Book 3 Sweetheart, Montana series. Coming September 2022
Thanksgiving is a time for family… As a young widow and mother to a three-year-old boy, Sarah Mills’s life is complicated, becoming more so when her high school sweetheart, Daniel, moves back to Montana. He left her behind after graduation and she married his brother, only needing Daniel’s services as a sperm donor when she and her husband couldn’t conceive. Now Daniel’s offering her a job as resort manager—but he wants to be part of her son’s life. Recently retired from pro football, Daniel Hunter is tired of holding on to secrets. He badly wants a relationship with his biological son, and a second chance with the woman he never stopped loving. He builds a first-rate eco resort in Sweetheart, Montana, to give him a shot at a new life post football and proposes to Sarah, thinking it’s the most practical choice for all three of them. Daniel still makes Sarah’s heart skip a beat, but he’s left her behind once already. She’s convinced he won’t stay this time, either, and now it’s not just her heart at risk.
EXCERPT Daniel pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and laid it on the coffee table between her bag of knitting and a book of photos of Flathead Lake. It was a check, with a lot of zeros. The back of Sarah's arms and neck went cold. Was this his way of letting her down easy, informing her without words that she wasn’t going to get the job? A consolation prize? “What’s that for?” “I want to help you and Jeffy, to make your life easier.” Daniel leaned forward, his expression hopeful. “It’s what Len would have wanted.” “That’s kind of you but I don’t need it.” Sarah spoke as evenly as she could, covering her resentment. What did Daniel know about what Len would have wanted? He’d hardly ever visited since he’d become a football player. Len had had all the responsibility for his and Daniel’s parents, had been the dutiful son while larger-than-life Daniel got all the public accolades. “I have a—” She’d been about to add that she had a job but that wasn’t true anymore and Daniel was key to her future employment. What a situation. “I get survivor benefits. I’ve got savings. We’ll manage just fine.” The benefits weren’t enough to live on. Len had told her he was going to buy life insurance, but he hadn’t, something she didn’t learn about until it was too late. She quelled a spurt of pointless anger at him. She’d been independent before she’d married Len, and since he’d passed, she’d been taking care of herself and Jeffy just fine. “A little something for fun, then. A trip to Disneyland, maybe?” Daniel had pulled a shiny silver coin out of his pocket and was flipping it over and over between his thumb and forefinger. All the latent energy in his powerful body seemed to be concentrated in the bright wink of metal as it went around and around. “No, thank you,” she repeated, blinking. Between his brilliant blue-green eyes and the turning coin, he had her mesmerized. “Dizzyland?” Jeffy’s head came up. He had Len’s mousy-brown hair but his bright turquoise eyes were pure Daniel. “Dizzyland, that’s cute.” Daniel chuckled. “Would you like to go, Jeff?” “Yeah!” Jeffy said, his face lighting up. “We’ll go when you’re a little older and can go on the big rides,” Sarah promised, hating to douse his hopes. Between her mortgage and childcare costs, her budget didn’t stretch to those kinds of extras. And now that she’d lost her job… “Please don’t put ideas into his head,” she added quietly to Daniel. “Maybe I can take him to play mini golf or something else,” Daniel said. “What do kids his age like to do?” “Not mini golf. He’s too young.” “Are you sure?” Daniel asked. “Has he tried it?” “Why are you pushing this?” Sarah gripped her wineglass with both hands. “Come on, Sarah, you know why,” Daniel said. “Jeffy’s my—” She shot a warning glance at him. “Nephew,” he said. “Family is important to me. All the more so now that Len is gone. I want to get to know the boy, be part of his life.” Seen in that light, the check he’d discreetly placed on her coffee table was definitely worrisome. Did he think he could buy her? Or, more to the point, did he think he could buy Jeffy? For him to invoke Len’s wishes did nothing to convince her. Len would not have wanted his big brother swooping in and taking over his family. She didn’t want him taking over, either. “Do you really want that?” she countered. “You’ll take him on one or two outings and then you’ll be off again, and he’ll be left