Author Archives: Mary Jane Morgan

Choices Of The Heart

Choices Of The Heart


Jillian Blake watched in horror when the big screen television in her brother, Justin Coleman’s, Irish pub left a scheduled program to announce a fiery plane crash outside of London that had presumably killed all aboard, including forty-three Americans.

“Oh my God.” Scrambling up from her table, her eight-month-old son, Jaxon, in her arms, Jillian raced over to Justin. “Turn it up. Turn it up,” she repeated, her voice rising in panic as she grabbed Justin’s arm, making him spill the beer he’d just filled for a customer. “Did they give the flight number? Stan was flying into London this evening.”

Justin blanched as he slid the beer down the bar before giving Jillian his full attention. “Do you have his flight number?”

“He texted it to me,” Jillian said, feeling lightheaded. Jaxon began crying, and she did her best to soothe him as paralyzing fear invaded her body. Justin took the baby from her. She opened her purse to get her phone, both desperate and terrified to see Stan’s text. Grabbing her phone, she tried to tap on the text, but her fingers were so shaky she kept missing.
Justin balanced Jaxon on his hip and took her phone, tapped the icon. “Flight 2536 is Stan’s.”

Jillian squeezed her eyes shut. “Please let him be safe,” she whispered. Stan could not be gone. Not now when they were doing so well. When they had finally worked things out following a rough patch after Jaxon was born. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and squeezed her eyes shut, trying her best to stop her fingers from shaking, but to no avail. Blood roared through her ears, making it hard to hear.

“Deep breaths, Jillian.” Justin wrapped his free arm around her as they waited for more details, and she welcomed his strength.
Her heart squeezed as she remembered telling Stan goodbye early this morning. He’d held her close for a long time, told her he loved her and would see her in a couple of days.
As Stan’s flight number ran across the top of the television screen, Jillian’s vision blurred, then total darkness engulfed her.

Since I Found You–excerpt

Paige Dillingham handed the newborn infant to the nurse to be weighed and cleaned up, relieved the baby was finally here and both he and the mother were doing fine.

“Nine pounds, thirteen ounces,” the nurse announced after weighing him.

Paige grinned. “Good job, Mama. You escaped a C-section by the skin of your teeth, but you’re going to be pretty darn sore for a while.”

“You’re the reason I didn’t have to have a section,” the mother responded with a tired smile. “Thank you.”

“I’ll second that,” her husband said from across the room where he watched the nurse tend to his newborn.

Paige patted her patient’s leg. “It was a team effort.”

By the time, Paige was through stitching up the mother, her husband had returned with the infant. He settled the baby in his wife’s arms. Paige watched as the smiling mother ran a fingertip over her newborn’s still-wet hair and across his velvety-smooth plump cheek. Nothing like a newborn baby’s skin to remind you how much your own skin had changed over the years. The father kissed his wife and wrapped his arms around his family. “He’s beautiful. You did good, honey.”

“Yes, you did,” Paige confirmed. As always, Paige had to fight down her own emotions after helping a new life into the world. Pulling her mask from her face and stripping off her gown and gloves, she left the birthing room and headed for her office a few blocks away, where she could sit in the quiet and unwind as she marveled at the miracle of life.

The minute she closed her office door behind her, she sank onto a chair, closed her eyes, and said a prayer of thanks for no complications in this difficult delivery.

Weariness seeped into every pore of her body, and she rested her head on the back of her chair and let her gaze wander over the wall filled with pictures of babies she’d delivered. She was incredibly lucky to have a career in her life’s passion, and no matter how many times she delivered a baby, every birth was a still a miracle. She of all people understood that. That’s why helping a newborn into the world brought her, not only joy for her patient, but healing for herself. And yet her tears still came, and as they rolled down her cheeks, she welcomed the memories they brought and the knowledge that she would feel better, at least for a while, after a good cry.

A few minutes later, she sucked in a deep breath and wiped her tears dry. Her stomach rumbled with hunger, and she shoved to her feet. Grabbing her purse from her desk drawer, she headed outside into the hot humid night. In celebration of this evening’s successful delivery, she would try out the Irish pub she often heard the nurses talk about. Shenanigans was known for its atmosphere and great food, and that sounded perfect to her. She hoped it had a cozy corner booth where she could eat a quiet, peaceful dinner and leave without having to be social, because what she needed right now was a quiet place to once again marvel at the miracle of new life. And, as always, remember the baby she had lost.


Justin Coleman glanced around his pub, checking to make sure everyone looked happy and satisfied. As usual it was a full house. The booths on the other side of the room were filled with mostly new customers, but his regulars were bellied up to the bar or sat at nearby tables. The hum of happy voices had him grinning. This was a great place to meet up with old friends or make new ones, and he couldn’t be more pleased.

Justin wiped down the dark walnut bar that he’d had brought in from Ireland when he’d remodeled the place. The authentic Irish bar and the huge stone fireplace that sat smack in the middle of the restaurant were his ideas, and he was glad he’d followed his instincts on them. On a cold winter’s night, people always commented on the roaring fireplace. It brought a cozy feeling to his pub, and people gravitated here because of it.

Feeling pleased, he leaned across the bar and eyed his pregnant sister. “Sitting around for hours eating bonbons and knitting in my pub is a new low, Jillian. What happened to the sister who—and I loathe to admit this—but the sister who has been known to beat me on the ski slopes?”

Jillian glared at him. “I’m seven months pregnant. Summer has arrived and it’s hot as hell. I miss Stan, and I’m fatter than a cow having triplets. Don’t mess with me.”

“I see your point, and I’m prepared to be punished. That make you feel better?”

Jillian narrowed her eyes at him. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it does.”

With a chuckle, Justin tossed the dirty rag into the sink. “I’ll get you a steak on the house if you’ll eat it.”

Her eyes brightened. “I should grouse more often.”

Shaking his head, Justin headed into the kitchen to order some decent food for Jillian. He had to admit, if he were in his sister’s shoes he wouldn’t be doing any happy dances either.

He ordered her a filet mignon, medium rare just like she preferred, salad and a baked potato, then marched back out front, prepared to snatch the box of chocolates right out from under Jillian’s nose, but stopped dead in his tracks at the gorgeous woman who stood by her table. Both women were laughing.

He ambled over. “Glad to see someone can make my sister laugh,” he said, smiling at the red-haired lady and extending a hand. “I’m Justin. Jillian’s caretaker at the moment. Have you come to my rescue?”

The woman took his outstretched hand. “I’m Paige Dillingham. Your sister’s midwife. I’m told healthy food is on the way for my stubborn patient.”

“That would be right.” Justin pulled out a chair for the woman. She hesitated but then sat. He settled on the chair between her and his sister. “Jillian’s been eating chocolate all evening, so I figured I’d better get some nourishment in her.”

Paige turned her attention back to Jillian and looked at her pointedly. “Guess my semi-lecture at your last appointment didn’t help.”

Jillian shrugged and Paige scowled before shifting her gaze back to Justin. “Thanks for ordering her some nutritious food,” she said with a smile.

A smile that hit him square in the solar plexus. “Anything else you need me to browbeat your patient into doing, just let me know,” he offered. “I’m contemplating stealing her chocolates when she’s not looking.”

Jillian slapped her knitting down on the table. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here, Justin, and don’t even think about stealing my chocolates,” she added defiantly.

“Come on, Jillian,” Paige said. “Give up the candy. It’s not good for you.” She held out her hand and Jillian glared at her. Justin watched, silently rooting for the midwife. Paige wiggled her fingers, her very slender and feminine fingers, and his mind clouded with out-and-out lust. “You’ll thank me someday,” Paige said. “I promise.”

Jillian glared at her midwife, but shoved the half-empty bag of candy across the table. “I’ll only buy more.”

Paige tucked the bag into her purse. “It’s good you’re about to eat real food, Jillian. You need something healthy for your baby.” She turned her attention back to Justin. “Think I’ll take my own advice and have the same thing Jillian’s having minus the baked potato. Medium rare on my steak.”

Justin motioned to a waiter and gave him Paige’s order. He’d be sure to comp her meal. A thank you for stealing Jillian’s chocolates. And maybe a few points for him.” He grinned. The woman was a total knock out, and he’d sure like to get to know her. “How about a glass of wine to go with your steak?”

Paige smiled. “That sounds lovely and thank you for the free meal.”

“You are both traitors,” Jillian accused.

