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The long-awaited finale to Marie’s beloved Treading Water Series is HERE at last!

Maggie Harrington is in way, way over her head, running Matthews House, the shelter her famous sister Kate and brother-in-law Reid have opened, using Reid’s family estate to provide support to women and children in crisis. This job is just what Maggie needed after a disastrous episode in New York—or so she thought. The constant life-or-death challenges she encounters have her emotions on a rollercoaster of soaring highs and crushing lows. Living near her sisters Kate and Jill and regular rides on Kate’s beloved horse, Thunder, are the best parts of her new life.

When Maggie hires Brayden Thomas to run an equine therapy program for the resident children, she does so knowing he’s hiding something from his past. But his sterling professional reputation and qualifications have her taking a chance on the handsome horse whisperer, who quickly becomes a friend and confidant. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also smoking hot, funny, easy to talk to and damned good at his job.

It’s her first time being “the boss.” Surely she ought to maintain some semblance of professionalism when it comes to Brayden, right? But day by day, hour by hour, he makes himself essential to her and has her teetering on the fine line between personal and professional as her feelings for him intensify.

The Harrington girls are together again in Nashville! Come along for a visit that’ll include the arrival of Kate’s baby, Jill’s wedding to Ashton and Eric Harrington’s high school graduation. Jack, Andi, Clare, Aidan, Jamie, Frannie and the O’Malley family also appear in the Treading Water Series finale!

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Finding Forever

(Treading Water Series, Book 5)

The long-awaited finale to Marie’s beloved Treading Water Series is HERE at last!

Chapter 1

Spring in central Tennessee happened suddenly. After weeks of seemingly endless rain, overnight the miles of rolling hills had turned emerald green, buds popped on the crepe myrtles, maples and oaks, and the sweet smell of new life filled the air. Forsythia, the first harbinger of spring, had exploded to yellow life weeks earlier than it did at home in Rhode Island and had been followed in quick succession by daffodils and tulips that filled lush flower beds with splashes of vibrant color. And as May had folded into June, the days had become longer and warmer, the rain less frequent.

Maggie Harrington took a mug of coffee with her when she walked across the driveway to the stables to see the horses. Having them nearby was one of the best parts of her new life running Matthews House, a shelter for women and children in crisis founded by her music superstar sister Kate and brother-in-law Reid Matthews. Maggie had been crazy about horses all her life, and she’d missed being around them during the years she’d lived in New York City.

She found Thunder, the sleek, dark thoroughbred Reid had given Kate when they were first together more than a decade ago, in the paddock, turned out for a day of exercise and sunshine. The old guy gave a happy nicker when he saw Maggie coming, probably because he knew she always came bearing gifts, and trotted over to see her. Standing on the bottom rung of the white fence that surrounded the paddock, Maggie fed him apple slices and carrots, despite Kate’s edict that he needed to lose some weight.

Maggie disagreed. At this point in his life, he ought to have whatever he wanted.

His velvety tongue swept over her palm, scooping up the carrots in one swift lick.

Maggie laughed. “Pig.”

He snorted in response and nudged at her hand, looking for more. Kate swore the horse had human tendencies, and Maggie had to agree with her sister. In deference to her pregnancy, Kate had had Thunder moved to Matthews House so Maggie exercise him while Kate couldn’t. Maggie was already sad about the thought of Thunder going home after Kate had the baby and could get back to riding.

Maggie found a single sugar cube in her pocket and gave it to him, feeling guilty for playing favorites among the horses. After feeding apple slices to the other horses who came over to say hello and giving them each some attention, she headed back to the house to start her workday. If no new crises arose, she might get done with work in time to ride before dinner at Kate and Reid’s.

The toot of a horn from a car coming up the long driveway stopped her from going inside. She recognized Ashton Matthews’s sporty silver Jaguar. Ashton, who was Reid’s son, was engaged to Maggie’s sister, Jill, and served as the pro bono attorney for the shelter. And yes, her sisters were involved with a father and son. Their story began when Kate first met Reid as an eighteen-year-old chasing the dream in Nashville.

Tall, blond, broad-shouldered and handsome, Ashton emerged from the car, tucking a leather portfolio under his arm. He wore a tailored navy suit with a matching tie. “Glad I caught you. I’m on my way to the office and was hoping to talk to you for a minute.” Since they got engaged last Christmas, Ashton had been living with Jill at her house on Kate’s estate. Ashton and Jill were getting married in the Harrington sisters’ hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, in late July.

