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A Hearts of Montana
By Jennie Marts, Allison Collins
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Jennie Marts
All rights reserved.
The siren wails of the fire engine were a welcome sound as Cherry Hill shot another burst of white foam from the extinguisher. Panic welled in her chest as she watched the flames creep up the diner's wall above the griddle.
What started as a small grease fire was rapidly turning into a desperate situation.
Cherry swore as she battled to save the only thing she had left.
"Make sure everyone's out of the building," she yelled at Stan, the diner's cook. Thankfully the breakfast crowd had thinned, and only a few people had been left in the restaurant when the grease flamed on the griddle and the fire began. "You should get out, too. I got this."
Stan attacked the fire with a dish towel, keeping the flames from spreading across the kitchen counter. "No way, dude! I'm not leaving you."
The door to the kitchen swung open, and three large firemen filled the small room.
Well, two large fireman and one skinny guy, the best you could hope for on a small-town volunteer fire squad. One of the men dragged a fire hose through the door, and Cherry groaned as she heard glassware hitting the floor, unlucky bystanders in the path of the thick hose.
"I thought you weren't supposed to use water on a grease fire," she said, dredging up old advice her granddad had given her when she'd taken over the diner.
One of the fireman stepped toward her. He held a fire extinguisher in his hands. "Don't worry. You can trust a fireman to always have the right equipment."
Recognizing the voice, Cherry's head snapped up, and she looked into the grinning face of Taylor Johnson.
What in the hamhock is he doing here?
Still not used to having him back in town, Cherry's heart did a flip each time she saw him. She gulped. He had the right equipment for just about anything.
But Taylor was the new Sheriff — since when did he fight fires?
Before she had a chance to ask, another flame shot up, this one catching the side of her arm, and she cried out.
The grin disappeared as Taylor stepped forward, now all business, and put his body between hers and the fire. He yelled at the cook and pointed at Cherry. "Get her out of here before one of you gets hurt even worse!"
The whoosh of the water jetting from the hose drowned out his words, but Stan must have got the idea because he wrapped an arm around Cherry's middle and pulled her out the front door and onto the street in front of the restaurant.
Gasping, Cherry took in great gulps of clean air and prayed that the fireman could save the diner.
Even if they saved the kitchen, the diner would be shut down for days, maybe weeks, as she battled the insurance company and made repairs.
Mentally calculating the lost earnings, she wondered, not for the first time, if the inheritance of the diner from her grandparents had been a blessing or a curse.
Within fifteen minutes, the fire was out, leaving only gray wisps of smoke rising into the air above the building. An ambulance arrived shortly after the fire truck, and Stan had guided Cherry toward the vehicle.
An EMT had just finished wrapping a large bandage around Cherry's burned arm. She looked at the white gauze, bright against her smoke-stained skin, and smiled at the woman. "Thanks, Marge."
She'd known Marge for years. Just like she knew almost everyone in the small town of Broken Falls, Montana.
If she hadn't gone to school or church with them, they were her neighbors or her store clerks or bank tellers. Anyone she might not have known growing up in this town, she'd met through the diner over the last ten years that she'd worked there.
She looked toward the café, the curvy pink letters of Cherry's Diner emblazoned on the windows, and saw Taylor emerge from the smoky building.
He peeled off his fireman jacket and tossed it on the truck. He wore his standard brown uniform shirt and jeans, and the sun winked off the gold sheriff star pinned to his chest.
Why had he moved back here?
She'd seen him a few times since he'd been back, in the diner and once when a friend of hers had needed his help.
Each time she saw him, she was taken aback at the change from the skinny light-haired boy who'd taken her to the prom and stolen her virginity.
Okay, so maybe he hadn't exactly stolen it. Maybe she'd given it. Freely.
And with abandon.
But she didn't want to think about that.
Taylor's hair had darkened to a dirty blond, and the years in the military and the police academy had hardened his body and strengthened the muscles that so nicely filled out his uniform.
He strode toward her now, a look of concern in his eyes.
Those were just the same. His eyes hadn't changed. They were the same deep blue color.
And they bore the same intensity that she remembered from all those years ago when he had looked into hers and pledged to love her forever.
To always be there for her.
The same blue eyes that haunted her dreams after he left. Leaving her alone with a broken heart and a handful of empty promises.
Well, not quite alone.
"Are you all right? How's your arm?" Taylor asked, drawing her out of the years-old memories. He picked up her arm and looked down at her bandage as if inspecting the quality of the work.
"You don't need to concern yourself with me. I'm fine." She pulled her arm back, wincing at the pain of the burn but not really caring.
An injured arm was the least of her worries right now.
How was she going to pay for the repairs to the diner? Did she have enough insurance to cover the damage?
