Read an Excerpt
Home is what a man feels in his heart Maverick Jefferson to his second son, Frisco, when Frisco had boyhood nightmares that the ranch might blow away like Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz
"I want you to get your butt over here right now and fix this problem," Frisco Joe Jefferson said to his older brother, close to cursing before deciding the heck with keeping his anger to himself. He had a crisis on his hands, and Mason could darn well share the misery. "Damn it, Mason, these women say you put up an advertisement for a housekeeper. If you did, then I suggest you come pick one out."
A moment passed as Frisco listened. Furious, he hung up the phone, turning to stare at his ten younger brothers, all of whom were close to the window in the kitchen of the main house so they could spy on the approximately twenty women gathered shivering on the front lawn. The women were all shapes and sizes, all races, all ages. Luggage dotted the frozen grass. Frisco, as eldest during Mason's absence, was supposed to be in command. "Mason said to call Mimi."
"Typical," Bandera said. "What's Mimi supposed to do about it?"
Frisco shook his head. "Unless she can make all those ladies disappear, I'm not sure."
"I'd hate for all of them to disappear," Fannin said, his gaze longing. "Most of them are pretty cute."
"And one of them has a baby," Last said. "I'll take that one."
"We're not taking any of them," Frisco said with quiet determination. From the window, he could see Shoeshine Johnson's school bus rumbling back to the bus depot after depositing his travelers. "I'm calling Mimi."
The brothers went back to their surreptitious peering through the window while Frisco dialed Mimi Cannady's number.
"Mimi," Frisco said abruptly when she answered, "I need your help."
"Uh-uh," she responded automatically. "No. I told Mason before he left on this two-week business trip that I unequivocally could not be responsible for his responsibilities. It takes up too much time, Frisco. I have my dad to think about."
What bull-malarkey. Sheriff Cannady was as fit as an untried rodeo rider. So what Mimi had told Mason, then, was best put as "Wake up, buddy. I'm not just the girl next door. I've got a life of my own, and I'm not content to be treated like a convenience anymore."
He sighed, unable to blame Mimi. "Listen, Mimi. I certainly understand how you feel. Mason just seemed to think you might be best able to pick through the housekeepers, in order to choose one he might like. He mentioned you helped him write the advertisement. I've got to admit, the rest of us are in the dark about what you two were thinking."
"Housekeepers?" Mimi echoed, clearly dumbfounded, much as Mason had been. Mason had sounded as if he hadn't known what Frisco was talking aboutinitially.
"I guess they're wanting to be housekeepers," he said. "There's about twenty of them out front. It seems as if they came together."
"Oh, my stars," Mimi breathed. "Twenty?"
"I'm just estimating. Did you send out an ad for a housekeeper? Because I gotta be honest with you, the rest of us don't think we need woman help on the ranch."
"Woman help," Mimi murmured. She fully remembered writing that ad with Mason. She'd typed the email address to her friend at the Honey-Do Agency. But Julia would have called her before sending out applicants to the ranch, and she would never have sent twenty. Twenty!
Something was wrong. "I did type an ad for Mason, but we never sent it. That bad storm came, the one that toppled the old oak tree, and the lights went out" She blushed, remembering clutching Mason and loving the feel of his muscles beneath his crisp denim shirt, and the smell of him, and the sound of his heart pounding against her ear.
After that momentary let-down in her facade of just-friends, Mimi had vowed to stay clear of Mason. One day he just might figure out how she felt about him, and then, most certainly, she'd lose his friendship.
Friendship was all she had of him, and she was going to keep it. "We must have accidentally sent it out somehow." Dimly she remembered one of them hitting the keyboard before the electricity went out, but at the time, she'd blindly grabbed for Mason and forgotten all about housekeepers and other trivial things. Obviously, one of them had smashed incorrect letters, and sent the email to the wrong address.
Now they were all sitting square on top of a huge dilemma. And yet, it would be good for Mason to see that he needed her in spite of what he said to the contrary, his life would be so much better with her in it.
But he'd have to learn that on his own. It was said that one could lead a horse to water but couldn't make him drink. Lord only knew, she'd waited so long on Mason that it felt as if her watering can was nearly dry. "Can't you interview them, Frisco?"