“What’s going on?” Maggie asked him.

Ashton had wanted to be part of the project at his family’s home and had offered to handle any legal work involved. “I’ve got the background check on your horse-whisperer guy.”

Brayden Thomas had come highly recommended and was due to arrive for an interview after lunch. She’d asked Ashton to run a check on him, the way he had every employee they’d hired over the last few months. That he’d had to come here personally to discuss it with her didn’t bode well. “And?”

“Everything came back okay, but there was one weird thing.”

“What’s that?”

“He has a juvenile record.”

“What did he do?”

“No way to know. Juvenile records are sealed. I did a little ‘extra’ digging or I never would’ve found it.”

“Huh.” Maggie tried to wrap her head around this unexpected development. Brayden had come so highly recommended. She hadn’t expected to find any skeletons in his closet.

Ashton withdrew a printed report from his portfolio and handed it to her. “Whatever it was happened years ago. He’s almost thirty. His adult record is clean. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UT Knoxville in animal science.”

Maggie had applied for and received a grant to run a therapeutic riding program for the children who came to stay at the shelter and had planned to offer the job to Brayden if the interview went well. She’d wanted the program to be separate of what Reid and Kate had done with Matthews House, something that was entirely her own initiative. After having studied equine therapy in college, she’d been determined to make it available to their clientele.

“What’re you going to do?” Ashton asked.

“Have the interview and ask him about it, I guess.” It’d taken months to find Brayden and then a week of back-and-forth messages to schedule the meeting. The thought of starting over to find someone else made her feel tired, and it was only eight thirty.

“That’s what I would do. Maybe it’s some foolish adolescent prank or something like that.”

If it was anything more than that, Maggie would be reluctant to hire the man to work with the troubled children who would come through Matthews House.

Because Kate and Reid were personally funding the program, they were able to make their own rules and regulations for the program, but safety was their top priority. They’d installed manned security gates to provide added security to their residents, many of whom had fled violent relationships. Keeping them safe had to also be Maggie’s top priority.

“Good luck with it,” Ashton said as he got back in his car. “I’ll see you at dinner later?”

“I’ll be there.”

He waved as he turned the car around and drove off toward town, away from the house where he’d grown up. Reid had become a single parent when Ashton’s mother was killed in a car accident when he was only two. Jill said Ashton had no memory of his mother except for the photographs his father had kept around the house and the stories his father had told him.

Maggie couldn’t imagine what it’d been like for him to grow up without his mother. She’d spent three years without hers after an accident had left Clare in a coma. The day she’d unexpectedly recovered had been the best day of Maggie’s life. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe everything that’d happened after her mother’s accident.

It had divided their lives into before the accident and after.

She shuddered, recalling the horror of the car hitting her mother, of Clare seeing it coming but not reacting, the sickening crunching sound at the moment of impact and the surreal, slow-motion flight of her mother’s body into the air, her head connecting with the windshield with a sound Maggie had never heard before or since.

“Stop. Don’t think about that.” Easier said than done. Images from that shocking incident were etched permanently upon her soul. They didn’t torment her the way they had when it first happened, but time and therapy had given her coping skills that kept the distress at bay most of the time. However, this time of year always brought the memories back to the forefront, as the accident had occurred on a day much like this one. Shaking off the troubling thoughts, Maggie went inside, poured herself another cup of coffee and brought it with her to the office to start her workday.

She took a second to check her phone and found a text from her brother Eric, who would graduate from high school a few days before Jill’s wedding.

Help me. They’re driving me nuts. I don’t want to go to college this year. I need a break from school. Promise you won’t tell? I have a secret!

Maggie wasn’t surprised to hear of his lack of interest in college. He’d been less than enthusiastic when her dad and stepmother, Andi, had taken him to tour a few schools and had only applied under pressure from his parents, teachers and school counselors. He’d gotten into all five schools he’d applied to and had reluctantly committed to Northwestern in Andi’s hometown of Chicago right at the deadline.

When have I ever told your secrets? Spill it!

I’m applying to the Peace Corps.

Whoa. That was huge news. I LOVE that. I can see you doing that for sure.

