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I can’t wait for you to fall in love with Jack and Tate in Then You Happened. This book is a mixture of tropes: small town, cowboy, enemies to lovers, and second-chance (in a sense). Reviews are saying it’s different from my other books in plot line but it’s a welcome change.

I’m curious what you’ll think.

And to give you a taste of it, I have the first chapter of Then You Happened below:


CHAPTER ONE

Jack

It’s pretty enough.

That’s my first thought when I sit on the initial stretch of gravel driveway and stare at the expanse of ranch in front of me. The split rail fence stretches farther than I can see on both sides of me. The main house has a worn brick exterior, pitched roofline, and a covered verandah that wraps around its front. The pastures are green, and the stables large enough, but where the house looks worn, they feel more neglected than they look.

Drive the car, Sutton. Walk the walk, and talk the talk. Fulfill the promise you made, and then get the hell out of Dodge with a clear conscience and maybe a few months of vacation before you have to step into shoes you never expected to fill.

I glance up at the entrance, take in the sign hanging from the wood arch that says Knox Ranch, and notice the broken hinge of the opened gate in front of me. There are two cameras with frayed electrical cords and cracked lenses positioned on either side of the structure that tell me they’ve definitely seen better days.

It seems this place has too.

Easing off the brakes, I head toward the house with my chuckle of disbelief riding on the breeze as it blows in the rolled down window.

Beyond the split rail is a field of long, golden, prairie grass that runs into trees billowing at its edges. There are just a few horses milling inside the fences, but there aren’t any ranch hands working, no other trucks taking up space in the driveway, no one sitting in the shade to take a respite from the heat.

I take my time unfolding myself out of my truck and ambling up the walkway while I wait to feel something.

Anything.

But there’s nothing more than impatience, resentment, and a sense of duty to fulfill a promise I never should have made.

“Who’re you?”

I hear her voice before I see her. Contempt paints its edges in a way that matches how I feel most days lately.

It should be my warning to walk away. That keeping my word isn’t worth the damn trouble. That my hunch about what type of person she is, is dead on.

Since when do I listen to warnings, though?

“I’m here for the job.”

I don’t know what I expected Tatum Knox to look like, but when she steps into the open doorway of the house, it definitely isn’t this: petite, wary . . . goddamn gorgeous.

Her spine straightens so that all five foot nothing of her stands proud while her eyes, those light-gray eyes narrow and look me up and down. They also tell me to go to hell.

“You wouldn’t last a week here. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Her words are a lie. She knows it. I know it. The callouses on my hands and my more-than-impressive resume prove I’m a hard worker and know what I’m doing, but fuck if I’m going to call her on it when I really don’t care.

I’m here to follow through on the impulsive phone call I made after one too many beers and to say I made a concerted effort.

That, and to satisfy my curiosity about the type of person she is.

“Tatum Knox, I presume?”

“Last time I checked.”

“Humph.” I laugh the sound without any amusement. Wisps of her caramel-color hair have fallen from her ponytail and move with the breeze around her face. Her high-cut cheekbones, button nose, and heart-shaped mouth are delicate, but her eyes scream distrust and dislike.

Seems we have something in common then.

“Jack Sutton.”

“I’m aware.”

“Then why’d you ask who I was?” I snort in dismay. “I assume you remembered that you’re the one who asked me to come, right?”

She takes her time moving her hand to her waist and leaning her other hip against the doorframe that dwarfs her. Her eyes home in on me and judge and dismiss.

“Yeah, well, chalk it up to a rare moment of weakness. I won’t let it happen again.” The way she wears her clothes—denim and flannel—might look the part in Texas, but the posture beneath them and the hint of New England accent scream affluence.

So does the way she looks down at me as if I’m not worthy of breathing the same air as her. I shouldn’t be surprised.

“No worries there.” I take a step back, irritated at myself for expecting more than I’m getting and for thinking that showing up at the ranch was going to fix all the shit in my head. In reality, taking one look at her had done nothing but piss me off and made the envelope folded in my pocket that much heavier. “By the looks of your ranch, it seems that what I’ve heard is true and that moments of weakness are all you seem to have.”