"Seeing as how none of us here think we need a lady at the ranch, I'm not interested in that job," Frisco said.
"I think you could use a housekeeper. The place is never clean. Or tidy."
"Then it's our job to clean our houses better," Frisco said sternly. "When there's as much to be done as a property this size requires, we're not too worried if the dishes stay in the sink an extra day."
"Precisely my point. You could use the help."
"But not the aggravation a woman brings. We have you, Mimi, and that's enough."
Laughter, not unkind, in the background nettled her. "What does that mean?"
"It means when we need something, you're kind enough to help us out."
That was the problem. Mason and all his brothers had the luxury of her jumping whenever they needed something. No wonder Mason saw her as an extension of his family. Not that it was a bad thing to have the Jeffersons looking out for herit had come in handy over the years.
But it was now or never. The tie that bound them had to be cut on both ends, or she'd always be little Mimi Cannady, almost-sis, tomboy-next-door, for-a-good-gag-call Mimi. Toilet-papering houses, tying cans on goat tails, painting rural mailboxes with smiley facesthey'd done it all. Together.
"Not this time, Frisco," she said. "I have a lot going on in my own life right now. Thanks for calling."
She hung up the phone and went to check on her father.
"She's not coming," Frisco said, hanging up the phone.
"Mimi is abandoning us in our hour of need?" Last asked, his tone surprised.
"See if we ever go fix her sinks when they back up again," Laredo grumbled.
"She'd be over here in a snap if it were Mason calling for help," Ranger grumbled. "That woman's a jill-in-the-box when it comes to him, popping up like crazy whenever he decides to wind her crank."
"I've never known exactly which one of them was winding whose crank," Navarro commented.
Calhoun laughed. "She's been real prickly ever since you drank too much champagne at the Christmas party two months ago and sang that stupid Mimi-and-Mason, sitting-in-a-Christmas-tree"
"Shut up," Archer said loudly, the author of the musical ditty.
"Yeah, she has been different since then," Last said. "Maybe if you'd act your age and not your hat size, we wouldn't be struggling with this right now. She'd be over here"
"No." Frisco shook his head. "No, this is our problem. We can take care of it ourselves."
The brothers glanced at each other, then huddled around the window. It looked like a garden party on the lawn. There were more women than the ranch had ever seen on the property at one time, and considering there were twelve brothers in the family, that was saying a lot.
Frisco cleared his throat and drew himself up tall, realizing that the mantle of family was clearly on his shoulders. He was determined to bear it well. "I'll explain that this is a simple miscommunication problem."
Laredo looked at him. "Do you want us for backup?"
"I think I can handle this. The ladies might be intimidated by all of us." He was somewhat intimidated by all of themhe hadn't expected twenty anxious women to show up today. No doubt there would be some initial disappointment that there was no position available, but he could get money out of the Malfunction Junction Ranch's petty cash to give them for the return bus trip.
"You go, bro," Bandera encouraged. "We'll be cheering you on from in here."
"That's right," Tex agreed.
"Couldn't we keep just one?" Last asked. "Maybe the little blonde over there, holding the baby?"
Frisco peered out, immediately seeing what made Last pick her out of the crowd. "She's not a puppy. We can't just 'keep' her. Anyway, she'd get lonely out here. Even Mimi gets lonely, and she was born in Union Junction." He frowned for a second, thinking that the petite blonde would be more tempting as a date than a housekeeper. In fact, he wasn't certain he'd get any work
done at all if he knew she was in his house, cooking his meals, making a home for him.
His mouth began to water at the thought of home-cooked food, prepared by caring hands. A strange humming buzzed in his ears as he watched her press the baby's head against her lips in a sweet kiss. The baby was crying, probably cold from being outside in February's brisk chill, despite the bunting encasing the small body. "What would we do with a baby out here, anyway?" he murmured.
They all looked dumbfounded at that.
Fannin shook his head. "Definite drawback. I guess."
"Maybe we could have them in for a cup of cocoa before we take them to the station," Last suggested, his tone hopeful.
