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Stacey Fortune Jones was sure she had the cutest date at the New Year's Eve wedding reception for her cousin Sawyer Fortune and his bride, Laurel Redmond.
"Your baby is just gorgeous," Sherry James, one of her neighbors, said as she patted Stacey's six-month-old daughter's arm. "She has the best smile."
"Thank you," Stacey said. Clothed in a red velvet dress with a lace headband, white tights and red shoes, her little Piper was a true head turner. Stacey had enjoyed getting Piper ready for her first big night out, and it seemed her daughter was having fun. Her big green gaze took in all the sights and sounds of the celebration, and she smiled easily with everyone who approached. "She's a sweet baby now that she's gotten through her colic."
Sherry made a sympathetic clucking noise. "Colic can be hard on both the baby and the parents."
Stacey gave a vague nod. "So true," she said. In Stacey's case, there was no need for the plural. There was no dad to help. He'd abandoned Stacey before Piper had even been born. Thank goodness her parents had let her move back in with them.
"Well, you've obviously done a great job with her. She's the belle of the ball tonight," Sherry said.
"Thank you," Stacey said again.
"Oh, my husband's calling me," Sherry said. "You take care, now."
Jiggling her daughter Piper on her hip, Stacey headed for an empty seat at a table to give her feet a rest. Looking around, she couldn't believe that an airplane hangar could be transformed into such a beautiful reception site. Miles of tulle and lights decorated the space, and buffet tables groaned with delicious food. The sounds of a great band and happy voices echoed throughout the building. The guests, dressed in their finest, added to a celebratory mood. This wedding was the event of the season for the citizens of the small town of Horseback Hollow, Texas. People would be talking about it for years to come.
Although some might consider the choice of an airplane hangar a strange place to hold a wedding, it suited the groom and bride, since this was where the two were running a flight school together. No one had thought Sawyer or Laurel would ever settle down, let alone with each other. But the two stubborn yet free-spirited people had come to the conclusion that they were perfect for each other.
Stacey watched the newly married couple dance together and couldn't help thinking about the wedding she had been planning with her ex, Joe. Sometimes she wondered if she had ever really known Joe at all, or if she had been in love with an illusion of the man she'd wanted him to be. Now she didn't know if she'd ever find the love she saw on the faces of the bride and groom. Even though the hangar was filled with family and friends, and her little Piper was in her arms, Stacey suddenly felt alone.
"Hey," a male voice said. "How's it going?"
Stacey blinked to find her longtime neighbor, Colton Foster, sitting beside her. She gave herself a mental shake and tried to pull herself out of her blue moment. Colton's sister, Rachel, was Stacey's best friend; but Stacey had been overwhelmed with taking care of Piper, so she hadn't seen him except in passing since the baby had been born.
She'd known the Foster family forever. Colton had graduated several years earlier from the same high school she'd attended. He'd always been quiet and hardworking. He was the firstborn and only son of the Fosters and had taken his responsibilities seriously.
Tonight he wore a dark suit along with a Stetson, but he usually dressed his tall, athletic body in jeans and work boots. He had brown eyes that seemed to see beneath the surface, brown wavy hair and a strong jaw. Stacey knew of several women who'd had crushes on him, but to Stacey, he would always be Rachel's older brother.
"Great," she said. "I'm doing great. Piper doesn't have colic anymore, so I've actually gotten a few nights of sleep. My parents adore her. My brothers and sister adore her. She's healthy and happy. Life couldn't be better," she insisted, willing herself to believe it.
Stacey searched Colton's face. She couldn't help wondering if he'd heard anything from Joe since he and her ex had been good friends. Colton had even been asked to be one of the groomsmen for Stacey and Joe's wedding. The question was on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed it without asking. Did she really want to know? It wasn't as if she wanted him back. Still, Piper deserved to know her father, she thought. Stacey's stomach twisted as she met the gaze of her quiet neighbor. Maybe Stacey just wanted to hear that Joe was miserable without her.
The silence between them stretched. "She's a cute baby," Colton finally said.
Stacey smiled at her daughter. "Yes, she is. Someone even called her the belle of the ball," she said. "How are things with you?"
"Same as always," he said with a shrug. "Working a lot of hours to keep the ranch going."
Stacey searched for something else to say. The gap in conversation between her and Colton felt so awkward. She couldn't remember ever feeling this uncomfortable with him. "I haven't gotten out very much since Piper was born, so it's been a while since I've seen a lot of people or been to such a big party."
He nodded. "Yeah. Rachel tells me she drops by your house every now and then. She's been keeping us updated on how you're doing."
