Read an Excerpt
"Justin! Get down from there!"
At the sound of the baritone voice spiked with irritation, Angie Edwards looked up from the cash register, stopped totaling her mother's grocery purchases and looked across the Superette to see a little red-haired boy high atop the stock clerk's ladder.
She was just about to rush over to the child before he fell when she spotted Toby Fortune Jones standing near the bottom rung, waiting for the little imp to climb down.
Toby, who owned a small ranch just outside of town and volunteered his time as a coach at the YMCA in nearby Vicker's Corners, had become a foster parent to the three Hemings children last fall.
Who would have guessed that the hunky rancher had such a paternal side? Just seeing him with those kids each time they came into the Superette gave Angie pause. And it warmed her heart, too.
What didn't warm her heart, however, was her mother checking up on her. Again.
"Don't forget that you're always welcome to come stay at my house if you need to," Angie's mother said, drawing her back to the task and the conversation at hand.
Angie loved her mom-she truly did-but there was no way she'd ever consider living with the woman again. There were times she couldn't get her mom off the telephone or, in this case, through the Superette checkout line fast enough for comfort.
"That'll be fourteen dollars and seventeen cents," Angie said, after she'd finished totaling her mother's purchases.
Why would Doris Edwards, who now lived and worked in Lubbock as a real-estate agent, drive all the way into Horseback Hollow to buy fifteen dollars' worth of groceries?
To check up on Angie and give her another lecture, no doubt. Thank goodness no one had gotten into line behind her yet.
"You're twenty-four and you can't work at the Superette forever." Her mother reached into her purse for her wallet. "Not that you've worked anywhere longer than a few months, but how are you ever going to make ends meet if you're only putting in four hours a day? Your rent will be due soon. I hope you have enough money set aside to cover it."
She did, but just barely. However, she'd learned early in life that it was best not to share her worries or concerns with her mom. The woman stressed about things entirely too much as it was. And nothing Angie did would ever be good enough for a hardworking powerhouse like Doris Edwards.
"I'll be fine. Really." Angie glanced around the grocery store, hoping the owners-Julia Tierney or her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tierney-weren't within earshot. When she saw that they weren't, she slowly released a sigh of relief. "I knew this was a part-time position when I accepted it."
"You put in your application at The Hollows Cantina like I told you to, right?" As Doris pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, Angie nodded her confirmation that she had reluctantly applied.
"Well, at least that's something promising. From what I've heard, it's going to be an upscale place to eat."
If truth be told, Angie really had no interest in waiting tables. She'd already done that gig and, as much as Angie liked to cook, the restaurant business wasn't for her. Unfortunately, working part-time at the Superette and filling in as a receptionist at the flight school and charter service barely enabled her to make ends meet. Thank goodness she'd moved recently and had worked out a deal with her new landlord.
"You realize," Doris added, "that with the Fortune name behind the cantina, and with Jeanne Marie Fortune Jones being related to royalty and all Well, you know what that means. People with money will be eating there. So it'll be a good place for you to network and make some connections. Then again, if it's a husband you want, your prospects will be better there than here. After all, if you want to catch a big fish, you have to go where they're swimming."
Angie blew out a sigh. Her mother had been pushing her to get the college degree she'd never gotten for herself. And since Angie usually found jobs through friends or through a temp agency in Vicker's Corners, her mother had decided she lacked the ambition to succeed in life. So Doris had recently started pushing a white-lace and gold-band solution.
But Angie wasn't looking for love. Not until she had a good idea of who she really was and where she was going in life.
She just wished her mother's voice wasn't so loud, and that she wouldn't make those kinds of comments in public.
"Why don't you come over for supper tonight," her mother said, as she reached for her grocery bag. "If you do, I'll fix meat loaf."
Angie would rather have a root canal than spend the evening with her mom, especially if she was making meat loaf. The woman had never been known for her domestic skills. Or her parenting skills, for that matter. In fact, Angie had probably cooked more of the family meals growing up than she had.
But it wasn't the quality of the food that would keep her away. It was the heartburn and the headache she expected to get from the mealtime conversation. As usual, her mom was sure to point out that Angie's only hope-at least, as far as Doris could see-was for Angie to snag a gainfully employed husband. And there was no reason to believe tonight would be any different. They'd had this conversation at least twenty times in the past couple of months.
