were twins, only two years older than Jaden’s twenty-five, and though Nate still roamed the world like a nomad, Nick had come back home and settled down as well. Gabe was about to get remarried—this time to a wonderful woman. And Cord, though probably as messed up as any of them had ever been, hid his issues well via his work. He was a medical doctor and partner in a private practice down in Billings.

Some of them were good, and some of them weren’t. But was it so bad of him to want to be able to help if he could? To hold out hope that they might someday be the family he’d always dreamed they could be?

“Let’s not fight, Megan.” He took her hand again. “I love you. I hate fighting with you.”

“And I hate fighting with you.” She squeezed his hand in return and offered a tentative smile. “But tell me just how you think the store’s going to run itself? They need me here, Jaden. And I want to be there for them. I think a lot of your family. Plus, I like doing this. I’m actually pretty good at it.”

He knew she was. Dani raved about her every time they spoke. The business, thanks to its increased online sales, had cleared more in the past few weeks than it averaged during their high-tourist months.

“And what’s three more months, anyway?” she continued, though she no longer looked at him.

They planned to move to Birch Bay for good three months from now, once he finished his practicum and earned his master’s degree in counseling psychology. He had a job lined up for the following year, working under a local psychologist in order to earn his counseling certification, and he planned to eventually open his own practice here in town. His focus would be children and families.

Megan would work as a freelance app developer, they’d buy a house . . . have babies . . .

“Fine,” he relented. And though Megan once again turned for the door, a sharp blast of air whipping inside the second she cracked it open, Jaden only reached into his coat pocket. “But then we’re going to do this now, instead of waiting until tonight as I’d planned.”

Megan looked back once again, her original annoyance making a reappearance. “Do what now?”

Then her gaze landed on the jeweler’s box in Jaden’s hand.

“Oh, Jay.” She shook her head. “No. Don’t do that now.”

“Yes.” He reached across her and closed the door. “Now. I miss you, Meggie. I love you. I want to—”

“Not. Now.” Megan stressed the words with a soft voice, and something about the way she said them finally registered. She was serious.

“Why not now?” He straightened in his seat.

“Today is about Gabe and Erica. It’s their wedding.” She shook her head again. “This isn’t about us.”

“And we don’t have to make it about us. That’s not what I’m trying to do.” He forced a smile, wishing they could have one single conversation like they used to. Where they didn’t have to argue.

He opened the box to the ring he’d had designed for her.

He also had the passing thought that the day could be a little about him. It was his birthday, after all.

“I love you, Megan.” He held the ring up between them. Was it so wrong to want his ring on her finger for his birthday? “And you love me. This isn’t about making it our day, it’s just about making it official. Is that such a bad thing? I’m tired of waiting, Meggie. I love you. I want my ring on your finger.”

But as his words ran out—and as she remained as silent as she’d been throughout the length of his monologue—he began to clue in to what it was he really saw in her eyes. And it wasn’t respect for another person’s nuptials that had her stalling.

Panic suddenly threatened to close off his air. “You don’t want to marry me?”

He pulled back. He knew he’d been rushing the engagement— the plan had been to wait until after his graduation. But as she’d just pointed out, that was only three months away.

Megan’s lips tightened the slightest amount, and then her trim shoulders lifted in a shrug beneath her wool coat. “I just think we need to talk about things first. And we don’t have time to talk right now.”

“What do we need to talk about?” His heart rate remained out of control. This was Meg. This was the woman who loved him. She couldn’t be changing her mind about that.

She’d sworn she wouldn’t.

“We’ve dated a long time, Jay.”

He nodded. “Yes, we have. And people typically follow that with marriage.”

“Or . . . maybe they realize that marriage may not be the right next move?”

The expression of apology that appeared with her question had the airport sandwich he’d wolfed down threatening to make a rapid comeback.

He realized he looked like an idiot sitting there with the ring still held up between them, so he lowered his hand. “What’s going on here, Megan?” Fear licked at his insides. “I don’t understand. Did you meet someone else?”

