Chapter 1

October 18, 2015

Druid Hills, Northeast Atlanta

Along the tree-lined sidewalk, a woman in running gear kept pace with a towheaded little boy, wobbling on what looked like his first bike. Jen slowed her car, just in case the child lost control and weaved into the street. He crossed the entrance to her driveway, peddling for all he was worth. His mother gave a wave as she passed.

Jen watched them wistfully for another moment before she pulled in. Lately, her nesting instincts had kicked in big time. The urgent tick, tick, she kept hearing wasn’t coming from her smart watch. She’d passed thirty, still unmarried, and based on her track record, had a high probability of remaining single. If she wanted to have a child, she had to do it on her own—as she’d done just about everything else in her life.

She hurried into the house, changed into her workout clothes and let the dog into the back yard. Why not practice yoga on the brick patio and enjoy the pleasant fall weather? Afterwards, when she was done with her calls, she could do more research and with luck find a potential sperm donor.

With a deep breath, she lifted her arms to the sun and then bent, planting her palms on the mat and pushing her hips toward the sky, stepping back with each foot until her body formed an inverted V.

A spotted muzzle nudged aside her dangling ponytail and sniffed.

“Go on, silly, we’ll play later.”

Freckles dashed off, no doubt to chase one of the many squirrels up one of the many pine trees or into the branches of a hundred-year-old live oak. The dog couldn’t roam far. High hedges concealed a wrought iron fence, extra security for pets—and children.

Exhaling, Jen gazed upside down between her legs at the rear of the renovated Tudor. It looked like a transplant out of Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the yard reminded her of a secret garden out of a book she’d escaped into when she was a child. Her dog wasn’t the only one who favored the new digs over their last home, a trendy apartment in New York City. What a relief to inhale fresh air that smelled of grass, not garbage.

She’d made the right decision in taking over the agency’s Atlanta office and moving into an historic neighborhood close to her job downtown, yet with a low crime rate and top-notch schools; the perfect place to raise a family.

The challenge now would be to find the perfect donor. She distrusted sperm banks. After all, she wouldn’t purchase a car without driving it, or a house without walking through it, or even produce without having a chance to touch it. No, that wasn’t a good analogy. She had a lengthy list of requirements, but touching wasn’t one of them.

She knew business associates who were bright, successful men, reasonably good-looking and seemingly healthy, one of them might donate. Except, seeing the donor on a regular basis would make business meetings awkward. Ideally, the man would be someone she could meet, investigate thoroughly, but have no ties to him. How could she go about finding this Mr. Right? Rather, Mr. Y, who could provide the chromosome she needed, as well impressive DNA.

A throat-clearing sound came from behind.

Jen snapped her eyes open, head down and looking between her legs. She stared in confusion at scuffed cowboy boots, topped by worn jeans, covering manly legs that seemed to go on forever.

With a gasp, she leapt out of the pose and spun around—bad enough to be caught off guard by a total stranger, much less with her ass in the air. Instinctively, she assumed a defensive stance, and looked up…and up… At five-six, she wasn’t considered short, but the intruder had to be well over six feet. She was forced to tilt her head to look him in the eye.

Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth.

The color of his eyes reminded her of endless skies stretched across wide-open spaces. Tanned, chiseled features were softened by a growth of brown stubble a few shades darker than his collar-length sandy hair.

His gaze flickered over her body—over the sports bra and skin-tight yoga pants she wore only when she was at home by herself—before returning to her face, reflecting his blatant appreciation.

“Didn’t mean to startle you, miss. Would you mind if I trimmed your bush?” His resonant Texas drawl distracted her a second before the bizarre remark registered. He’d been staring at her—

“My what?”

He blinked, as if her question surprised him, a moment later a dark stain flooded his face all the way to his cheekbones. She’d never seen a man blush so deeply. “The bush next to your fence,” he quickly clarified. “I, uh, thought you might not have the right tool.”

“The right…?” Jen followed a line of Western snap buttons down the front of his faded chambray shirt, past a Texas-sized belt buckle—only then did she notice the gas-powered hedge trimmer clutched in his left hand. She jerked her attention to his face. He meant the shears, for God’s sake. How had she missed the fire engine red lawn tool? And he had to have noticed where she looked to start with.

Flustered, she shot back. “Do you make a habit of strolling into people’s backyards looking for work, cowboy?”

His answering smile landed like a punch to her solar plexus. God help her, a dimple, visible even through the scruff. “Only if I leave my horse at home.”

Jen bit her lip to keep from bursting out laughing, from nervousness as well as his awful joke, which for some reason she found hilarious.

“Hey, I’m sorry for bustin’ in on you.” He didn’t look sorry. He appeared irritatingly aware that she found him attractive. “Should’ve introduced myself right off. Logan Hart.”

He stuck his hand out and engulfed hers in a warm clasp, sending a sizzling current racing up her arm, igniting her dormant libido. Was this some latent physiological response tied to her body’s ticking clock, and did he notice?

She jerked her hand away, self-consciously smoothing back the limp strands of hair around her face. With no make-up and sweaty from working out, she had to look dreadful, and she wasn’t making a good first impression on the neighbor, if that’s what he was. She’d never seen him before. She would’ve remembered. “Do you live around here?”

“Nope. Texas.” He hooked his thumb over his belt in a time-honored manly stance, still holding the hedge trimmers in the other hand. “My family has a ranch southwest of Fort Worth.”

