The Forbidden Groom

Texas Titan Romances

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Cole isn’t looking for love. In fact, it’s forbidden by his PR firm and agent until a new contract can be negotiated with the Texas Titans. His resolve is tested when he lays eyes on Maggie, the spunky caterer. Ever since she caught him from falling, he can’t seem to stop himself from falling for her.Maggie, a Park City Firefighter, needs a change of scenery. When an offer comes in to possibly take over a successful event planning business in sunny Dallas, Texas, she jumps at it. After a group of NFL players crash her first event, Maggie’s amazing opportunity fizzles. Cole, the handsome football player has ruined her employment prospects and wounded her pride. She may find the true love she has always dreamed of if she can forgive him.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

The blaring tones woke Maggie from her restless sleep. She sprang out of bed, fully clothed, and sprinted for the pole. Her brain scrambled to process the emergency notification broadcast over the intercom as she jumped forward, wrapping one arm and an opposing leg around the cool metal bar. Her socks hit the apparatus bay floor in an instant. It took her less than a minute from the time she first heard the tones for her to be suited up and in the engine with her fanny pack and medical bag. She looked over at Kyle with a nod and the engine started to move.

“Did I hear that correctly?” Maggie adjusted the volume on her radio. “A submerged car in Jordanelle reservoir?”

Her captain nodded. “Never seen that before.”

“But the road is so far from the water.” She couldn’t wrap her mind around it. “How could that have happened?”

Kyle, their fearless engineer, cranked up the siren as he approached a streetlight. “Sounds like the car went in from a campsite near the water’s edge.”

She threw her hands in the air. “I know it’s spring, chronologically speaking, but it’s still cold here in the mountains. Who camps in freezing weather?” She didn’t understand these crazy outdoorsmen in Utah. California made much more sense.

Kyle managed the countless bends and curves of the narrow road as he wound around the reservoir with expertise.

Maggie raised an eyebrow. “How many times have you been on this road, Kyle?”

“We kept a boat here when I was a kid.” He shrugged. “We were here most of the—” Kyle’s voice broke as they pulled into the campsite and their lights shone on a couple standing at the water’s edge. The frantic woman pounded on a man’s chest and motioned to the lake. Their clothes hung from their bodies like the chains of Jacob Marley in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and their eyes held a despair similar to what one would imagine a haunting ghost to have.

The crew bounced from the engine.

“What happened?” the captain asked.

The woman fell to her knees. “She was cold and crying, so my husband put her in the car and turned on the engine. We were packing up when…” She looked to the water.

“She’s been down there for at least half an hour.” The man pulled at his hair. “We’ve been trying to get her out.”

Maggie could make out the car’s shape. The top of the roof sat around two or three feet under the water’s surface. The doors would most likely be locked. Maggie grabbed the rescue axe just as a patrol car stopped at her side and an officer emerged.

The officer held his hand out to Maggie. “We’ve got rescue divers, Heavy Crew, and helicopter on their way.”

“Good,” Maggie said in defiance as she ran to the water and dove in.

A thousand pins penetrated her skin, constricting her chest and causing her nerves to falter. Maggie was raised swimming in the cool northern California ocean. This is nothing, she told herself in an effort to calm her racing heart. The full moon provided limited light once she reached down past two feet. The absence of light blinded her. She returned to the surface, took in a deep inhale, then immediately plunged deeper, feeling her way through the water until her hand hit something hard.

She pushed herself deeper as she ran her hand down to a door handle. She pulled with all her strength on the handle as she pushed off the door with her feet for sufficient resistance to break the glass with the axe in her other hand. Her hands ached from the cold as she struck the window with force. The glass held firm. In anger and frustration, she struck again and again.

She swam to the surface, breathed in another long breath, and dove back down. She altered her position slightly and released the axe with waning strength but increased determination.

A soft ting echoed through the water as glass shards fractured and floated around her. Maggie pulled herself in through the window frame, reaching forward until her hands located a body. She thought to open the car door from the inside but didn’t have more than a few seconds of oxygen remaining in her lungs. She willed her body not to breathe in the water as she pushed the little girl’s body out the window and then followed.

When Maggie reached the water’s surface, she immediately pushed the young girl’s head out of the water. The girl was stick-thin and looked to be around seven or eight. Maggie’s legs and free arm treaded the water at a rapid pace to keep them both above the surface. She blew two breaths in the girl’s mouth before a strong hand grabbed her arm and pulled her toward land.

“Thanks, Kyle,” she said once she regained her breath.