“No,” she hurriedly assured him. “Not at all. I’ve simply been thinking . . .”

Her shoulders gave another small shrug, and her face crumpled even more.

“Have you really missed me as much as you thought you would, Jay?”

“Yes.” Was that all this was about? He’d been too busy to call as often as he should have. Their conversations had been short. He’d do better. “I’ve missed you like crazy. How can you even ask that?”

“Or have you missed me because me moving here before you wasn’t our plan?”

“What are you talking about? I’ve missed you because you weren’t there.”

She reached over and took his hand, but he noticed that she chose the hand that didn’t hold the ring. “I’ve missed you, too,” she assured him. “But the thing is . . . I’ve been feeling like I should be missing you more.”

Jaden felt as if a hole had opened in the pit of his gut.

He looked out the windshield, at the small church waiting for them to enter. At the happiness he knew they would find inside.

And he suddenly got it.

He turned back to his girlfriend. “You’re having cold feet.”

“Cold feet happens before a wedding,” she argued. “Not before an engagement.”

“But don’t you see.” He nodded toward the church. “This is a wedding. And it’s got you thinking.”

“No, Jaden. I’ve been thinking it for a while now.”

The hole in his gut stretched wider. “It’s only been a few weeks, Megan.”

How long could she possibly have been thinking that she didn’t miss him?

“I’m aware of that,” she answered almost under her breath.

“Then . . .”

The front door of the church opened, and his sister peeked out. When her gaze landed on them, Dani waved in a quick, beckoning motion.

Jaden ignored her. “I don’t understand.” And he truly didn’t. They loved each other.

They missed each other.

“It was only an inkling at first,” Megan explained. “It started a couple of weeks into the new year.”

So one month ago. He wiped any emotion from his face. “And what pushed it from an inkling to more?”

Guilt entered her features, and anger once again fired through him.

“You said you hadn’t met anyone else,” he accused.

“I haven’t.” She held her hands up in front of her. “I swear. It’s just that”—she glanced away from him, and her throat convulsed as she swallowed—“I had a dream.”

Jaden merely stared at her, unable to fathom where she might be going with her statement.

“And there’s this woman in town.” Megan glanced back.

“A woman? So . . . what are you saying?” He grasped for her reasoning. “You and she are . . . experimenting?”

She actually rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t be ridiculous, Jaden. I said there wasn’t anyone, and I meant it. That means male or female.”

“Then what’s the deal with this woman?” He didn’t look back at the church, but from his peripheral vision, he now caught both Dani and Cord standing at the open door.

“She interpreted my dream,” Megan answered. And still, all Jaden could do was stare.

Some woman had interpreted his girlfriend’s dream?

Interpreted?

He blinked as her words began to sink in. Megan was the smartest woman he knew. She’d finished her master’s program in record time, had hired on as an off-site consultant with a Fortune 500 company the week after receiving her degree, and had continued to pull full-time hours for that very company even while managing his family’s store. She could do it all.

Yet she was sitting in front of him now, telling him that she’d gone to a woman who’d read her dream?

And that she planned to base their future on whatever had come from that reading?

He forced his jaw to unclench. “And what, exactly, did this woman tell you?”

Megan wasn’t a large person. In fact, she was only an inch over five feet. Yet she suddenly looked even tinier. She stared back at him. “She said I’m with the wrong man.”

Jaden didn’t so much as blink.

“And I think she might be right,” she rushed to add.

“You think?”

She nodded, her composure rebounding in front of him. “I know, Jay. And I’m sorry about that. We’re good together. We always have been. But . . . maybe we were more of a college thing.”

“We’re a hell of a lot more than a college thing.” A headache had started behind his eyes. Hadn’t they just been sitting there talking about their future?

“But don’t you worry that the sizzle might have gone out a bit? We used to be so—”

“We still sizzle,” he gritted out. She was the best damned sex he’d ever had. They had sizzle!

