In the small Texas burg of Rambling Rose, real estate investor Callum Fortune is making a big splash. The last thing he needs is any personal complications slowing his pace—least of all nurse Becky Averill, a beautiful widow with twin baby girls. Callum’s past has convinced him he’s not cut out for commitment. Yet, drawn to Becky in ways he can’t understand, Callum is torn between moving on…and moving in!
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"You're going to be late to your own party."
Callum Fortune turned at the sound of his sister's teasing voice. "It's a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Squeak. Not a cocktail gala."
Stephanie Fortune, younger than Callum by three years but the oldest of David and Marci Fortune's four daughters, approached Callum's shiny silver truck. Her pale red hair was pulled back in a braid and she wore dark jeans and a gray sweater that could have benefited from a lint roller. As a vet tech and all-around animal lover, Stephanie was often covered in dog and cat fur. Or whatever breed of animal she was caring for that day. Her heart was as big as her personality and one of the things Callum loved most about her.
"It's past time you stop calling me that," she told him with an exaggerated eye roll. "What if someone in Rambling Rose hears you and the nickname catches on? I'd be mortified."
"It's our secret," he promised with a wink. "But you'll always be my Pipsqueak no matter where life takes either of us."
"I'm home," Stephanie said, her tone definitive. "There's no other place I'd rather be."
"Then I'm glad you came along on this adventure."
Callum agreed there was something special about Rambling Rose, Texas. The small town sat equidistant between the larger metropolitan areas of Houston and Austin. Callum had first learned about it through a documentary, The Faded Rose, he'd watched late one night when he'd had trouble sleeping. Shortly after, he'd traveled to Paseo, Texas, with his father for the wedding of David's brother, Gerald Robinson — or Jerome Fortune as he was once known. On a whim, Callum had driven to Rambling Rose and within a week he'd made offers on a ranch in a gated community outside town as well as a half-dozen commercial properties.
Real estate development was Callum's passion, and he'd made a name for himself in his home state of Florida and a good portion of the Southeast as someone who could revitalize small-town communities by working together with residents, local businesses and government agencies. He loved the challenge of breathing new life into spaces that had seen better days.
From that perspective, Rambling Rose was a perfect next step in Callum's career. The town had a long history in Texas but was sorely in need of a face-lift and someone to invest in the local economy. Callum's father, David, had his doubts. The entire Fortune family, both new and established members, had been shaken by the kidnapping that had almost ruined Gerald's wedding to his first love, Deborah, six months ago. David was a huge success in his own right thanks to his wildly profitable video game empire and had reservations about claiming his place in the extended Fortune brood even before that shocking turn of events. Even though the day had turned out happily in the end, David's protective instincts had kicked into high gear. He'd encouraged his eight children to stay far removed from any sort of involvement with the Texas Fortunes.
He and Marci, Callum's beloved stepmother, had been understandably concerned at Callum's rash decision to move to the small town, especially when his older stepbrother, Steven, younger brother, Dillon, and half sister, Stephanie, came with him. But Callum trusted his instincts when it came to real estate. He had no doubt Rambling Rose was the right decision, and his siblings' joining him was an added bonus.
He stood with Stephanie in the parking lot of the new Rambling Rose Pediatric Center, which was due to officially open its doors in two days. Callum was proud of everything his crew and the subcontractors he'd hired had accomplished in the past few months.
The building, which was situated about ten minutes north of Rambling Rose's quaint downtown area, had been almost completely gutted and rebuilt to house a state-of-the-art health facility where local children would receive primary medical, dental and behavioral health care at a facility designed just for them.
"We should go in," he said before Stephanie asked the inevitable question of whether he saw himself staying in Rambling Rose long-term. She wouldn't have wanted to hear his answer, but the thought of committing to the town longer than it would take to finish their projects made his skin itch.
Since he'd started his construction company, his modus operandi had always been to go with the work. He focused his efforts on small-town revitalizations but once he'd met his goals in a community, Callum moved on.
He wasn't a forever type of guy, at least not anymore.
"How are things at the vet clinic?" Stephanie asked as she fell into step next to him.
"On schedule to open next month," he answered, giving her a gentle nudge. "Don't worry, Squeak. We'll make sure you're still gainfully employed."
She gave him a playful nudge. "What do I have to do to get you to stop calling me that?"
"The dishes and my laundry for a week."
He chuckled. "I should have held out for a month."
"Don't push your luck. I know how much you hate folding clothes."
"Been there, done that," he told her. He'd been three and his brother Dillon two when their father had married Marci. She'd had two boys of her own that she brought to the marriage: Steven, who was two years older than Callum, and Wiley, who was Callum's age. They'd had Stephanie right away and the triplets had followed five years after that. Marci was a great mother and treated all the kids with the same love and kindness. But the pregnancies had taken a toll on her health. As a young boy, Callum had found himself responsible for the girls and running much of the household while his father focused on the explosive success of his first video game launch. The role had come naturally to Callum, but the added responsibility had robbed him of much of his childhood. He'd managed laundry for a household of ten from the time he was in elementary school until Marci's health had improved.