Really? I can teach ASL, he said, referring to American Sign Language. Eric had been born deaf, and Maggie had learned sign language from him and Andi. When Maggie had been unable to get a job as a family counselor after grad school, that skill had come in handy as she’d been hired to provide sign language for criminal trials.

Really! It’d be such an adventure. Let me know how it goes, and when you’re ready to pitch it to the parents, I’ll help.

You’re the best. LY

LY2. Keep me posted.

He replied with the thumbs-up emoji.

Maggie hoped Eric would be able to pull it off, especially since their dad was super gung ho about all of them going to college. She’d met plenty of people in college who didn’t belong there, and wasn’t afraid to say so to her dad and Andi if it came to that. Perhaps Eric could take a couple of years to volunteer and go to college later.

Teresa, the overnight program manager, appeared at the door to Maggie’s office a few minutes later. “Good morning.”

“Morning. How are things?”

“All quiet. The McBride family had a good morning. Debbie had the kids up and ready for the bus stop.”

“Did they have breakfast?” Two days last week, the McBride kids had gone without breakfast because they’d been running late to make the bus. Maggie had sent them off to school with granola bars and juice boxes.

“They did.”

“Well, that’s progress.” In addition to providing emergency shelter, counseling and career services, their program aimed to help struggling parents learn skills and routines designed to prepare them to eventually live independently with their children. Some of the mothers needed this help more than others. One of the things Maggie had come to appreciate was how the more experienced mothers stepped up to offer wisdom and counsel to the younger ones, which gave them a community of support that would hopefully outlast their time at Matthews House.

“In other news, Corey is having pains. Could be Braxton Hicks. I’ve got her first on the list for Arnelle when she comes in.”

Maggie was alarmed to hear that twenty-year-old Corey Gellar might be in early labor with her first child. She’d come to them via a referral from Davidson County police after they intervened in a domestic situation at her home. Her live-in boyfriend had been arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend and was still in jail. “How far apart are the pains?”

“Twelve minutes.”

“Damn it. She’s only thirty weeks. Should we call for rescue?” These were the moments Maggie found most challenging in her new job. When did a situation become a crisis, and how did she know whether she was doing the right thing?

“Corey didn’t think that was necessary.”

“Okay,” Maggie said, exhaling. “We’ll see what Arnelle has to say.”

Maggie’s day spun out of control from there. When Arnelle determined that Corey could be in early labor, they called the rescue. Maggie ended up at the hospital with Corey until they decided to admit her to see if they could stop her labor. She stayed until a friend of Corey’s came to be with her.

“I’ll check on you after a bit,” she said to the petite young woman with blonde hair and fragile features marred by bruises that infuriated Maggie. How any man could hit a pregnant woman, she would never know.

Over the last few months, she’d had to take a mental step back from questions like that, or she’d go mad from the things she saw and heard on a daily basis. She would never understand how people could do such things to the people they loved, but it happened far too often.

Arnelle liked to say the crises kept them in business, which was sadly true. She also said dark humor was necessary to keeping one’s sanity when working with families in turmoil.

As Maggie drove back to the house, down scenic, winding country roads, she had the window down and the stereo volume cranked up. Around here, country music was all the rage, but it wasn’t her jam. She preferred her alternative playlist to country, not that she’d admit that to her sister Kate, one of country music’s biggest stars.

For Kate, Maggie made a rare exception to her no-country-music rule. She loved Kate’s work, as well as that of Kate’s husband-and-wife mentors, Buddy Longstreet and Taylor Jones. Buddy, Taylor and their four children were family to Kate and Reid, who’d grown up with Buddy.

Maggie took the last turn before the security checkpoint where the handsome young guard waved her through, flashing a big smile. Xander was always friendly and flirtatious with her. However, she didn’t encourage him because she was in no place to be thinking about men or dating or anything like that. The thought of it made her shudder in revulsion after what she’d been through with the last guy she’d dated.

She navigated the long lane that led to the Matthews’ estate, driving past the two-story Tudor-style guesthouse where Kate had spent her first night in Nashville, and pulled into her usual parking space behind the stables. Only as she walked around the stables and came face-to-face with a handsome man wearing well-worn denim and a formfitting Western-cut plaid shirt did she remember the meeting with Brayden Thomas that she’d failed to reschedule after Corey’s early labor crisis.