“We’ve barely said more to each other than ‘how’s the weather’ since I moved here. Something isn’t right about that, Jay.”

“We’re both busy.” He shoved the ring into his pants pocket. “And you’re wrong. We are not basing our lives on something some woman who’s never met me, nor seen the two of us together, tells you.” He shook his head, his anger now at a full boil. “It’s just cold feet. Like I told you. We’ll talk about this again later.”

He opened his door and climbed from the seat, suddenly ready to get his wedding duties over with. To forget that this conversation had even happened. But the finality of Megan’s voice stopped him before he could slam the door.

“It’s not cold feet.”

He ducked his head and glared in at her. She couldn’t really mean—

“It’s the end.”

Her tone was so decisive that he’d swear he literally felt his heart crack down the middle. “Meg.” He shook his head. “Don’t do this.”

“I am sorry, Jay.” She climbed from the other side of the car, and the wind howled as if understanding the very pain he felt. “I still care for you,” she went on. “I always will. But I think we just got comfortable. I don’t want either of us to settle, and I fear if we stay together, that’s what we’ll be doing.”

He was not settling. Megan was his world.

Jaden looked at the church again. His siblings had disappeared back inside, but he took in the snow gathering on the eaves and the golden light cast from the Victorian-style sconces. This was the oldest church in Birch Bay. It was the church his sister had started taking him to after their mother died.

He’d planned to suggest that he and Megan marry here.

“I can’t believe you’re choosing now to do this to me,” he said, still not looking at her. How the hell was he supposed to go in there and act like nothing was wrong?

“I didn’t choose now,” Megan corrected. “I didn’t know you planned to pull out a ring.”

“But you’ve been thinking it.” He felt like such an idiot. “For weeks you’ve been thinking that you didn’t want me anymore. That you don’t—”

He snapped off his words, refusing to sound any more pathetic than he already did.

She didn’t love him. End of story.

He didn’t know why it came as such a surprise.

“We’ve grown apart, Jay. That happens to people. But it doesn’t take away from what we once had. It doesn’t mean I don’t still care for you.”

His mind whirled as he tried to make sense of her words. Of a world where his girlfriend would no longer be his girlfriend. He couldn’t picture it.

He stared down at the car, his thoughts tripping over each other. And then the logistics of the moment occurred to him. “I brought you here tonight,” he mumbled. Dammit, what was he supposed to do now? “As my date.”

Should he offer to take her home first? Ask them to wait to start the wedding?

Would she be willing to sit in the car until he’d done his part?

“I’m also a friend of your family and of the bride,” she replied, her tone gentle. Her hand touched his arm, and he realized that she’d rounded the car and now stood beside him. “I want to stay for the wedding, Jay. I think a lot of both Gabe and Erica, so I want to be here for them. But I won’t say anything about us. Not tonight. We’ll just . . .”

She trailed off, so he finished her thought for her. “Pretend.”

They’d pretend. As if he could do that while his heart was shattering.

“I don’t want to draw attention,” she added. “I’ll slip out and call a cab when I’m ready to go. And I won’t stay long. I’ll go back to the house to pack my bags, and—”

“No,” he interrupted. He closed his hand over hers. She was beautiful. Brilliant. The only person he’d ever loved. And she cared for his family as much as he did. “You don’t have to move out of the house.” She’d been staying with his dad and Gloria due to the retail store being across the street. “I’ll go to a hotel tonight. And I’ll leave”—his voice cracked on the word—“tomorrow. Stay at the house. Help out all you want.” He nodded as if he were okay with the words. “I’ll go back to Seattle.”

And he’d try to figure out a way to convince her she was wrong.

Megan studied him for a moment, as if weighing the sincerity behind his words, then she lifted to her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “You’re a good person,” she whispered. “And this is for the best. Once you have time to think about it, you’ll realize it, too.”

 

The Wildes of Birch Bay: Book Four
Sept 25, 2018

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