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Finding His Heart (Cottonwood Ranch Book 4) by Jaclyn Hardy (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mandy pulled out her phone and tapped on the video chat button to call Laura. Staring out at the cityscape of Indianapolis would have been a lot more fun if her best friend had been there, but the farmland of Idaho had ended their summer trips.

Not that Laura hadn’t wanted to come. That had been the plan until she found out she couldn’t travel this late in her pregnancy. Well, she could have. Justin wouldn’t let her out of his sight. It was both cute and annoying.

Mandy sighed and had to perk up instantly when Laura finally answered. “There you are. I figured you were taking a nap.”

Laura laughed. “I wish. I was actually helping Justin get the last of the tomatoes picked before the first frost hits tonight.”

“Now that is a glamorous life.” Mandy leaned against the railing of the building. “I guess it’s my fault for deciding to travel in the fall instead of the summer like we used to.”

“Darn grown-up jobs.” Laura squinted. “Where are you? All I see is sky.”

Mandy turned the phone so it faced the city below. “I’m in the Salesforce Tower. I had to sneak in with a school group.”

She glanced around and realized most of her group had already left. Oh well. She could fit in with the employees, so she was still fine.

“So, what are your plans while you’re there?” Laura’s phone wobbled as she bent over. When she came back into view, she held a glass of lemonade.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to a car race or something.” Mandy grabbed a chair from a nearby table and sat. “I think this might be my last time doing this. I’m getting too old.”

Laura raised an eyebrow. “You’re twenty-two.”

Mandy sighed. “I know. But now I have to actually pay for it myself. And you can’t come with me anymore. After this, you’ll have a baby, and then a toddler, and then another baby—”

“Whoa. Let me stop you there. I need to actually learn to deal with this one first.” Laura slid down on her couch. “Okay, now I think I’ll take a nap. You go out and do something fun. And buy me lots of souvenirs.”

“Will do.” Mandy waved and hung up. She pulled her coat back on and grabbed a bagel and drink from the small deli before heading for the elevator. This trip would be short because of her job, which meant she had a lot of sightseeing to do and no time to waste.

Mandy pulled her coat tight to keep out the wind and flagged down a taxi to head to the tracks. There were no races that weekend, but maybe she could still take a tour. She adjusted her scarf and checked her phone for the time. Only a few more hours left of daylight.

“Late for something?” the cab driver asked.

“Nope. I’m just here for fun so I don’t really have to be anywhere.” Mandy grimaced. What was she doing telling the cab driver that? For all she knew, he could be a serial killer looking for her next victim and she just gave him his perfect target.

The driver perked up. “You came to the right place. Indianapolis has all kinds of great tourist spots.”

Mandy smiled. “That’s what I was hoping to hear. Have any suggestions?”

“Now that’s the question of the day. It all depends on what you want. Art, theater, entertainment. You name it, we have it.” The driver turned the corner. “You’re starting in the best place right here. Check out the museum, then I suggest the Italian place right around the corner for dinner.”

“Thanks. Perfect. Anything else?” Mandy handed him cash.

The driver grinned. “Here. Take my card. Tomorrow give me a call, and I’ll take you on a tour.”

Mandy took the card from him and put it in her purse. “Thanks.”

“See you tomorrow!” The driver waved and pulled away.

Mandy shook her head and took a picture of the museum to send to Laura. A bus pulled up to the street behind her and kids piled out. That bus was followed by another bus, and then another. All the students wore blue jackets and they spoke excitedly as they poured into the museum. Apparently, this wasn’t the best time to tour the museum. Italian food was sounding good right now. She could take the tour tomorrow instead.

“I know everyone else ran in, but please, just stay together. I don’t need to lose anyone again.” The man’s voice behind her made Mandy jerk to attention.

She knew that voice. She hadn’t heard it in a year, but she knew it. Mandy whipped around and searched the crowd of yelling, laughing students. He had to be here. They all blended together.

“Hey, do you know a Thomas Carter?” Mandy asked a passing student.