The photos she’d seen of Brayden hadn’t done him justice. Tall and broad shouldered, with dark hair and light brown eyes, he looked like a movie-star version of a horse wrangler. He removed a battered tan cowboy hat from his head in a gesture of respect she found ridiculously charming.

“Are you Maggie?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

He stepped forward, hand extended. “Brayden Thomas. Nice to finally meet you.”

She shook his work-roughened hand and met his intense gaze. Manners and eye contact, two things that mattered for people who worked in equine therapy. “You as well. So sorry to be late for our appointment. I had an emergency with one of the women.”

“No worries. Arnelle told me what was going on. Gave me some time to look around. What a beautiful place you’ve got here.”

“It belongs to my brother-in-law and sister, actually.”

“Your sister is Kate Harrington, right?”

“That’s right.”

His eyes glittered with excitement. “I’m a big fan. I’ve seen her in concert five or six times. She’s fantastic.”

Maggie was never sure how she was supposed to reply when people praised Kate, so she said what she always did. “Thank you. We’re proud of her.”

“You don’t look like her.”

“Nope. I favor my dad, and she’s our mom’s twin. We do have the same eyes, though.” Why was she telling him this stuff when she ought to be asking him how he’d landed in juvie?

“I had a chance to check out the stables, and they’re some of the nicest I’ve ever seen. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about what you have in mind for the equine therapy program.”

This would be a really great time to tell him you can’t hire someone with a criminal record, Maggie. “As you know, most programs focus on children and adults with special needs. Here, it won’t be about that so much as providing therapy and riding lessons to kids who’ve been through traumas and/or suffer from PTSD.”

He nodded, listening intently to everything she said.

Maggie realized he’d begun moving toward the stables and, as if she’d been hypnotized or some such thing, she walked with him without having made the conscious choice to move.

“Are the kids abused, then?”

“Some of them were. Others have seen things that no child should ever see—parents overdosing, fathers beating mothers, mothers beating fathers, among other things that can’t be unseen.” Such as your mother getting hit by a car right in front of you…

“I see. My philosophy is all about building confidence. I tell the kids I work with if you can mount a thousand-pound animal and get him or her to do what you tell them to, you can do anything.” He reached out to scratch the nose of a quarter horse mare named Dandy, who leaned into his caress. “It seems like that approach might be a good fit for the kids in your program.”

It would be perfect. That was exactly what Maggie had dreamed of when she approached Reid and Kate about using a couple of the horses that were boarded at the Matthews’ estate for a therapeutic riding program. Once she hired someone to oversee the program, each horse would have to be evaluated for temperament and suitability.

Maggie had secured signed releases from the owners of the other horses, allowing them to be used for that purpose if it was determined their temperaments worked for the program. Most of the owners were friends of Reid’s or Ashton’s, so getting permission hadn’t been difficult. In fact, the owners had been thrilled to know that their horses would help to make a difference for kids in need and get regular exercise, too.

“As I mentioned on the phone, it’s important that I work closely with a counselor or therapist to tailor my program to the needs of each child.”

“That’s where I come in,” Maggie said. “My undergraduate degree is in social work, and my master’s is in family counseling.” She’d busted her ass to finish both programs in just over five years at NYU.

His gorgeous face lit up with a warm smile. “That’s an ideal fit for what I do.”

For some reason, hearing him say the words “ideal fit” made Maggie feel like laughing. Yes, he was an ideal fit for her program, and the fact that he was to-die-for handsome didn’t hurt anything either.

“Are these the horses I’d be working with?”

Now would be the perfect time to tell him he couldn’t work there. “They are. All but Thunder.” She pointed to him. “He’s getting on in years, and Kate thought it might be better not to have him be part of the program.”

Brayden worked his way down the row of stalls, giving each of the horses a minute of his time and attention. Each of them responded favorably to him, even Lonnie, who didn’t like anyone—or so it seemed. “Is Thunder in good health?”

“He’s in excellent health and is gentle as a lamb.”

“He’d be ideal for the program, but I understand if your sister doesn’t want us to use him. In my experience, I’ve found that older horses are sometimes better for therapeutic riding. They’ve sown their wild oats, so to speak.”

“I’m sure Kate would be open to discussing it.”