“So, tell me,” Justin said, ignoring his sister’s furious glare and giving Paige his full attention. He was about to bust to know more about this woman. A lot more. “How long have you been a midwife?”

“Almost six years.” Paige picked up her glass of ice water and took a sip.

“Why a midwife instead of a doctor?”

“Money was a factor, but I also wanted to give mothers more options with delivery than standard hospital protocol.”

“Options such as?”

“Having their baby at home.”

Justin shot Jillian a look of shock. “You thinking about that?”

“Stan and I have talked about it,” she answered, shrugging him off.

“What if something goes wrong?” he asked, anxiety buzzing through him like a swarm of angry bees.

“Not to worry, Justin. I’m trained to take care of your sister. And an ambulance could get her to the hospital within minutes.” Paige leaned back as her dinner was served, along with a glass of wine. “This looks delicious.”

“Yeah, little brother. It looks totally wonderful.” Jillian picked up a fork and knife, then sent Justin a questioning look. “Why don’t you eat with us?”

“Because for some reason, I don’t have much of an appetite right now.”

Paige stabbed a piece of meat with her fork. “Your sister will be fine no matter where she has her baby,” she said with a confident smile. “Couples are choosing to use midwives and have at-home deliveries for a reason.”

“And that reason would be?” Justin prompted, watching her take a bite of steak.

She closed her eyes and savored the meat, and his blood roared through his veins. “Delicious,” she said, licking her lips. He almost groaned out loud. “I’ll have to come here again,” she added, cutting another piece of steak.

Please God, let that happen. “What brought you here tonight?” he asked.

She shrugged, took a sip of wine. “It’s not that far from my office, and I worked late. Thought I might as well try it. I don’t do much cooking for myself, so I usually go out.”

“I would tell you I’m glad you came,” Jillian said, “if you’d give me back my candy.”

“Sorry. You’re on your own for more chocolate.”

Justin was impressed with Paige’s firmness, but part of him felt sorry for his sister. Her hubby traveled a lot and he knew she sometimes got lonely. “Since Stan is gone, Jillian, why don’t you come stay with me tonight? I don’t have chocolate, but I do have a spare bedroom, and I’ll cook you a decent breakfast.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not good company.”

That was the truth. “When is Stan cutting back on his traveling?”

“This is his last trip until after the baby is born.”

“Good. You’re by yourself too much. I worry about you.”

Jillian patted his hand. “Sometimes you really can be sweet, little bro. Thanks.”

Justin glanced at Paige and shrugged. “She makes it sound like that’s a rare occurrence.”

Jillian punched him in the arm. “It is a rare occurrence, but you can garner major points if you come with me tomorrow when I get my 3-D ultra sound. It’d be nice to share that special event with someone.”

His sister’s voice sounded wistful, and his heart went out to her. “Count me in. I’ll pick you up and take you.” Not only would he be there for his sister, he’d also see her sexy midwife again. A win-win as far as he was concerned. Paige intrigued him, even if she wasn’t the type he was usually drawn to.

“You sure?” Jillian asked.

“Absolutely. It’ll be fun to see the little tyke I’m planning on honing my daddy skills on. Got to be at least semi-prepared for when I start a family,” he added with a grin.

“I’ll rent little Jaxon out,” Jillian said, rubbing her stomach.

Paige took another sip of wine in between bites. “I always wanted a brother or sister. You’re lucky you have your brother close by, Jillian.”

“You can borrow him anytime.”

Paige smiled but didn’t so much as glance Justin’s way. So much for it being his lucky night.

“Both my brothers are good guys,” Jillian went on. “And I have a sister who lives fairly close, so I’m pretty lucky even if I haven’t been acting like it lately.”

Paige smiled. “Your parents must have had their hands full, but a big family sounds nice. I was an only child and that can get lonely sometimes.”

“I can’t even imagine, but I bet someday you’ll be a great mom with a house full of kids,” Jillian said.

Pain clouded Paige’s green eyes but she quickly blinked it away. Justin fought back the sudden urge to console her. And what was that about? Feeling suddenly uncomfortable, he shoved away from the table and stood. “You ladies enjoy. I’ve got to get back to work. Let me know if you need anything else. Dinner’s on me tonight, Paige.”

“Thank you. That’s very generous.”

Justin forced his attention away from Paige and back to his smart-mouthed sister. “Holler if you need anything tonight. What time shall I pick you up tomorrow?”

“Nine-thirty.” She reached for his hand and squeezed it. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” Justin turned back toward Paige. “Nice to meet you. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and headed toward the kitchen where he wouldn’t be tempted to watch Paige out of the corner of his eye. She might be a midwife with a thriving practice, but the sad look he’d seen in her eyes a minute ago, made him wonder what had happened in her life to steal her joy.

And why in the world did he even want to know? Not only was it none of his business, he was perfectly happy with his life and the fun times he had with light-hearted women looking for the same thing he was—a good time and no commitment.

Someday he’d be ready for that to change, and then he’d look for a woman like Paige—a woman who wanted to marry and have a family. But that wasn’t in the cards for him anytime soon, so he forced his mind back on work and away from a woman who, he was sure, would do nothing but complicate his well-laid-out life plan.

Going To The Chapel

EXCERPT: Going To The Chapel

Chapter One

Reeling with shock and grief, it took every bit of willpower Claire Coleman had to walk to her car with her head up, start her red Volvo, and leave the parking lot of the Olive Garden in south Nashville.

“Lunch,” he’d said. “We haven’t done that in a long time.”

He’d made it sound like they never met for lunch. Of course they met for lunch. She just couldn’t remember when.
Chris Laizure, her best friend since fifth grade, boyfriend since high school, and lover since their first year of college had asked her to lunch, and then broken their engagement while they shared dessert. Claire fought back tears. They had a wedding date set for eleven weeks and three days from now in a wedding chapel being built right this minute on the Crystal Springs Dude Ranch’s west lawn overlooking a beautiful valley.
Anxiety and sadness swept through Claire. How could she go on without Chris? Without the friendship she’d had practically her entire life? She picked up her phone with a shaky hand and hit the number of her sister, Jillian, fighting for composure. When Jillian didn’t answer, she left a quick—hopefully not desperate—voice mail and then pulled in a fortifying breath. Might as well call Ashley Richardson, public relations director and wedding consultant at the dude ranch, and get that call behind her. She tapped on Ashley’s name and waited. After five rings, it rolled into voice mail, too, and she hung up. Maybe she’d go out there and see if she could find Ashley, let her know her first booking was now history. Claire wished like crazy Ashley had answered so she would have that call behind her. The woman was probably leading a horseback ride for guests or snuggled in bed in the log cabin her fiancé, Hank Bradley, had just built. They seemed like the perfect couple and it was obvious to anyone who’d ever been around them that they were crazy about one another. She’d caught them wrapped in one another’s arms several times and had sometimes felt a twinge of envy. She and Chris had rarely been like that with one another. To be honest, she couldn’t even remember when they’d been like that. Of course they’d been together practically their whole lives, so there was no burning need to always touch and steal kisses.
Claire wondered what it would be like to be in the kind of relationship Ashley and Hank seemed to have—flirty, warm, passionate. She wondered if she and Chris would have been more passionate if they hadn’t been together so long. She blinked rapidly, trying to stem the tears that wet her cheeks.

Turning onto the rural road that led to the dude ranch, Claire’s mind churned with thoughts of the kind of passionate sex she’d bet a month’s pay that Ashley and Hank had. She quickly reminded herself that she and Chris might not have had that kind of love making, but sex with him had been nice. Better than nice. Warm and safe. Her tears flowed freely as she wended her way toward the ranch on the country road that still had a good two to three inches of snow. She shouldn’t have come here, but she figured that Ashley, who very well might become her stepsister someday, would appreciate hearing in person that their first wedding in the chapel had fizzled.
A sob caught in Claire’s throat. What was wrong with her? She didn’t want to talk to another person except her sister, or mom, or Chris. Which at the moment left her with no one. Jillian wasn’t available; Chris had just ended their relationship, and the person she wanted the most, her mother, was dead. Claire fought back another wave of tears and could barely swallow around the tightness in her throat.

She’d leave Ashley a voice mail telling her the wedding was off, but before she left the ranch, she wanted to see how the chapel was coming along, as morose as that seemed. She hoped no one was there and she could sit in the quiet silence inside the building and let herself grieve in the very place where she was supposed to have become Chris’s bride. She’d so looked forward to becoming his wife, and someday being a mother.