To be honest, Angie feared that at least some of what her mother believed might be true. Not that she needed a man to rescue her. That certainly wasn't the case. But for some reason, Angie just couldn't seem to get fired up about anything, which she found troubling. Because at twenty-four, you'd think she'd know what she wanted to do with her life.
Angie had never been good with decisions of any kind, as was evident by her résumé, which read like a copy of the Yellow Pages. But why pour herself into something when her heart wasn't in it? She always figured she'd know what she was meant to do with her life when she felt some sort of spark or passion. Until then, she'd just keep trying a little bit of everything and commit to nothing.
The sound of broken glass sounded from the first aisle, followed by a little girl's shriek.
"I'm sorry!" This came from a boy-maybe the one who'd been on the ladder. "But it wasn't my fault, Toby. Kylie pushed me into the stack of mayonnaise. I didn't mean to knock the jars over."
Angie reached for the small microphone to the right of her register. "Ralph? We'll need a cleanup at the front of aisle one."
Poor Toby. His foster kids were usually pretty well-mannered, but they were obviously having a bad day. At least, the middle boy was.
"Thank goodness you don't have that problem to worry about, Evangeline." Her mother shot a look of annoyance at the mayonnaise mess and then at the three children arguing over who was at fault. "Women like us were not meant to stay at home and raise a pas-sel of rug rats. I can't imagine what Toby was thinking when he took in that brood."
The soft dark hairs on the back of Angie's neck bristled at her mother's familiar rant against children. Just ignore it, Angie thought. She knew better than to engage Doris in a conversation like that, especially in public.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I can't do dinner tonight. I already have plans." Angie just hoped her mother didn't ask what those plans might be because she'd probably spend the first half of her evening looking in her pantry trying to decide what to eat and the second half sitting in front of the television, wearing out the remote.
"Oh, really?" Doris perked up. "What are you doing tonight?"
So much for hoping her mother wouldn't ask.
As the next customer began to place his groceries on the conveyor belt, Angie tore her gaze from her mom and glanced at Toby, the man who'd gotten in line behind her. In spite of those gorgeous baby blues and the kind of face that made even strangers want to confide in him, Toby looked a bit frazzled today.
Funny. He usually looked so capable and put-together.
"I'll have to give you a call and we can talk more later," Angie told her mother. "We don't want to hold up the line."
"Sure, honey." Doris glanced over her shoulder. When she spotted Toby, she offered him a sympathetic smile. "You've certainly got your hands full."
"Just enough to keep life interesting-and fun."
Toby tossed Doris a boyish grin, then winked at Angie as if the two of them were in on a secret.
Being included, even in a make-believe secret, was enough to lift Angie's spirits and to trigger a smile of her own.
"We're going fishing," Brian, the older boy, said. "That is, if there're any fish left by the time we get to Cutter's Pond."
Toby placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Nonsense. Everyone knows the bigger fish are busy fattening themselves up and waiting for just the right person to come and catch them up." Toby winked at Angie again, and she realized he must have overheard her mother's comment about fishing for a suitable mate while working at The Hollows Cantina.
As her cheeks warmed, she looked at the small space under the cash register, wishing she could stuff her five-foot-seven-inch body into the square opening.
But why stress about it? It wasn't as though she'd set her sights on Toby as a viable romantic option. He was practically the guy next door.
She'd known the Jones family-make that the Fortune Jones family-forever. She'd gone to school with Toby's sister Stacey, although they'd never run in the same circles. She'd even double-dated with Toby's brother Jude a couple of times, but there'd never been any sparks, so nothing had ever come of it.
Toby was probably the only one of Stacey's hunky brothers Angie hadn't considered dating.
Not that he wasn't just as handsome as the others. Angie looked at his tall frame, lean and muscled from years of ranch work and extracurricular sports coaching. Yep, Toby Fortune Jones could definitely compete with his brothers in the looks department.
But Toby always seemed so confident and so sure of himself. And people who knew exactly what they wanted and went after it always intimidated her. Plus, the whole "Mother Teresa meets Dudley Do-Right" personality only made Toby seem all the more out of reach.
A guy like Toby would never be interested in someone like her. He'd want a woman who was down-to-earth, a woman who had her ducks in a row.
Someone who had dreams and plans to fulfill. Someone who wouldn't ever stress about what job she was going to try next.
Angie's mother reached for her grocery bag, causing Angie to break her bold perusal.
"Must be nice to have so much free time on your hands," Doris said to Toby. "Have fun."