He gave her a stern look as they climbed onto the bank and laid the girl onto her side to expel any water, then repositioned her onto her back where one of the paramedics was ready to continue mouth-to-mouth. “Sometimes you forget we’re a team.”

“Sorry.” Maggie raised her eyes to the medical helicopter as it landed. “I just thought that you might try and stop me.” She challenged him with a look. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

“She’s not responding,” the paramedic said after performing chest compressions. “We need to call her.”

“Let me try,” Maggie voiced with determination, motioning for the paramedic to step aside. “I can bring her back.”

Maggie continued with the chest compression until Kyle touched her shoulder.

“It’s time,” Kyle said in a heavy voice. “We need to hand her over.”


Three hours later, Maggie slammed her yellow Jeep into park and glanced at her phone before pocketing it. No new emails. The results from her DNA swab should be in today. Her body tensed from the cold as she jumped out into the frigid air. Her yellow slicker boots hit the pavement with a crunch. If she wore her spring boots then maybe Mother Nature would act accordingly. No luck, still icy. Late April often meant spring blossoms, but in Park City, Utah, Jack Frost still utilized his tomfoolery to produce a thin layer of morning ice to tease and torment.

As a firefighter, Maggie loathed icy roads. Slick roads meant accidents and accidents meant death. She grabbed the cloth grocery sack out of the back seat and rested her shoulder against her Jeep’s cool metal frame. She breathed in the fresh mountain air, filling her lungs to complete capacity, and then some. She appreciated air more than ever today. The moisture from her breath clung to the water particles in the air as she slowly exhaled.

She needed to pound some pans together and feel the warmth of Pineapple’s smile.

Maggie took one last steadying breath before making her way through the parking lot to the Polynesian restaurant’s glass door. She ran her hand along the ribbed lanyard around her neck, glancing down before tinkering with the keys to find the one to the restaurant.

On her mornings off, she had full reign of Pineapple’s kitchen to explore the world of culinary delights as she pleased, often creating a French meal for Pineapple before his workday began. Today, she’d make the two of them French onion soup—the perfect comfort food. Then she’d help Pineapple prepare for the lunch rush before sneaking home to take a nap. Her body craved sleep, but her mind habitually tormented her the moment her head hit the pillow.

Culinary therapy would clear her mind and release her tension before she returned home to her solitary studio apartment. She had researched equestrian therapy when she realized how traumatic responding to horrific accidents could be, but anything involving a horse was super expensive. Horses spoke to a part of Maggie, and brought her a type of joy that no one else ever had—but she couldn’t afford a horse, so she stuck with cooking lessons instead, something Dax, a firefighter from the other shift, told her had helped him through his PTSD.

Maggie wiggled the key into the keyhole. A soft warm breeze tickled Maggie’s ear, causing her mind to fly back to a balmy summer afternoon in Healdsburg, California. Rosco shakes his head, causing the dust from his mane to produce a fog-like affect in the waning afternoon sunlight. I relax the reins as I lean forward in my saddle and wrap my arms around his neck. My cheek brushes the bristly, burnt-red hair of his mane, causing a warmth to erupt in my chest.

Rapid, high-pitched beeping from the alarm panel woke Maggie from her happy thoughts. She stepped over to the pad and disarmed it. She missed Rosco. If only she could find an authentic, assiduous cowboy.

She shook her head at her naiveté. She had come to Park City after the Sonoma Valley fires decimated Vernay Vineyard where she and her family had worked for over a decade. Tori Terrence had offered for Maggie to come stay with her family in Park City. Tori’s late husband had been a cowboy and Tori was convinced that if Maggie had her eyes set on a cowboy then all she had to do was come live with her for a few months, but it didn’t prove that easy.

At first, the intimate charm of the small mountain town saturated Maggie’s soul; everything was more romantic when new and unfamiliar. Once a rough-n-tumble miner’s town, Park City was now elegant and refined; a little too refined for Maggie’s taste.

Having been a firefighter here for over a year, nearly every street held a dark memory for her, and last night one more horrific memory was added to her repertoire of nightmares.

Maggie walked through the dining area with firefighter t-shirts from around the world adorning the walls and brightly painted wooden tables and chairs. She smiled to herself at how Pineapple’s invoked a sentiment of reliving one’s childhood, with primary colors splattered across the furniture and the scent of sweet bread hanging in the air. She skipped into the kitchen, her feet growing lighter with each step deeper into the restaurant.

She set the oven to preheat then carried her bag to the center of the room to the long metal counter and began offloading her groceries onto the shiny surface.