“Oh Mama,” she whispered, swiping frantically at her tears. “I need you.” Her mom had been gone almost a year and a half, and Claire had never missed her more.

She pulled her car up to the ranch house and got out, then walked behind the house and headed up the hill toward the partially-built chapel, where she hoped to find some peace. Maybe even feel her mom’s presence.
She trudged up the snowy hill and was relieved when she reached the chapel and didn’t see any workers. Why had she even thought someone might be here? It was Sunday. Most people didn’t work on Sunday. That was one of the things Chris had complained about. “You work all the time, even Sundays for crying out loud. Where do I fit in?” She hadn’t quite known how to answer that question. Since her mother had died, Claire had worked almost every day. Only when the family had forced her dad to come to this ranch for a family getaway had she set aside work. Chris hadn’t bothered to come visit her that week. Said it was a busy time in the office, but now he’d had the audacity to complain about her working all the time.

She entered the chapel and gasped at the view. Every wall, and even the ceiling, had huge glass panes, pulling the outdoors right inside. She slowly turned in a circle and marveled at the magical sight of tree limbs blanketed in snow and forming a canopy over her. It was totally magical.

And she would never be married here.

She moved as if in slow motion past two folding chairs in the middle of the aisle. Walking all the way to the front, she sat on the steps leading to the platform, not bothering to take her coat off. A podium to her right, was obviously not a finished product but still beautiful with rich dark walnut wood and curved trim on one side. Claire shifted her gaze back to the outdoors. The silence and beauty squeezed at her heart, not soothing her as she’d hoped but slicing through all her defenses, and she buried her head in her hands and wept, completely losing track of time and not even caring. Why would she? She had nowhere to go and no one waiting for her.
“Ma’am? You okay?” a deep male voice asked.

She jerked her head up and froze at the sight of sympathetic, moss-green eyes that studied her. She turned away and wiped frantically at her tears. ‘I’m fine,” she finally managed to say with at least a smidgeon of composure.
He eased down beside her and she tensed. “Who are you?” she asked, pretty sure she had nothing to fear, but mortified he’d seen her crying. She was a private person and the last thing she wanted was anyone to see her in the state she was in. Besides, what kind of man intentionally approached a blubbering woman?

“I’m Sam McGinnis, custom builder for the chapel. “I came by to sit a spell while it was empty. Soak up the good vibes.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “It helps me with my work.”

“Guess you didn’t count on a half hysterical woman being here, did you?” She started to stand but he placed a hand on her arm, a big hand that felt solid and sure. And comforting. She sank back down and stole another glance at his hands. Large, strong, work hands. Everything about this man was big. He was not only tall, but broad and muscular. He looked like he could hold off an army if he needed to. Or be a safe haven. She quickly shoved that thought aside.

“You’re obviously pretty upset,” he said softly. “I feel like I should go and give you your privacy, but I don’t want to leave you here by yourself.” She must have looked like she wondered about his sanity, because he arched a brow and shrugged. “I help wounded animals too,” he added with a smile that had Claire’s heart hammering against her rib cage.

Shocked at her visceral response to his warm smile, Clare sucked in a breath and looked away. “And what do you do when you find them? The hurt animals,” she added.

“Help them if I can. Take them to Hank, the veterinarian who lives here, if I can’t.”

“I’ve met Hank and his fiancé, Ashley. Her mom, Dottie, is dating my dad.” She sniffed. “My mom passed away,” she added. “I miss her terribly.” Oh great. Now she was spilling her guts to a total stranger.

“I’m sorry. That’s rough.”

Claire nodded and swallowed hard. A bird trilled a song outside. She cocked her head to listen, not sure when she had last taken the time to enjoy the peaceful and happy sound of a singing bird. “I think that’s a mockingbird,” she said after a while.
“You would be right. These woods are full of birds.” He looked above them a minute, and then pointed. “There he is.” Claire caught sight of the gray bird and smiled.

“This is a marvelous place for a chapel,” he said, still watching the bird. “Every builder’s dream.”

My dream, Claire thought. My shattered dream. She forced herself to focus on the beautiful canopy of snow-covered branches. “There’s a pair of cardinals,” she said, pointing to the left.

He turned his head the direction she was pointing and smiled. “Nice to see them taking advantage of the bird seed I put out yesterday.”
She watched the birds flit from limb to limb until her neck ached almost as much as her heart. “Chris, my fiancé, or rather ex-fiancé, and I were supposed to be married here this spring. The redbud and dogwood trees would have been in bloom.” She dabbed at her eyes. “I shouldn’t have come here.” She started to shove to her feet but he gently took her arm, tugging ever so slightly, and she sat back down.

“Why did you come here knowing how much it would hurt?”

To seek comfort, she thought, surprised at his question. “To torture myself I guess,” she answered with a self-deprecating laugh.

“Is it working?”

Claire’s gaze locked with his. “It was,” she answered softly. His sympathetic gaze stole right through her defenses, and she was suddenly caught in a hazy web of something she couldn’t identify yet felt helpless to look away.

He finally broke eye contact. “I should get out here. Leave you be.”

She jumped to her feet. “No, I’m the one who should go.” She glanced around one last time and pulled in a deep breath. “It is quite lovely. I knew it would be.” She started down the chapel aisle, her heart aching.

“Wait,” Sam said. She stopped and turned, not sure why because suddenly she couldn’t get out of here fast enough, even though she had nowhere to go. “What’s your name?”

She cleared her throat. “Claire. Claire Coleman.”

“Nice to meet you, Claire Coleman. Come back and visit anytime.”

She hurried out of the chapel. No way would she ever come here again. She wanted as far away from this place—and this man—as she could get. The real truth was, she admitted as she hurried down the hill, is that she didn’t want to get away from Sam as much as she needed to get away from him. And that thought had her practically running down the snowy field back to the isolated safety of her car.

Home at Last (Crystal Springs Homecoming Romances)


Exhaustion tugged at Ashley Richardson as she pulled her loaded-to-the-hilt car up to her brother, Ethan’s, dude ranch outside Crystal Springs, Tennessee and parked at the side of the huge two-story white frame farm house. The bright red baskets of geraniums hanging across the front of the wrap-around porch made her smile. Her mother’s touch, she felt certain, and a welcoming first impression, especially with the porch swings and rockers, all with red cushions.

Ashley leaned her head back against the car seat and breathed a sigh of relief that her long, hot, three-day drive was over. She hoped she’d made a good decision to come here and be the public relations director for the ranch, but if it didn’t work out she could always leave and find a job in Nashville.

She glanced at the lush rolling hills surrounding her. It was definitely beautiful, and right now she was glad she’d let Ethan talk her into moving here. If truth be known, it hadn’t taken much talking on his part. She’d been away from her family for thirteen years. Thirteen long years of running from herself. It was time to join her family. Time to come to terms with her past and move forward.

“It’s a perfect fit,” Ethan had told her when he’d offered the job.

She’d harumphed, not at all sure it was any kind of fit, let alone perfect. But it was a job and it was close to family – a huge plus at this point in her life – and it gave her time to figure some things out and find herself.

A sharp rap on her window had her practically jumping out of her hot, sweaty skin. She clutched her heart and shot daggers at Hank Bradley, co-owner of the dude ranch and the main source of her reservations about taking this job. Holding back a curse, she rolled down her window.

“Ethan had to go out to a building site. Said to welcome you. Pop the trunk. I’ll grab an armload.”

“That’s a heart-warming welcome if ever there were one,” she muttered, shooting him a fake smile.

“I do my best.” Tipping his cowboy hat at her, he sauntered to the trunk and grabbed an armload of luggage. “Follow me. I’ll show you your room.”

Ashley grabbed her two smaller bags, slammed the trunk shut, and followed him inside, where it was blessedly cool. He climbed the stairs and she followed, unable to keep from admiring the view. Men weren’t the only ones who enjoyed eyeing good butts, she mused. She’d known Hank since they were in junior high and he’d always had a cute butt. And broad shoulders. And a killer smile when he bothered to use it. Which was rare around her.

She shifted her gaze, chastising herself for admiring Hank’s assets, and continued to follow his long-legged stride, practically running to keep up.

When they landed on the second floor, he spoke. “Ethan put you in the new wing. Thought you’d enjoy the view and the peace and quiet it offered.”

