Her Unforgettable Cowboy (Love Inspired Series)

Her Unforgettable Cowboy (Love Inspired Series)

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by Debra Clopton

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A New Beginning

Everyone in Dew Drop, Texas, is thrilled that Jolie Sheridan has returned to Sunrise Ranch. Everyone except Morgan McDermott. Eight years ago, Jolie left the ranch—and Morgan—for a career as a competitive kayaker. Now after an accident has sidelined her, she's back as a teacher for the ranch's foster boys.See more details below


A New Beginning

Everyone in Dew Drop, Texas, is thrilled that Jolie Sheridan has returned to Sunrise Ranch. Everyone except Morgan McDermott. Eight years ago, Jolie left the ranch—and Morgan—for a career as a competitive kayaker. Now after an accident has sidelined her, she's back as a teacher for the ranch's foster boys. Morgan knows he can't risk getting his heart broken again. But watching Jolie's gentle ways with the boys opens his eyes to the truth: he's never stopped loving her. Can a "family" of foster kids help give this couple a second chance at love?

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Cowboys of Sunrise Ranch
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Sunrise Ranch, Dew Drop, Texas

"Calm down, son."

Morgan McDermott's father, Randolph, cut Morgan off at the pass with a rasp of exasperation—which in no way, shape or form even began to match the anger-fueled exasperation Morgan was struggling to contain.

An imposing figure at fifty-two, Randolph had hair as black as the Texas oil pumping from the herd of wells across the ten-thousand-acre McDermott family ranch. The only differences between the two men—who shared chiseled high cheekbones and square-jawed features—was the whisper of white at Randolph's temples and twenty years. Randolph was as physically fit and hard-headed as any of his three sons.

"Calm down?" Morgan gave a harsh laugh. "Are you kidding me? You go behind my back and hire my ex-fiancée, and you expect me to calm down? For starters, Dad, we're partners. I'm supposed to make decisions like this with you. Second…"

Morgan was so shaken up by what he'd just been told that he lost his train of thought.

Jolie Sheridan, here.

Randolph pushed back from his desk and rose, meeting Morgan eye to eye. "You know as well as I do that we needed a teacher and we needed one quick. Jolie has graciously agreed to fill the position for one semester—"

"I don't care if she's paying you to let her teach the boys here at the ranch—I don't want her here." Morgan would never use this tone with his father under normal circumstances. But being blindsided by the knowledge that his dad had gone behind his back and hired the woman who had broken his heart was not normal circumstances. "We're supposed to discuss this kind of thing, Dad."

"I understand your feelings, but there was no time. Besides, Jolie is familiar with the school and will fit right in."

Logically it made sense, but that didn't ease the betrayal. Morgan remained silent, trying to grasp the reality of his situation.

"Your past is something I'd hoped you'd overcome by now. I hated that you got hurt when she left. We all did. That said, I've made a decision and it stands."

Morgan rammed a hand through his hair. "How do you expect me to—" He halted at the stern look his dad shot him.

"I expect you to act like a man, not a brokenhearted teenager nursing a grudge."

His dad's words stung. "I got over her a long time ago and you know it," he growled, not remembering the last time—if ever—that he'd been this angry with his father.

"Did you?" Randolph studied him, unflinching, from across the wide oak desk.

"You know I did. That doesn't mean I want to be around her for the next four months."

"You're strong. You'll make it. Maybe God worked the details out so you can come to some kind of peace with the situation. You may have gotten over Jolie, but you haven't forgiven her. You can't have peace until you do that."

This was a no-win situation. Yanking a noose tight around his emotions Morgan snatched his hat from the hat rack. "I'm late," he said, turning to leave. He pushed open the door of the Sunrise Ranch offices, his father's words trailing him.

"Mind your manners, Morgan McDermott. And remember, those boys out there are watching every move you make and learning from you."

"Some partnership," Morgan growled as the blazing Texas heat hit him full force. It didn't begin to compare to the sizzling heat of his fury.

His life had just turned into a train wreck.

Ramming his hat onto his head, Morgan battled to get a grip on his anger. Stalking across fifty yards of white-rock gravel separating the barns from the office and chow hall, he fought to rein in his emotions. He had a herd of boys enjoying a very special moment in the barn and he intended to be a part of it come baseball-size hail or high water. And he knew—without his dad reminding him—that they didn't need to see him furious.

Sunrise Ranch was a working cattle ranch and foster home for boys who needed stability in their lives. Morgan took his job as their protector and role model extremely seriously. If he didn't, he wouldn't still be on the ranch in the first place.

