Winning a Champion’s Heart

Who wouldn’t want to be the owner of a world-renowned Arabian horse farm? Darbi Brennan, that’s who. So, in hopes of escaping her father’s demands that she follow in his footsteps, she puts an ad on, a desire to leave Ireland far behind singing in her heart. And it’s not like she doesn’t have experience taking care of children…since her mother died, she’s watched over her seven brothers and sisters. She dreams of a new exciting life in the US and if a handsome man happens to come along, so much the better.

Then fate steps in bringing Connie Champion into her life. Connie, also a caretaker of her brother’s triplets, is looking for a way to escape her boring life on another horse farm in Brooksville, FL—one that happens to be the primary competitor of Darbi’s father’s farm. Both women have spent too much time caring for children they love but didn’t give birth to. So, they concoct a scheme to have Darbi come to Champions Gate to care for the triplets while Connie jets off on a tour with a USO troupe. Perfect solution, right? Wrong. Darbi is left behind to deal with Connie’s overbearing, yet very handsome, brother who feels the last thing he needs is a beautiful and firey, yet nosey nanny.

Bishop Champion is a dedicated horseman who raises some of the best Arabians in the world. He travels the globe building demand for his horses and a legacy for his girls. Unfortunately, it leaves him very little time to spend with his family or pursue love. It’s been ten years since his wife’s death leaving him with triplets he has no idea how to care for. When Darbi Brennan breezes into his life she brings a whirlwind of change, something Bishop is totally unprepared for. Despite his resistance, she turns on a light in his soul he thought forever dead. But will her deception be the end of a beautiful romance? When Bishop discovers her true identity, will he be able to forgive Darbi for her misrepresentations or will love so long denied the couple be lost forever?

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Chapter One

Should I get on a plane to a strange country where I don’t know anyone, or take a taxi back to the ranch?

Darbi twisted a bright-copper strand of hair around her index finger, unable to decide. The late autumn afternoon offered a bit of a bite as she dragged her huge suitcase a few steps closer toward Dublin Airport’s entryway then stopped. The scent of the approaching winter mixed with car exhaust She stood under the florescent lights, wondering how the weather would be at her destination. Connie Champion, her new friend and employer had said bring clothes suitable for warm weather. She snorted. Like I have a lot of those.

More questions plagued her mind. What if her bag weighed too much? She hadn’t brought another. What if she threw up on the plane? She must be daft to have listened to Connie. Their conspiring over the last year would be the ruin of her.

“I need you to do this,” Constance had told her. “You’re the only one who understands and has the qualifications. You’ve taken care of kids all your life, you’ve lived on a horse ranch so you’re used to the isolation, and you’re dying to see America. Admit it, Darbi.”

She did want to travel and see some of the world. The excitement of spending time in a foreign land fueled her fantasy of finding her forever love. She’d read lots of novels about American cowboys. Maybe she’d meet one and have a blistering romance. Another snort.

“Yep, you’re daft all right,” she muttered to herself. “But standin’ here like an eejit isn’t gettin’ ya anywhere, Darbi Brennan. You’re committed. You’ve bought the ticket, had the fight with Da about leavin’, and how would it look if you didn’t show up? Connie’s countin’ on ya.”

Another traveler passed by staring at her, a worried expression on his face.

“And you’re talkin’ to yerself to boot. Take care, or they’ll think you’re mad as a box of frogs and lock ya up.”

Squaring her shoulders, she grabbed the handle of the heavy suitcase and proceeded through the doorway. She got her bearings and joined the long line of people flying on United Airlines to the United States. She had her passport in hand and struggled with her bags until she reached the clerk at the check in desk.

“Twenty-two kilograms.” The woman smiled. “You just did make the weight limit. May I see your ticket?”

Darbi handed over the printed copy of her ticket along with her passport. She’d heard she could get the ticket on her cell phone, but she trusted paper more. Especially with this important trip looming in front of her. She wanted to take no chances.

“Tampa, Florida, in the US, huh? I hear it’s beautiful there.”

