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Isabella Mendoza was late, which was so not like her. And to make matters worse, she was the one who'd insisted on meeting early to avoid the lunch-crowd rush.
As she turned into the driveway that led to Red, the popular local restaurant, she groaned as she spotted an all-too-familiar black Cadillac Escalade parked in front.
How was that for luck? Not only did she have to dash into Red and make apologies to her girlfriend and her cousins, but with her luck, she would probably run smack into William Fortune, Jr., better known as J.R. to everyone in town.
Ever since last week, when he'd officially relocated from Los Angeles to Red Rock, Texas, their paths had kept crossing. And to make matters worse, she'd picked up on the wannabe rancher's obvious interest in her. She hadn't encouraged him, even if there were plenty of women in town who would have.
Not only was the man wealthy, but he was good-looking, charming and had the kind of body a woman liked to cuddle up next to. But he definitely wasn't Isabella's type.
She parked her red pickup near the side of the building, slid out of the driver's seat and reached for her purse. After securing the lock, she hurried into the restaurant that had once been an old hacienda.
Just four months ago, an arson fire nearly destroyed Red, which had broken Isabella's heart for more reasons than one. Not only did she have a family connection to the owners, José and Maria Mendoza, but she had a deep love and respect for the Tejana culture and the history reflected in the building.
Over the past few months, José and Maria had worked hard to restore the restaurant just the way it was before the fire, although some of theoriginal artwork and antiques had been irreplaceable.
The hostess offered a friendly smile as Isabella walked through the door.
"I'm meeting friends who are already here," Isabella told her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the back of a tall, broad-shouldered man as he entered the bar, his movements a shadowlike blur. She hadn't gotten a very good look at him, but she had a feeling it was J.R. There was such a solid presence about the man that it was difficult not to notice him. And she had to confess that whenever they were in the same place at the same time, her gaze tended to meet his more often than she liked.
Not that there was anything wrong with J.R. The fair-haired businessman-turned-rancher was actually a good catch, if a woman was into Anglos and men who were at least ten years her senior. But that wasn't Isabella, and she had good reason not to get carried away.
Having been raised by her fair-haired stepfather during most of her childhood and adolescence, she had been denied her Tejana heritage, which was why she embraced it now with all her heart and soul. And when she found her Mr. Right, a Latino, he would appreciate her culture as much as she did.
"Your party is on the patio," the hostess said.
Isabella proceeded through the restaurant, her high heels clicking on the Mexican tile floor.
She especially loved Red's courtyard, where water continuously trickled into an Old World-style fountain and brightly colored umbrellas provided shade. The bougainvillea that bloomed in fuchsia, purple and gold weren't as lush and mature as the ones that had adorned the patio before the fire, but they would grow in time.
The women she was meeting—Jane Gilliam, Sierra Calloway, Gloria Fortune and Christina Rockwell—sat at a table near the blue-and-white tiled fountain.
"I'm so sorry I'm late." Isabella took the empty chair between Jane and Christina. "But I have a good excuse. A local businessman stopped by my studio unexpectedly. He owns decorator shops in San Antonio and Houston, and he wants to sell some of my blankets and weavings in both of them."
"That's wonderful," Jane said. "We knew something unexpected must have come up."
"Did you cinch the deal?" Sierra asked.
Isabella smiled, feeling a sense of pride. "Yes. And if I get a few more like that, I'll be able to move my studio out of the garage in my father's backyard and find a more professional place to create and show my work."
"I'd really like to see you move to a cute storefront in Red Rock," Jane said. "It would be so nice to have you working in town. And it would be easier for us to meet for lunch."
Yes, it would be. Jane had become Isabella's closest friend. They'd met last year at Fiesta, a ten-day festival held every April to celebrate San Antonio's heritage. Jane mentioned that she worked for Red Rock Readingworks, a children's literacy foundation, and asked Isabella if she would consider giving a presentation on her artistic blankets and tapestries to the children during Cultural Awareness Day. Isabella agreed, and she'd thoroughly enjoyed talking to the kids. But more than that, she and Jane had really hit it off, and their friendship had continued to blossom.
Jane reached for a tortilla chip, the diamond on her left hand sparkling. But the glimmer didn't just stop at the ring. There was a happy glow in Jane's eyes these days, which was not only sweet but ironic.