"No!" Frisco knew exactly where his youngest brother was heading with that idea. Once the ladies were in the house, maybe Frisco would soften his stance . Last had a sensitive heart where other people were concerned. He had reason to be a bit delicatetoo young to really remember when their mother, Mercy, had died; too old not to question why their father, Maverick, had left them for parts unknown. He would sympathize with a single mother and her child.
But this was no place for a woman, a baby or soft hearts. "We can't, Last," he said firmly, meeting his brother's eyes. "I'll go tell them."
He went outside, his shoulders squared. "Ladies," he said loudly, "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we're not looking for a housekeeper at this time. We'll be happy to pay your return bus fare to wherever you came from."
A middle-aged, not-unattractive woman stepped forward to be the spokeswoman. "How come you placed an ad, then?"
"It was a mistake. We're terribly sorry."
"You're not the man who placed the ad. We saw his picture." She crossed her arms over her chest. "We came all the way to apply with him. Where is he?"
"He's gone for the next two weeks," Frisco said, determined to be patient, not meeting the blonde's gaze, though he realized she was staring up at him as he stood on the wide porch. Trying not to look back at her made his scalp tighten and prickle as if he were sweating all over his head. "We've contacted our brother, and he said the email was sent in error. As I said, we are happy to take you to the bus station in town. Now, if you all will load into the trucks my brothers will be bringing around in a moment, we'll get you started on your way back home."
They didn't like it; grumbling rose among them, but there was nothing he could do about that. A mistake was a mistake, an honest one.
But he'd handled it, and handling twenty women was easier than he thought it'd be, he decided, opening truck doors and helping them into various seats. He didn't see the little blonde and the baby; they weren't among the passengers who jumped into his cab, but he'd be willing to bet Last had eagerly escorted the two of them to his vehicle.
Better him than me.
It was a motley, somewhat sad procession as the brothers drove six trucks to the bus stop, but it was the right thing to do.
They left them in the station, having paid for tickets and making sure they had enough money for snacks. He handed the clump of tickets to the woman he dubbed the spokeswoman, tipped his hat to their silent faces, and feeling guilty as hell, slunk out with his brothers.
"I'm gonna kill Mimi and Mason for this stupid stunt," he muttered to Fannin. "Reckon they planned this?"
"What for?" Fannin glanced at him as they walked through the parking lot.
"I don't know. I just know that when those two get together, there's always hell to pay."
"I know. That's why they can't stay together in one room very long. It's spontaneous combustion."
"I'm going home to have a beer," Frisco said. "And then I'm going to bed."
"No poker tonight?"
"Heck no. I'm all played out." That baby wasn't going to enjoy a long bus ride back to Lonely Hearts Station, he knew. And the little mother had looked so tired.
Damn Mason and Mimi anyway. "See ya," he said to Fannin, surly again. Then he got in his truck and drove home, deciding to skip the beer and go right upstairs.
He'd been up since 4:00 a.m., and a lot had happened. If he went to sleep now, maybe he could forget all the events of the day.
Stripping to his boxers, he left jeans, boots and his shirt on the floor, crawling quickly between the sheets to escape the slight chill in the room.
His bare skin made instant contact with something small and soft in the bed. "What the hell?" he murmured, flipping on the bedside lamp in a hurry.
It was the baby, no longer wearing her white bunting and sound asleep in the middle of his bed, peacefully sucking her tiny fist.
"Holy smokes, Frisco," Navarro said as Frisco came barreling down the stairs. All ten of his brothers glanced at him. "Your drawers on fire?" Navarro asked.
"There's a baby in my bed!" Frisco shouted. Remembering that a baby could be loud when it was awake, he lowered his voice to an unnerved whisper. "That little blonde put her baby in my bed!"
"Are you sure?" Fannin asked.
Frisco looked at him as if he'd gone mad. "I think I know a baby when I see one!"
"How do you know it's hers?" Fannin said patiently.
"Because she was the only one who had a child that young with her." And the picture of her kissing the baby's head was still fresh in his mind. "I know it's hers."
"Dang." Bandera threw his cards onto the round den table. "I'm certain she didn't know it was your bed, Frisco. No woman would give your surly butt her sweet, fragile angel."