“Only the landing spot. I have another hour’s drive to a place called Brooksville. I’m goin’ there to be a nanny for three girls. Triplets.”

The attendant’s eyes widened. “Triplets? Better you than me. I’m not fond of one of the little buggers, much less three.”

Darbi found her statement sad. How could anyone not like children? They were such a blessing. Yet, aren’t you leaving five children yourself to take care of three? Guilt stabbed at her heart, her father’s words still ringing in her ears for what he perceived as her betrayal.

She shook her head. No, she wouldn’t see it as disloyal. This was an adventure. Yes, she’d left one horse farm for another, and would be taking care of fewer children who weren’t even family, but, as she’d explained to her da, it was a way to see the world. To find excitement. To find love…and to escape. She’d left that word out of the argument. She needed to escape the pressure he’d placed on her to take his place as head of Cloverleaf Stables, one of the best Arabian breeding farms in the world. Only one other farm rivaled it—her destination, Champions Gate. If her father had known her true destination, he’d have hog tied her to a column in the barn and never let her free. Also, if Constance’s brother, Bishop Champion, owner of Champions Gate, ever learned where she hailed from, he’d probably dump her in a river somewhere, no questions asked.

“He’ll never know,” her friend had reassured her. “I’ll tell him I hired you from or something. I’ll make up a great background story for you. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”

“Sure, it will,” she muttered to herself again, making her way to the security line. The closer she got to the plane and leaving, the more her father’s words rang true in her mind.

“You’re daft, girl,” her father had said. “Loose marbles in the head is what you’ve got.” And he’d stomped away.

A tear stung her eye, but she blinked it back. She wasn’t betraying him. Aydeen was plenty old enough to assume her role as substitute mother for the Brennan brood. Since they’d lost their mother twelve years ago, Darbi had taken over. She was sixteen at the time and served her father well.

At twenty-eight, she wanted to see the world. Needed to see it. It’s what had drawn her to Connie in the first place. They’d met through Facebook and had shared common family circumstances. Connie had been caring for her brother’s daughters since the death of his wife ten years ago. She wanted to live her own life, and Darbi was her safety net.

Once they’d contrived the scheme, her new employer had taken care of everything. She’d gotten Darbi a visa, helped her contrive her back story, and even introduced her to the triplets via Skype. Three beautiful blonde darlings full of life and mischief. She could handle the girls, no worries—her own experience more than prepared her for caring for them. It was their father who had her skin twitching. What if he found out the truth about where she’d come from? She had no idea how Connie could keep it a secret, but, for some reason, she trusted her new friend. She admired Connie’s spunk and courage. Taking up a career traveling with the USO all over the world to entertain American troops took far more guts than being a nanny. Darbi wanted to prove she had just as much pluck.

She handed her boarding pass and passport to the security officer. He grinned at her. She smiled in return.

“Off to visit the Yanks across the pond, eh?”

“I suppose. I’m probably a sandwich short of a picnic, but here I go.”

“Well, return home soon. Ireland will be missing a pretty sprite like you.”

Is he flirting with me? In the security line at the airport. I’ve seen it all now.Darbi smiled again and accepted her documents. “Thanks. I might get over there and have to turn straight around.” He wasn’t bad looking. Short black hair poked out from beneath his cap, his uniform shirt fit a bit tight across his middle, but he wasn’t what she’d call fat. Passable.

He met her gaze with sparkling blue eyes. “I’ll be waitin’, darlin’. Next.”

She laughed as she left him. She knew she had a pretty face, and her slim five-foot-two frame supported a trim muscled body. With eyes the color of shamrocks and coppery locks her mother had dubbed her flaming crown, she always drew second looks. She’d never lacked for dates, but they’d all been just like this guy. Flirts with no substance. Maybe America would have some decent men.

Once aboard the plane, she placed her bag in the overhead bin as she’d seen other passengers do. Her stomach fluttered at the thought of this multi-ton tub of steel lifting into the air to carry her across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. All kinds of things could go wrong, but she stopped those thoughts before they took root. She snatched the romance novel from her tote bag, plopped into her seat, then leaned her head against the headrest and sighed.