He ran a hand over Thunder’s elegant neck, and the horse nickered in response. “Did you get the info I sent about my PATH certification and insurance?”

She licked lips that’d gone dry as she watched him interact with the animals and noted how each of them responded to him with trust. “I did, thank you for sending them.”

In addition to his obvious affinity for the horses, Maggie would have to be dead and buried not to also notice that he was, without a doubt, the best-looking man she’d ever met in person. He’d rendered her speechless and stupid in the head just by the way he interacted with the horses she loved like people.

He had a gentle, soothing way about him that would be ideal for the population of children he’d be working with. In fact, it was nearly impossible for her to reconcile the information Ashton had given her with the man currently standing before her.

Maybe he’d investigated the wrong Brayden Thomas.

That was possible, wasn’t it?

She took a deep breath for courage and released it. “We ran a background check, which is customary with everyone we hire.”

“Okay.”

“We discovered you have a juvenile record.”

“I do.”

“Can you tell me what that’s about?”

“Nope.”

Finding Forever

(Treading Water Series, Book 5)

The long-awaited finale to Marie’s beloved Treading Water Series is HERE at last!

Chapter 1

Spring in central Tennessee happened suddenly. After weeks of seemingly endless rain, overnight the miles of rolling hills turned emerald green, buds popped on the crepe myrtles, maples and oaks, the sweet smell of new life filling the air. Forsythia, the first harbinger of spring, exploded to yellow life weeks earlier than it did at home in Rhode Island and was followed in quick succession by daffodils and tulips that filled lush flower beds with a riot of color.

Maggie Harrington took her coffee with her that early May morning when she walked across the driveway to the stables to see the horses. Having them nearby was one of the best parts of her new life running Matthews House, a shelter for women and children in crisis founded by her superstar sister Kate and brother-in-law Reid Matthews. Maggie had been crazy about horses all her life, and she’d missed being around them during the years she’d lived in New York City.

In the stables, she went directly to Thunder, the sleek, dark thoroughbred Reid had given Kate when they were first together more than a decade ago. The old guy gave a happy nicker when he saw her coming, probably because he knew she always came bearing gifts. This morning was no different. She fed him apple slices and carrots, despite Kate’s edict that he needed to lose some weight.

Maggie disagreed. At this point in his life, he ought to have whatever he wanted.

His velvety tongue swept over her palm, scooping up the carrots in one swift lick.

Maggie laughed. “Pig.”

He snorted in response and nudged at her hand, looking for more. Kate swore the horse had human tendencies, and Maggie had to agree with her sister.

She found a single sugar cube in her pocket and gave it to him, feeling badly for playing favorites. After feeding apple slices to the other horses and giving them each some attention, she left the stables to head back to the house to start her workday. If she got everything done and no new crises arose, she might get done in time to ride before dinner at Kate and Reid’s.

The toot of a horn from a car coming up the long driveway stopped her from going inside. She recognized Ashton Matthews’s sporty silver Mercedes-Benz. Ashton, who was Reid’s son, was engaged to Maggie’s sister, Jill, and served as the pro bono attorney for the shelter. And yes, her sisters were involved with a father and son. Their story began when Kate first met Reid as an eighteen-year-old chasing the dream in Nashville.

Tall, blond and handsome, Ashton emerged from the car, tucking a leather portfolio under his arm. “Glad I caught you. I’m on my way to the office and was hoping to talk to you for a minute.” Since they got engaged last Christmas, Ashton had been living with Jill at the house Kate had built for her on her estate. Ashton and Jill were getting married in the Harrington sisters’ hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, in late June.

“What’s going on?” Maggie asked him.

Ashton had wanted to be part of the project at his family’s home and had offered to handle any legal work involved. “I’ve got the background check on your horse-whisperer guy.”

Brayden Thomas had come highly recommended and was due to arrive for an interview after lunch. She’d asked Ashton to run a check on him, the way he had every employee they’d hired over the last few months. That he’d had to come here personally to discuss it with her didn’t bode well. “And?”

“Everything came back okay, but there was one weird thing.”

“What’s that?”

“His high school diploma is from the state’s juvenile detention center.”

“What does that mean?”

“He was in juvie when he graduated.”

“What did he do?”

“No way to know. Juvenile records are sealed.”

