Chapter One

Shannon Singleton took a sip of the Superette's medium roast coffee and exhaled a happy sigh.  Since returning to Horseback Hollow several months earlier, she'd come to realize how much she'd missed the town in north Texas where she'd grown up.

The postage-stamp eating area of the Superette consisted of three orange vinyl booths and two tables, each adorned with a bud vase of silk flowers.  Nice, but no comparison to the cute little coffee shop Shannon used to frequent when she lived in Lubbock.

Still, the location was bright and cheery.  And, thanks to a wall of glass windows, Shannon had a stellar view of the large pothole in the parking lot. 

"I wish they'd choose one of us and get it over with." Rachel Robinson expelled a frustrated sigh and sat back in the booth. 

Shannon enjoyed meeting her friend every Tuesday morning for coffee, but frankly was tired of obsessing—and discussing—the job they both wanted. 

It was a bit awkward, Shannon thought, being in competition—again—with her friend.  The other times Rachel had bested her it had been over inconsequential things; like the last piece of dessert at the Hollow's Cantina or the pair of boots they'd both spotted at that cute little boutique in Vickers Corners.

This time was different.  This time the outcome mattered.  Professional positions in this small town an hour south of Lubbock were few and far between.  Shannon really wanted the marketing job with the Fortune Foundation.

In the four years since graduation from Texas Tech with a degree in business, all of Shannon's experience had been in marketing. This would be Rachel's first foray into that arena.

But that fact didn't mean squat.  Just like those pretty turquoise boots, it seemed whenever she and Rachel competed for anything, Rachel came out ahead. 

"Earth to Shannon."

Shannon brought the cup to her lips and focused on her friend.  She and Rachel were both in their mid-twenties, had brown hair and similar interests.  But that's where the comparison ended.  Shannon considered herself slightly above average while Rachel was stunning.  ‘What? Rewind."

"Wouldn't it be cool if they hired us both?" Rachel smiled at the thought and broke off a piece of scone.  The woman's cheerful nature was just one of her many admirable qualities.

"I guess we'll find out…but not until the end of February." Shannon added more cream to her coffee, her tone pensive. "I don't see why it will take that long.  They completed interviews last month."

"It's probably because they're just getting this office location up and running," Rachel said, sounding way too understanding.

Of course her friend could afford to be charitable. She had a job and was earning her way.  Shannon was back living with her parents and, other than the chores she performed at the ranch for her mom and dad, had been out of work for over two months. "Just between you and me, I can't believe they're going to open a Foundation branch in Horseback Hollow."

"Doesn't surprise me." Rachel laughed. "This town is turning into a Fortune family hotspot."

The Fortunes were a wealthy family with business ventures all over the world.  Their largest Texas base of operations was in Red Rock, just outside of San Antonio.  But there were also Fortunes in Horseback Hollow.  Christopher Jones Fortune, who'd grown up in the area, would be heading the Foundation branch in town.

"I'm tired of worrying about a job I might not get." To soothe her rising stress level, Shannon bit into the scone.  Oh, yeah, baby, sugar and blueberries, topped with a lemon glaze. Talk about stress. She could almost feel her waistline expand.

"Are you going to the party on Saturday?" Rachel asked, changing the subject.

The "party" was actually a couples' baby shower being thrown by friends.  The fact it was a couples baby shower practically guaranteed there wouldn't be any unattached men attending.  After all, what single straight guy would willingly give up his Saturday night to attend such an event?

"I promised Lily I'd attend." Shannon paused and narrowed her gaze.  Outside, a sleek black car she didn't recognize pulled into the lot.  "My other choice is playing cards with my parents and their friends."

Rachel gave an exaggerated shudder.

"It's not that bad." Shannon liked her parents and enjoyed the members of their card club. In fact, if she hadn't given Lily her word she'd show, she'd be seriously tempted to skip the shower and play cards instead.

Rachel took a sip of her Chai tea.  "I'm crossing my fingers they'll be some fresh meat at Lily's soiree."

"Don't hold your breath." Shannon could have said more but pressed her lips shut.  Let the woman have her dreams…

Rachel startled her by emitting a low whistle and pointing to the window.  "Get a load of that."