“He got that right.”

Hank shoved the door open to a gorgeous mauve and cream colored suite, and Ashley sighed with pure pleasure. She set her two bags on the gleaming hardwood floor, kicked off her sandals and walked toward the antique four-poster, walnut bed, sinking her tired feet into a thick, cream-colored, area rug adorned with mauve flowers and dark green leaves.

She scooted onto the bed and bounced a few times. “This bed is magnificent. Where did Ethan pick this up?”

“My folks’ place. I cleaned their house out last month after Mom died.”

“Oh,” she said, at a loss for words. Seemed she was always at a loss for what to say around this man of few words. He certainly never talked about his family. She’d never heard anything good about his folks, and every time she’d asked Ethan about them he’d told her Hank’s family life wasn’t any of their business.

She ran a hand over a polished bed post and admired the intricate pattern carved into it. “I heard about your father passing a long time ago. I hadn’t heard about your mom. When did you lose her?”

“A few months ago. Heart.”

Ashley’s hand stilled. “I’m sorry, Hank. I can’t imagine losing my mom.”

“That’s because your mom’s one-of-a-kind. She’s been more like a mother to me than my own mom. Count yourself lucky.” Hank turned to go. “If you need anything, I’m right next door.”

“Seriously?” Irritation scraped through her. This was not what she needed. “When I was here at the first of the summer, you were living in a stall in the barn,” she said, rolling her eyes before she could stop herself.

“I’m expanding the barn. Adding some therapy horses and another arena. By the way, this is a Jack and Jill suite. We share a bathroom.” He nodded toward a door on the other side of the bed.

Ashley’s mouth fell open. “I’m sharing a bathroom with you?” she hissed, anger churning through her before she reined it in. She wasn’t sharing a bathroom with anyone, but especially Hank Bradley. She didn’t want to even see the man, and she sure as hell wasn’t sharing the intimacy of a bathroom with him. She and Hank could barely manage to be civil to one another so this would never work. Never. Not in a million years.

She’d have Ethan find her another room. Or move to a hotel if she had to.

“Calm down, Ash. I’m used to a stall. I rarely even shower.”

“Very funny.”

Chuckling, Hank left the room. Ashley closed the door forcefully behind his retreating back. Big brother would pay for this. Of course big brother had no idea how much Hank got on her nerves, but still. She glanced around the room and tried to calm herself. It really was quite lovely. A sitting area off one side of the room caught her eye. She started toward it, stopping when her bare feet sank again into the thick area rug beside the bed. She dug her toes into the plush rug and admired a walnut six-drawer dresser, complete with an oval, beveled glass mirror and wondered if that had come from Hank’s old house, too.

She headed toward the sitting room, sighing with pleasure when she stepped into it. A light yellow chaise was in one corner, facing French doors that gave her a beautiful view of a meadow. A delicate Tiffany lamp sat on a side table, which looked like yet another antique. She wondered if it was a piece from Hank’s childhood home.

She sank onto the chaise and propped her feet up. Okay, so the room was lovely, but she still didn’t want to share a bathroom. What had Ethan been thinking? She wanted her privacy for crying out loud. No woman in the world would want to share a bathroom with a male stranger. Okay, so Hank wasn’t a stranger, but still. Ethan should have at least checked this out with her.

She stormed over to the bed and grabbed her cell phone out of her purse. She pulled up Ethan’s name then groaned and tossed her phone onto the bed. She could hardly complain when the room was free, and Ethan was paying her generously for her job. Besides, she also had a balcony, one of the few rooms that boasted that amenity. She walked back to the sitting room, opened the French doors wide and stepped outside. A sigh of pleasure left her as she took in the green rolling hills spotted with horses. To her right was the barn and arena, where five horses stood saddled and, she assumed, waiting for riders.

A family of four walked to the horses, and Hank stepped out of the barn, greeting them. He talked with them a minute, probably giving them instructions, then led the way to the horses. No one needed help mounting their horse, so they must have some riding experience.

Hank swung onto a gorgeous black stallion and headed out, the family filing out behind him into the south pasture. Ashley watched until they were out of sight, thinking a morning ride sounded wonderful. She’d have to do that soon. In the meantime, she had a lot of unpacking to do. That is, if she stayed in this room.

Reluctantly, she went back inside, opened a suitcase and grabbed some clean clothes. Picking up her small bag of toiletries, she headed for the bathroom. At least she’d have hot water this early in the evening. And Hank wasn’t anywhere around.

She opened the door to the bathroom and almost squealed with delight. A huge whirlpool tub greeted her. Talk about the perfect way to mellow after her long drive from California. She locked the door and prepared to indulge herself.


Ashley joined the breakfast crew early the next morning, smiling as she sat beside Ethan at the end of the table. Several guests were finishing up their breakfast and Ashley made a point of greeting them.

“How did everyone sleep last night? I slept like a milk-drunk baby.”

“Nothing like clean country air,” one man said as he scooted away from the table. “We’re heading out for a hike. See you all later.”

“Watch where you walk,” Ethan called after them. “Country life has country critters.”

The man nodded and escorted his wife and two teenage boys outside.

“So what are the big plans around here for Labor Day?” Haley asked after taking a sip of orange juice.

“Just the usual unless you want to throw something together at the last minute.”

“Talk about pressure,” she muttered around a piece of toast with fresh blackberry jam that practically melted in her mouth. “Looks like I have my work cut out for me.”

Hank sauntered into the room and sat across from them. “Mornin’. Did my snoring keep you awake, Princess?”

Ashley narrowed her gaze at him, angry and hurt and hoping only the hurt showed. The man barely talked to her, but when he did she often wished he’d kept his mouth shut. She took a bite of eggs, watched him as she chewed and remembered only too vividly the last time he’d called her Princess. His words still stung. “You need to grow up, Princess.”

She swallowed down her humiliation and shifted her attention back to the present and her brother. “We’ve got three nights until Labor Day. How about a barn dance? Invite the entire area, not just people staying here.”

Ethan practically choked on his food. “You think big. That’s a lot to pull off in a few days.”

“Wuss. How about in a couple of weeks? Make it a grand opening for the place? Don’t you think the Crystal Springs Dude Ranch needs a grand opening?”

Ethan leaned back in his chair, rubbed his flat belly and groaned with pleasure. “Sounds like a plan. Francie knows some ladies in town who own a place called Comfort Cafe. Bet you could get them to cater the food.”

“Francie knows everyone. Having her for a sister-in-law comes in handy, huh?”

Ethan grinned. “Matt did good.”

“Yes he did, and so did you when you finally convinced Haley to marry you.” Ethan’s grin covered his face, and Ashley was happy for him. “I’ll talk to Francie. How are she and Matt doing by the way?”

“Still two little love birds. Francie keeps trying to give Haley riding lessons, but she keeps declining.” Ethan chuckled. “Francie is persistent, so my money’s on her, not my beautiful wife.”

“My money’s on your beautiful wife,” Hank announced. “That woman found her voice and she’s never giving it up.”

“Good for her,” Ashley said. “Besides, Haley has her own strengths,” she added, taking another bite of scrambled eggs.

“How do you like those ostrich eggs?” Ethan asked.

Ashley’s mouth froze. “Really?” she mumbled around her food.

Hank pointed his fork at her. “You’re in God’s country now, Ashley. Pretty sure we’re having rattler for dinner.”

She swallowed her eggs. “You are so full of it.”

Ethan and Hank grinned at each other. Ashley frowned at them. “Some things never change, and you two guys are one of those things. You’ve been egging each other on since grade school.”

“It’s become a fine art, don’t you think?” Ethan punched Hank in the arm.

“My end of it has. Not sure about yours.” Hank took a sip of coffee, a smirk on his face, and Ethan laughed.

“Okay, how about a nature hike and barbeque on Labor Day?” Ashley suggested. “Just for the guests.”

Ethan pondered her suggestion then looked at Hank. He arched his brows. “Don’t look at me. Just remember they’d have to watch for rattle snakes, depending on where the clues are.”

“God you’re a spoil sport.” Ashley scooted away from the table. “You two think about it and let me know. I’m going for a morning ride. Which horse do you suggest, Hank?”

He shoved away from the table, picked up his plate. “I have a couple that would be a good choice for you. A bay mare and a gray gelding. Why don’t you show her, Ethan? I have work to do.”