The girl pulled an earbud out of her ear. “What?”

“Thomas Carter. Do you know him? Uh, a Mr. Carter.” Mandy knew by the blank look on the girl’s face she had no clue. “Never mind.”

Maybe a tour would be a good idea after all . . . Mandy followed the group into the museum and kept an eye out for Thomas. Maybe, just maybe, this trip would be interesting after all.

 

 

The tour was almost done, and Mandy still hadn’t run into Thomas. Maybe she missed Laura more than she thought she did, and parts of Idaho were pulling her back. Or something. Mandy sighed and sent the last picture she’d taken.

She hesitated before sending one more text. You don’t know where Thomas is, do you?

I don’t. He went somewhere with the FFA, why?

Mandy bit her lip. She had to have been imagining things then. What were the odds of them ending up in the same place? She smirked. Probably a million and one. The gift store was next, so Mandy put her phone in her pocket and went to find a souvenir for Laura. She’d answer her about Thomas later. After she was over her embarrassment.

She hadn’t even thought of Thomas for almost a year. They’d just been friends when she went to visit, which meant that besides a few emails here and there, they hadn’t talked after she went back to New York.

Mandy found a couple of shot glasses and a magnet and went up to the cash register to pay. She glanced out the window while the cashier rang her up and the blue jackets of the students passing by caught her eye. She’d seen that patch before somewhere.

“Here for the convention?” The cashier handed her the change.

“Convention?” Mandy set the change in her purse. “Is that why all the students are here?”

The man nodded. “The FFA Convention is in town. Sorry, I saw the blue of your coat and just assumed . . .”

Mandy blinked. “The what? Did you just say FFA     . . .?”

She left before the man could answer and pulled out her phone to call Laura. “You didn’t care to mention the fact that the FFA was here this weekend?”

“What are you talking about?” Laura yawned.

“Convention. Here. This weekend. You didn’t tell me they were coming here. I asked where Thomas was. You told me he was with the FFA. You didn’t mention they were here.” Mandy’s heart beat rapidly as she searched the crowd for the hundredth time.

Laura laughed. “Are you kidding me? I just know that Thomas took off and left Justin to do a lot of the harvest himself. Apparently, the regular teacher had to cancel last minute and needed a sub. Justin stayed here to be with me, and Thomas was asked to go instead. I don’t understand why this is a big deal.”

“It’s . . . I guess. I just thought I heard him earlier and it threw me for a loop.” Mandy forced herself to relax. Laura was right. This wasn’t a big deal.

“I thought you had a guy back home, anyway. What’s his name again? Francois?”

Mandy rolled her eyes. “It’s Freddy. And we broke it off last month.”

Laura grunted. “Interesting. I thought he was the one. With him being in a band and all. You two could have traveled the world together.”

“Right. With all of his rabid fans. One of which he was dating on the side without telling me.” Mandy passed the buses and headed for the restaurant that cab driver had told her about. “If you happen to hear from Thomas, tell him to call me.”

“Sure. Since he calls me all the time. Oh, hey, Justin just got home. I need to see what he wants.”

Mandy said goodbye and hung up. She frowned when she turned the corner and found a whole shopping center full of restaurants. Well, this was going to be easy. Maybe she should have gotten the name of the place from the driver.

It couldn’t have been any of the chain stores, so Mandy vetoed those first. American was out as well as Chinese food, fast food, and a few buffets. That left two more restaurants she could choose from. One sounded a little too spicy for her taste, so she decided to go for the last restaurant in the lot. With a name like ‘Tony’s’ it had to be Italian, right? She stepped out to cross the street.

“Watch out!” Strong arms grabbed her and pulled her back onto the sidewalk. She landed on the ground with an ooph just as a bus sped by honking its horn.

She lay there stunned for a moment, trying to figure out what had just happened. Well, besides almost getting smashed by a bus.