"I saw it." Obligingly, Shannon leaned forward for a better look. Just south of the humongous pothole sat a shiny vehicle that cost more than she used to make in a year. It was rare to see such an expensive car in Horseback Hollow. "Mercedes."

"Forget the car." Though they were alone in the café, Rachel's voice was soft, almost reverent.  "Feast your eyes on him."

Shannon swung her gaze from the sleek lines and shiny black finish of the SL250 to focus on the tall, broad-shouldered man with jet black hair exiting the vehicle.

A man obviously on a mission, he rounded the back of the car with decisive steps.  When he bent over to retrieve something from the back seat, Shannon's lips curved.

"Oo-la-la," Rachel breathed.

For a second Shannon forgot how to breathe as the pristine white shirt stretched tight across the breadth of shoulders, muscular legs encased in dark trousers. 

Shannon's heart quivered.  "If his face is half as good as his backside, we're in for a treat."

As if in answer to her prayer, the guy straightened and turned. Oo-La-La, indeed. He had classically handsome features with a strong jaw, straight nose and cheekbones that looked as if they had been chiseled from granite.  She'd wager his stylishly-cut dark hair had never seen the insides of a Cut ‘N Curl.

Yes, indeed, the man was an impressive hunk of masculinity even with sunglasses covering his eyes. 

While the set of those shoulders and confident stance said ‘don't mess with me," messing with him was just what Shannon longed to do.  Until she saw two little legs dangling from the blanketed bundle he'd pulled from the car.

Rachel expelled a heavy sigh, apparently seeing the evidence of daddy-hood as well.  "He's got a kid."

Her friend sounded as disappointed as Shannon felt.

"Figures he'd be taken." Shannon heaved her own sigh. "The cute ones always are."

"Marriage doesn't stop some of them from sniffing around."

"My old boss Jerry was a perfect example of that." Even as she spoke, Shannon's gaze returned to the dark-haired stranger. 

"You taught Jerry-the-Jerk not to mess with you."

Shannon just smiled and shrugged.  Lately she'd begun to wonder if there was a way she could have handled the situation differently and kept her job.

Water under a collapsed bridge.

The man shut the door firmly then stepped away, giving Shannon a glimpse of a furry head with perked-up ears, little paws braced on the dash.  She couldn't stop a smile.  She loved animals almost as much as she loved children. "He's got a dog."

Rachel looked up from the text she'd glanced down to read.  Apparently discovering the stranger had a kid had turned her initial interest to indifference.

"The hot guy has a kid and a dog," Shannon told her friend.

"Bet you five he also has a wife with blonde hair and a killer figure." Rachel's tone turned philosophical. "That's practically a given with guys like him."

Shannon grinned. "Aren't you the cynical one?"

"Realist." Rachel popped a bite of scone into her mouth.  "I should have known he was too good to be single."

Shannon rolled her eyes.

"He's coming inside," Rachel hissed.

Shannon turned in her chair just as the automatic doors of the Superette slid open.

Francine, the store's lone cashier, was in the back of the store stocking shelves.  Since they were the only customers, Frannie had told them to holler if someone showed and was ready to check out.

The man paused just inside the entrance and removed his sunglasses.  He glanced at the empty checkstand, impatience wrapped around him like a too-tight jacket.  Shannon expected any second he'd start tapping his foot.

Shannon pulled to her feet and crossed to him, wishing she was wearing something—anything—besides jeans and a faded Texas Tech t-shirt.  "May I help you?"

The man was silent for a second, staring at her. His eyes were a cool blue with a darker rim.  Shannon forced herself to hold that piercing gaze.

"I find myself in need of some assistance," he said after a couple of seconds, his smile surprisingly warm and charming.     "My GPS has gone bonkers. I'm looking for Jensen Fortune's ranch."

In addition to the killer smile, the man had a totally delish British accent.  She surreptitiously slanted a glance down but his ring finger was hidden beneath the blankets.

"Are you a relative?" Though Shannon didn't like to pry, Rachel would kill her if she didn't get at least one or two deets.