He didn't regret the time he'd dedicated to his siblings, but it definitely made him less inclined to take on more domestic tasks than were necessary to function as an adult.
"You still can't fold a fitted sheet the right way," Stephanie said in the flippant tone she'd perfected as an adorable but annoying little sister.
"No one can," he countered.
"Martha Stewart has a tutorial on it."
He shook his head as they approached the entrance of the pediatric center, where a small crowd had gathered. "I'm not watching Martha Stewart."
A flash of color caught his eye, and he noticed a woman pushing a double stroller toward the entrance. Two toddlers sat in the side-by-side seats, and one girl's blanket had slipped off her lap. The corner of the fabric was tangled in the wheel and the girls' frazzled-looking mother struggled to free it.
"There are Mom and Dad, with Steven and Dillon," Stephanie told him, taking a step toward their family, who stood near the swath of ceremonial ribbon that stretched in front of the center's entrance.
"Be there in a sec."
Without waiting for an answer, Callum jogged toward the woman and her two charges.
"Can I help?" he asked, offering a smile to the toddlers, who were mirror images of each other. Twins. No wonder their mom seemed stressed. He remembered what a handful his triplet sisters had been at that age.
The woman, who knelt on the pavement in a bright blue dress, looked up at him. Callum promptly forgot his own name.
She was beyond beautiful ... at least to him.
A lock of whiskey-hued hair fell across her cheek, and she tucked it behind her ear with a careless motion. Her features were conventional by most standards — a heart-shaped face, large brown eyes with thick lashes and creamy skin that turned an enchanting shade of pink as she met his gaze. Her mouth was full and her nose pert, but somehow everything came together to make her stunning. The sparkle in her gaze and the way her lips parted just a bit had him feeling like he'd been knocked in the head.
"It's caught in the wheel," she said, and it took him a moment to snap back to reality.
"Mama," one of the girls whined, tugging on the other end of the blanket.
"We'll get your blankie, Luna." The woman patted her daughter's leg. "This nice man is going to help."
Nice man. Callum wasn't sure he'd ever heard anyone describe him as "nice" but he'd take the compliment. He tried to remember the definition of the word while forcing himself to ignore the spark of attraction to a stranger who was probably some equally nice man's wife.
He crouched down next to the twins' mom and carefully extricated the fabric from the spokes of the wheel. It took only a minute and he heard an audible sigh of relief next to him once the blanket was free.
"Bankie," the girl shouted as she tugged the pink-and-yellow-checked blanket into her lap.
"Mama," her sister yelled like she wanted to be in on the action and then popped a pacifier into her mouth.
"Thank you," the woman said as they both straightened.
Callum was about to introduce himself when she stumbled a step. Without thinking, he reached out a hand to steady her.
"Are you okay?"
She flashed a sheepish smile. "Sorry. I stood up too fast. I didn't have time for breakfast today but managed two cups of coffee. Low blood sugar."
Callum had to bite back an invitation to go get breakfast with him even as he surreptitiously glanced at her left hand. No wedding ring, which didn't necessarily mean anything. Still, he could —
He turned at the sound of his name. Steven waved at him from across the clusters of people gathered for the ceremony. Right. He was here for business, not to lose his head over a pretty woman.
His turn for an apologetic smile. "I have to go," he said.
She nodded. "Thanks again."
"You should eat something," he told her, then forced himself to wave at the girls and turn away after his brother called to him again.
Odd how difficult it was to walk away from a perfect stranger.
"The pediatric center would just be a dream for this community without the work of Callum, Steven and Dillon Fortune and everyone at Fortune Brothers Construction."
Becky Averill watched as Rambling Rose's effervescent mayor, Ellie Hernandez, motioned for the brothers to join her in front of the blue ribbon. How was it possible that Becky's stroller catastrophe hero was also the man she had to thank for her new job?
When the pediatric center officially opened a few days from now, she'd be the head nurse in the primary care department, reporting directly to Dr. Parker Green, who was heading up the entire center.
It was such a huge step up from her last position working part-time for an older family practice doctor who saw patients only a few days a week. In fact, it was Becky's dream job, one that would provide a livable wage, great health benefits for her and her girls as well as on-site day care. She couldn't believe how far she'd come from that horrible moment two years ago when a police officer had knocked on her door to relay the news that her husband had died in a car accident.
Becky had been only nine weeks pregnant when Rick died. They hadn't even learned she was expecting twins yet. Everything about her pregnancy had become a blur after that, as if she'd been living in some kind of hazy fog that never lifted.