“Sorry. No can do.” Ethan stood. “I have an early appointment with a client in town. When you get a few minutes, Ashley, Haley and the kids would love to see you.”

“Sure thing. I’ll ride to your new house, tie the horse at the fence post.” She grinned. “You do have a fence post, don’t you?”

Laughing, Ethan grabbed her up and twirled her around. “Good to have you here, little sis.” He set her down, kissed her cheek. “See you later. Hank’ll take good care of you. Answer any questions you have.” Ethan grabbed his cowboy hat and headed outside.

Hank’s gaze coasted over Ashley. “I’ll meet you in the barn after you change into riding clothes.”

“Just show me which horse and where the gear is. I can take it from there.” Ashley walked outdoors and pulled in the fresh morning air, not about to dash upstairs and change because of what Hank said. She would change after she’d saddled her horse. Hank knew she was an experienced horse woman. Why did he always have to goad her?

She walked to the corral and leaned over the railing, spotting the gray gelding immediately. She clucked and his ears pricked as he watched her with interest, chewing on some hay. Several of the other horses glanced at her, but the gray walked up to her and stretched out his neck. She patted his sleek, dappled coat.

Hank joined her, resting his arms over the top railing. Big hands, Ashley thought. He rubbed the gelding’s face and the horse shoved his nose closer. Gentle hands too. “Jagaer can be a bit spirited and stubborn but you’ll be able to handle him.” Hank gave the gelding one last pat. “The prettiest area is the south pasture. The tack room is the third door on the right. Have a good ride.” He headed toward the barn without even a good bye.

“Hank, wait.” He stopped and turned, one eyebrow arched. “It’s obvious we’ll be running into each other a lot. Don’t you think it’s time we tried to get along?”

He studied her a minute, and she felt uncomfortable, exposed like some teenager who had just been caught doing something she shouldn’t be doing. “You just want to butter me up so you’ll get more bathroom time,” he finally said.

Ashley laughed, irritated that he could amuse her as easily as he irritated her. “I’m serious. We’ve been at odds since. . .” She swallowed hard and shrugged. “Well, you know.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I know. I pissed you off bad. You don’t forgive easily.”

“What? You never gave me a chance to talk to you again, let alone forgive you. Besides, you didn’t really need forgiving,” she added, looking down and kicking at the dirt. “I’m the one who needs forgiving.”

“I forgive you. Have we cleared the air now?”

She glared at him. “I just want us to get along. I’ll be living here a while and it’d be a lot more comfortable if we could just be” – she hesitated. “Friends.”

He walked back to her, his stride long and loose, and stopped practically on top of her. She had to crane her neck up to not be looking at the middle of his chest. “Friends, huh?”

“Yes,” she all but squeaked.

His blue eyes were intense, taking in her face as if memorizing every detail. She felt herself grow hot.

He leaned so close their noses almost touched and she could feel his body heat radiating off of him. He rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “Nope. Don’t think I want to do that.”

And just like that she was eighteen years old and stupid again.

Hank stepped back. “Let me know if you need anything though.” He pivoted and strode toward the barn as if once again he couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

Humiliation suffused her face as she watched the arrogant jerk jump over the corral fence and enter the barn. What did he do in that damn barn all the time? Avoided people would be her best guess, since he was so distant with them. Or maybe it was just her he was distant with. There was a time back when they were kids, she’d followed Ethan and Hank around like a puppy dog, and for the most part Hank hadn’t seemed to mind.

Then everything had changed.

Her spirits took a nose dive. She’d hoped Hank didn’t hate her anymore, but she’d been wrong and it stung. A lot. She would definitely ask Ethan for another room tonight.

She went into the house, fully intending to enjoy her ride this morning even if Hank had upset her. Hurrying to her room, she changed into jeans and boots, eager to gallop a horse across the pasture and forget about Hank’s dismissive and hurtful response to her pathetic attempt to repair the understandable grudge he held against her – and even more eager to outrun her fear that coming to Crystal Springs might be the second biggest mistake of her life.



Chapter One — Long Road Home



Headlights from a car swept through the paddock as Megan Swearingen hurriedly tossed flakes of hay to her horses and kept an eye on the south pasture, hoping her grey mare, Lucy, was heading to the barn for dinner.

She tucked a wayward strand of hair that had come loose from her ponytail behind her ear and watched as a pick-up came down her long drive, horse trailer in tow.

She groaned. No way did she have time for company. She needed to search for Lucy, a very pregnant Lucy, who Megan worried might have gone into labor early and be down somewhere out in the pasture.

The pick-up stopped about five feet from her, and Brett Lawson stepped out, tipping his black Stetson at her.

She narrowed her gaze. “Lawsons aren’t welcome here and you know it.”

Brett shut the truck’s door and walked toward her, all broad shoulders and lean hips. His dark, unruly hair fell across his forehead while soft curls caressed his neck.

Ignoring her comment, he opened the paddock gate, walked through and closed it behind him before striding over to Megan. “A mountain lion attacked one of our horses. Thought you’d want to know.”

Megan gasped. “One of my mares is missing, and she’s due to foal in a few weeks.”

Brett scowled as he stared down at her, all but towering over her own five foot six inches.  “You need to find her. Now. Our mare is still alive, but she lost a lot of blood. The vet’s working on her. The lion got away even though he came within a hundred yards of the paddock.”

“Oh my God,” Megan whispered. She dropped the rest of the hay and hurried toward the paddock gate.

“I’ll help you search,” Brett offered.

“I can manage,” Megan snapped. She’d be damned if Brett Dawson was helping her do anything. His father had an affair with her mom for years, and then dumped her right after Megan’s dad committed suicide. Megan and her mom both suspected that Harry Dawson told her father about the affair and that’s why her dad killed himself.

Megan knew deep down that Brett wasn’t responsible for his father’s actions, but she’d learned years ago not to trust Brett, to keep her distance if she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life mooning over someone she couldn’t have.

“What you find might not be pretty,” Brett said, sympathy in his dark brown eyes.

Her stomach twisted at his words. This was so not what she needed. She also didn’t want Brett on her property, let alone helping her.

“Look, Megan. I’m not the one who did you wrong. Let me help. It’s not safe out there right now. You even have a gun?”

“A rifle and I don’t need your help,” she said, even though her insides were shaking.

“My offer still stands,” Brett responded as his worried gaze swept over the Tennessee mountain range that lay just beyond them.

Megan swallowed hard. The thought of what she might find made her stomach churn. She sucked in a deep breath, determined to handle this newest crisis by herself. “I can take care of this,” she said, praying she was right.

She hurried out of the paddock and toward her truck, then remembered she didn’t have her keys. She started for the back porch at a jog.

“While you’re dilly-dallying around, your horse might be in real trouble,” Brett called after her.

Megan cursed under her breath, knowing he was right. She spun around and jogged over to the pasture gate, opening it wide. Dawson climbed into his pick-up and drove through the open gate. Megan quickly re-fastened the gate, then climbed into Brett’s truck, praying she hadn’t lost one of her most promising three-year-olds, as well as her unborn foal, to a mountain lion.




Brett scanned the hillside, keeping his eyes low to the ground, because he was sure that’s where the mare would be—on the ground. “We haven’t had a mountain lion come down for food in years. Until he’s caught, you might want to keep your horses in the south pasture, closer to the house.”

“You said the lion came within a hundred yards of your barn, so I doubt that’ll stop him.”

“Maybe not, but it can’t hurt. A good watch dog wouldn’t hurt either. He’d at least alert you.”

“I’ll be sure and go scrounge one up. First thing tomorrow,” she responded dryly.

He glanced over at her. Rumor had it her dad’s gambling had left them deeply in debt. Megan had quit college to try and save the Thoroughbred farm that had, at one time, been one of the most reputable breeders of Thoroughbreds in the industry.

She was tough all right. Made of sterner stuff than either her old man or mom. She was also pretty. Her thick blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, emphasizing her high cheek bones and big green eyes. Then there was her mouth, full and lush even though it was set in a scowl.

He’d had a taste—a big taste—of that mouth once, but then he’d come to his senses and run like hell, because little Megan Swearingen was way too young for him to be messing with. Way too young. At sixteen, she’d been the prettiest thing he’d ever seen in his entire twenty-four years.

He shook himself back to reality. “A friend of mine has a rescue Doberman. About two years old. You could get her for practically nothing.”