"Rachel has always been a good friend. I don't know what I would have done without her when" Stacey broke off, determined not to mention Joe's name aloud. She cleared her throat and decided to change the direction of the conversation. "Well, I'm glad you're doing well," she said, almost wishing he would leave. Maybe then she wouldn't feel so awkward.
Another silence stretched between them, and Stacey almost decided to leave despite the fact that Piper was half-asleep in her arms.
"It's a new year," Colton finally said. "A new year is always a good time for a fresh start. Are you planning to go back to work soon?"
Stacey sighed. "I'm not sure what to do now. I loved my job. I was a nurse at the hospital in Lubbock, but the idea of leaving Piper just tears me up. Even though my mother would babysit for me, it wouldn't be fair. My mother is busy enough without taking on the full care of a baby. Plus, I hate the idea of being so far away if Piper should need me."
"Is there anywhere else closer you could work?" he asked.
"I've thought about that, but as you know, the employment opportunities here in Horseback Hollow aren't great. There's no hospital here. It's frustrating because I don't want to be dependent on my parents. At the same time, I'm Piper's one and only parent, and I'm determined that she gets all the love she needs and deserves."
Colton studied Stacey for a long moment and realized that something about his younger sister's friend had changed. She used to be so happy and carefree. Now it seemed as if there was a shadow clouding the sunny optimism she'd always exhibited. He couldn't help feeling a hard stab of guilt. He wondered if the conversation he'd had with Joe over a year ago had influenced the man to propose to Stacey. Maybe he shouldn't have warned Joe that he might lose Stacey to someone else if he didn't put a ring on her finger. If they hadn't gotten engaged, maybe she wouldn't have gotten pregnant and Joe wouldn't have left her. After Joe had left Stacey pregnant with his child, Colton's opinion of his friend had plummeted. Now he wondered if Joe had just felt possessive about Stacey. He obviously hadn't loved her the way she deserved to be loved. Colton had always known Joe's home life hadn't been the best when he was growing up, but in Colton's mind, that was no excuse for how Joe had treated Stacey.
More than Stacey's outlook had changed, Colton noticed. She just seemed more grown-up. His gaze dipped to her body, and he couldn't help noticing she was curvier than she used to be. She'd filled out in all the right places. He glanced at her face and saw that her eyes seemed to contain a newfound knowledge.
Stacey had become a woman, he concluded. She was no longer the young girl who'd giggled constantly with his younger sister Rachel. He watched her lift a glass to her lips and take a sip of champagne, then slide her tongue over her lips.
The motion made his gut clench in an odd way. He wondered how her lips would feel against his. He wondered how her body would feel .
Shocked at the direction his mind was headed, Colton reined in his thoughts. This was Stacey, for Pete's sake. Not some random girl at a bar. He cleared his throat.
Stacey glanced around the room. "There are a lot of Fortunes. I'm still trying to keep all the names straight."
"That's for sure. Do you know all of them?" he asked.
Stacey shot him a sideways glance. "I've been introduced to all of them. I'm trying my best to remember their names. Between my mother, her brother James and her sister, Josephine, they have thirteen children."
Colton gave a low whistle. "That's a lot."
"And that doesn't include the wives. Just about all of James Fortune's children have gotten married within the last year," she said.
"I'm curious. What made all of you take on the Fortune name?"
She shrugged. "We did it for Mom. I know it sounds weird, but for Mama, finding her birth family has been a big deal. Even though her adoptive parents loved and adored her, there were things about her past that seemed a big mystery because she knew she was adopted. I think that meeting her brother James and her sister, Josephine, makes her feel more complete. For my mom, taking on the Fortune name is a symbolic way of declaring her connection to the Fortune family. Most of us have added the Fortune name out of respect to her. My brother Liam is holding out, though."
"How does your father feel about it?"
"That's a good question," she said. "My father is very stoic. He hasn't said anything aloud, and he has loved my mother pretty much since the dawn of time, but I have a feeling he may not like the name change. I'm not sure he would ever say it, because he's supportive of my mom. He would always have her back, but I wouldn't blame him if this pinched his ego a little bit."
"Speaking of your Mama Jeanne," Colton said. "She's coming this way."
Stacey smiled. "Betcha she wants to show off her grandbaby. Watch and see."
Stacey's mother wore her snowy white hair on the back of her head, and she sported a nice but not fancy dress. Jeanne Marie Fortune Jones was one of the most welcoming women Colton had ever met. Everyone in Horseback Hollow loved the nurturing woman. Jeanne extended her arms as she got close to Stacey and the baby. "Give me that little peanut," Mrs. Jones said. "It's time for me to give you a little break."