“And you wonder why I told you to leave?” she all but shouts as she takes a step toward me, anger lighting up her features. “I don’t hire people who run their mouths in the Lone Star rumor mill. You’ve been in town, what? A whole three days, and they’ve already gotten to you. Thanks, but no thanks. I like people I can trust working for me.”

“I’m not the one whose integrity is in question,” I say, her wince telling me the barb hit its mark and giving me the reason behind her hostility. That she knows and doesn’t like what people in town say about her.

I wouldn’t either if I were her because none of it is flattering in the least.

And yet, after hearing every last juicy tidbit of it, I still showed up today. Here I stand, trying to find some kind of redemption for myself when I’m pretty sure there isn’t any to be had.

For the briefest of moments, I feel guilty for being a dick and for taking my anger out on her when she has nothing to do with it.

Then again, it’s not as if she’s all smiles and sunshine either.

Fuck.

With a sigh and a resignation of my temper and impatience, I shake my head. Let’s try this again.

“From the looks of your ranch, you need me.”

“I don’t need anyone.” A half-cocked smile tilts up her lips.

Your words and your eyes aren’t matching up there, sweetheart.

“And for the record, it’s my husband’s ranch, not mine.”

“He’s dead, so technically, it is yours.” She doesn’t want to pull any punches, then neither will I.

“Ah, the lovely Lone Star rumor mill strikes again? Who was it this time? The guy at the gas station? The waitress at the diner? Perhaps the teller at the bank? Oh, wait, was it Ginger? He’s a smart man and usually stays neutral, so if it was him, that’s a new development.”

Her nonchalance at how much people in town dislike her is not unexpected considering how blasé she’s been about everything else thus far.

“Nope. Your words on the phone last week during our interview.” I take the pause she’s given me with her lax lips and wide-eyed stare and make a show of looking around. I had heard it from her first, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t also hear it from everyone I talked to as well.

A controlling husband who was flashy with his money but who couldn’t seem to get this place up and running to save his life. A fiery car accident that claimed his life. His high-and-mighty wife who thinks she is too good for the town they live in and can’t seem to keep a single employee on staff.

“Like I said, I don’t need anyone,” she reiterates, breaking the silence stretching between us like a rubber band that is bound to snap. “I’ve got this handled.”

“About to lose your farm is not exactly what I’d call having things handled.”

“Whoever told you that is full of shit,” she says.

“You sure about that?” I ask, noting the uncertainty fleet across her face—lips pulled tight, eyes widened, and jaw clenched. “From what I hear—”

“I’m not losing the ranch,” she asserts. “Not even close.”

I scrub a hand over my jaw, uncertain whether I believe her or not. The rod in her spine tells me she’s telling the truth but everyone else in this town tells me otherwise.

Maybe they just want her to.

And maybe a small part of me did too until I got here.

“I don’t associate with people who lie,” I muse as I lean against the railing behind me.

“Then what in the hell are you doing at the bar in town? They all lie and you’re listening to them, right?”

Touché.

“Why’d you tell me to come out here, Knox, if you already knew you were going to fire me the minute I showed up on your porch?” I ask, curious about her when I shouldn’t care.

“Why’d you sit in town and listen to the rumors, believe them, before you ever even met me? Shouldn’t your boss be given more respect than that?”

“I don’t believe rumors, but they aren’t lies if they’re true.” I shift on my feet, the wood of the porch creaking beneath me. “And respect is earned, not expected.”

This woman. Hell. If her spite wasn’t so damn frustrating, it might be a little attractive.

“Why are you still standing here?” she asks.

“Good question.” I wondered the same thing. Turning my back to her, I take in the dead flowers and weeds overflowing the planters positioned around the porch and let my eyes skate over the paint peeling on the railing on the verandah.

But I know why I’m here.

I know what guilt feels like as it weighs you down so heavily you’ll do anything—even deal with a woman like Tatum Knox—if it means you just might get to lift it off your shoulders.

It’s a goddamn emotional tug of war, and I’m not quite sure which side I want to win.

“You hired me to get you more business,” I say when I turn back around. “You think potential clients are going to be eager to buy a horse when they stroll up here and see this?” I motion to the first set of pots. “How can you be trusted to keep horses healthy when you can’t even keep flowers alive?” I give a slow shake of my head in displeasure, causing her to scowl.