Just after Christmas, Isabella and several of her unattached friends had met at Red for dinner and marga-ritas. The conversation turned to men and relationships. Before the end of the evening, they'd each vowed to be married within the next twelve months. Jane, however, was the only one at the table who'd opted out of the "Single No More" pact. Now here she was, engaged to Isabella's cousin Jorge Mendoza, the one-time playboy in the family. A man who also happened to be Christina, Gloria and Sierra's brother.
"So tell me about the businessman," Christina said. "Did he have any romantic potential?"
"Not an ounce." Isabella reached for a chip. "He was in his late fifties and married. I'm beginning to think that you four have snagged all the decent men around here."
"I'm sure there's one or two left," Christina said with a smile. "The right guy will come along when you least expect it."
"I'm sure he will." Isabella returned her cousin's smile, playing the Pollyanna game even though she'd recently begun to wonder if Mr. Right would really come along. She'd gone out on a number of dates since January, but all of the men proved to be disappointments.
"Isabella, I hope you're not putting too much stock in that list you created," Jane said.
Isabella dipped a tortilla chip into the homemade salsa. "I made that list for a reason."
"Which is ?" Sierra prodded.
"To keep focused on what's really important and not fall prey to hormones and impulses. My parents fell in lust and married young. And it was a mistake from the get-go."
The young couple had divorced when Isabella was a toddler, and her mom had remarried and relocated to California, taking Isabella with her.
Gloria placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward. "I had no idea you made a list. So, let's hear it. What are you looking for in a man?"
Isabella finished munching on the chip in her mouth before answering. "I'm looking for someone down to earth and with a steady job. Someone who's sensitive and caring and isn't afraid of commitment. A guy with a good sense of humor."
"What about his physical appearance?" Gloria asked.
Isabella winced, knowing she shouldn't be too picky, but she was. Her heritage had become so important to her that, in her heart of hearts, she knew the man she would marry would have to be Latino, too.
"Well," she said, "it would be nice if he was handsome, of course, but that's not the top priority for me."
She left it at that. It might sound old-fashioned, but she really wanted a man she could love, a man who would love her back. A man who wasn't afraid of the teamwork it would take to make a marriage last. So making a list had seemed logical, smart even. But, deep inside, she feared that she was being unrealistic, that her requirements might be too hard to fulfill.
Still, the only way to reach the stars was to aim for them. Right?
Footsteps sounded, and Isabella glanced to her right, across the fountain.
When she spotted J.R. Fortune entering the courtyard and carrying two longneck bottles of beer, she tensed. It irked her that she felt a little on edge whenever she ran into him, and today was no different.
Why couldn't he have chosen to eat indoors?
She watched him approach a table at the far corner of the courtyard, where a man sat with his back to her. J.R. set one of the beers in front of his companion, then took a seat.
Isabella couldn't help wondering who the other man was, and in spite of her resolve to ignore them both, she stole another glance their way, just in time to see William Fortune, Sr. turn toward his eldest son.
That wasn't surprising. The two men weren't just related; they were business associates.
Her dad had told her that immediately after college, J.R. had gone to work with his father at Fortune Forecasting, a successful company that predicted marketplace trends. And before long, J.R.'s leadership skills helped him move up the corporate ladder until he was second in command behind his dad and key to the company's success.
But J.R. had given it all up recently and bought a ranch in the area. Talk about a fish out of water. J.R. might wear denim and spurs—and wear them well—but he was just a city slicker, as far as Isabella was concerned.
So far, he hadn't noticed her, which was for the best. The two of them were ill-suited as a couple, even if he hadn't realized it yet.
Her luck didn't hold, though. The next time she looked his way, he flashed her a charming smile.
"Do I detect a bit of romantic interest in a certain someone?" Gloria asked.
Isabella tore her gaze from the other table and slowly shook her head. "We're just acquaintances. We met at Fiesta last year and keep running into each other. That's all."
"Forgive me for bursting your bubble," Christina said, "but that man is definitely interested in you. I've seen the way he looks at you, the way he acts when he's around you."
"Maybe a bit," Isabella admitted.
"I'd say you're interested, too," Jane added. "You've been craning your neck ever since he walked in. Not that I blame you."
Isabella's cheeks warmed at being found out, but that still didn't mean anything. "All right, let's say I'm a little attracted to him in a physical sense. Who wouldn't be? But trust me, he's not my type."
"Oh, no?" Christina asked. "He's down to earth and he's got a steady job. Sounds like a hot prospect to me."
Isabella couldn't disagree more. The man had given up a lucrative career at the age of forty in hopes of becoming a rancher. How down to earth was that? And as for a steady job, he might have plenty of money, but ranching was just a hobby for him. He'd probably grow tired of it and be back in L.A. by this time next year.