The upkeep of the restaurant had eaten into her savings for years, and she wondered even now if she had enough to cover the looming electric bill.
At least she didn't have to pay rent. She looked at the blackened windows above the diner where she lived in a small apartment.
Like everything else about the building, the apartment was old and a little run-down.
But it was free, and she didn't have a commute to work.
Taylor followed her gaze. "I imagine you're gonna need to find a place to stay for a few days. The fire burned a hole through the ceiling, and I'm sure your apartment's gonna have some pretty extensive smoke damage."
How did he know that was her apartment?
Oh right, small town.
"You can stay with me," Stan offered. He sat on the curb at her feet. "My place is small, but I've got a comfy couch."
Cherry smiled down at her employee and friend. Stan always found a way to look at the positive side.
He'd left Chicago three years ago, tired of the city and seeking an adventure out west. He'd wandered into the diner one day looking for work and had been with Cherry ever since. Of Chinese descent, his name was actually Qingshan Lee.
After several attempts at trying to teach the townspeople the correct pronunciation, old Doc Beam had thrown up his arms and declared, "Oh forget it, I'm just going to call you Stan."
Liking the nod to the Marvel hero creator, Qingshan accepted the moniker and had been Stan Lee ever since.
Cherry looked down at her soot-covered uniform, the pink color of the dress barely recognizable, and groaned.
A layer of black dust lay across her pale skin, the light freckles camouflaged under gray smudges. Her substantial cleavage threatened to pop free of her uniform, and she adjusted the bodice of her dress.
She looked at Stan's normal attire of skater shorts and a tie-dyed T-shirt. "Forget the sofa, I may have to borrow some clothes."
Taylor brushed a hand over his chin as he contemplated the apartment, and Cherry had a flash of memory of his hand on her face, caressing her chin before he'd leaned in to kiss her. "She may not be joking, Stan. I don't think you're getting into your apartment any time soon. With the hole in the floor, you'll have to wait until the fire inspector clears it to make sure it's safe for you to be walking around in there."
Great. Now she not only didn't have enough money to keep the power on, she was going to have to find a place to stay and buy some new clothes.
She glanced down, thinking tie-dye and skater shorts might look good on her. She could pull it off. Except all those colors might clash with her red hair.
What didn't clash with her red hair?
As if the name Cherry Hill wasn't bad enough, she'd been gifted with a mass of strawberry-colored hair to go with it.
She reached up, trying to collect the loose strands along her neck, gathering them up and stuffing them back into her ponytail. Her hair must look a mess, and she hoped the stretched-out elastic of the band securing her massive shock of long, curly hair would hold out for another few days.
Her phone buzzed in her front pocket. Thank goodness she'd had it in her pocket instead of floating around the kitchen.
She checked the display and sighed at the number she recognized as her Great Aunt Bea.
Bea was the matriarch of the Hill family. Her grandmother's sister and complete opposite. Bea was stingy and rude, a female mixture of Scrooge and the Grinch. But with gray hair, a raspy voice, and a keen intellect whose words could slice through you quicker than a knife.
Gram had been kind and generous and had a heart the size of Montana.
And was the closest thing Cherry had to a mother.
She waved her phone at Stan and Taylor. "I've gotta take this. I'm sure my family has heard about the fire, and my aunt is calling to remind me what a colossal screw-up I am."
She stepped away from the curb and the crowd gathering around the diner, the townsfolk anxious to see what had caused all the fuss and if it was gossip-worthy.
She imagined someone had already started a prayer chain, and the ladies of the church were probably baking casseroles and pies to bring to her aid.
Although where they would bring them, she had no idea.
After pressing the screen to accept the call, she put the phone to her ear. "Hello."
Her heart stopped as she heard her aunt gasping for breath, trying to speak through shuddered cries.
And with a few simple words, Cherry's world fell apart.CHAPTER 2
Taylor watched Cherry's face crumble.
The sudden look of pain in her eyes almost broke his heart.
How could one woman affect him so deeply? And after all these years?
He'd dated a few women over the years. Even had a long-term girlfriend or two. But never anything that he let get too serious.
How could he when his dreams were still haunted by pale skin and handfuls of red hair?
He'd thought he was over her. Thought coming back to his hometown would be no big deal. They'd practically been kids the last time he'd seen her.
He knew her grandparents had given her the diner to run and thought he could nonchalantly drop in for a piece of pie. Prove to himself that his memories were unfounded. That she wasn't all he'd remembered.
Unfortunately for him, she was more.
The years had been good to her. She looked older, but in a good way. More confident, secure in herself as she raced between tables, shouting orders and casually flirting with the old farmers lined up at the counter.
Her hair was still long, and she'd filled out since her teenage years.
Lord, had she filled out.