“Hey, are you okay?” Whoever had grabbed her pulled away and rolled her over. “You could have been killed.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thank you.” Mandy groaned. Maybe she should pay more attention to the road instead of what was across the street. Then she froze. That voice. She scrambled up and straightened her dress, her face burning.

“Mandy?” Thomas asked in astonishment. His look of shock turned to a grin. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey, Thomas.” Mandy rubbed her head. She’d just searched a crowd for the last three hours to find him, only to have him save her from a bus?

He wrapped her in a hug that pulled her off the ground. “I figured you’d be off to Paris or Italy by now.”

As much as she enjoyed the closeness, she couldn’t breathe. She tapped on his shoulder to let her down, then caught her breath. “I actually hoped I’d be at one of those places too. Last time spinning the globe and I ended up here.”

Thomas laughed. “This isn’t quite as bad as the middle of nowhere, but it’s definitely not Paris. Are you heading to eat? I’d love to catch up.”

“That’s why I almost got flattened. I was trying to figure out the best place to eat and didn’t pay attention to the traffic.” Mandy’s face reddened again.  “So, FFA, huh?”

“Yeah. They figured since I was part of it all four years of high school, I’d make a great counselor. Problem is, the kids know I’m not a whole lot older than them so getting them to listen to me has been next to impossible.”

Mandy glared at two boys making kissing noises at them. “Are they yours?”

Thomas shook his head. “Mine are already grabbing food at one restaurant or another. Come on.”

They crossed the street with Mandy looking both ways several times. She breathed a sigh of relief when they finally got across and Thomas chuckled.

“No, there weren’t any more buses out to get you.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.” Mandy readjusted her purse and huffed. “You know, for being a hero, you’re not very heroic.”

Thomas grinned. “What can I say? I save and then I tease. Okay, so where did you decide you’re going to eat?”

Mandy pointed to Tony’s. “I finally narrowed it down to that one. My cab driver said it was supposed to be really good. I think. He didn’t actually give me the name. He just said the Italian place around the corner.”

“Wow. Super helpful. But I guess that would be this one if you take out all of the chains.”

Mandy laughed. “That’s exactly what I did.”

Thomas glanced at the group of kids in front of them, then back at her. “Don’t suppose you’d want some company?”

“Uh, don’t you have to be with the kids? Pretty sure that’s part of being a chaperone.” Mandy mentally begged him to insist. She’d been dying for someone to talk to and he was perfect. Well, not perfect in that way. Except for his blue eyes. And the way his hair fell just right. And his strong arms from farm—stop it. She could feel the blush creeping up her neck.

“Eh, they’re fine. Besides, they have two other leaders with them.” He paused. “You can say no if you’d like.”

Mandy shook her head. “No, it’s not that. I’d love the company. I just didn’t want you to get into trouble.”

Thomas nodded toward the window of Tony’s. “Check it out. There are leaders from a lot of the other groups in there, too. It’ll be fine. Besides, it’s been a while. I’d love to know what you’ve been up to in New York City.”

“Okay. Sounds good.” Mandy followed him in and Thomas requested a table for two.

The restaurant had the most adorable atmosphere. The paintings on the walls were scenes from Italy, the music was light and catchy, and oh, the smells. This was heaven. Not quite like being in Italy, but it would do for now.

They got a window seat, and Thomas insisted on helping Mandy into her chair. He slid in across from her and took the menu from the waiter.

“So, how is the Big Apple?” Thomas’s eyes danced, and Mandy momentarily forgot her name.

And how to talk. This was ridiculous. They’d spent a summer teasing Laura and Justin about dating and now she couldn’t even speak to him.

“It’s . . . good. I love my job and I just got a new apartment that I’ve been hoping to get for a while now. How about you? How’s the ranch?”

“About the same. Dirty, tiring, and a lot of fun.” Thomas set his menu down. “Oh, and I bought some land.”

Mandy raised her eyebrows. “You should have started with that. That’s really cool. Is it close to the ranch?”