“Huh.” Maggie tried to wrap her head around this unexpected development. Brayden had come so highly recommended. She hadn’t expected to find any skeletons in his closet.

“Whatever it was happened years ago. He’s almost thirty, and his adult record is clean. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UT Knoxville in animal science.”

Maggie had applied for and received a grant to run a therapeutic riding program for the children who came to stay at the shelter and had planned to offer the job to Brayden if the interview went well. She’d wanted the program to be separate of what Reid and Kate had done with Matthews House, something that was entirely her own initiative. After having studied equine therapy in college, she’d been determined to make it available to their clientele.

“What’re you going to do?” Ashton asked.

“Have the interview and ask him about it, I guess.” It’d taken months to find Brayden and then a week of back-and-forth messages to schedule the meeting. The thought of starting over to find someone else made her feel tired, and it was only eight thirty.

“That’s what I would do. Maybe it’s some foolish adolescent prank or something like that.”

If it was anything more than that, Maggie would be reluctant to hire the man to work with the troubled children who would come through Matthews House.

Because Kate and Reid were personally funding the program, they were able to make their own rules and regulations for the program, but safety was their top priority. They’d installed manned security gates to provide added security to their residents, many of whom had fled violent relationships. Keeping them safe had to also be Maggie’s top priority.

“Good luck with it,” Ashton said as he got back in his car. “I’ll see you at dinner later?”

“I’ll be there.”

He waved as he turned the car around and drove off toward town, away from the house where he’d grown up. Reid had become a single parent when Ashton’s mother was killed in a car accident when he was only two. Jill said Ashton had no memory of his mother except for the photographs his father had kept around the house and the stories his father had told him.

Maggie couldn’t imagine what it’d been like for him to grow up without his mother. She’d spent three years without hers after an accident had left Clare in a coma. The day she’d unexpectedly recovered had been the best day of Maggie’s life. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe everything that’d happened after her mother’s accident.

It had divided their lives into before the accident and after.

She shuddered, recalling the horror of the car hitting her mother, of Clare seeing it coming but not reacting, the sickening crunching sound at the moment of impact and the surreal, slow-motion flight of her mother’s body into the air, her head connecting with the windshield with a sound Maggie had never heard before or since.

“Stop. Don’t think about that.” Easier said than done. Images from that shocking incident were etched permanently upon her soul. They didn’t torment her the way they had when it first happened, but time and therapy had given her coping skills that kept the distress at bay most of the time. However, the month of May always brought the memories back to the forefront, as the accident had occurred on a day much like this one. Shaking off the troubling thoughts, Maggie went inside, poured herself another cup of coffee and brought it with her to the office to start her workday.

She took a second to check her phone and found a text from her brother Eric, who would graduate from high school a few days before Jill’s wedding.

Help me. They’re driving me nuts. I don’t want to go to college this year. I need a break from school. Promise you won’t tell? I have a secret!

Maggie wasn’t surprised to hear of his lack of interest in college. He’d been less than enthusiastic when her dad and stepmother, Andi, had taken him to tour a few schools and had only applied under pressure from his parents, teachers and school counselors. He’d gotten into all five schools he’d applied to and had reluctantly committed to Northwestern in Andi’s hometown of Chicago right at the deadline.

When have I ever told your secrets? Spill it!

I’m applying to the Peace Corps.

Whoa. That was huge news. I LOVE that. I can see you doing that for sure.

Really? I can teach ASL, he said, referring to American Sign Language. Eric had been born deaf, and Maggie had learned sign language from him and Andi. When Maggie had been unable to get a job as a family counselor after grad school, that skill had come in handy as she’d been hired to provide sign language for criminal trials.

Really! It’d be such an adventure. Let me know how it goes, and when you’re ready to pitch it to the parents, I’ll help.

You’re the best. LY

LY2. Keep me posted.

He replied with the thumbs-up emoji.

Maggie hoped Eric would be able to pull it off, especially since their dad was super gung ho about all of them going to college. She’d met plenty of people in college who didn’t belong there, and wasn’t afraid to say so to her dad and Andi if it came to that. Perhaps Eric could take a couple of years to volunteer and go to college later.

Teresa, the overnight program manager, appeared at the door to Maggie’s office a few minutes later. “Good morning.”

“Morning. How are things?”