Could this get any weirder?

“So you came all the way from Texas to Atlanta to perform lawn services?”

The dimple reappeared, making her heart perform another flip. “To be in a friend’s wedding. Troy McKinney. He and his girlfriend Celeste live next door.” Logan indicated with his chin to the right, like he assumed she didn’t know her neighbors.

“Yes, I’ve met them.” Jen recalled the couple coming over with a plate of chocolate chip cookies while she’d been moving in. She’d intended to return the favor and bake something, but got busy with work and ended up having cupcakes delivered with a thank you note.

“They’re having the wedding at their house, asked me to help get the back yard into shape.” Logan indicated the overgrown evergreen shrubs along the property line, which the realtor had declared to be a privacy feature.

Now the reason for his interest in her bushes became clear.

“I suppose I could make the shrubs look a little neater. I’ve been meaning to find the name of a good lawn company, but I haven’t had a chance yet.”

“Troy said you just moved in—”

“A month ago. I didn’t realize the bushes bothered them.” Her neighbors must be conflict avoidant, so they’d sent an emissary. Equipping a cowboy with a hedge trimmer was a bit much.

“Like I said, I can take care of it.”

“No, you don’t need to. I’ll call someone today.” After that, she would get moving on finding a donor. In fact, if she could dictate a description of the perfect specimen, he would look very much like this man.

Freckles bounded up, barking. Had Logan been a squirrel, the dog would’ve met him at the gate. As it was, an intruder could slit her throat and empty the house of valuables before the silly mutt noticed he was leaving.

“Some watchdog you are.” Jen grabbed the checkered collar when the dog rushed up to Logan. “Hush, now. Sit down.”

Freckles dropped her butt on the bricked patio a femtosecond before leaping up to continue her fierce barking, forcing Jen to grab her collar again so she wouldn’t make Logan nervous.

Jen looked up apologetically. “I’m sorry. She won’t bite you.”

He looked amused, not a bit apprehensive. Kneeling down, he set aside the hedge trimmers and held out his hand for Freckles to sniff. “Hey there, pretty girl.”

His drawled praise fluttered across Jen’s heartstrings, an irrational reaction, considering he wasn’t talking to her. The dog shied away, being her usual cautious self. Finally, she risked venturing close enough for him to stroke her head and scratch behind her silky ears.

“Soft and sweet, just what I figured.”

Freckles rolled over and presented her belly.

Revealing a submissive nature to an Alpha might work for dogs—for humans, not so much. Being soft and sweet was a sure way to invite hurt, and it didn’t get a woman very far in the professional world, either.

He left off crooning to the dog long enough to deliver another heart-stopping half smile. “Name?”

“Jen”—she took a quick breath to restart her heart—“Chandler.”

Logan arched his eyebrows like she’d surprised him. “Fancy name for a dog.”

Good grief. She would’ve realized he meant the dog if he hadn’t thrown her off balance with that dimple. “Her name is Freckles.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Jen, and Freckles.” Still rubbing the dog’s head, Logan sailed right past the embarrassing moment. “She’s got pretty spotted markings on her face and legs. I can see why you named her Freckles.”

Jen recalled her mother had scoffed at the name.

Freckles? Why would you name a dog something silly like that?

“You don’t think it’s a silly name?”

“No, it fits.” Logan patted his knee. Freckles rested her paw where he indicated, gazing up at him adoringly. “Good girl.” He ran his fingers through the dog’s fur.

Jen’s skin prickled at the thought of being stroked by those strong calloused hands.

Amazing, how fast Freckles had warmed up to Logan. The rescue dog was typically reserved around men—one thing they shared in common, and for good reason. Men in their past had abused their trust. But animals had a sixth sense about people, and Logan had passed the test.

What she found equally surprising was she wasn’t uptight around him either, not even after making a fool of herself. Being attracted to a man would usually put her in a state of nervous anxiety. Yet she felt a strange sense of calm. She’d been wondering how she would find a donor, and this handsome, dog-loving cowboy had strolled into her back yard. What were the odds of that?

The breeze lifted a lighter strand of his hair and blew it across his forehead. The men she knew used special products to achieve a tousled, windblown look. Logan didn’t appear the type to bother with styling his hair. He was naturally blessed with thick, wavy locks—another nice trait, along with his impressive height and rugged build.

Her watch buzzed, reminding her of what she ought to be doing instead of standing around daydreaming about what his progeny might look like. In her mind’s eye she saw a sandy-haired baby boy with dimples.

While Logan watched quizzically, she turned off the notification. “I’m sorry, I need to go. I have a conference call in fifteen minutes.”

“Want me to take care of those hedges?”

If he was so insistent, who was she to argue?

“Okay, fine. But I’ll pay you for your trouble.”

He stood, all six feet something, and looked down at her with a half-smile. “You hiring me?”

Hiring him? Maybe. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more appealing the idea. Logan had no ties to her. In fact, he’d soon be on his way back to Texas. Strange as it seemed, he might turn out to be the perfect donor.

Her stomach knotted at the thought of his reaction if she told him why she might want to hire him. After that faux pas when she’d misunderstood his question, and then looked at his crotch, geez, he would think she was a kook. She couldn’t discuss things like sperm count—yet. First, she had to get to know him better.

“Mr. Hart…Logan.” She supposed they needed to be on a first name basis. “I’d like to get your number, if you don’t mind, so I can get in touch with you to arrange payment. And, I might need another favor.”

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