Excerpt from A SWEETHEART FOR JUDE FORUTNE
Standing on the sidewalk outside the Horseback Hollow Superette on a bright Friday morning, Gabriella Mendoza paused to read a text from her father, sent from his room in a rehabilitation center in Lubbock.
Bath@9. DON'T come b4 10.
Gabi sighed. Since it was barely eight-thirty, even if she chugged down the highway at the speed of a slug, she'd easily make the one-hour drive into the city before ten. This meant she needed to use this stop at the local convenience store to not only grab coffee, but kill time.
OK C U after 10, she texted back, then started toward the store known for carrying a little bit of everything. She was mentally calculating how much time she needed to waste when her phone pinged.
Gabi smiled. Though Orlando Mendoza had recently celebrated his sixtieth birthday, he texted with a fervor normally reserved for teenagers. She'd barely glanced at the incoming message when her forward progress came to a jarring halt.
"Whoa." The masculine voice held a hint of laughter. Large hands reached out to steady her when she stumbled.
Startled, Gabi jerked her head up and the unsteadiness returned full force. Even if his eyes hadn't been the color of the Texas sky, the blond-haired Adonis in worn Wranglers and a black Stetson would have caused any red-blooded woman's heart to race.
"Whoa," Gabi repeated.
He lifted his hands from her forearms, but the searing heat from his touch lingered. "Are you okay? I plowed right into you."
"Actually, I think it was me plowing into you." She flashed a quick, apologetic smile. "I'm one of the rare few who can't walk and read a text at the same time."
"Let's call it a draw." The cowboy offered up a lazy smile and rocked back on his heels. He made no move to step aside or walk away. It was as if he had all the time in the world to stand in the bright sunlight of this unseasonably warm day in late January and chat with a stranger.
And Gabi was a stranger, not only to him but to most of the two thousand residents living in this small North Texas town. Though she'd been living in her father's house in Horseback Hollow for the past couple weeks, she had yet to meet his neighbors. Since she'd arrived from her home in Miami, any free time had been spent at the hospital.
When she'd been notified the small plane her father had been flying had crashed, Gabi had hopped the first flight to Texas. With her mother dead and her brothers unable to make the trip for various reasons, she'd come alone.
Gabi hadn't minded the sacrifice. Her father had always been there for her. All she wanted was him to be independent once again. His transfer from the hospital to rehab yesterday had been a positive first step.
Hopefully with her father doing better, she'd have the opportunity to meet a few people in town. Like now, she could spend a few minutes flirting—er, becoming acquainted with—the handsome hunk that stood before her, without feeling she was neglecting her dad.
Unfortunately, before Gabi could formulate something smart and witty to say, his phone rang. The cowboy glanced at the screen, grimaced and answered.
"Have a fabulous day," she said softly, regretfully, wiggling her fingers goodbye.
He shot her a wink. Even as he listened intently, phone pressed to his ear, those clear blue eyes remained fixed on her. The scrutiny made her glad she'd taken a few extra minutes this morning to dab on some makeup and curl her hair instead of pulling it back like she'd been doing all week.
As Gabi entered the Superette, she almost called back that it had been nice to meet him. She stopped herself just in time.
They hadn't met, not really. They'd merely run into each other—literally—and exchanged a handful of words. She didn't even know his name. Of course, that didn't mean she hadn't liked what she'd seen, and it certainly didn't stop her from hoping he'd be there when she came out.
But, by the time she returned with a twenty-ounce cup of decaf in hand, he was gone. Heaving a sigh of regret, Gabi slid behind the wheel of her father's boat-of-a-Buick and turned toward the highway leading to Lubbock.
The car obediently settled into a smooth cruise, allowing her brain to shift to autopilot. She'd made this trip to see her father more times in the past few weeks than she could count.
When the landing gear on the plane he'd been flying had failed to engage, the experienced aviator had been forced to belly land. Most of his injuries had been incurred when the plane broke apart on impact. She'd seen pictures of what was left of the Cessna.
What had the doctor said? It was a miracle he'd survived.
Gabi rolled up the window all the way, suddenly chilled to the bone. But she reminded herself that was the past. Today was her father's first full day in the rehabilitation center and a cause for celebration.
By the time Gabi pulled into the parking lot of the facility, her mood was as sunny as the cloudless sky. She headed toward the front door of the facility with a bounce in her step.
Once inside, she quickly located the stairs. Seizing opportunities to exercise came so naturally Gabi never considered taking an elevator. She jogged up the steps two at a time, pleased her heart rate remained steady and her breath even.
Six years ago she hadn't been able to make it across even the smallest room without needing to sit down. Now her heart beat strong in a body as toned as an athlete's.
The walls lining the hallway leading toward her father's room were filled with pictures and inspiring stories of rehab center "alumni." With splashes of bright colors throughout and rooms with state-of-the-art equipment discreetly out of sight, the facility had a cheerful feel.