Despite the heat or Morgan's mood, excitement rang in the early-morning air hanging over the ranch compound. Quickening his stride, Morgan approached the sun-faded red stable, the birthplace of hundreds of foals over the years. The sturdy, low-slung building had been on the property since Morgan's great-great-grandfather built it back in the early 1900s. Through the years there had been new barns and buildings added, but this lovingly maintained stable and the other historic buildings that dotted the property carried the memories of those who'd been here before him. This was their legacy to him and his two brothers, Rowdy and Tucker. His family took to heart the responsibility of passing it on to future generations.

Morgan hauled in a deep breath the moment he stepped through the stable's double doors. Instantly the scent of grassy, sundried hay and feed mingled with the smell of leather and horses, filled his lungs. And his spirit.

The stables held lots of memories from years gone by, but it was the hushed whispers of the boys at the end of the building that filled his soul and gave his life purpose.

Before his mother's death when he was eleven years old, Lydia McDermott had had a vision to share the beauty and blessing of their West Texas ranch with less fortunate boys who had no place to call home. She'd died before she could make her dream a reality, but Morgan's dad and grandmother worked tirelessly over the next two years, getting the ranch approved as a foster home.

For the last eighteen years, sixteen boys at a time had made Sunrise Ranch their home. And Morgan, who had become a full partner six months ago, intended to help carry the torch forward—no matter who his dad brought on as the boys' teacher.

Moving down the concrete alley, the clink of his spurs and scuff of his boots bounced off the stalls. The chatter halted from the huddle at the end where a new colt had just been born, and the boys who were new to the ranch turned, awe on their faces. There was nothing like watching the miracle of life.

Yup, that was the only reminder Morgan needed that the boys came first.

Striding to stand behind them, Morgan patted one of the newcomers on the back and looked at the foal.

"It's about time you dragged yourself out here to take a look at the new little filly," Walter Pepper, his horse foreman, teased from inside the stall where he'd been assisting the mother. One of the best horsemen around, Pepper—as he'd been tagged in his early years—had worked at the ranch since he was a teenager, hired on by Morgan's granddad forty-five years ago. A stocky cowboy with a white head of hair, a gruff voice and a heart of gold, he loved to tease.

Taking in the coal-black filly curled up in the soft hay beside his momma, Morgan gave a crooked smile. "Looks like y'all've got it under control."

"She's as black as your hair, Morgan," nine-year-old Caleb declared, his green eyes shining. A blond-headed creative thinker and doer, Caleb was a regular fixer-upper, always coming up with ideas and taking tools and machines apart in the shop to figure out how they worked. But right now, he was wide-eyed like the rest of them, watching the mother horse tend to her newborn baby.

"Yeah," B.J. said, a grin lifting the seven-year-old's plump cheeks. "She ain't got no streak a white in her black hair like Beauty or Mr. Randolph gots." He puffed out his chest, proud that he was the first to make the comparison between the jet-black horse with the white lightning bolt crossing her face, and Randolph and his white temples.

"You're right about that, son," Morgan agreed, tousling B.J.'s brown hair as he studied Beauty. She was the first of twenty-five mares on the ranch who were due to foal in the next two months and she was kicking off the season like a pro. When the baby unbuckled her long legs and tried to stand, Beauty began nudging her gently on the rump, encouraging her as she struggled to gain her wobbly legs.

"Look, fellas, she's helping her baby get up," Joseph observed, extending a lean, muscular arm from where he hung halfway over the rail. The oldest boy on the ranch at eighteen, Joseph was long, lanky and a good-natured encourager of the younger boys. He had his heart set on being a large-animal vet and Morgan knew he would make a great one someday.

"It's 'cause she loves her," ten-year-old Sammy whispered reverently, a whole host of wistfulness in his words that cut into Morgan's heart. Sammy had been at the ranch for only two weeks and was struggling. The kid's parents had given him up recently and before he could blink twice he found himself at Sunrise Ranch. The foster care worker had known the ranch had one opening and wasted no time getting Randolph and Morgan to accept Sammy into the mix. But Morgan could tell the poor kid was still grieving and in denial about what had happened to him.

Pepper's compassionate old eyes met Morgan's. These boys knew what it was to have a mother and a father who didn't care. Over the years Morgan had had many boys come to talk to him about how seeing a horse taking such tender care of her baby stabbed at their hearts on a raw level.

The first group of boys came to live at the ranch when Morgan was thirteen. They'd lost their parents, and because Morgan had just lost his mom to cancer two years earlier, he thought he understood what they were going through. It wasn't until he was a high school senior that he finally realized he didn't know where these boys were coming from at all. His mother had loved him with all of her heart. Death had forced her to leave her children—she never would have neglected or abandoned them.

It wasn't until six years ago when his fiancée gave back her engagement ring and chose a life without him that he felt some semblance of what these guys felt. It was a hard lick to know you weren't wanted.