Would she give up her career? She loved so many things about firefighting. She earned good money, enough to be completely independent. Her male co-workers were amazing; they treated her like one of the guys, which was all right with her. Her fellow firefighters were attractive, but most of them had girlfriends or wives. Thankfully, they behaved like gentlemen.

It should have perhaps offended her that none of her single co-workers had asked her out, but how could she blame them? She’d never been accused of being overly feminine. She never wore make-up and always kept her long, straight black hair pulled up through a baseball cap or set in a messy bun on top of her head. Growing up, the neighborhood boys accepted her as one of their own.

And she was tough. By the time she turned fifteen, even with her petite frame, she could carry close to what the adult men in the fields and vineyards could. Now, at twenty-four, her strength enabled her to snag a job as a firefighter. Hiking up a mountain with a hundred pounds of gear was not for the faint of heart.

Maggie would have settled for a ripped firefighter, but she was better suited for a farm boy or a rancher who could appreciate her work ethic and strength. It was time to expand her search.

“Dallas, Texas, you’re looking better by the minute!” she exclaimed as she organized her ingredients.

She rotated a Vidalia onion in the air to examine it. It resembled an alien space saucer, flat and aerodynamic. “You are beautiful.” The flatter the sweeter, as the onion mantra went.

As Maggie turned to hang the empty grocery sack on the wall hook behind her, the back door slammed shut. No one should be in here. Pineapple never comes in this early. Ever since Dax’s girlfriend was attacked by her serial killing stalker a few months back, Maggie had been on edge. The stalker was currently in jail awaiting trial, but what if Maggie had her own stalker?

She stumbled, grabbing the hook for balance as she took in a sharp breath. She ducked down onto her hands and knees and scrambled to the drawer beneath her soup ingredients. Her fingers fumbled through the drawer until she held firm to the handle of a butcher knife.

Heavy steps neared, causing Maggie’s breath to quicken and her heart to pump chilled blood through her pulsating veins.

“Margarita!” Pineapple’s voice echoed through the kitchen.

Maggie sat up, rested the knife in her lap, and gave a dramatic exhale. “You scared the daylights out of me,” she scolded, returning the knife to the drawer as she stood.

Pineapple’s round, expressive face held a look of concern. “Sorry, Mags. You okay?” He was the only person she allowed to call her Margarita or Mags.

Pineapple was the restaurant owner and a firefighter on the other shift. He’d taken Maggie under his wing when she started working with Park City Fire. What’s more, when he discovered she was in culinary school on her days off to give her mind a rest from the trauma, he placed a key to his restaurant in her hand. If anyone had earned a ticket through the pearly gates, it was Pineapple.

“I’ve never seen you in this early.” Maggie tucked her shirttail into her jeans and pulled up the socks inside her slicker boots. She was a mess after that scare, not to mention her lack of sleep. “What’s going on?”

He shrugged. “I heard what happened last night and wanted to check on you.”

She gave him a tender smile as she wrapped her arms around his thick, soft center. “Thanks.” She buried her face in his cotton shirt and breathed in his sweet, citrusy scent.

His large palms held the back of her shoulders in a protective way. “Want to tell me about it?”

She shook her head, but the words spewed from her mouth, “I couldn’t revive the little girl. I was able to emotionally distance myself at first…but then her mother appeared.” Maggie’s tears absorbed into Pineapple’s cotton shirt. “I never want to see the face of another mother when she realizes her child is dying. There are no words for that expression—and no way to purge my mind of her agony.” Maggie took in a deep, shaky breath. “My job was to save that little girl. I failed.” Her voice trailed off to nowhere.

He patted her back. “Your job is to respond quickly to an emergency and do everything in your power to save lives. Did you do that?”

She rubbed her nose and forehead into Pineapple’s drenched shirt as she nodded. She appreciated Pineapple’s effort to quiet her soul. He held her for another minute until she relaxed her grip on him and placed a hand over her heart. “Responding to horrific accidents is affecting me more than I thought possible.”

Pineapple motioned to the front of the restaurant. “Let’s sit down.” He led her to a table by the front window with a view of the snowcapped mountain and pulled out her chair.

“Thanks,” she sniffed out as she slumped into her chair.

Pineapple cupped his hands over hers across the table. “What can I do to help?”

She bit her lower lip as her eyes studied the bright blue swirls on the tabletop. “I wish I knew.”

“I’ve never seen you this down before. Do you want something warm to drink?”