“Great. That’s about what I’ve got right now.”

He winced. No one should have to go through what she was, but she didn’t have to take it out on him. Or maybe she did. After all, his dad had probably started this whole ugly mess.

“I’ll bring her over tomorrow. Let you check her out if you want.”

She shot him a look that would have made a lesser man cringe. “Just give me the number. I’ll go see her myself. Maybe.”

So much for trying to be helpful. Megan reminded him of his late fiancé, stubborn as they come and out to prove to the world she could take on anything that came her way. Brett’s stomach tightened remembering Emily. She’d taken on the world all right, and it had cost her her life.

Megan needed him right now, whether she would admit it or not, and he would help her get through this evening, because he seriously doubted she could handle this alone. And she shouldn’t have to.

He turned the truck to the right and skirted around a deep gully, keeping a watchful eye out for the mare. “Damn,” he muttered, pointing to the bottom of the hill toward a clump of trees.

“Oh God,” Megan whispered. “Hurry. She might still be alive.”

Brett pressed on the accelerator and guided the bouncing truck toward the mare. When he got the pick-up as close as he could, he slammed on the brakes, put the truck in park, and pulled his rifle from the gun rack. “Stay here. I’ll go look up close.”

Megan started to get out of the pick-up.

“For God sakes, stay put. You don’t want to see this.”

“And you do?” she shot back. “Besides, the foal she’s carrying is the last offspring of our best stallion, Jack of all Trades. I need that foal.”

Brett remembered Jack, fast as lightening and a great temperament. He’d save the foal if he could. “The mare’s not mine, so I can handle whatever I find down there better than you.” He saw her swallow hard and pressed his case. “I doubt you can help her, Megan. Just stay here.”

He shoved open his door, jumped out, and started down the embankment as fast as he could go without falling.

“Try and save the foal,” Megan hollered after him.

Brett gritted his teeth and hurried over to the still mare. The sight made him sick. It was the mountain lion all right. Only it hadn’t eaten her. Just killed her and left her to rot. Looks like they for sure had a renegade lion on the prowl.  Megan would have to get someone out here to haul off the carcass. Another expense for her. With a sigh, he bent down and felt the mare’s bloody neck. Still warm. Hope sprung from his knotted gut. There was a chance the foal might still be alive.

His heart went into triple time as he pulled out his hunting knife and flipped it open. He had to get that foal out. Fast. He took a deep breath and bent over the mare, slicing her belly wide open. The foal moved and he quickly made the cut longer, then pulled on the front legs. “Slick little bugger, aren’t you?” He ripped off his t-shirt and wrapped it around the foal’s front legs, pulled again, and it whooshed out. He cleared out her mouth, and she sucked in a rattling breath. He cut the umbilical cord, taking his time and hoping it was slow enough to keep the filly from bleeding out, then lifted the newborn. Holding her securely, he scrambled up the side of the gully. By the time he got to the rim, his arms ached so bad they burned and he was short of breath.

Megan met him, her eyes wide, her skin paler than chalk. “Go open the trailer,” he ordered. “I’ve got some rags in the back of the truck. Bring me an armload.”

Megan ran to the pick-up. By the time he’d laid the foal down, Megan was back at his side, her arms full of rags. She dropped them on the floor of the trailer and knelt down beside him.

“A filly. Oh please live little one,” she said, stroking the filly’s wet neck as Brett cleared more liquid out of her mouth.

The foal took a rasping breath. Then another. Brett grinned. “Stay here with her. Rub her down. I’ll drive us back to the ranch.”

She nodded and he jumped out of the trailer and into the truck. Driving carefully, he headed back to Megan’s ranch. Thank God he’d insisted on coming. He’d saved that filly’s life, and he’d do everything he could to help Megan keep her alive. She’d said she needed that foal to keep Jack’s bloodline going. He wondered why they hadn’t collected the stallion’s sperm and frozen it. He shoved the question aside and set his mind to the task at hand.

When he drove through the gate that separated the north and south pastures, he put the truck into park, hopped out and pulled the gate shut and locked it. No use letting any more horses get that far away. Seconds later he was heading toward the barn.

He pulled up to the paddock gate, and Megan ran in front of him and opened it. She shut the gate behind him as he pulled up to the barn door and stopped. He jumped out and strode back to the trailer for the foal. “You got an empty stall?” he asked, lifting the newborn.

“Yes. Lucy’s. I only meant to let her out for about an hour to stretch her legs, but then . . .” Her voice caught and he saw her fight for control before turning and hurrying into the barn. He followed, thinking she should never have turned that pregnant mare out, but he figured Megan already knew that.

As soon as Megan had tossed some fresh straw into the corner stall, he stepped inside and lay the foal down. “There you go, little girl.” She lifted her still-wet head and looked at him. “It might take her a little longer to stand since she’s a few weeks early, but she still should be up on her feet within three to four hours. We’ve got to get some colostrum down her. You got any?”


“Yeah, it comes before the milk.”

“I know what it is,” Megan snapped. “Why would I have any?”

“We keep it in stock. Buy it from one of the big breeding farms just outside Nashville. Sit here with her. I’ll go get some.” Megan started to say something, but he cut her short. “Now’s not the time to argue. The foal needs colostrum within five to six hours of birthing if you want to protect her from getting sick.”

Megan nodded and clamped her mouth shut.

“Keep rubbing her down while I’m gone.” He stepped outside the stall.

“You want your shirt?” she asked, her voice laced with exhaustion.

“Nah. It’s pretty much ruined. I’ll grab another one.”

“Fine by me,” Megan muttered to his backside—his very broad and very ripped backside. She might not want the man’s help but she sure couldn’t complain about the view. The minute the barn door shut behind him, she re-focused on the foal. “How am I ever going to take care of you?” she said as the foal nuzzled her hand. “I don’t even know how often to feed you. Dad didn’t teach me much about this kind of stuff.” She blew out a weary sigh. “I didn’t have time to get all the chores done before this,” she said, barely keeping her tears in check.

She heard someone coming down the barn aisle, and a minute later her sister, Lauren, peeked into the stall. A wide grin split her usually glum ten-year-old face. She stepped inside and plopped down on the straw, stroked the foal’s neck.

“Pretty cute, huh?” Megan said, smiling at her little sister, wishing she would talk. “We’ll have to feed her, though. Her mommy died.”

Megan watched Lauren’s face fall and knew she was thinking about their father dying. “You want to help me with the feedings?”

Lauren’s head bobbed up and down. “Good. I’m gonna need your help. I’ll have to get on the internet and research what to do.” She felt like a fish flopping on a bank, but somehow she’d figured it all out.

They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, giving the foal a good rub-down together. When they were done, Megan leaned her weary body back against the stall door. Fear skittered through. Fear and guilt. She should have known better than to turn Lucy out, even for a little while, no matter how much the mare had begged. She’d never dreamed anything like this might happen, though. Now she’d lost one of her prize broodmares and maybe her foal.

Megan couldn’t believe how much money it took to keep this place up and running. She’d been oblivious all her life about the financial end of running a Thoroughbred farm. Then her father had died.

Or rather killed himself.

To make matters worse, they’d discovered after his death that he’d invested a huge chunk of his savings into some bad deals. Not only that, he’d also sold all of Jack’s frozen sperm to finance those deals. Damn him anyway. How in the world was she supposed to keep this ranch afloat?

Lord knows her mother was no help. She was too busy throwing a pity party to even think of anyone but herself. If only her mother hadn’t gotten involved with Harry Dawson, her father would still be alive. Megan felt sure of that. The money would be gone, but she wouldn’t be stuck all by herself trying to save a drowning ranch. A fresh spurt of anger shot through her.

Damn Dawson. And her mother too. She glanced toward the house where her mother was, no doubt, lying in bed feeling sorry for herself. Her mother had been like this since her husband had died, and she showed no signs of stepping up to the plate on any of her responsibilities, not even being a mother to Lauren, who hadn’t muttered so much as one peep since finding their dad.

Selective mute is what the therapist called it. A living nightmare is what Megan called it.

The anger she usually managed to tamp down re-surfaced with a rush. In an odd sort of way, she welcomed her anger because it gave her the energy to keep going.

The sound of a vehicle outside drew Megan’s gaze away from the foal. She was too desperate to feel anything but relief that Brett had returned. She needed his help tonight if this foal was going to live. Needing Brett stuck in her craw, but there was no way around it, at least until she had time to talk to her vet and learn what to do.