“If you’re trying to win my favor, you’re going about this all wrong.”

“Winning your favor is the least of my worries.” I cross my arms over my chest and just hold her glare for glare. “Forget me being able to secure quality studs to breed. Screw me getting the ranch new clients under a long-term contract. What you really need more than anything is a ranch manager who is worth a shit.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.” I nod. “By the looks of what I see, he’s not managing shit. Your hired help isn’t pulling their weight. Your feed isn’t being housed properly. You have fences that seem to have been broken for some time. And I haven’t even started on the horses. For a ranch that survives by selling its foals, it doesn’t look like you have nearly enough pregnant mares out there, which is something you mentioned during our phone interview.”

Those eyes of hers narrow.

Hit a nerve now, did I?

“I didn’t realize I asked your opinion.”

“You didn’t have to. I give opinions freely.” I smile, but I do it to piss her off.

Truth hurts, doesn’t it, sweetheart?

I recall the comments that were made in town.

“That Tatum woman doesn’t fit in here.” 

“She supposedly works on the ranch, but come on, what rancher has the beautician come out on the regular to do her hair and nails? She’s probably the gopher. Or the trophy groomer. There’s gotta be a reason why she runs all the employees off. She’s probably worried word will get out that she doesn’t know what in the hell she’s doing.”

“The sheriff’s up there weekly. There’s one complaint after another about her substandard care for the horses. No one in town dares to buy one. They don’t trust that they’re in good health.” 

“She doesn’t deserve the land she owns. No wonder the Destin twins are pissed and want it back. She and her husband have done nothing but waste their opportunity with that ranch.”

“Do I need to call the sheriff to have you removed?” she asks.

“I hear you two are good friends with his regular visits up here and all.” The tendons in her neck strain as she tries to hide her temper. I’m trying to push boundaries so that I can walk away from this place with the lie set in place that I really tried to make this work but failed.

“It’s Texas, Mr. Sutton. No one will think twice if I shoot you for trespassing.” She smiles sweetly. “We like to protect what’s ours and know we won’t be questioned for doing so.”

“Ah, but you’re not from Texas, are you?” I ask, uncertain why I feel the need to keep bantering. “From what I gather, the citizens of Lone Star don’t really claim you as their own.”

I’m a prick for pointing out the obvious since I’m probably more welcome in this town than she is, but I can’t figure out how she lives here, has set up a life here, and yet, no one really seems to know her.

Maybe it’s their not knowing her that’s earned her the vitriol.

Then again, all she has to do is open her mouth and their point’s proven in the first few sentences.

“I don’t care what the people in town think of me, let alone anyone else, really.” Another tight smile. A throw of her thumb over her shoulder. “Should I go prove to you I have the shotgun locked and loaded, always on the ready . . . just in case?”

“You talk a good game, Knox, but you know damn well that, if I leave, ain’t no one else coming to help. I don’t believe the bullshit in town, but others will. No paycheck is enough to put up with your attitude. Not a one.”

“Good. Be on your way then.”

The dismissal in her tone this time sets me off. It gives me a temper to feed off, a reason to get pissed and walk away.

“Thanks for proving you’re exactly how I thought you were going to be.” I tip my hat as her eyes narrow with confusion. “Enjoy losing your ranch to the bank.”

“Go to hell. I’m not—”

“It seems to me that’s what you’re angling to do anyway.”

“Good. Go.”

“I will.”

Fury and anger and failure course through me as I turn from her and start toward the steps, as I force myself to walk away from the woman with storm clouds in her eyes and defiance in her voice.

I’m ten feet from my truck when her voice rings out.

Jack.”

It’s the way she says my name like a woman wanting to hold it all together while fearing she isn’t going to be able to. That single syllable is full of defiance and fear and confusion and determination.

There’s something about her I can’t peg.

Something that’s pulling me in that’s just as strong as the promise I made and my need to keep my word.

Something that I hate myself for wanting to explore.

I turn to where she stands on the top of the steps, staring at me across the distance with one hand on her hip and the other shielding her eyes. Her expression is stoic, no reflection of the tinge of desperation that just rang out in her voice.