Angie could see the disapproval evident on her mom's face. Doris Edwards didn't believe in burning daylight simply for fishing or spending time with one's family.
"We will," Toby told her. "You have a nice day, Mrs. Edwards."
As Doris headed to the parking lot, she turned back to look at what Angie was wearing behind the check stand. "And, honey," Doris said reproachingly, her voice quieter yet still loud enough for anyone within five feet of her to hear, "try to dress a bit more conservatively. Nobody is going to take you seriously with all those curves popping out everywhere. You look like you just got off a shift at a roadhouse honky-tonk."
Doris's smartphone rang, thankfully cutting off her insult to Angie's snug-but-comfortable jeans and her white T-shirt. "Gotta take this. You know, the client always comes first."
Angie started the conveyor belt as her mother breezed out the door in a conservative shoulder-padded power suit. She tried to smile through the mortification that warmed her cheeks and strained the muscles in her face. "Chips, soda, cookies Looks like someone is planning a picnic."
Toby tossed her a playful grin. "Fishing on the lake is hungry business."
"It should be a nice day for it," Angie said, as she began to check out Toby-or rather, his groceries.
Not that there wasn't plenty to check out about the man himself-if she were looking.
Brown hair that was stylishly mussed, but not out of place. Dazzling blue eyes that were both playful and bright. Broad, strapping shoulders. Arms that looked as though they could pitch a mean curveball-or hold a woman tightly all night.
"I don't want to go to Cutter's Pond," Kylie complained, breaking Angie from her wayward thoughts. "You're just going to kill those poor fish. And I don't even like to eat them."
Brian rolled his eyes. "Don't be such a stinking crybaby, Kylie. We never get to do anything fun without you complaining."
Toby glanced at Angie and gave a little shrug. "Sometimes it's hard to find an activity or an outing they can all enjoy. It seems that someone always has an objection."
Angie smiled. "To be honest, I can't blame her a bit. I never did like putting a worm on a hook."
"You had to go fishing, too?" the little red-haired girl asked.
Angie offered her a sympathetic smile. "When my father was alive, he would take me to Cutter's Pond. And while I could usually count on getting sunburned and bit by a mosquito or two, there was always something special about spending time with my daddy."
"But I don't have a daddy," the girl said.
Angie's cheeks warmed. She'd only wanted to help, but had probably made things worse.
"You might not have a dad," Toby said, as he gave one of Kylie's lopsided auburn pigtails a gentle tug, "but you have me."
Toby's hands might be skilled at lassoing horses and throwing a football, but the poor man couldn't do a little girl's hair to save his life.
Still, these kids were lucky to have Toby. If he hadn't stepped up to the plate when their aunt had gone off the deep end and lost custody, they might have been separated and placed in different foster homes.
Justin, the boy who'd climbed the ladder, said, "Too bad we don't have a babysitter for Kylie. She's gonna wah-wah like a little crybaby and ruin our whole day." Justin made fake crying noises and rubbed his eyes to emphasize his overly dramatic point.
Maybe Angie could help out after all. "I only have to work for a half hour or so, and then my shift is over. If you don't mind leaving Kylie here with me, I'd be happy to hang out with her while you and the boys go fishing. We can do cool girls-only things that boys don't get to do."
"That's nice of you to offer," Toby said, "but you don't have to do that."
"Yes, she does!" Kylie gave a little jump and a clap.
Uh-oh. What had Angie done? Had she overstepped her boundaries-or bitten off more than she could chew?
"Please, Toby?" Kylie looked at her foster dad with puppy-dog eyes. "Can I stay here with Angie? Can I please? "
"If you're sure you don't mind." Toby's gaze zeroed in on Angie, and her heart spun in her chest.
What was that little zing all about?
Had that come from the way Toby was looking at her? Or from having second thoughts about what she'd just offered to do?
After all, she didn't know anything about kids. She'd been an only child and Doris definitely wasn't the maternal type. Plus, unlike some of the other girls she'd grown up with, she'd never even had a babysitting job.
But now that she'd made the offer, she couldn't very well backpedal.
"Of course I don't mind." Angie reached under the checkout stand for a stack of coloring pages and pulled out the top sheet. "The Superette is having a poster contest this month. All the kids have to do is color this picture and turn it back in for the judging. I have a few markers Kylie can use. Then, after I clock out, we'll be on our way for the best girls' day ever!"