"I'm Jensen's brother." He adjusted his stance as the child beneath the blanket stirred.  "Are you familiar with the location?"

Shannon couldn't tell if the toddler was a boy or girl.  The shoes were grey leather sneakers that could belong to either sex.  The only thing she could see above the blanket was a thatch of slightly wavy dark hair.

"It's super easy to find." Shannon quickly gave him directions.

"Thank you." He smiled again and his whole face relaxed.  "You've been very kind."

Though she wanted to volunteer to ride with him and show him the way, Shannon resisted temptation.  Married men were not on her radar.

Still, she remained where she was and watched him stroll to the car.  Once he reached the vehicle, she scurried over to where Rachel waited.

"Ohmigod." Rachel's eyes sparkled. "His accent is incredible."

"The rest of him is pretty incredible too." Shannon surreptitiously watched Jensen Chesterfield Fortune's hot brother buckle the child into the seat.  The blanket around the toddler fell to the concrete but was quickly scooped up.

"He's definitely a boy," she told her friend.

"You're wrong." Rachel chuckled. "That one is all man."

"Not him.  The kid.  I couldn't tell initially boy or girl, but he's wearing a Thomas the Tank shirt.  Definitely a boy."

"Who cares about the child?" Rachel fluttered her long lashes.  "Did you hear that fantabulous British accent?"

"You said that before."

"It bears repeating."

The sleek black sedan backed up and headed out of the lot, careful to avoid the asphalt crater. 

"It doesn't matter." Shannon sighed and turned her attention back to her scone.  "Like you said, a guy that gorgeous has a beautiful wife somewhere."


Oliver Fortune Hayes once had a beautiful wife.  Then he'd had a beautiful ex-wife.  Now, the stunningly beautiful blonde was gone.

"Diane was killed in a car accident two months ago," Oliver told his brother, Jensen.  He kept his tone matter-of-fact, tamping down any emotion.  "She was in the car with a man she'd been seeing for the past year.  He also died in the crash."

The two men sat in Jensen's kitchen, having a cup of tea.  Thanks to the concise directions from the pretty brunette at the grocery shop, Oliver had easily found his brother's ranch.  Jensen had been surprised to see him a full twenty-four hours earlier than expected and apologetic that Amber was in Lubbock shopping.

Oliver looked forward to meeting his brother's fiancée but appreciated the opportunity to talk privately first.

Jensen hadn't changed much since Oliver had last seen him.  His brother's dark hair was perhaps a trifle longer but he was still the very proper British gentleman that Oliver remembered.  His grey trousers were perfectly creased, his white dress shirt startlingly white and his shoes shined to a high gloss. 

"This is the first I've heard of Diane's death. Why didn't you call?" Jensen was his half-brother from the second marriage of Oliver's mother.  Though seven years separated them in age, Oliver had always been fond of Jensen.

When Oliver had announced his intention to come to Horseback Hollow after their sister Amelia gave birth, Jensen had offered to let him stay at his ranch.

"My life has been topsy-turvy since the moment I found out." It had been a punch in the stomach when a mutual friend had expressed condolences at a cocktail party.

"I bet."

Oliver continued as if Jensen hadn't spoken.  "Diane's parents didn't notify me. They took Ollie into their home even though they knew full custody immediately reverted to me upon Diane's death."

"I'm surprised they didn't put up a fight once you found out and arrived on their doorstep to claim him."

"There would have been no point." Oliver waved a hand.  "I'm the child's father."

"Given your lifestyle, taking on a child had to be difficult."

"Once I established a schedule, it's gone quite well," Oliver said in a clipped British tone, irritated his brother could think him incapable of caring for one small boy.  "The nanny I hired is excellent and believes as strongly as I do in the importance of a routine.  Unfortunately she refuses to leave the country."

Jensen obviously had nothing to add.  He didn't have children.  In fact, he wasn't married.  Not yet.

Oliver glanced down, noting Barnaby had fallen asleep at his feet.  He only hoped his son was sleeping as soundly as the dog.  The moment he'd arrived at the ranch, Oliver had put Ollie down for a nap.  After a sixteen-hour flight from London to Lubbock the day before, even the brief respite in a hotel overnight hadn't been enough sleep for a toddler.

