Authors: Tina Leonard
Mason was about to grunt a reply when his brother continued. “A bachelor dad, of course. A single father. An unwedded man.”
“Thank you, Last. You can go now.”
Last turned serious. “Mason, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Just be nice to Mimi, okay? That’s your future lying in there next to the little pink giraffe. You don’t want to goof up the thing that means the most to you.”
Last thundered down the stairs and went out the front door. Mason sighed, taking one last look at his daughter, then headed toward his own room.
Last was right about one thing. Nanette was his future. However, he would allow Mimi to visit whenever she wanted. Underneath his anger, he didn’t really intend to keep her away from her child. As long as everything went his way.
As long as Nanette stayed here with him, where she belonged.
The wild boys of Malfunction Junction meant so much to me to write, and I greatly appreciate the love and enthusiasm you have shown for the wily Jefferson brothers. They are a tightly knit family who tried to do right, and now they have their own happy ending. I lived with these brothers for three years, and am delighted that you took them into your hearts, as well. My mother, sister and grandmother were not able to read any of the series, so I was fortunate to have you to love the stories, which were very much a part of my heart. Your letters meant a lot.
It’s always hard to say goodbye, but through the blessings of fate it turns out we are saying goodbye only temporarily. In
we met a trio of determined ladies who happened upon Valentine’s special Men Only Day. These women have a very stubborn sheriff back in their small town—and some tricky characters to outwit—so they are taking some of the good ideas they learned in Union Junction back to their tiny town of Tulips, Texas. Please join me in the next chapter of fun as the Forrester family learns that tea at the Tulips Saloon is anything but sanely predictable, and Ladies Only Day is introduced in a town where men think they are in charge.
Best wishes and much love,
To the readers who have loved the
Cowboys by the Dozen—every one of these
stubborn Malfunction Junction men—
thank you with all my heart.
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
758—DADDY’S LITTLE DARLINGS
771—THE MOST ELIGIBLE…DADDY
796—A MATCH MADE IN TEXAS
811—COWBOY BE MINE
846—SPECIAL ORDER GROOM
873—HIS ARRANGED MARRIAGE
905—QUADRUPLETS ON THE DOORSTEP
977—FRISCO JOE’S FIANCÉE
981—LAREDO’S SASSY SWEETHEART
986—RANGER’S WILD WOMAN
989—TEX TIMES TEN
1037—NAVARRO OR NOT
1069—BELONGING TO BANDERA
I was sure as hell no hero. I don’t know why she loved me. But she did, and I loved her for it, with all the love a man can give anyone.
—Maverick Jefferson, from a notation in his private journal, which was delivered to his son Mason by family friends.
Mimi Cannady took a deep breath as the election results came in. Of course, there had never been any doubt that Mason Jefferson, popular cowboy and owner of Union Junction Ranch, affectionately known in these parts as Malfunction Junction, would be elected sheriff by a landslide. The only doubt she’d had recently was when she would tell Mason the truth about his daughter.
Mason came to stand beside her, after everyone
had finished congratulating him and filed out. “Thanks for all your hard work on the campaign, Mimi. Although I’m not sure what kind of adventure you’ve gotten me into this time.”
Knowing now, when he was happily elected, was probably the perfect time for the truth, she smiled wanly. “Mason, I have to talk to you about something.”
“I’m listening,” he said. “What does my campaign manager want to tell me?”
Mimi tried to stop her hands from shaking, but she couldn’t. She willed her heart to be brave and told her spirit that she had faced more difficult challenges.
Friendship was really all she’d ever had from Mason Jefferson—and she’d desperately tried to hang on to it over the years. But she knew hanging on to Mason’s goodwill was selfish when she thought about what her daughter and Mason were missing by not knowing their true relationship.
“Mason,” she said softly. “Maybe I’ve waited too long to tell you this, but there’s something you must know. I hope you can forgive me for not telling you sooner.” Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to speak. “Nanette is your daughter.”
The victory smile he’d been wearing faded from his face. He stared at her, clearly dumbfounded. “Of
course she is,” he said. “I mean, I love her as if she were my very own flesh and blood.”
Mimi’s heart thudded low and slow, heavy and hard and almost painful. “Mason, the night before I got married—”
“Don’t say another word,” Mason commanded, his voice like cold, hard marble. He stared at her, obviously remembering that night, and suddenly looking like a complete stranger she didn’t know at all. The longest seconds of her life passed as he studied her face, his gaze hawkish and suspicious. She could almost hear a door slam shut between them.
He strode from the campaign “war room.” Mimi hurried after him, but Mason turned, holding up a hand so that she wouldn’t follow. Helplessly, she watched as he went to Widow Fancy, who kept the town paperwork records, and whispered something in her ear.
The two of them walked down the hall of the old courthouse and into the records room. A loud click erupted as Mason locked the door behind them. Realizing what he was about to do, Mimi ran to bang on the door.
“Mason! Let me in!”
But there was no reply.
There were many important memories in Mason Jefferson’s life, some so poignant that they were etched like sand-scratched glass in his mind. One was realizing his father had gone away, leaving him in charge of a family of rambunctious, grieving boys. That was the moment Mason had first learned the meaning of the word
After that, he’d been responsible for a hell of a lot. It wasn’t easy being a parent when all he’d known how to be was a boy.