Doing her best to ignore the faint medicinal scent hanging in the air, Gabi stopped in front of room 325 and gently rapped her knuckles against the closed door.
"Come in," she heard her father say.
She paused. Did he realize it was her and not a nurse or therapist? Pushing the door only open a couple of inches, she paused. "It's Gabriella. Are you decent?"
Orlando Mendoza's deep, robust laugh was all the answer she needed. She pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Her father sat in a chair by the window, wearing a blue shirt with thin silver stripes and the navy pants she'd altered a couple days ago to accommodate his left leg cast. While the past few weeks had added extra streaks of silver to his salt-and-pepper hair, Orlando Mendoza remained a strikingly handsome man.
He lifted his right hand in greeting, drawing her attention to the cast that encased the arm. Seeing it brought back memories of the day in the intensive care waiting room when the doctor had sat down with her and detailed the injuries: fractured left leg and right arm, bruised kidneys, fractured rib, concussion.
But her father was tough. And determined. Perhaps it was the sight of him dressed in street clothes or the bright smile of greeting on his lips, but for the first time since the accident, Gabi truly believed he'd make it all the way back.
"Papi." She crossed the room, placing her coffee cup on a tray table before leaning down and wrapping her arms around him. "You look like yourself."
"As opposed to looking like someone else?" he asked with a teasing smile.
She laughed and pushed back to hold him at arm's length. If not for the arm and leg cast, Gabi could believe her father was simply enjoying a cup of coffee before heading to the Redmond Flight School where he worked. As a retired former air force pilot, flying had been his life for too many years to count.
When he'd gotten the opportunity two months ago to help run a flight school in Texas, he'd been as excited as a graduate landing his first job. While Gabi had been sad to see him leave Florida, she'd also been happy for him. The position was exactly what he'd been looking for since he'd retired from the air force.
And since the crime rate in the area of Miami where he lived had skyrocketed in recent years, she'd found comfort in the knowledge he was now in a small rural community.
"What are you thinking, mija?" her father probed, his tone gentle.
Gabi expelled a heavy sigh. "I thought you'd be safe in Horseback Hollow."
"He should have been."
Gabi turned toward the masculine voice to see her father's two bosses standing in the doorway. Sawyer Fortune had met her at the airport when she'd flown in from Miami after getting news of the accident. His new wife, Laurel, had remained by her father's side at the hospital.
In the difficult days that followed, they'd been her rock.
"Are you feeling up to company?" Laurel asked Orlando. She was a tall pretty blonde with long hair pulled back in a ponytail. "If not, Sawyer and I can stop back later."
"You're not company." Orlando motioned them into the room and gestured to the small sitting area near his bed. "Please, sit."
After exchanging greetings and hugs, Gabi also took a seat and let her father direct the conversation. She could tell it made him feel good to have Sawyer and Laurel stop by on a workday to see him.
She sipped her coffee, offering a word now and then when appropriate. When the talk turned to sabotage, Gabi straightened in her seat. She fixed her gaze on Sawyer. "Are you saying someone deliberately messed with the landing gear?"
Sawyer raked a hand through his brown hair. Though it wasn't even noon, weariness clouded his eyes. He expelled a harsh breath. "We don't know for sure, not yet."
"Who would do such a thing?" Gabi's voice rose and broke. An accident was one thing, but for someone to deliberately set out to hurt her father… "He just moved here. He doesn't have enemies."
Laurel and Sawyer exchanged a glance.
Gabi's breath hitched. "Does he?"
"We don't think it's about him," Sawyer said finally. "The sheriff thinks someone may be out to get the Fortunes."
"Your family?" Gabi struggled to recall what she'd heard about the Fortunes. Wealthy and prominent were the only words that came to mind. "Why?"
"Mija." The endearment slid off Orlando's lips as he reached over with his left hand and captured her fingers, giving them a squeeze. "The authorities are still investigating. All this is simply speculation."
The older man cast a sharp look in Sawyer's direction as if telling him there would be no more upsetting talk in front of his daughter.
Yet, it was Laurel, not Sawyer, who changed the subject. She shifted her attention to Gabi. "Now that you've some time to settle in, what do you think of Horseback Hollow?"
"It's a nice town." Out of the corner of her eye Gabi saw her father nod approval. Even if she hadn't liked it here, she wouldn't have said otherwise. But she'd spoken the truth. Though she'd never considered herself a small town girl, so far she was enjoying her stay. "I find it very peaceful."
Laurel smiled encouragingly. "Tell me what you've been doing to keep yourself busy."
"Well, I spend most of my days with Papi." Gabi slanted a glance and he smiled. "Since the weather has been unseasonably warm, I try to go for a run once I leave the hospital."
"To try isn't good enough. You mustn't neglect your exercise." Her father's voice brooked no argument. "It's essential."
