James Ford arrived in Llanview in June 2010 and had his first encounter with Starr Manning, who he met in the park across the street from the hospital. James told Starr he was in town to visit a seriously ill friend in the ICU, and Starr opened up to him about all the troubles in her life. James later went to the hospital and it was revealed that his brother was Robert Ford, the lothario who had been nearly bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant. As Ford lay unconscious, James said he messed up badly and was about to explain when Ford opened his eyes and James was ushered out of the room so Ford could be examined. A man who had been looking for James spotted him, and James bolted. In the parking garage James ran into Starr, who was having car trouble. James got Starr's car started and, as the man who was chasing James approached, James told Starr to get in the car and they sped off, with baby Hope in the back seat. Outside of town, Starr forced James to pull over and she drove away, hoping never to see him again.
After Starr received her high school diploma, James grabbed her and told her she was in danger because the man who was after him had retrieved her purse from the hospital parking garage and knew where Starr lived. James admitted he had stolen $50,000 and the man was trying to get it back, but James had lost the money. Starr took James to her Aunt Viki's cabin on Llantano Mountain, where James told Starr that his father had forced him into the car stealing business when he was 15 years old. His father got abusive when James resisted. James' mother had left when he was very young, and his older brother escaped by getting a college scholarship. James said he was hoping to get his GED at Llanview University, where his brother was a teaching assistant, but when he got to town he learned his brother was in the hospital. Starr then realized that James' brother was Robert Ford. James had stolen the money from his father and intended to pay him back, but his father had sent one of his hired goons to retrieve the cash.
Starr told James her father had purchased her an expensive car for her graduation and she would collect the cash instead of the car to help him pay off his debt. But when the car dealer refused to make the trade, Starr stole the car with James' help. After wrecking the car they wound up at a bar outside town where one of Todd's private investigators showed up looking for them. Starr recognized the PI and pulled James into a kiss to keep from being spotted. Later, Starr distracted the investigator while James stole his car keys and they made their second getaway. James went to meet his father's hired gun, Bull, having decided to turn himself in and work off the lost money back at his father's chop shop in Ohio. But James was unaware that Bull had kidnapped Nate Salinger, the teenager who had found the stolen money and taken it for himself, and was holding him for ransom. Todd showed up, prepared to offer Bull $500,000 in exchange for Nate, who was dating Starr's sister Danielle, but all hell broke loose after Nate tried to hit Bull over the head with a shovel. As Todd and Bull struggled over his gun, Starr grabbed Bull's gun and fired, accidentally shooting James. James survived the shooting, much to Starr's relief, and the two seemed closer after having gone through the ordeal together.
James explained to his brother Bobby what had occurred, and Ford later told James that their dad was doing time in a Ohio jail. Nate's mother Inez Salinger went to the hospital to see the boy whose money Nate had stolen and was shocked when she came face to face with Ford, who as it turned out was her son. Ford told Inez that James was in the hospital, and Inez realized that Nate had stolen money from his own brother and didn't know it. Ford told none of this to James, who was too young to remember his mother. Inez visited James and told him she had given the $50,000 to the hospital to pay for James' medical bills. When James told Bobby that a woman named Inez -- Nate's mother -- had paid his bills, Bobby realized that they both had a brother they knew nothing about. James moved in with Bobby once he was released from the hospital. James was floored when Inez showed up at their door and revealed that she was Bobby and James' mother, and that Nate was their brother. Inez explained James and Bobby's father had kicked her out when she got pregnant with Nate, assuming it was another man's son, and she had was forced to keep her distance because he had threatened to harm her and Nate. While Ford was angry at Inez for leaving and Nate was angry at being lied to his whole life, sensitive James seemed to understand why Inez had left and was willing to allow her and Nate into his life.