And yet, my name felt like an olive branch extended in a war zone. One that’s only going to be offered for mere seconds before it’s snatched back.

Walk away, Jack.

Walk the fuck away while you can.

Instead, I take a step closer, twist my lips, and look around, wondering why I’m not taking the out when I can.

Because I made promises, that’s why. Duty and defiance war against each other within me.

I take another step toward her.

“You can’t expect anyone to successfully sell your brand and this place when it looks like it’s been neglected.” She starts to speak, and I just keep on talking. “How many people do you have on your staff?”

“One.”

One?” I laugh. “Funny. You have forty horses here. How many people besides the one ranch manager do you have on staff?”

“If you don’t count good ol’ eighty-one-year-old Sylvester who stops by and helps now and again, it’s just one.”

“Sylvester?” I ask. “Should I assume he’s how you know I’ve been in town for a few days?” She nods and twists her lips as I try to fathom how she only has one employee. How she manages all of this that way. Then again, she isn’t exactly a ray of fucking sunshine either. I can only imagine how pleasant she is to work with and for. “Well, fire the one. He’s not doing his job. Tell him he’s been replaced.”

“Replaced?” Her chuckle is low and condescending. “By whom?”

By whom? Definitely the upper crust of New England.

By me.”

Her laugh rings louder now, it’s long and rich, and it is followed by a shake of her head. “I’ve already fired everyone who can be fired. Thanks for letting me know how to run my ranch, though.”

“Your ranch. Your problem,” I say, noting how moments before it was her husband’s ranch but, now that she’s defending it, it’s hers. “You said you needed to sell more horses this year. Rebuild and revamp by breeding and selling. Pick up some key clients who might create repeat business. Maybe even sell a rodeo circuit champion or two,” I say. “Increase profits in general, right?”

Tatum just stares at me as indecision fights over her features. The need for help against the want to stand her ground.

“I don’t think I heard you wrong, did I?” I continue. “Feel free to go at it alone, but from what you told me, you need the help to turn a profit and stay afloat. I can help with that. Or you can tell me to walk away, taking all my experience and connections with me, and you can keep doing what you’re doing.”

Stubborn pride or guaranteed success.

Your call, princess.

Her body tenses, and her teeth grit. “There are other people I can hire. No worries there.”

“The question is, will they work for you?” I snort. “Next time someone comes out, you might want to mention to them they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle trying to promote a ranch this size without any help.”

“Running the ranch is my responsibility. Selling the foals was supposed to be yours.”

“So the rumor mill is true, then. You won’t take qualified help even when it’s sitting on your front porch.”

“Qualified doesn’t mean quality.”

I just lift my brow and smirk at the dig. “Tell me something. Did you fire your help or did they quit?” That wipes the look off her face. “I have twenty bucks on they quit. I’ve been here no fewer than ten minutes, and you’ve insulted me more times than I care to count. I heard you were difficult to work for. Criticizing how someone does something when you don’t know how to do it yourself doesn’t exactly win you any respect. You have a smart mouth and a bad rep. Being easy on the eyes and having an Ivy League education doesn’t mean shit in a town like this . . . especially when you throw it around and look down upon those who have less.”

And almost as if on cue, a neigh sounds off in the distance. The sound of a familiar friend I can relate to in this hostile environment.

“I thought you said you didn’t listen to the rumors.”

“I don’t, but your pleasant personality isn’t doing much to dissuade them either.”

“Then why are you still standing here?” she asks.

Hell if I know.

I hate myself before I even utter the words. “So, when do I start?”

She shakes her head. “Insult me. Criticize me. Tell me you believe lies, and then you actually think I’m going to hire you? You’re out of your mind.”

“Insult me. Criticize me. Tell me you hate me after I’ve driven hundreds of miles to take the job offer. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?” Our glares hold and then all of a sudden, it clicks for me. “Ah, I get it. Hard to fire the help when you’re sleeping with him? Your boyfriend isn’t running the ranch now, is he?”

She fists her hands as her shoulders tense. “Not that it’s any of your business who I sleep with, but I’m not sleeping with the ranch manager. I don’t have one. The ranch manager is me. I’m her. I’m the lone employee!”