“All quiet. The McBride family had a rough night because the baby is teething, but Debbie has the older two up and ready for the bus stop.”

“Did the kids have breakfast?” Two days last week, the McBride kids had gone without breakfast because they’d been running late to make the bus. Maggie had sent them off to school with granola bars and juice boxes.

“They did.”

“Well, that’s progress.” In addition to providing emergency shelter, counseling and career services, their program aimed to help struggling parents learn skills and routines designed to prepare them to eventually live independently with their children. Some of the mothers needed this help more than others. One of the things Maggie had come to appreciate was how the more experienced mothers stepped up to offer wisdom and counsel to the younger ones, which gave them a community of support that would hopefully outlast their time at Matthews House.

“In other news, Corey is having pains. Could be Braxton Hicks. I’ve got her first on the list for Arnelle when she comes in.”

Maggie was alarmed to hear that twenty-year-old Corey Geller might be in early labor with her first child. She’d come to them via a referral from Davidson County police after they intervened in a domestic situation at her home. Her live-in boyfriend had been arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend and was still in jail. “How far apart are the pains?”

“Twelve minutes.”

“Damn it. She’s only thirty weeks. Should we call for rescue?” These were the moments Maggie found most challenging in her new job. When did a situation become a crisis, and how did she know whether she was doing the right thing?

“Corey didn’t think that was necessary.”

“Okay,” Maggie said, exhaling. “We’ll see what Arnelle has to say.”

Maggie’s day spun out of control from there. When Arnelle determined that Corey could be in early labor, they called the rescue. Maggie ended up at the hospital with Corey until they decided to admit her to see if they could stop her labor. She stayed until a friend of Corey’s came to be with her.

“I’ll check on you after a bit,” she said to the petite young woman with blonde hair and fragile features marred by bruises that infuriated Maggie. How any man could hit a pregnant woman, she would never know.

Over the last few months, she’d had to take a mental step back from questions like that, or she’d go mad from the things she saw and heard on a daily basis. She would never understand how people could do such things to the people they loved, but it happened far too often.

Arnelle liked to say the crises kept them in business, which was sadly true. She also said dark humor was necessary to keeping one’s sanity when working with families in turmoil.

As Maggie drove back to the house, down scenic, winding country roads, she had the window down and the stereo set to loud. Around here, country music was all the rage, but it wasn’t her jam. She preferred her alternative playlist to country, not that she’d admit that to her sister Kate, one of country music’s biggest stars.

For Kate, Maggie made a rare exception to her no-country-music rule. She loved Kate’s work, as well as that of Kate’s husband-and-wife mentors, Buddy Longstreet and Taylor Jones. Buddy, Taylor and their four children were family to Kate and Reid, who’d grown up with Buddy.

Maggie took the last turn before the security checkpoint where the handsome young guard waved her through, flashing a big smile. Xander was always friendly and flirtatious with her. However, she didn’t encourage him because she was in no place to be thinking about men or dating or anything like that. The thought of it made her shudder in revulsion after what she’d been through with the last guy she’d dated.

She navigated the long lane that led to the Matthews’ estate, driving past the two-story Tudor-style guesthouse where Kate had spent her first night in Nashville, and pulling into her usual parking space behind the stables. Only as she walked around the stables and came face-to-face with a handsome man wearing well-worn denim and a formfitting Western-cut plaid shirt did she remember the meeting with Brayden Thomas that she’d failed to reschedule after Corey’s early labor crisis.

The photos she’d seen of Brayden hadn’t done him justice. Tall and broad shouldered, with dark hair and eyes, he looked like a movie-star version of a horse wrangler. He removed a battered tan cowboy hat from his head in a gesture of respect she found ridiculously charming.

“Are you Maggie?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

He stepped forward, hand extended. “Brayden Thomas. Nice to finally meet you.”

She shook his work-roughened hand and met his intense gaze. Manners and eye contact, two things that mattered for people who worked in equine therapy. “You as well. So sorry to be late for our appointment. I had an emergency with one of the women.”

“No worries. Arnelle told me what was going on. Gave me some time to look around. What a beautiful place you’ve got here.”

“It belongs to my brother-in-law and sister, actually.”

“Your sister is Kate Harrington, right?”

“That’s right.”