Gabi bit back a sharp reply that would have been worthy of a brash fifteen-year-old rather than a mature woman of twenty-six. Instead she smiled. "I've gone for a run every day except the day I flew in."
"I always feel better when I exercise, too," Laurel agreed, a look of understanding in her eyes. "But I hope while you're here, you also take time to get acquainted with the people and the town."
The image of the man at the Superette flashed before Gabi. Yes, getting to know the cowboy would be a pleasure.
"I've gotten acquainted with you and your husband," Gabi said when she realized Laurel waited for an answer. "Now, when I return to Miami and Papi talks of Sawyer and Laurel, I'll know just who he means."
Sawyer inclined his head. "Are you planning on going back soon?"
"Not until my father is home and able to care for himself."
"You have a job," Orlando protested. "I won't put your position in jeopardy. Even the most understanding employer can lose patience when days turn into weeks."
"I took family medical leave," Gabi told her father for what felt like the zillionth time. "Staying isn't a problem."
"My daughter is a manager at Miami Trust." Pride filled Orlando's voice. "It's one of the largest banks in Florida."
"My boss was supportive of me coming." Gabi kept her tone soft and soothing. "You don't have to be concerned."
"I can't help but worry." Orlando lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "That's how I am."
It was true. Gabi remembered the lines that had seemed permanently etched between her father's brows when she'd gotten sick and needed surgery. Her mother's worry hadn't been as obvious, but Gabi knew they'd both spent many sleepless nights fearing for her life.
Impulsively Gabi leaned over and hugged her father. "That concern is one of the things I love about you."
Surprise flickered in his eyes. They'd had some battles in the past over what she'd termed his overprotectiveness, but once he'd moved to Texas, she discovered she rather missed having someone around who cared enough to worry.
Sawyer's phone trilled. He glanced down then rose to his feet with a look of regret. "I need to go."
"I appreciate you stopping by." Orlando's gaze shifted from Sawyer to Laurel. "Both of you."
"We want you back at the flight school." Laurel placed a hand on Orlando's shoulder, then bent and kissed his cheek. "It's not the same without you, O."
"Thanks for that." Orlando's cheeks turned a dusky pink before his tone turned brusque. "I'd walk you to the door but it took two nurses just to get me in the chair this morning."
Sawyer crossed the room to stand beside his employee. His eyes met the older man's dark brown eyes. "I promise you, if the plane was sabotaged, we'll get whoever was behind it."
"Don't worry about your job," Sawyer told him. "It'll be there waiting for you. No matter how long you're off."
For a second, Gabi thought she saw the sheen of tears in her father's eyes, but when she looked again they were gone. She decided it must have simply been her imagination.
"I appreciate it," was all her father said.
Sawyer shifted those striking blue eyes in Gabi's direction. "I realize it's short notice but we're having a barbecue at the ranch tonight and—"
"We'd love to have you join us," his wife added with a bright smile. "I know you wanted to stay close while your father was in the hospital. Since he's now doing so well, I hope you'll consider coming this evening."
"Go," her father urged before Gabi could respond. "I'm planning on watching the ball game tonight."
"Sawyer's aunt and uncle as well as most of his cousins will be there." Laurel's tone turned persuasive. "They've lived in Horseback Hollow all their lives so if there's anything you want to know about the town or the area, they're the ones to ask."
Gabi couldn't imagine having too many questions about a town that was barely two blocks long.
"I can guarantee good food," Sawyer said when Gabi hesitated. "My aunt makes the best desserts, and she's promised to bring a couple of her specialties tonight."
"My Gabriella doesn't eat sweets." Orlando spoke before Gabi could respond. "It's not good for her. She—"
Gabi shot him a warning glance, and whatever else he'd been about to say died on his lips. Had she really missed his constant worry?
"Like everyone," Gabi said easily, "my goal is to eat healthy. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bite or two of something sweet occasionally."
Her father opened his mouth then shut it when she fixed her gaze on him.
"Please say you'll come." Laurel's eyes sparkled in her pretty face. "If only for a bite or two of Jeanne Marie's spectacular desserts."
Gabi considered. An honest-to-goodness Texas barbecue could be fun. God knew she was tired of hospital food. But this was her father's first night in rehab. How could she enjoy herself knowing he'd be sitting alone in his room watching a ball game by himself?
"They'll be lots of handsome men there." Laurel shot her a little wink.
As handsome as the man outside the coffee shop? Gabi wanted to ask. His eyes had been as blue as Sawyer's and, like her father's boss, the cowboy had a casual confidence she found appealing.
"Tonight at seven, O?" a man in a wheelchair called from the doorway.
"I'll meet you in the lounge," her father called back.
Gabi lifted a brow.
"The ball game," Orlando informed her. "Lloyd and I made plans to watch it together when we were sweating to the oldies in physical therapy this morning."
Gabi turned to find Laurel staring at her with an arched brow.
"Tell me when and where," Gabi told her. "I'll be there."