“It’s between the ranch and town. Close enough I can still help while I get settled, but far enough away that I’ll have some privacy. It’ll take a while, though. They’ll need to get the road and electricity out there.” Thomas pulled out his phone and zoomed into a map. “That’s mine there.”

Mandy saw nothing but sagebrush. Which sounded about right for the area. “They have to build a road?”

Thomas zoomed back out again. “Yep, see, here’s the road right now. I had to show that I could get water out there—it’s hard to come by—but they finally approved it.”

“What do your parents think?”

He shrugged. “They don’t see why I’m sticking around instead of heading home, but it’s what I want to do.”

Mandy smiled sympathetically. “They’ll change their mind when they see the house you’re planning to build. Not everyone needs a place in the Hamptons.”

“Try telling them that. Thankfully Uncle Roger talked them out of coming to get me. He convinced them I’m still a troublemaker and needed more help.” Thomas laughed. “You should have seen their faces when they read about the run-in I supposedly had with the cops.”

“Oh?” Mandy folded her arms on the table and leaned. “What story is this?”

“I was supposedly caught sneaking a few stolen pigs into the principal’s office.” Thomas leaned closer. “Never mind that it was the sheriff who let me in.”

Mandy let out a laugh that made the others around them turn and stare. She hid her face in a napkin until she could calm down. When she was finally able to breathe, she cleared her throat. “I suppose you left that last part out.”

“Yep. Anyway, it worked. I’d be an embarrassment to their friends, so it’s better if I stay across the country.” Thomas smiled up at the waiter and ordered his food.

Mandy chose the lasagna and breadsticks and handed the waiter her menu. “That doesn’t bother you at all?”

He shrugged. “Not really. I couldn’t stay out of trouble there, and here I have work I can do. I knew as soon as I was shipped off to Idaho that it was where I wanted to be. I’ve never looked back.”

“Wow. Sounds perfect.” Mandy took a drink of her water. “And you never miss home?”

“Nope.” Thomas tapped his phone. “This right here is my dream. And I never thought about it before, but I’m kind of tempted to volunteer at the high school. This trip has been pretty fun, and I’ve really connected with a few of the kids. I think I could help them like Uncle Roger helped me.”

Mandy stared at the man that she’d had so much fun with a couple of years before. Even at Laura and Justin’s wedding, they’d flirted and joked around. But this guy. He was totally different. Serious. Well, except for the whole pig thing.

“That’s seriously cool.” Mandy paused. “Laura told me that you were sent as a replacement for someone else. Was that by choice or . . .”

Thomas laughed. “No, it wasn’t punishment for what I did to the principal. In fact, he fought them when they said I’d be going. Something about being a bad example for the kids.”

“So, how’d you talk him into letting you come, then?”

“Wasn’t his choice. The FFA chapter asked me to go and I said yes.” Thomas leaned back so the waiter could put their food on the table. “Thank you.”

Mandy breathed in the rich aroma of the lasagna. “Man. I hope this tastes as good as it smells.”

Thomas took a bite of his gnocchi and groaned. “This is perfection.”

“Yes, yes it is.” Mandy wanted to call the cab driver just to thank him for giving her this recommendation.

It was dark by the time they finished dinner, which meant no more sight-seeing for Mandy. She handed the cashier her card to pay and folded her napkin.

Thomas stretched. “By the noise outside the restaurant, I’m thinking I’d better get going. Thank you for letting me keep you company.”

“Thank you for saving me.” Mandy stood. “Maybe I’ll see you around?”

He pulled her into a hug. “I sure hope so.”

Mandy enjoyed the closeness to him, but it was gone too soon. She cleared her throat and grabbed her things to force herself not to think about the way his arms felt around her. “See ya, Thomas.”

He grinned and waved as he left the restaurant to the sound of catcalls and laughter from his group who stood outside. Mandy waited for her card, then walked outside to flag down a taxi. Mandy replayed the conversations in her head as she traveled back to her hotel. Why was it that she could have any guy she wanted in New York City, and yet her mind and heart kept going back to a little patch of sagebrush covered land in Idaho?

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