She rubbed her irritated eyes. “Warm is what I need.” She squeezed his hand. “And lots of sun. I’ve been offered…” She hesitated. She didn’t want to give herself, or anyone else, false hope—but she didn’t want to keep it from him either. She lifted her chin. “I was offered a trial position in Dallas, Texas as the caterer for an event planner with the possibility of taking over her business in the future. I leave in two weeks and I’ll be there for only a few days while I’m off the clock here. If everything goes well, I’ll commute for a bit, then move there permanently.”

Pineapple wrinkled his forehead. “Dallas?” He tapped his fingers on the tabletop thoughtfully before his face broke into a full smile and he slapped an open palm down onto the table. “That’s great! I have a cousin who plays football there.”

“Football?” She lifted an eyebrow and gave him a teasing smile. “Can he still read after all those hits to his head?”

“I sure hope so.” Pineapple shook his head as the room filled with his contagious laughter.

Maggie loved listening to his cheery exuberance.

“He’s super talented. Some football players sweat it week to week, hoping their team won’t cut ‘em. But not Cole—he’s someone to be reckoned with on the football field, not to mention he’s wicked smart.”

“Sounds like a great guy.” She gave a slow bat of her lashes.

“I could set you two up,” he said with eagerness.

Her eyes widened. “No. No.” She shook her head and waved her hands in front of her chest, enacting the universal slow down symbol. “That’s not what I meant. Something tells me we wouldn’t match up well. I’d be extremely content with a simple rancher.” She straightened her spine to show her determination. “That’s my idea of happiness.”

“Cole might surprise you,” he said with a wink.

She stood. “Well, I’m going to surprise you with a delectable soup.”

He followed her to the kitchen. “What can I do to help?”

“Peel the onions.” She handed him four onions.

“Yeah, you might want to forget about Cole,” he laughed out. “With all these onions, no one is going to come near either of us.”

Maggie shook her head with amusement. “Don’t knock it. I’m French, remember?” Her mood had definitely improved. “And all the better. There’s no one I’d rather spend the morning with than you.” She bumped his side with her hip.

“We’re making French onion soup?” Pineapple questioned with disappointment.

“Why the long face?”

“I was hoping you’d make me Mexican food one of these day.”

“Oh, that.” She waved a hand dismissively in the air. “You know I can’t cook Mexican food. I ate it as a kid, but never learned how to cook it. I experienced a little bit of the Mexican culture growing up, but my parents were adamant that I lead a more…” she looked to the ceiling for the right word. “Promising life than they did as migrant workers. I guess they didn’t want me working in the vineyards forever. They understood what it felt like to be put down and discriminated against and didn’t want me to experience the same thing, so they sent me to the schools with more affluent kids. I did my best to fit in. My fair complexion and blue eyes must have helped with that, but I always felt different. Like I didn’t quite fit the mold.”

“Where did your crystal blue eyes come from?”

“Even though my dad is partially Mexican, most of his ancestors came from France. We’re still not sure where my dad and brothers got their height, they’re both over six feet, but I’m guessing that’s where I got my blue eyes.” She arranged the beef bones, carrots, beef scraps, and onion slices into the roasting dish for the beef broth. “I think.” She shrugged as she drizzled olive oil over the broth ingredients. “According to my dad, that’s what his grandmother had told him. My dad’s stories are engaging. Unfortunately, you never know exactly how much of his stories are fact versus fiction. He tends to embellish. His stories could be ninety percent fiction and ten percent truth—or ninety percent truth and ten percent fiction. But I want to know my heritage for sure, so I did that…” She waved a carrot in the air. “DNA swab.”

“Isn’t Cinco de Mayo a celebration of when Mexico kicked the oppressive French out of their country?”

She raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Mexico won the battle against Napoleon and the French scurried off with their tails between their legs.” She tipped an imaginary hat to Pineapple. “You know your stuff. I guess my great-great-great-grandparents decided to stay in Mexico rather than head back to France with Napoleon. I chose French culinary classes to learn more about my French heritage, or at least experience their culinary delights.” She licked her lips. “And I must say, the French sure know how to indulge in the most glorious way.”

“When do you get those DNA results back?”

Maggie placed the roasting pan into the heated oven and grabbed her phone from her pocket. “Today,” she trilled with excitement.

As she opened her email app, she did a little nervous patter of her feet as if she were a little girl who needed to use the restroom. Her inbox contained three new messages, but her eyes only focused on the one with the subject line, Ethnicity estimate and DNA matches. She placed her phone on the counter, face up, and took in a deep breath.

She rubbed her palms together feverishly. “Here goes nothin’.” She tapped her screen to open the email. Her eyes flew through the percentages but narrowed when her brain caught up with her sight. She crossed her arms with a grunt. “What?” her voice squeaked.