Another sharp memory was the day Mimi had gotten married. Right up until the moment she’d said “I do,” he’d believed she would not marry another man. He’d had every right to think that, since just the night before he had made wild, uninhibited love with her. It was the only time in his life he could truly say he’d let
loose the mantle of responsibility that he’d worn over the years—and he’d loved every sweet moment of it.
“May God forgive me,” he muttered to himself as he sat in a hard-backed wooden chair, one of the pieces of furniture that came with the sheriff’s office. “May God forgive me for the sin of loving another man’s wife.”
But there was no forgiveness for that, which he knew too well by now. The price to pay for stealing forbidden love was that you paid forever. He’d paid every time he’d seen Mimi, every holiday, every waking moment of his life.
The price was never enough to stop a man from the folly of his ways. Love would not stop just because a man knew the price was out of his reach.
Mason crossed his ankles and rested his boots on the old, well-worn desk that had belonged to Mimi’s father, the former sheriff, Sheriff Cannady. This was his office, and it would take a long time for Mason to be able to believe the truth of the bronze door placard that read Sheriff Mason Jefferson.
In contrast to the office, the sign was bright and shiny, with its black letters stern against the bronze. So official. So steeped with responsibility. He had the sheriff’s office, and his chair, and his desk. But he did not have the sheriff’s daughter.
And now, whether he liked it or not, the final price to pay for all he’d been given, for all he’d pushed aside to be with Mimi that one night, was learning that Nanette was his daughter. Mason sighed, and stared at the ceiling, barely noticing the new coat of paint.
He remembered the day Nanette had been born. He’d helped deliver her, his own hands trembling with amazement as he’d held her. Stubborn Mimi had refused to leave her very ill father to go to a hospital, and her husband, Brian Flannigan, had been working in Houston or Austin or somewhere. Mason had stepped in, the mantle of responsibility heavy on his shoulders, to help Mimi, though the biggest part of his heart was fiercely glad that he’d gotten to share that moment with the woman he cared so much about.
The baby had let out a fierce wail of welcome to her new world, and the sound was another sharp-scratched memory he would never forget—God’s miracle writhing between his big palms. Mason had shaken a mental fist at the price he would pay for being unrepentantly glad that it was he in that room and not Brian.
He had never cared about mental costs, anyway. If he had one goal in life that he would never speak aloud—not to his youngest brother, Last, not to anyone, not even Mimi—it was that he would never, ever crack as his father had.
“Damn it,” he whispered under his breath. “
will never leave anything behind that I love.”
In spite of the anger and too-deep sense of betrayal he felt for Mimi now, Nanette was never going to think that her father had left her behind. It was his solemn vow. For stealing forbidden love, he was willing to pay the price forever.
Mimi was just going to have to deal with that.
HERE WAS NOTHING HEROIC
about a man who decided that he would be a father to his child, no matter what, Mimi decided, watching Mason pack up Nanette’s things.
“Mason,” she said, “you’re being an ass. You cannot take my daughter and move her out to Malfunction Junction.”
Mason didn’t stop folding Nanette’s clothes as he put them methodically in her little pink suitcase.
“Mason!” Mimi reached out to take the suitcase away from him.
Silently, he looked up and met her eyes. His gaze was so flat and devoid of the friendship they’d once shared that Mimi released the suitcase when he put his hand on it.
This was not the result she’d envisioned when she’d confessed her secret, and her heart was com
pletely broken. Not only had she lost Mason, who was her best friend and the man she’d loved all her life, but he seemed determined to take the one fragment of her world that she’d hung on to with gratitude and wonder. Nanette was her salvation, her dream come true, her only piece of Mason—Mimi had accepted that there would be no more than the child of their one stolen night.
“Mason, please,” she said. “You know a child needs its mother. Nanette won’t understand.”
He snapped the suitcase shut. “Nanette would understand even less a father who didn’t put her first in his life. She belongs on my ranch, and that’s where she’s going to live.” His tone had flattened out, and now he picked Nanette up in his big arms. “A father puts his family in front of everything else on the planet. And if you don’t agree, ask your father if he was putting you first all the years he raised you after your mother left.”
She stepped back from his words. “Mason, it’s not the same thing!”
He walked out the door and her words fell unheeded. Over his shoulder, Nanette looked at her with big eyes, completely satisfied to rest her chin on her father’s shoulder and go with him. And why shouldn’t she? All she’d ever known was that Uncle Mason was one of the
three people who loved her most: her mother, her grandfather and her uncle Mason.
Only Uncle Mason was really her father, and it was time Nanette knew it. Mimi blinked back fast tears and resisted the urge to run after Mason. He couldn’t just take his child, Mimi thought wildly. But who would stop him? He was Nanette’s father, he was completely within his rights to at least partial custody and he was the sheriff.
A growing sense of desperation filled her, tightening her stomach. She ran out the front door to his truck as he switched on the engine. The truck window was open and she put imploring fingers on Mason’s strong chest. “Mason, I’m coming, too! Don’t rip us apart!”
He removed her fingers and shook his head. “You’ve done enough, Mimi. Some space between me and you is what is badly needed.”
He drove off, leaving Mimi stunned. Watching the truck pull away felt like a slow-motion tragedy from a movie. Her breath caught in her throat and her chest cramped, hurting more than anything she had ever felt. It was her heart, she was certain it was. Two of the three people she loved most on the planet had just left her, and the pain was more than she could bear.
She sank to her knees. Yes, she’d made the wrong choice. She’d lied. But she couldn’t believe that the man she’d grown up with had turned away from her in her hour of greatest need.