wondering where his fun unca Dan went.” Plus, support payments implied parental rights. There had been no formal agreement at the time of conception, but she recalled clearly how Daniel had shrugged off his role as being nothing more than a sperm donor. Had he changed his mind? “I’ve got a business here now,” Daniel said. “I’m building a home. I’m back.” Yes, but for how long? Despite his assurances, she found it hard to believe he would stay. Jeffy hadn’t even been two years old when Len died. They said little kids didn’t understand but Jeffy had known that his daddy, his rock, had suddenly disappeared without warning and would never come back. Daniel had a history of coming and going. How would Jeffy feel if he got attached to Daniel and then Daniel left? And what did Daniel know about children? He’d been doing nothing but play football for the past fifteen years. Living the high life in the city and hitting the night clubs with a string of supermodel and actress girlfriends if the gossip rags were to be believed. “Besides last May, I can count on one hand the number of times you’ve come back here since you left at eighteen,” she said. “One hand?” he said. “Nah, it’s got to be more than that.” She held up an index finger. “When Len and I got married.” “I still can’t believe you married my brother,” Daniel muttered, his eyes blazing briefly. Ignoring her answering flare of anger, she turned deliberately to the framed photo of Len above the mantelpiece. In his volunteer fireman’s turnout, her late husband was a dialed down version of his older brother—mouse-brown hair and greenish-hazel eyes in which the vivid blue was replaced with brown. Len had been steady, safe, devoted. At the beginning of their relationship, he’d been the quiet moon in her life, unwavering and predictable, not the fiery comet crossing her path in a blaze of light and gone in seconds. When she’d said yes to Len’s proposal, she hadn’t considered it settling. That had come later. Despite some initial doubts, which she’d ruthlessly quashed, it had taken a few years for her to understand that, Daniel or no Daniel, she’d made a mistake marrying Len. And it was no consolation that Daniel had been right when he’d warned her on the eve of her wedding that she and Len weren’t suited to each other. Not that she’d ever admit that to him. “When your dad had his heart attack,” Sarah went on, holding up a second finger. “Even then you didn’t come till the next day.” “I was playing in the Super Bowl,” Daniel said patiently. “I wasn’t even told about Dad until the game was over and I’d fulfilled my press commitments.” “The fact that your manager filtered communication from your family says everything about your commitment to the people closest to you.” That maybe wasn’t entirely fair, but she was making a point. Before he could protest, she raised a third finger. “Your mom’s sixtieth birthday party.” “I couldn’t miss that.” Daniel let out a small sigh, his long football-catching fingers tapping the arm of his chair as he waited for her to finish. “Four.” She held up a splayed hand and faltered as their eyes connected again. The conception. “You’re welcome.” His gaze was dead serious, but she sensed the hint of a smile lurking and her heart skipped a beat. He had a sexy smile, which would have been totally inappropriate in the circumstances. At least he had the decency to keep it under wraps. “Number five,” she hurried on. “When Len went missing—” She broke off, glancing away. She might not have loved him as well as a wife should love her husband, but she’d been devastated when he died. “I came for the funeral.” All hints of humor in Daniel’s expression vanished. This time their eyes meshed in unbearable sadness. There was something else in Daniel’s expression. Shame that he hadn’t come home to help search for Len? Even though Len baited him and there was always tension between the two, they were brothers, and she knew that counted with Daniel. But he’d had another unavoidable football commitment. She’d wished he had been here, though. His family had needed him. And as much as she hadn’t wanted to, she’d needed him, too. Sarah surged to her feet. “I hate to give you the bum’s rush, but it’s almost Jeffy’s dinnertime.” She picked up the check and held it out to him. “I appreciate the gesture but no, thank you.” “My football days are in the past,” Daniel said, rising, too. “I don’t have those obligations anymore.” He glanced at Jeffy and lowered his voice. “I’d really like