"She's been fine," Stacey said, handing over the baby to her mother. "I think she is half-asleep."
"Already? At her first party?" Mrs. Jones adjusted Piper's headband. "I need to introduce her to a few people before she totally zonks out." Mrs. Jones glanced at Colton. "Good to see you and your family here tonight. We're glad you could make it," she said.
"Wouldn't miss it," he said. "It was nice of you to make sure we were invited."
"Well, of course you're invited. You're like family to us. What do you think of little Piper here?" she asked, beaming with pride.
"She's a pretty little thing," Colton said, although babies made him a little uneasy. Seemed as if they could start screaming like wild banshees with no cause or warning.
"That she is," Mrs. Jones said. "I just want to make sure James and Josephine get to see her. You take a little break, Stacey."
Stacey nodded and smiled as her mother left. "Told you she wanted to show her off."
Colton glanced at Stacey's mother as she joined her Fortune siblings at a table and bounced the baby on her knee. The other woman, Josephine, smiled at the baby and jiggled the baby's hand.
Stacey smiled as she looked at her mother and her aunt and uncle. They were still learning about each other, but they were growing in love for each other, too.
"So, how does it feel to be a Fortune?" Colton asked.
"I don't know," Stacey said. "It may take some time to figure it out."
"Well, it must be nice not to have to worry about money anymore," he said.
Stacey shook her head and gave a short chuckle. "You must not have heard. My mother gave back the Fortune money. She didn't feel right about accepting it."
"Whoa," Colton said.
Stacey nodded. "Her brother James wanted to give her a lot of money. But she felt that money rightfully should go to his children. Mama doesn't want her relationship with James and the rest of the Fortunes tainted by her taking money from him."
Colton shook his head. "Your mama is an amazing woman. That was an honorable thing to do."
"I think so, too, but not everyone agrees with her decision," Stacey said. "For Mama's sake, I hope everything will turn out okay."
At that moment, Jeanne Fortune Jones was in heaven. Sharing her grandbaby with her newly discovered brother and sister, with family all around, Jeanne felt complete. Jeanne had always known she was adopted. Her parents had loved her as if they'd given birth to her, perhaps more. Yet even with all that love and adoration, something had been missing. Now she knew what it washer brother and sister. Joined together in the womb as triplets, separated for most of their lives, the three of them were back together again. To Jeanne, it all seemed a beautiful circle of life.
Her often-stern-faced brother James cleared his throat. "Jeanne, I still wish you would accept the money I tried to give you earlier. It feels wrong. Won't you reconsider?"
Jeanne immediately shook her head. Her conviction was clear as crystal on this matter. Jeanne knew that James's children had turned their backs on him because they'd misunderstood James's attempted generosity toward Jeanne. Now, after months of an angry, silent divide, James and his family were being reunited. "Absolutely not. I refuse to be the cause of a rift between you and your children. Besides, you earned that money. I didn't have anything to do with it."
James sighed. "But I feel guilty that I have so much and you have so little."
Jeanne shook her head and smiled as she looked down at her sweet granddaughter. "I've been around long enough to know that there are all kinds of riches. I have a wonderful husband, loving children and this beautiful grandchild. And now I have the two of you. My life couldn't be happier. I feel like I'm the lucky one."
"Do the rest of your family members feel that way?" James asked doubtfully.
Jeanne thought of her son Christopher and his resentment. Chris just had some growing up to do. He would realize what was truly important in due time. At least, she hoped he would. "Mostly," she said. "Look at how most of my kids have accepted the Fortune name. They know I would do anything for them, and they would do anything for me."
Jeanne noticed her sister seemed quieter than usual. "Are you okay, Josephine? Is this party too much for you?"
Josephine shook her head. "No. It's a grand party. You Texans know how to pull out all the stops," she said in her lovely British accent.
Jeanne Marie studied her refined sister in her luxury designer clothing. Who would have ever thought that she, Jeanne Jones, could be related to a woman who had married into the British royal family?
The thought made her laugh. She and James and Josephine had been joined in the womb. That was the ultimate equality. But more important than that, Jeanne knew herself, her heart and her family. She was beyond happy with her life. She sensed, however, that James and Josephine might not be so happy with theirs, but she hoped she was wrong .
"All of my children are single. I hope they will find love someday," Josephine murmured under her breath.
"Of course they will," Jeanne said, patting her sister's hand. "It just takes some time."
Josephine looked at Jeanne with a soft gaze. "I'm so glad we found each other."
Jeanne squeezed her sister's hand. "I am, too."