His son had been fussy after the long flight and and kept Oliver up most of the night.  Oliver had dreaded the forty-five minute car ride from Lubbock to Horseback Hollow but the child had fallen asleep while Oliver was strapping him into his car seat.  He'd slept during the entire trip, not even waking when Oliver brought him inside and laid him on Jensen's bed.

Jensen's gaze dropped to the Corgi.  "What's his name?"

"Barnaby." Oliver wasn't sure who was more surprised at the fondness in his voice, him or his brother.

"You don't like dogs."

"I've never disliked them," Oliver corrected.  "I simply never had time for one. Diane purchased Barnaby for Ollie when she left me.  He's quite attached to the animal."

"You're going to keep him?"

"Are you referring to Ollie?  Or Barnaby?"

"Both." Jensen grinned.  "I've never considered you the kid or dog type."

"Ollie is my son.  My responsibility.  When Diane and I split up, I thought our child's needs would be better served living with her. That's the only reason I didn't fight for custody.  I've already explained about the dog."

Jensen stared contemplatively at the animal that had awakened and now sat, brown eyes scanning the room, ears perked up like two radio antennas. 

"Corgis are herding animals."

Oliver nodded.  "I observed some of that behavior when he first came to live with me.  But that's no longer an issue."

"You have the dog on a schedule, too."


"Is Barnaby a dog that goes in and out?"  Jensen asked in a tone that was a little too casual.

Oliver cocked his head.

"Could he be an outside dog?"

Oliver thought for a moment, considered.  "He likes being outdoors, but I don't believe he's suited to roughing it."

Jensen rubbed his chin.  "That presents a problem."

"How so?" 

"Amber is allergic to dogs."  His brother grimaced.  "Come to think of it, I probably shouldn't have let the animal in the house."

Ah, now Oliver understood.  "No worries.  I'll stay with mother."

"You're forgetting something, aren't you?"

"Am I?"

"Mother is also allergic." Jensen's expression was solemn.  "Remember the puppy father brought home?  She got congested and broke out in hives."

Bugger. He'd forgotten all about that episode.  He'd been older and away at boarding school so the fact that the dog had to be returned to the breeder hadn't affected him.

"It appears I'll have to rent a suite at a hotel."  Oliver gave a shrug.  "Is there one you'd recommend?"

Jensen gave a hoot of laughter.  "You saw the extent of our business district when you stopped at the Superette. There aren't any hotels, or even motels, in Horseback Hollow."

Was his brother teasing him?  The way he used to when he was a bit of a boy?  "I assumed the more populated area of the city was elsewhere."

"Horseback Hollow isn't a city, it's a town.  There are no hotels, motels or even any B&Bs." Jensen's expression sobered.  "Right now there isn't even a hotel in Vickers Corners.  You'll have to go all the way to Lubbock to find one."

Oliver pressed his lips together.  There was no way he'd flown across an entire ocean and half a continent to stay an hour away.  Especially not with a child.  The whole purpose of this trip was to spend time with family.

"There has to be a vacant house or flat in the area," he told his brother.  "Do you have the name of a real estate broker I could contact?"

Jensen blinked.  "Now?"

"Since Ollie and I don't have accommodations for this evening, time is of the essence."

Jensen rose, went to a desk and pulled out a thin phone book.  "I suggest starting with Shep Singleton. He's a local rancher and I believe he has an empty house on his property.  I'm not sure if it would be satisfactory or what he'll want for rent—"

"Money won't be an issue if the house is clean and nearby."

"It's in a great location." Jensen pulled his brows together as if picturing the place in his mind.  "The home may even have a fenced yard."

"Do you have Mr. Singleton's mobile number?" Oliver pulled the phone from his jacket, his fingers poised above the keypad.

He was used to going after—and getting--what he wanted.

Right now he wanted to inspect this home. One way or the other he would secure appropriate lodging for him and his son, today.



Uplifting, charming, and totally heartwarming stories