I blink for a few seconds as I try to digest her words. Words there’s no way I believe.

But I do.

Because when I look back at her, all I see is fire. 

The fire and grit and determination of someone used to standing on their own with what feels like the world against them.

Beauty.

The fact that the harsh voice and haughty attitude on the phone would be owned by a woman who staggered me when she first walked into the doorway didn’t even pass through my mind when I decided to follow through on my promise.

Pain.

That definitely was not something I expected to see after listening to the people of Lone Star speak ill of her and make all the petty and catty comments.

But I know those kinds of rumors.

I should have known better than to believe them.

But the hurt and resentment I feel made it all that much easier to.

Shit.

Now what I had determined was going to be something I could walk up to, see for myself, and then leave, is gone.

Fuck.

And then almost as if she just realized what she’s admitted to, that she’s the failing employee, anger fires in her eyes as she shoves her finger over my shoulder, and grits out, “You can see yourself out.”

“You live out here all alone?” I ask and whistle. That’s a whole lot of loneliness for anyone this far from town.

“I have the horses to keep me company.”

“Humans. You don’t have any other humans out here who you interact with?”

“Apparently, I don’t need other humans,” she says, but for the briefest of seconds, I see emotions flit through her eyes. Sadness? Loneliness? It’s something, but before she lets me really see it, it’s gone.

“Everyone needs humans.”

“I used to think that too, but I’m finding the animals get me more than the humans ever did.”

The raw honesty in the rasp of her voice tells me she’s been through enough to warrant the chip on her shoulder and the rumors in town.

Her sentiment is one I’ve voiced more times in my life than I care to count—an excuse so I don’t have to explain shit to anyone—and I nod.

I’ve been there too.

Still am there.

But there’s something about the sadness in her eyes that makes me want to clear it away. That makes me want to push buttons to get that fire back because temper I can deal with.

Temper at least gives me something to fight against.

I shut out all other emotions.

“Looks to me like a ranch manager is what you need. I can be him, get this place up to speed and then work on getting the contracts. That way, you could go back to doing”—I flick my hand in indifference—”the things you’re used to doing.”

“What I’m used to doing?” she says, voice escalating in pitch. “Like eating caviar and getting pedicures, right? Had to make sure to put me in my place.”

“What you do on your time is your prerogative.” I lift my hands in surrender, this fight is over. My attempt has been given.

Silence stretches between us with the chirp of birds and whinny of horses the only other sounds.

“Oh, I will.”

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Knox,” I say and mockingly tip my hat.

“Can’t say the same.”

“Don’t let your pride get in the way of hiring someone who could bring this place back to life.”

“And don’t let your ego get in the way of you getting shot,” she says, and I laugh, not sure if I respect her gumption or find it infuriating. “This place is full of life, thank you.”

I lift a lone eyebrow in question. “So, that’s it? Ask me to come, kick me out when I travel hundreds of miles, and then call my name as if your life depended on it, only to realize you did it and you didn’t want to?” I give a quick shake of my head. “You think I’m trying to pull a power play? I think it’s the other way around.” I lift my hat and scratch my hair beneath it before pulling it back down. “I understand indecision, Knox. I understand fear and confusion and second-guessing whether what you’re doing is right or not . . . but this was bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit. You want help, fine. You don’t want help, fine. But unless you figure it all out—and soon—you’re going to lose this place. Plain and simple.”

“Goodbye, Jack.” Her voice is strained, her expression hard. The sound of a woman who wants help but is too damn afraid to admit it.

Fire. Beauty. Pain.

I think of those three things that prevented me from walking away moments ago.

I promise, Dad. 

Those were the last words I spoke to my father before he died. That was the promise my being here is keeping.

With a step in retreat, I offer her a wink and a grin just to piss her off. “I’ll be in town until Friday should you find your sense again and decide to hire me.”

Without another word, I turn on my heel and stride back down the gravel driveway toward my truck, all the while questioning why the fuck I left the offer open like that.

As I back down the ranch’s long driveway, I know she’s still standing on the porch with a hand on her hip, watching me with those smoke-colored eyes.

The question is: why the hell does that give me a small iota of satisfaction?

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