"Well, I'll be jiggered! If it isn't Taylor Johnson. Hometown hero come back for a visit," she'd said, right after she caught him checking out her cleavage.
What an idiot.
He could feel the heat rise to his cheeks. "Yep. Back for good, I guess. I took over the Sheriff's position after Bud Flanagan retired."
How could one word from her take away the normal, easygoing charm he usually had with women and turn him into an empty-headed fool?
Because she wasn't just any woman.
She was Cherry, his first crush, his first love.
And the last woman he had truly given his heart to.
"I guess I'll be seeing you around then." She'd smiled at him, and his heart shattered into tiny pieces.
Her smile had always been his undoing.
But her smile was gone now, replaced by an expression of grief and pain as she took off at a run, racing for her car, a late-model blue VW bug.
She yanked at the car door, slid into the seat, and gunned the engine. With a spit of gravel, she tore from the parking lot and headed toward the highway, narrowly missing the yellow fire hydrant on the corner.
What the hell? Where was she headed in such a hurry? And why would she leave the diner right now?
It must have been that phone call.
She said it'd been her Aunt Bea. Could something have happened in Cherry's family?
It was none of his business. He'd let that right go years ago when he'd left Broken Falls.
She was no longer his concern.
All of these thoughts ran through his head as he crossed the street to where his cruiser was parked in front of the Sheriff's office. Opening the door of the car, a blast of hot summer air engulfed him as he slid into the seat.
She would have told him if she needed his help.
Still, she was a citizen of the county. He was only doing his duty to check and make sure she was okay.
It was his job, after all.
The engine sputtered and died.
Cherry pulled the car to the soft shoulder of the highway.
"No! No! No!" She beat her fists against the steering wheel. "Not now! You stupid car!"
She took a breath, shot up a silent prayer, and turned the key, desperately hoping the engine would spark back to life.
The car had been giving her trouble lately, and the local mechanic had even offered to look at it the last time it had broken down in town.
But she never had the time. Or the money.
"Please start," she whispered.
Nothing. Not even a spark of life.
That was it. All she could take.
She leaned her head against the wheel and let the tears come. Giant sobs of pain tore from her body as she replayed fragments of her aunt's words in her head.
"There's been an accident. Stacy's car went off the side of the road. She and Greg were killed. Only survivor was Sam, who'd been asleep in the backseat. Stacy left a will. She named you the boy's guardian. In the hospital. You need to come."
How could Stacy be gone?
She'd just talked to her on the phone yesterday.
Though they were five years apart in age, the two cousins had been more like sisters. Stacy was the one she could always turn to when she needed advice or someone to complain to.
Or when she was in trouble.
Like the summer she graduated. After Taylor had left.
Her cousin had been there for her. They'd been there for each other.
Stacy was the only one she'd confided in when she realized her period was late. Feeling desperate and alone, Cherry had nowhere else to turn.
They'd gone to their grandmother who had formed a solution that would help them both.
Stacy and her husband Greg had been trying to have a baby for years. Stacy's body had betrayed her again and again as it failed to hold the life she and Greg lovingly created. The last time had been the worst, and they had given up trying and were looking into adoption.
Broken-hearted and distraught, Cherry knew that she had nothing to offer a child. No money, no future, not even a home where she could take care of it.
Wanting desperately to do what was right for the baby, she made the ultimate sacrifice for the wellbeing of the baby and agreed to her grandmother's plan.
Stacy had been great about keeping Cherry in her son's life. She'd been there for every birthday and special occasion, and Sam loved her as if she were a favorite aunt.
But now Stacy was gone.
And Sam was in the hospital, scared and alone.
Red and blue lights flashed in her rearview mirror. Cherry looked up to see a squad car pull in behind her broken-down Bug.
She groaned as she saw the familiar face behind the wheel. What's he doing here?
She swiped at her face, trying to brush away the tears. She rummaged under the passenger seat of the car, unearthing a napkin to wipe her running nose.
Taylor cut the lights as he pulled in behind the ancient blue Bug.
I can't believe she still drives that old thing.
Cherry'd had the little VW since they were in high school, and memories flooded his thoughts of dark nights parked by the river.
He could remember the stickiness of the vinyl seats and the feel of his hands on her body as she squirmed under him in the tiny space of the car.
They took that stupid car everywhere. Road trips to the mountains and to Great Falls. To football games and church on Sunday. They'd spent hours in that thing, talking, laughing, and more.
So much more.
He shook his head to clear his mind of thoughts of Cherry's skin and the way her hair always smelled like strawberries and sunshine.
Get a grip, buddy. What the hell does sunshine smell like anyway?
Excerpted from Hidden Away by Jennie Marts, Allison Collins. Copyright © 2015 Jennie Marts. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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