Well, off ya go, Darbi, girl. If ya survive this flight, ya’ve got a brand-new world waitin’ for ya.

She couldn’t believe at her age she hadn’t flown before. But she’d been too busy caring for her brothers and sisters, plus helping her father on their ranch to go anywhere. She’d been shackled to Cloverleaf Stables for as long as she could remember. Defiance rose in her chest. High time she saw some of the world, how the Yanks live. She’d laughed when her friend Rosemary had told her some of the words Americans used for certain commonplace items. Like the boot of a car, they called a trunk. She giggled. A trunk held clothes when traveling or was an appendage protruding from the head of an elephant. They called lifts elevators, petrol referred to as gas, which to her described what she got when she ate too much potato bread. She smirked.

Yep, America will be a strange place, but I’m ready.

Her stomach flattened against her back when the plane took off. The sensation frightened yet exhilarated her at the same time. No turning back. Whatever faced her at Champions Gate she’d deal with. She loved horses and enjoyed children. How bad could it be?

She thought about the background story Constance had cooked up for her. It wasn’t totally a lie. Connie would tell her brother Darbi came from a small farm in Ireland. He didn’t need to know any more. The two women had practiced being vague so Darbi could handle most of the questions Connie’s inquisitive brother would throw at her. She thought she had the ruse down. She’d run through it in her head a million times. Brennan was a common name in Ireland, so the chance of him putting her together with Cloverleaf wouldn’t be easy.

The steward came by with the drink cart, and she ordered a glass of white wine. She hoped it would help her relax. She’d taken a night flight on purpose, so she could sleep through most of it. Drink in hand, she opened her novel.

Several hours later, the steward came back asking if she’d like breakfast. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she nodded. Glancing at the monitor in the seat in front of her, she noted the time and the remainder of the journey tracked by the tiny plane on the screen. Nine a.m. They were due to land in about another hour. After eating her breakfast, she excused herself and crawled over the other two passengers in her row. She made her way to the tiny bathroom at the rear of the plane and glanced in the mirror.

“Oh my, you look dreadful,” she said to her reflection. “If Connie brings the triplets, they’ll be runnin’ away screamin’.”

She ran a brush through her copper curls, swiped on some mascara, and replaced her peach lipstick. She briefly thought about covering her freckles with some foundation then decided against it. “What you see is what you get,” she said, dropping the silver case into her cosmetics bag.

Darbi returned to her seat just as the captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. He announced their descent into the Tampa area. Her stomach fluttered. The flight hadn’t been arduous, but she looked forward to being on solid ground again. She didn’t envy Connie jumping on all those planes traveling from place to place. Not her cup of tea for certain.

Whenthe plane touched down then taxied to the terminal, Darbi took out her cell and texted Connie.


Just landed.

Great. We’re waiting at Baggage Claim for you.


I brought the triplets with me.


Was that a good idea? What if your brother doesn’t like me.


He will.


What did he say when you told him about me?


I haven’t yet.

I thought it would be better if you were already here.

Then he can’t stop the process.


Wait…What?? You didn’t tell him I was coming?


Panic gripped Darbi. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, her chest tightened. She should never have done this. Never have trusted Connie. What did she really know about the woman other than conversations on the phone and chatting on Facebook?

“Are you all right?” the woman seated next to her asked.

Darbi nodded. “I’m fine. For whatever life I may have left on this earth.”

The woman stared at her. “I beg your pardon?”

Darbi smiled and waved her forward as people were leaving the plane in front of them. “Nothing. After you.”

Her phone pinged, but she waited until she was off the plane and through the jetway before she glanced at it again.


You worry too much. It will be fine. J


She blew a raspberry. Then texted:


It better be, or you’re paying for my ticket back.


LOL See you soon.


Darbi rolled her eyes. Her skin crawled at the thought of facing an angry man. She’d seen pictures of Bishop Champion. A Norse god would pale in comparison to him. Tall, broad shouldered with hazel eyes. He had blondish hair which hung below his collar, and strands stuck out around his ears when he wore his Stetson. She wondered if he ever wore it in a man bun.