to be part of his life. When would be a good time for me to come again?” She hesitated. He seemed sincere, and he wasn’t being unreasonable. Was she overreacting because she still had feelings for him that she couldn’t handle and would never pursue? The fact that he held the power with a job she badly needed and wanted didn’t help. But this wasn’t about her. Jeffy was crazy about his uncle. It would be cruel to keep them apart. She had to do what was best for her son. “Come on, Sarah,” he said when she didn’t reply. “Jeff and I get on like a house on fire. Does he hang out with his other uncle?” “My brother and his family moved to Denver, so we don’t see them very often.” Besides that, even though Ted and his wife were great with Jeffy, they had their hands full with four kids of their own. Her own father had died early from cancer, so no, Jeffy didn’t have many male role models in his life. There was Herb, Daniel’s father, but he was... Well, the less said about him, the better. “Well, then?” Daniel curled one corner of his mouth, creating a dimple in his left cheek. Here came the cheeky smile, the charmer used to getting his own way. “I don’t know.” She steeled herself against his magnetism, ignoring the warmth spreading through her. Her life had been easier when he’d stayed away. “We’re having hamburgers.” Jeffy inserted himself between them, clutching his Paw Patrol vehicle, and craned his head back to look up at them both. “Mommy, can he stay?” “Thanks, buddy, but I’m going to my parents’ house for dinner,” Daniel said before she could reply. He dropped to a crouch and pulled the coin he’d been flipping earlier from behind the boy’s ear. Then he put the American eagle silver dollar into Jeffy’s hand. “Do you have a coin collection?” Jeffy shook his head, his blue eyes wide and shining as he looked from Daniel to the engraved coin. “You do now. This is the start.” “Fanks, Unca Dan!” Jeffy put his small arms around Daniel in a spontaneous hug. “I’m gonna put it in my piggy bank.” “See you later,” Daniel called. When Jeffy had run off to his room, Sarah smiled at Daniel. “He’s thrilled.” “That dollar is from the coin collection I had as a kid.” Daniel paused, looked at his hands, then back at her. “I wasn’t going to bring this up right away, but there’s really no point in delaying…” Sarah tensed. “What is it?” “What I really want is to adopt him.” She froze on a sharp intake of breath, her worst imaginings coming true. “Why now?” she demanded. “For three, nearly four years, you’ve barely acknowledged his existence beyond sending presents at birthdays and Christmases.” “I know. But now… things are different.” “Nothing’s changed. He’s still the same little boy.” “Everything’s changed. Len’s gone. I’m here.” “I’m sorry, it’s out of the question.” “Think about it,” he said. “Please?” The flash of vulnerability in Daniel’s eyes was too hard to look at. She bent to pick up a Paw Patrol figurine from the floor and put it on the coffee table. Took a moment to calm herself. She felt as if she was walking a knife edge. Jeffy’s feelings, Len’s dying wishes, her own emotions—everything important to her was on the line if she let Daniel that far into their lives. Hanging in the balance were Daniel’s rights and his feelings for his biological son. The inescapable truth was, Daniel was already part of their lives in a way that could never be undone. But adoption? That was a step too far. Maybe he would be satisfied if she was more accommodating about letting him see Jeffy. “I’ll have to check my calendar,” she said. “But I’m sure we can work out a time for you to see him again. A trip to the playground maybe.” “That would be a great start.” Daniel took both her hands and pressed them in both his own. “Thank you.” “It’s fine,” she said, tugging away, shamed by his gratitude for her meager offering and too aware of the warmth of his hands wrapped around hers. “And what about the other thing?” he asked. “You’ve sprung this on me suddenly,” she said. “I need time to think. And you’ve only just come back here. The eco-resort isn’t even open and you’re living in a hotel. Your situation isn’t stable. It’s too soon to be talking about adoption.” “You will think about it, though, won’t you?” he persisted. “It makes a lot of sense.” She made a vaguely assenting gesture and then walked him to the door. There she stood on the threshold, arms wrapped tightly around herself, in a state of shock as he headed for his truck. Things had gotten real, fast.