James told Starr he wanted to be more than friends with her, but Starr insisted that she was committed to Cole. After James learned he wouldn't be able to stay in school because his brother had gotten fired for having inappropriate relations with Langston, Starr found James crying on a park bench and James kissed her. Starr admitted she had feelings for him but said she would never leave Cole, and James told her that he wouldn't be able to see her anymore even as friends. James unloaded to Inez about no longer being able to attend school because Bobby had lost his job. After Inez told Clint Buchanan about her son's trouble, Clint arranged for James to get a grant to attend classes.
Nate went to James and asked for his help to keep his girlfriend, Danielle Rayburn, in town after a judge ordered her to return to Tahiti with her step-father following her mother's death. Nate distracted the police outside Todd's home while James climbed into Dani's bedroom window, surprising Dani and Starr. Dani left with James, while Starr got grilled by Cole for getting involved in James' life again. Starr covered when Natalie found James' bullet necklace outside of Todd's and James told her to hang onto it. After Starr, Hope and Dani were kidnapped by Elijah Clarke, James ran into Hannah and found her with his necklace. Hannah said she recovered the necklace after Cole found it and threw it away, but James realized the story was false after talking with Cole. James suspected that Hannah knew where Starr and Hope were being held and shared his suspicions with Ford and Langston. They staked out Marty's house, hoping Hannah would lead them to Starr and Hope, but Langston had to take Ford to the hospital after he started coughing up blood.
Hannah then confronted James outside the house. After James revealed his suspicions, Hannah pulled out a gun and took James to the attic where she was keeping Starr and Hope. Starr accidentally knocked out James, who entered the room ahead of Hannah. When James came to, Hannah forced them to dress up in Halloween costumes and dig their own graves at a graveyard while Hannah kept a gun on them and Hope. When James tried to grab Hannah's gun, Hannah knocked him out and pushed him into the open grave and forced Starr to cover him with dirt. Just as Hannah was about to shoot Starr, James reached out from beneath the ground and grabbed Hannah's leg. Hannah fell to the ground and Starr hit her over the head with a shovel. Starr gave James a kiss on the cheek, thanking him for helping free her, before taking off with Hope to find Cole. When James smugly told Hannah that it was over for her, she reminded him that it was over for him and Starr too.
James told Cole and Starr that Marty had confessed to killing Elijah Clarke but that the police knew Cole had done it. Cole was able to evade authorities thanks to James' warnings, although Cole eventually turned himself in and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Starr threw herself at James after Cole was taken away, but James told her he didn't want to be with her on the rebound.
In November 2010, James' abusive father Eddie Ford showed up at the apartment where James and Bobby lived. Eddie had come to town looking for the $50,000 that James had stolen from him earlier that year, but James and Bobby said the money was gone. Eddie threatened to have James sent to jail unless they agreed to let him stay at their apartment. Eddie followed his sons to Dorian Lord's house on Thanksgiving Day and crashed her gathering. When he was ordered to leave, Eddie punched James in the face and was arrested by the police.
Eddie refused to leave town, even after Bobby got the $50,000 from Clint. James found a gun in Eddie's bag and stole it. He showed up at Eddie's room at the Minute Man Motel and threatened to shoot him. The next morning, Eddie was discovered dead from a bullet wound. Starr feared James may have pulled the trigger. James told the police that he fired the gun into the wall of the motel room to scare his dad but that he couldn't kill him, so he dropped the gun and left.
Starr told James he needed to see other people, since she had made a commitment to wait for Cole to be released from prison. James went on a few dates with a fellow student, Michelle, but they parted ways when it was clear that James' heart still belonged to Starr. Dani and Nate ran away when Todd found them about to have sex, and Starr and James tracked them down at Viki's cabin. Nate blurted out that James and Michelle weren't seeing each other, and Starr admitted that she had broken up with Cole but didn't say anything because she thought James was already taken. The two then decided to pursue a relationship.