For a moment, he went back to that day, standing in the drive, his heart in the dirt at his feet, watching Jolie Sheridan drive off into the wide blue yonder. He was over it—had been for some time now—but it had been a long, hard crawl out of the pit he'd fallen into. He'd made some mistakes on the way and fueled plenty of gossip in Dew Drop. But he'd lived.

He'd moved on.

He'd always known his life and dreams were here on the ranch, and even though things hadn't turned out exactly like he'd envisioned them, he'd managed to take hold of what God had entrusted to him and he was content.

Even happy most of the time.

At last the filly got her legs beneath her and managed to take her first wobbly steps, bringing Morgan back to the stable.

"She did it!" Jeb yelled. His nine-year-old enthusiasm startled the filly—she jumped and fell flat on her face.

Horrified, Jeb clamped his hand to the top of his head as the boys around him scowled. In the sudden silence the filly gathered herself up and this time rose more easily, with just a single nudge from her momma. Jeb gave a big silent grin. The excitement the boys were containing over the filly's accomplishment could very easily have blown the roof off the building.

There was a lot to be learned from what they'd just witnessed. Getting up from a fall was a life lesson well worth paying attention to.

"Okay, boys," Pepper said, coming out of the stall, "let's give mother and baby some alone time. You fellas can come back this evening after you get your chores done. You just have to promise to be quiet."

"Will do," agreed Wes, a stocky seventeen-year-old with curly blond hair and a cocky attitude. The boys looked up to Wes and Joseph, and the two teens took their leadership roles seriously. Morgan liked that about them.

By the time they were leaving the stable, rowdy laughter and joking had ensued. Morgan followed the group, somewhat calmer than he'd been on entering but still not pleased. His dad had deliberately made the decision about Jolie without him because he knew there was no way Morgan would have agreed to it. But Morgan's anger wasn't just based on personal grounds—in his estimation the last thing the fellas needed was another teacher who wouldn't stick around. And Jolie was exactly that.

As fate would have it, Morgan and the boys walked into the sunlight as Jolie herself whipped her cranberry-colored Jeep into the ranch yard, sliding to a halt across the driveway from them in a plume of dust. The doors and top were off the Jeep, giving them a clear view of her, with wind-tossed cinnamon hair.

Morgan's gut twisted in a knot and he came up short as if he'd slammed face-first into a flag pole. He had a clear shot of her. Rocks lodged in his throat. She was beautiful.

She had the boys' attention instantly, looking vibrant and full of life, every inch the world-class competitive kayaker that she was, long legs and tanned skin in well-worn jeans and a sleeveless orange tank top. She jumped from the vehicle with a big Julia Roberts smile on her face—and a hundred watts of pure joy slammed into the group.

It felt more like a sucker punch to Morgan.

"Who is that?" Joseph whistled as long strides brought her closer. There was no mistaking his admiration of Jolie. The kid was seventeen after all.

Wes elbowed Joseph out of the way. "Hubba, hubba, come to papa," he said. Morgan bopped him on the back of the head.

"Watch your manners, hotshot," he warned. "Both of you," he added as Joseph glanced at him, too.

"I didn't mean any harm," Wes said, his blue eyes dreamy. "I'm just in lovvve"

Joseph put his hand on his heart and patted it, then gave his full attention back to Jolie.

"She sure is pretty," Caleb gushed as she came nearer.

True on all counts—Morgan could not deny it. Jolie still had the ability to take his breath away.

"What's up, fellas? How's it going?" She greeted the guys like she'd just seen them yesterday and knew them by name. Looking like a bright beam of sunlight, she seemed to sparkle. She hadn't looked at Morgan yet, focusing all her attention on the sixteen totally engrossed fellas whose lower lips were now sitting firmly on their boot tips.

"You fellas must be my new class. I'm Jolie Sheridan, your teacher."

"You are?" Sammy cooed. The rest of them had suddenly become speechless.

"You bet I am." Jolie chuckled. "I'm excited to start school." Those luminescent green eyes met Morgan's for the first time and he was fairly certain he looked as grim as he felt because her smile faltered.

"We don't have to start today, do we?" Sammy blurted. Jolie gave them another sucker-punch grin as she put her focus back on the boys.

"Don't worry, little dude, school's not till Monday. You have freedom today and tomorrow…and then you're all mine, all mine," she sang the last words and ended with a wink. "I'm just getting the classroom fixed up today."

The woman had skills when it came to winning over a crowd. Of course she'd had this fickle group at her first hello.

"I'd be glad to help you," Joseph offered, finally finding his voice.

Wes Grinned. "Count me in." His chest was so puffed out Morgan feared the teen would throw his back out of whack.

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