Even so, she didn't want to badmouth the man. The Fortunes and the Mendozas were close friends. And Gloria, who sat across the table from Isabella, was now a Fortune by marriage. So she tempered her response and offered them another reason a relationship with J.R. wouldn't last, even though it might sound superficial, since they might not understand all that was behind it. "My culture is very important to me, and, well, I'm focusing my search on a Latino."
Hooking up with J.R. Fortune might be a coup for other single women in Red Rock, but in her case, it would be a disaster.
Yet in spite of her resolve to ignore J.R. completely, she couldn't help glancing back at the table where he sat with his father and wondering if her name would come up.
"You didn't need to get up and get those beers," William Fortune, Sr., said. "That waitress would have eventually come back to check on us and remember we'd ordered them."
While they'd eaten an early lunch, J.R. and his father had been discussing his plans for the ranch. But as they'd finished the last of their tacos, a Mexican beer with lime sounded good, and the waitress was nowhere to be found.
"I didn't mind getting them. Besides, I have something to celebrate." J.R. lifted an ice-cold bottle of Corona toward his dad in a toastlike motion.
His dad lifted his longneck in a similar manner. "What's that?"
"I have the deed to my new ranch in hand."
J.R. raised the bottle to his lips and savored a refreshing swallow, as his father did the same.
"By the way," J.R. said, "I've decided on a name for the property."
"Oh, yeah? What's that?"
"Molly's Pride." His voice cracked just a bit as he added, "Mom would have really loved the place."
His dad's eyes grew misty, as they often did whenever anyone brought up Molly Fortune's name. "You're right about that. But then again, she would have loved anything you set your mind to, son."
That was true.
Two years ago, Molly had passed away, leaving a hole in the family, as well as an emptiness in J.R. It wasn't as though he'd spent that much time with his mother, but he valued her opinion and her unwavering support. And she'd always been just a phone call away.
They all missed her, but of his brothers, J.R. suspected that he missed her the most.
His dad took another sip of beer. "Believe it or not, I'm considering a move to Red Rock, too."
The news came as a surprise, although J.R. wasn't sure why it did. Red Rock had been a home away from home to all of them.
"There's something about this town that has always appealed to me," William said. "And now that you, Darr and Nicholas have moved here "
J.R. understood the draw to Red Rock. When he was a teenager, he would fly out each summer and visit his father's cousin, Ryan, and his wife, Lily, on the Double Crown Ranch. He enjoyed riding horses, listening to country music and playing cowboy for a few weeks each year.
The trips continued when he reached adulthood, although he hadn't found time to visit as often as he would have liked. Then, around his fortieth birthday, he'd begun to feel restless in Los Angeles. And that inexplicable itch grew steadily until he began to question the choices he'd made in life.
Posted April 10, 2009
Isabella Mendoza has a list. On it are all the requirements she has for a man she might consider marrying. William "J.R." Fortune doesn't meet any of them. Isabella wants somebody down to earth, with a steady job. Someone who's not afraid of commitment. At the age of forty, J.R. suddenly gave up a successful, lucrative city career in order to buy a ranch and become a "real" cowboy - not exactly evidence of sensible maturity. Or commitment. He does have a good sense of humor (on her list), he's sensitive, caring (also on the list) and he's handsome (not on the list, but she can't help but notice).
The main problems Isabella sees are that 1) J.R. isn't Latino so he can't possibly understand how important her heritage is to her, and 2) J.R. is stubborn and manipulative. Isabella's stepfather was that way, insisting she give up her Tejana culture and language. Now that she's no longer under his control, she certainly doesn't want to surrender to someone just like him.
But J.R. knows what he wants - and it's the beautiful Latina he's hired to decorate his historic ranchhouse. He's persistent, especially when he senses that Isabella is attracted to him, too. Escalating danger for the Mendoza family, J.R.'s concern for her safety, Isabella's racing heart whenever she's near J.R., and a sweet little dog who loves them both - all conspire to make Isabella re-think her list. She was looking for a real, live cowboy. Could J.R. be the real thing?
We've all fallen, at one time or another, for the wrong man. Judy Duarte's book reminds us of the turmoil and passion that go along with making hard choices. Isabella knows all the reasons she shouldn't fall for J.R., but under Duarte's expert crafting, she comes to know her heart a little better - and we all cheer her decision to embrace a happy ever after ending.