His eyes glittered with excitement. “I’m a big fan. I’ve seen her in concert five or six times. She’s fantastic.”

Maggie was never sure how she was supposed to reply when people praised Kate, so she said what she always did. “Thank you. We’re proud of her.”

“You don’t look like her.”

“Nope. I favor my dad, and she’s our mom’s twin. We do have the same eyes, though.” Why was she telling him this stuff when she ought to be asking him how he’d landed in juvie?

“I had a chance to check out the stables, and they’re some of the nicest I’ve ever seen. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about what you have in mind for the equine therapy program.”

This would be a really great time to tell him you can’t hire someone with a criminal record, Maggie. “As you know, most programs focus on children and adults with special needs. Here, it won’t be about that so much as providing therapy and riding lessons to kids who’ve been through traumas and/or suffer from PTSD.”

He nodded, listening intently to everything she said.

Maggie realized he’d begun moving toward the stables and, as if she’d been hypnotized or some such thing, she walked with him without having made the conscious choice to move.

“Are the kids abused, then?”

“Some of them were. Others have seen things that no child should ever see—parents overdosing, fathers beating mothers, mothers beating fathers, among other things that can’t be unseen.” Such as your mother getting hit by a car right in front of you…

“I see. My philosophy is all about building confidence. I tell the kids I work with if you can mount a thousand-pound animal and get him or her to do what you tell them to, you can do anything.” He reached out to scratch the nose of a quarter horse mare named Dandy, who leaned into his caress. “It seems like that approach might be a good fit for the kids in your program.”

It would be perfect. That was exactly what Maggie had dreamed of when she approached Reid and Kate about using the horses that were boarded at the Matthews estate for a therapeutic riding program. Once she hired someone to oversee the program, each horse would have to be evaluated for temperament and suitability.

Maggie had secured signed releases from the owners of the other horses, allowing them to be used for that purpose if it was determined their temperaments worked for the program. Most of the owners were friends of Reid’s or Ashton’s, so getting permission hadn’t been difficult. In fact, the owners had been thrilled to know that their horses would help to make a difference for kids in need and get regular exercise, too.

“As I mentioned on the phone, it’s important that I work closely with a counselor or therapist to tailor my program to the needs of each child.”

“That’s where I come in,” Maggie said. “My undergraduate degree is in social work, and my master’s is in family counseling.”

His gorgeous face lit up with a warm smile. “That’s an ideal fit for what I do.”

For some reason, hearing him say the words “ideal fit” made Maggie feel like laughing. Yes, he was an ideal fit for her program, and the fact that he was to-die-for handsome didn’t hurt anything either.

“Are these the horses I’d be working with?”

Now would be the perfect time to tell him he couldn’t work here. “They are. All but Thunder.” She pointed to him. “He’s getting on in years, and Kate thought it might be better not to have him be part of the program.”

Brayden worked his way down the row of stalls, giving each of the horses a minute of his time and attention. Each of them responded favorably to him, even Lonnie, who didn’t like anyone—or so it seemed. “Is Thunder in good health?”

“He’s in excellent health and is gentle as a lamb.”

“He’d be ideal for the program, but I understand if your sister doesn’t want us to use him. In my experience, I’ve found that older horses are sometimes better for therapeutic riding. They’ve sown their wild oats, so to speak.”

“I’m sure Kate would be open to discussing it.”

He ran a hand over Thunder’s elegant neck, and the horse nickered in response. “Did you get the info I sent about my PATH certification and insurance?”

She licked lips that’d gone dry as she watched him interact with the animals and noted how each of them responded to him with trust. “I did, thank you for sending them.”

In addition to his obvious affinity for the horses, Maggie would have to be dead and buried not to also notice that he was, without a doubt, the best-looking man she’d ever met in person. He’d rendered her speechless and stupid in the head just by the way he interacted with the horses she loved like people.

He had a gentle, soothing way about him that would be ideal for the population of children he’d be working with. In fact, it was nearly impossible for her to reconcile the information Ashton had given her with the man currently standing before her.

Maybe he’d investigated the wrong Brayden Thomas.

That was possible, wasn’t it?

She took a deep breath for courage and released it. “We ran a background check, which is customary with everyone we hire.”

“Okay.”

“We noticed you graduated from high school while in juvenile detention.”

“I did.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“Nope.”

 

 

 

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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