Humor struck her before she could stop it. Imagining the burly man with a knot of hair on top of his head made her laugh out loud. She boarded the shuttle train to the main terminal still chuckling.

She stepped off the train and spotted Connie and the three girls. They jumped up and down, their golden pony tails swinging to and fro behind them. They held a long banner which read: Welcome to America, Darbi.

She grinned despite her nerves. Three identical sprites stood next to their aunt. One had on a purple shirt with the word Violetin white letters, another one wore a red shirt with Scarletwritten across her chest in the same white letters, and the third girl had on a cream-colored T-shirt withIvoryin purple letters. Her heart swelled a little at the warm welcome, then she thought about Bishop and what his reaction might be to her presence.

Stop frettin’. His reaction might be the total opposite of what ya expect,she admonished herself. Squaring her shoulders and maintaining her positive expression, she rushed to the Champion crew.

“Hey, Darbi!” Constance wrapped her in a hug then stepped back to look at her. “Your hair is so much brighter than I imagined.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” Violet spoke up. “I wish my hair were the color of flames and not this old yellow.”

Ivory rolled her eyes. “Meet the dramatic sister.” She stuck out her hand in a businesslike manner. “Hi, I’m Ivory. The oldest.”

“Oh jeez, like by two minutes,” Scarlet chimed in. “I’m Scarlet. Maybe you should have had my name.”

Darbi laughed. “Maybe so. It’s good to meet you all. Thanks for such a warm welcome.”

“Oh, listen to her talk,” Violet said. “I’m going to start learning your accent right away.”

“No, you won’t, missy,” Connie reprimanded her. “You concentrate on your own business. You have enough trouble speaking properly in your own accent.”

“But it’s so cool. Imagine what all our friends would say if I talked like Darbi.” She cleared her throat and tried out her best Irish accent. “Me name’s Violet, and I’m a fairy princess. Who shall be me maid in waitin’.”

Darbi patted her on the back. “It’s a fine first try. We’ll work on it.”

Ivory and Scarlet moaned.

“Don’t encourage her,” Connie said. “Let’s go get your bags. I hope you brought your summer clothes. Even though it’s September, it’s hotter than an oven out there. Are you hungry?”

Darbi shook her head. “We ate on the plane.”

The group approached the baggage carousel. Darbi found her bag and dragged it from the belt. The triplets squabbled over who would help her with both her large suitcase and her carry-on.

“Be careful with the blue one.” Darbi pointed to the smaller piece of luggage. “It’s got all my magic faerie potions in it. Wouldn’t want to break the bottles. Who knows what could happen?”

All three girls stared at her. “Faerie potions?” they said in unison.

Darbi laughed and faced Connie. “Do they do that often?”

“What? Answer in sync? All the time.”

“How charmin’.”

Violet carefully tilted the suitcase upright. “Is this okay? I’m not going to break anything?”

Darbi nodded. “I was only codding ya. It’s my underwear suitcase.”

“Darbi,” they said in unison.

“Seriously. Don’t believe me?”

The triplets shook their heads. Violet spoke first, “I choose to believe its faerie magic. Will you teach us how to cast spells? There’s this really mean girl at school. I’d like to cast a spell on her. Give her warts or something.”

Darbi nodded sagely. “Ah. Warts are a trouble for sure. But I’m thinkin’ a little dose of kindness might go a bit farther to resolvin’ your problem.”

“Not with her,” Violet said.

“Come on girls,” Connie interrupted. “We need to get home. I don’t want to get caught in Tampa traffic.”

They trooped out to a shiny black SUV in the parking garage. A white magnetic sign with the Champions Gate logo stuck to the driver’s side door. Darbi swallowed. Each time she saw the logo it reminded her of this fabrication she and Connie had cooked up so Connie could join the USO.

Connie glanced at her over the hood of the vehicle. “Stop looking so worried. It’s going to be fine.”

Darbi prayed her friend was right.