Soon after James began dating Starr, he got a friend request on MyFace from Deanna Forbes. James told Starr she was an old friend who lived in Ohio. When Gigi Morasco saw the picture, she told James that Deanna was in town and staying at the Minute Man Motel. James found Deanna about to participate in a porn movie and pulled her out of there. Deanna kissed James but he pulled away, explaining that he was seeing someone else now and reminding her that she had broken up with him. Deanna told James she had no cash, not even enough to get home, so James invited her to stay at his brother's apartment overnight. James didn't tell Starr, who showed up the next day and was shocked to learn that he had invited his ex-girlfriend to stay with him. Starr invited Deanna to stay with her at LaBoulaie for the night and was glad when Deanna decided to go back to Dayton. But before she would leave, Deanna told James he needed to know why she had dumped him. Deanna explained that James' father had conned her into breaking up with James. He had given her the name of man who knew the whereabouts of her mother, who had given Deanna up as a baby, but after Deanna broke it off with James the man demanded $20,000 for the information. When Deanna returned to tell James what had happened, he had already left town. Deanna later told James and Starr that she was going to stay in Llanview, because there was nothing left for her in Dayton.
Deanna's constant presence was causing a strain on Starr and James' relationship, so James was relieved when Nate offered to let Deanna stay with him at his mother's house. James got a job working at a car wash, so he wasn't able to see Starr often. Starr met an obnoxious teenager named Baz that she later learned was the son of Tomas Delgado, the man her mother was dating. Starr and Baz shared a love of music and reptiles, causing James to worry about his relationship with Starr, but Starr assured James that she was not interested in Baz. Starr confided in James that Baz had kissed her but that she had turned him away. James supported Starr when her world was turned upside down with the revelation that the man she thought was her father was actually her uncle, and that her real father had been held captive by his mother for the past eight years. Starr sought comfort in James' arms and they finally consummated their relationship in August 2011. James was supportive when Starr and Baz worked together to record a song. After learning that the record company offering Starr and Baz a contract was headed by former porn producer Rick Powers, James encouraged Starr to wait for a better offer.
Baz signed the record deal with Rick behind Starr's back and then moved to Paris, so Starr was forced to work with Rick if she had any hope of launching her career. Rick used Starr's sordid family history as fodder to sell her as a bad girl and encouraged her to dump James, but Starr stuck up for James. Rick went too far when he leaked a story to the press that Starr was having an affair with her sister's boyfriend and James' brother, Nate Salinger. The teens confronted him and Rick broke his leg during a freak fall. Afterwards, Rick sued the teens claiming that they had intentionally caused his injuries. Starr tried to pay off Rick, but since he owned the rights to anything she wrote she was stuck with him.
On New Year's Eve 2011, James heard about a major breakout from Statesville Prison and went to warn Starr that Cole had broken out. Starr denied knowing anything about it and told the police that Cole wasn't there. But James suspected that Starr was lying and tricked young Sam into revealing that Cole was hiding out in the cabana. James walked in just as Cole told Starr that he still loved her. James accused Starr of loving Cole even though she was with him, but Starr insisted she was only helping Cole because he was Hope's father. Cole agreed to leave after James pointed out that Starr could be arrested for helping him escape, meaning that Hope would grow up without either of her parents. As they entered LaBoulaie so Cole could say goodbye to Hope, they came face to face with Hannah O'Connor, who was holding Sam and had a gun on Todd. Hannah also had escaped from Statesville and was looking for Cole. Cole tried to convince her that he wanted to be with her, but Hannah knew that his heart still belonged to Starr. Hannah aimed her gun at Starr and fired, but Cole was struck instead and was rushed to the hospital. James overheard Starr pleading for Cole's life and telling him that she still loved him. James then was stunned when Bobby was wheeled in after having been crushed by a chandelier during a fight with Mitch Laurence. Bobby succumbed to his injuries, and Cole also was pronounced dead (although his death was faked to he could avoid going back to prison). The next day, Starr went to see James and was shocked when James said he was breaking up with her. James knew that Starr would never love him as much as she loved Cole. Starr tried to convince him otherwise, but James was adamant that their relationship was over and they bid a tearful goodbye.