“How’s she doing?” Brett stepped inside the stall carrying a shallow pan and a bucket of bottles full of what she assumed was colostrum.

“She’s alert.”

“Good. She needs two to three liters of this yummy stuff. We’ll divide it into three or four doses, but no use trying to feed it to her now. She needs to be hungry or she’ll never drink from a pan.”

“Why can’t we bottle feed her?”

“We could. It’s a little risky, though. The bottle has to be held at a specific height or milk can run down her trachea into her lungs.”

“But can she can drink from a pan?” Megan watched him set his supplies down.

“We’ll teach her.”

She groaned. “I don’t know how.” God she hated to admit that.

“I do,” he said with a grin.

She must have looked as overwhelmed as she felt because he patted her shoulder. She should have pulled away from his touch but found it comforting, which irritated her to no end.

She’d always liked Brett’s touch. She remembered only too vividly that long-ago barn dance and hot summer night when Brett had dragged her out behind the barn and pulled her into his arms. His lips had not only stolen her breath but her heart. She’d had a crush on him most of her life and that night, when she’d just turned sixteen, he’d treated her like a woman. And then never touched her again.

The sound of Brett’s voice dragged her mind away from the memory.

“In about three hours, when she’s up on her feet and good and hungry, we’ll pour her first liter into this pan. After she sucks it off my fingers, she’ll start sucking it out of the pan,” Brett explained. “I’ll demonstrate, then you should be able to do it yourself. She’ll need the rest of the colostrum about every hour. And she’ll need her immunoglobulin levels checked in about twelve to fourteen hours, so we know if we’ve gotten enough colostrum in her for her to get passive immunity from it.”

Megan’s mind jammed with all the information. Thank God someone around here knew what he was doing, even if it was Brett. She stroked the foal’s head with a shaky hand.

“Your vet knows all this, but I’ll go ahead and fill you in,” he said. She nodded, still in a daze. “Once her colostrum’s good to go, you’ll start on milk. Every two hours. I brought powdered milk to get you through a couple of days. Figured that’ll give you time to get to the vet’s office and get some of your own.”

“That was very generous of you,” she managed to say.

“Don’t want you to lose this little filly. This is going to be a lot of hard work for the first few weeks especially, but it can be done.”

Her throat tightened. Every two hours. How would she possibly manage? “I can do it,” she squeezed out of her constricted throat, praying she was right.

“Not by yourself you can’t. No one could.” He shook his head. “Just can’t be done. Every two hours for five days is not a one-man job.” He knelt down beside the foal and gave her a brisk rub-down, his big hands strong and sure.

Megan’s mind flicked back to those hands on her, rubbing up and down her back and cupping her bottom. She felt her face flush and prayed he didn’t notice.

“She’s a beauty,” Brett said, stroking her neck.

Megan forced herself to quit thinking about what his hands had felt like on her and focus on the task she was up against. Panic threatened to overwhelm her. He was right. She couldn’t do it alone. If she had nothing else to do, she couldn’t manage to feed Gracie, but add on her responsibilities around here, and it was all she could do not to put her head in her hands and cry.

Brett stroked the filly’s shoulder, ran a finger down the blaze on her forehead. “Pretty markings. You’ve got a good one.”

Lauren patted the foal’s nose and Brett smiled. “You want to help?” Lauren nodded with enthusiasm. “Good. Keep rubbing her. She needs the stimulation. Got any names picked out?”

Lauren shook her head.

Brett furrowed his brows, and Megan could tell he was wondering about Lauren’s lack of speech.

Megan stood. “I’ve got a refrigerator in the office. Let me go stick these bottles in it.” She picked up the bucket full of bottles and headed to the office, bracing herself before going in where they’d found her father. She put the supplies in the refrigerator as quickly as she could, eager to get out of there.

When she stepped back into the stall, the filly was up on her chest. “I think I’ll call her Gracie. Saving Grace will be her registered name.”

“You thinking she’ll be your saving grace?” Brett asked, standing and straddling the foal as he supported her in her efforts to stand. “She’ll more than likely be the straw that broke the camel’s back, ‘specially if you won’t let me help you.”

Megan glared at him. “I’m letting you help me now, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, but it’s about to kill you.”

“You got that right.” Megan put her hands on her hips and watched the foal. She was beautiful. “I have high hopes for this filly. Her sire held every racing record in the region. I’ve got to keep this little girl alive.”

“Jack was a great one, that’s for sure,” Brett responded. “I figured you’d have his frozen sperm.”

Megan cleared her throat. “We did,” she said, embarrassment washing over her. “Dad sold it.”

“Damn and double damn.”

Megan shrugged. What was there to say? This was such a nightmare, she had no choice but to agree to Brett’s help, at least for tonight. “I have friends who can take feeding shifts. And Lauren will help, too. After tonight you’ll be off the hook.”

“No hook for me. I live for this sort of thing. Pumps me up. I shoulda been a vet I guess.”

“Why aren’t you?” she asked.

He scowled. “Good question. One I’ve thought about, too, but I know you don’t really care so I’ll spare you.”

Surprisingly enough she did care, in a detached sort of way. She sat on the stall floor. “Suit yourself.”

“Be right back.” He stepped out of the stall and went outside the barn. She heard his truck door open and shut and hoped he wasn’t going too far. She felt totally inadequate to care for this foal. And the foal was what was important now, not her feelings toward the Lawsons.

Brett stepped back inside. He handed her a piece of paper with a couple of names and numbers written on it. “First name is the lady with the Doberman. Second name is a guy who’ll come haul off the mare.”

Megan flinched, wondering how much that would cost. It had to be done, no matter, but it made her sick and it was one more expense she couldn’t pay.

“I’ll get a bunch of ranchers together tomorrow to try and ferret out the lion. It’s a renegade. Not looking for food. Bad news for us all. I’ll let you know when we kill it.”

“I hope it’s soon.” She watched as Gracie tried once again to stand and wanted to applaud when the struggling filly made it to her feet on wobbly legs. “Should I go heat up the colostrum?”

“In a bit. Let her get up and down a few more times. Then she should be good and hungry.”

“I need to get some of the horses in their stalls and finish feeding them,” Megan said, shoving to her feet and stepping out into the barn aisle. She was more than ready to get away from Brett. Being around him made it difficult to stay angry with him. The man seemed to truly care, at least about the foal.

She went outside to the corral and petted each of her horses. “I know you’re hungry, guys. Your feed’s coming in a minute.” She leaned against her big bay, Dancer, and willed herself to gather enough strength to get through this evening.




Brett watched from the side barn door as Megan patted and crooned to each horse, then wrapped her arms around a big bay and leaned into him. She was tough all right, but no one could do what needed to be done for this foal without help. And he aimed to help. It was the least he could do.

Without saying anything, he went back into the barn, scooped some grain into a couple of buckets and went outside to dump it in the feeding trough. After several trips, he started grabbing flakes of hay, surprised as hell Megan hadn’t stopped him. Arms full, he stepped outside and tossed the hay on the ground.

He threw several more flakes of hay before she spoke. “I was going to finish doing that.”

“Don’t want you keeling over on me,” he stated as way of explanation.

“I won’t keel over.” She turned her back on him and continued to love on the horses. He knew this was her way of calming her frayed nerves. Her horses were what sustained her. He understood because his horses and land are what sustained him. That’s why he’d moved back out here after Emily died. He’d needed to in order to make some sort of sense out of life again.

He took a step toward her. “Sorry I didn’t get here sooner to warn you. We had our hands full.”

She gave him a startled look, almost as if she’d forgotten he was here. “I’m surprised you came at all, knowing how I feel about your family.”

He nodded. He had kinda surprised himself, too. “Sorry about your mare, Megan.”

She nodded and turned back to the horses, who were eating the grain he’d put in the feeding bins. Brett went back inside the barn, a sick feeling in his gut. Any more strokes of bad luck for this woman, and he doubted she’d be able to stay afloat. Looked like the rumor about her old man leaving them drowning in debt was true.

Deep embarrassment speared him for the part his father had played in this family’s troubles. There was no excuse for it and right now he hated being the son of Harry Dawson, the son of a man who had cheated on his mother more times than Brett even wanted to think about and had left her wounded and lonely and without any pride. His mother would hate that he was over here, but he couldn’t stay away. He owed at least this to the family his father had all but destroyed.