Of course, things had become crystal clear the moment she heard her baby's first cry. Luna had been born two minutes before Sasha, but both babies filled Becky's heart with a new kind of hope for a future.
Her parents had wanted her to move back to the suburbs of Houston, but she refused. She and Rick had chosen Rambling Rose together, and despite being essentially alone in the small community, she never doubted that she belonged there.
Her girls were sixteen months old now, and life as a single mother hadn't exactly been a cakewalk. Rick's small life insurance policy had covered funeral expenses and allowed her to make her mortgage payments each month, but there hadn't been much left once she covered the essentials.
Not that she needed much for herself, but she wanted to give her daughters a good life. This job would go a long way toward her goal, but not if she messed it up by making a fool of herself before the center even opened.
Which was what she'd almost done with Callum Fortune. She hadn't been lying about missing breakfast, but her light-headedness had more to do with her reaction to the handsome stranger who'd come to her rescue.
Between work and caring for her girls, Becky hadn't even realized her heart could still flutter the way it did when Callum's dark gaze met hers. Butterflies had danced across her stomach and she'd had a difficult time pulling air into her lungs. Most women probably had the same inclination toward Callum. He would have been a standout in a big city like Dallas or Houston, but in the tiny town of Rambling Rose he was like a Greek god come to life.
Even now, her heart stuttered as she watched him smile at Ellie. Then his gaze tracked to hers, as if he could feel her eyes on him. His expression didn't change but there was something about the way he looked at her that made awareness prick along her skin. Dropping her gaze, she shoved a hand in the diaper bag that hung off the back of the stroller and pulled out a plastic container of dried cereal. The girls immediately perked up and she sprinkled a few oat bits into the stroller's tray before shoving a handful into her mouth. She really did need to remember breakfast.
Certainly an empty stomach was to blame for her dizziness, not the way Callum made her feel.
They cut the ribbon and the crowd, made up mostly of new employees of the center, cheered.
Luna clapped her hands at the noise while Sasha's chin trembled.
"It's okay, sweetie." Becky bent down and dropped a soothing kiss on her shy girl's cheek. "It's happy noise."
Sasha's big eyes widened farther as she looked around but after a moment she let out a sigh and settled back against the seat.
Meltdown averted. At least for now.
With twins, Becky rarely went for any long period without some sort of minor toddler crisis, but she wouldn't change a thing about either of her girls.
Callum and the rest of the pediatric center's VIPs had disappeared into the main lobby by the time Becky straightened.
"I hear they have cupcakes inside," a woman said as she passed Becky. "Your girls might like one."
"They're a little young for cupcakes," Becky answered with a laugh. "But I could use a treat."
"Those Fortune men are a treat for the eyes," the older woman said, giving Becky a quick wink. "If I were twenty years younger and not married ..."
Becky was plenty young but also far too exhausted to consider dating. At least the fact that she could appreciate Callum's movie-star good looks proved motherhood hadn't destroyed her girlie parts completely.
As they approached the entrance, the woman asked, "You're the one who lost her husband a couple of years ago, right?"
She nodded, considering the joys and pitfalls of living in a small town.
"It's good you stayed in Rambling Rose. We take care of our own. I'm Sarah. My husband, Grant, is the building manager for the pediatric center." The automatic doors whooshed open, and they walked into the lobby together. "Our kids are grown and moved away, so I've got more time on my hands than I can fill right now. If you ever need help —"
"Thank you," Becky said, forcing a smile. "I appreciate the offer, but I've got things under control."
Sarah gave her a funny look but nodded. "I understand. If you change your mind, Grant can get you my number."
Becky kept the smile fixed on her face until the woman walked away, then pressed two fingers to her forehead and drew in a steadying breath. She'd received at least a dozen similar offers since the twins' birth and had rejected every one. She hadn't really lied to Sarah. At this exact moment, she did have things under control. The girls were both sitting contentedly in the stroller watching the crowd.
Of course, things could go south at any moment. She'd handle that, too, on her own. She took the girls to a day care center when she worked, but otherwise didn't like to accept help. It had been her choice to stay in this town where she had no family. She didn't want people to think she was some kind of over-her-head charity case, even though most days she felt like she was treading water in the middle of the ocean.
But she didn't focus on that. She just kept her legs and arms moving so that she wouldn't go under. Her girls deserved the best she had to give, and she wouldn't settle for offering them anything less.
She was pushing the stroller toward the refreshment table when someone stepped in front of her path.
"Cupcake?" Callum Fortune asked.
Becky's mouth went suddenly dry, but she took the iced pastry from him. "Thanks," she whispered, then cleared her throat. "You did a great job with the building."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fortune's Fresh Start"
Copyright © 2019 Harlequin Books S.A..
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