He glanced out the barn door and saw Megan wrap her arms again around the dark bay.

“Lucky horse,” he muttered, not able to keep from thinking about Megan wrapping her arms around him. Like that would ever happen again. He’d hurt her too badly five years ago. After that night behind the barn, he’d become almost cold toward her. She’d scared the hell out of him, and she was way too young to be messing with. He hadn’t blamed her for ignoring him whenever their paths crossed. In fact, he’d been glad. It had helped him keep his distance from the underage bombshell.

Yet despite how she felt about him now, Brett was glad he’d come by. No one should have to face something like this all by themself. Trouble was, she was totally by herself if rumors about her mom were right. Thanks to both their dads, Megan Swearingen had to face not only this alone, but anything else the universe threw her way. And the helluvit was, she might let him help right now because she was desperate, but the bottom line was, the lady hated his guts.

And he didn’t blame her one bit.


A New Season

The long, bitter cold winter is finally coming to an end. For many people, this winter has been much harsher than any they have experienced before, yet they have persevered and the beauty of spring is in sight!

Sometimes life throws us what feels like almost too much to bear: enormous hardships, devastating losses, the heavy weight of grief. And yet time and again we gather those we love close and force ourselves to move forward, knowing deep within that we must trust in the power of love.

My Crystal Springs/Coming Home series is set in a small Tennessee town where community and family are important, where hope and comfort are abundant, and, most of all, where people reach out to one another, offering support and love when it is needed the most.

Interview with Vision and Verse BlogSpot…

Good morning, Mary Jane and welcome to Vision and Verse, the Place for Art and Authors.  We are thrilled to have you with us this morning.  Can you tell us what you’ve written?

I have three books on Kindle. DANGEROUS MOVES, SHELBY’S GIFT and LONG ROAD HOME. LONG ROAD HOME is the first book in my Crystal Springs/Coming Home series. The second book, COMING HOME, is expected out soon.

What is your favorite genre to write?

I love writing contemporary romance that centers around strong women with real-life problems. SHELBY’S GIFT has a special place in my heart. It is such an emotional book that looks not only at the very complicated romance between Shelby and Ben but the complex issues from Shelby’s family of origin and how those issues shaped her life and choices.

Sounds wonderful.  Favorite food?

My favorite food is chocolate!

Coffee or tea.

I drink a lot of green tea but I love my Starbuck’s vanilla lattes. Yum!

Pizza or ice cream.

I definitely prefer ice cream to pizza. I really have to curb my sugar cravings!

Where would you like to visit?

I would love to visit Ireland. I am three-fourths Irish, and hope to someday see the Irish countryside and visit with the people who I feel a strong connection with. I definitely inherited the Irish story-telling gene.

Favorite music and musician.

I love good music. In fact, I started out as a vocal music major in college. It is difficult to choose my favorite musical artist; there are so many wonderful musicians out there. Going back to my Irish roots, the Celtic Woman does a beautiful job singing the Irish Blessing. John Lennon is another favorite. I love his beautiful and thought-provoking lyrics. I can’t leave out Barbara Streisand, a strong woman with unbelievable talent. And then there is Brandi Carlile with her smooth, soothing voice. I obviously can’t choose just one!

Fair enough.  What makes Mary jane Morgan laugh?

It doesn’t take much to make me laugh. A good dry wit is always appreciated. My father was a master at it, and while he’s been gone almost six years, I still miss his wit (among other things). I use humor as a coping mechanism, and it usually works quite well.

Favorite sculpture.

My favorite sculpture is James Earl Fraser’s The End of the Trail of Tears. It’s a beautiful, emotional piece that depicts the pain and enduring strength of the gentle and sweet-spirited Cherokee people.

I was in high school when I began writing nonfiction articles on my school newspaper. Also, my mother was an English teacher and a wonderful writer, who encouraged me to follow my writing dreams every step of the way. I wrote greeting cards and nonfiction articles before moving to fiction and have never looked back.

Describe your perfect evening.

My perfect evening would change depending on my mood. I do love romance though! However, I just spent a perfect evening holding my new grandson for two hours. We bonded! I am a people person, so while I do need some alone time, I love an evening with good friends, laughing and sharing our ideas and experiences.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I get my inspiration from people – from their real-life stories of courage and love, hardships and triumphs, challenges and victories and, most of all, loss and love.

What do you do when you get writer’s block?

I rarely get a writer’s block and thankfully, when I do, it doesn’t last long. I have a tremendous group of women critique partners who are always willing to help each other any way they can. Having said that, when I do feel stuck, being in nature usually helps. I love the Rocky Mountain National Park, and have several favorite places where I can sit and soak up wonderful energy to get my writing juices flowing again. I feel the pull as I type this! A trip is on the horizon…

Favorite author.

I have many favorite authors! If I had to choose just one, I would choose Kristin Hannah. She is a marvelous storyteller, who wraps you in a world of strong, three-dimensional women, makes you care, and (if you allow), gives you some insight into yourself and your own life lessons.

I love her, too.  Best book you ever read.

I believe the best book I ever read was Barbara Samuel’s, MIDNIGHT RAIN. Wow! Just Wow!

The last book I read was Toni Anderson’s romantic suspense, EDGE OF SURVIVAL. I enjoyed it. She wove their emotional conflicts together well and had a good ending. It took her a while to conquer wrapping up a good ending, and I was glad to see that she has grown in this area. This was an emotionally satisfying book.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

If I were not a writer, I think I would enjoy working in the medical world – maybe a doctor. I am a massage therapist and enjoy helping people get out of pain, but if I could do things over, I would get some type of real medical training.

Who is the one person who has influenced your personal life the most and why.

The person who has influenced my personal life the most would have to be my mother. She had a very difficult childhood and had many problems. Our relationship was not easy, but she did love me, and because of the hardships in our relationship, I have learned a great deal about not only myself but people in general.

Name one person, living or dead, real of fictional, that you would like to sit down and have a conversation with and why.

If I could have a conversation with one person, living or dead, I believe I would choose Anne Frank, the young girl who taught the world so much. Two of my favorite quotes from her diary are:

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

Also: “I don’t think of all the misery but all the beauty that still remains.”

Anne Frank, truly only a girl, taught the world so much, and I would love to visit with her and soak up some of her positive energy and belief in the goodness of people!

Do you have any advice for someone just entering our world of writing?

Writing is a gift and if you aspire to be a writer, then write, write and write some more. Only by actually writing, can you hone your talent. Studying the art is helpful, but nothing takes the place of sitting down and writing!

Do you have any links for us to follow you?

Crystal  Springs/Coming Home Series:

Long Road Home, book 1, Diva

Shelby’s Gift, Indie

Dangerous Moves, Kensington (reprint)

Mary Jane Morgan

Excerpt: Shelby’s Gift

Shelby’s Gift will be featured Friday, March 6 on I’d love for you to come visit. I did an personal interview with them a few weeks ago. It was fun and made me think, so I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about me.

Here is an excerpt from this book, a contemporary romance:

Ben led the way to her room, wondering what in the hell had ever possessed him to do this. Desperation. Nothing but sure, deep-rooted desperation and fear.

No, he’d done it for Kyle. And to help Shelby. She needed him now and he needed her.

He set her luggage down and glanced at her. She looked as scared and vulnerable as he felt, and his heart went out to her. He might be desperate and scared, but no one had forced him to bring her here. It was his choice, and it was the only good choice he could have made. “Everything will be fine, Shelby,” he said reassuringly. “Take a nap. You look about ready to fall over.” He smiled. “Call me if you need anything. I’m here for you.”

She gave him a soul-searching, lost look. He crossed the room and pulled her against him. Sighing, he laid his cheek on her thick, soft hair. He stroked her back and felt some of her tension ease. Slowly she wrapped her arms around him, then laid her head on his chest.

As they stood in silence, both there for the other one, a feeling of contentment settled over Ben. “I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered, and much to his surprise, a part of him really meant it.







How thrilling to have Carol Kauffman, editor of Vision and Verse, choose to interview me. I had a great time answering her questions. She made it fun but also made me think about some things. I can’t thank her enough for the invitation and the work she did to make this happen.

If you’ve never visited this blog, I highly recommend it. It’s for both writers and artists, and they have some fabulously talented people on there. Go take a look! You just might find your next favorite author or artist!


Mary Jane