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"I'll be wasting my time and your breath if I
Pepper Forrester, on a warm June day to everyone within earshot in Tulips, Texas
Men were Pepper Forrester's downfalland her salvation.
For the past thirteen years Pepper had lived in the north with her aunt Jerry, bringing up her twin sons. They were thirteen now, and they were her salvation.
She had two brothers, Zach and Duke, who were both happy to disrupt her life, although mostly with charm and well-meaning opinions. Her brothers were also her salvation.
The twins'fatherthe man responsible for seduc-ing Pepper out of her good sense and virginitywas Luke McGarrett, the only man she'd ever loved. As to why Pepper loved him, there was an obvious, yet painful answer: he'd been glib, sexy, hot. She'd said yesand therefore he'd been her downfall.
But that was the past. It was time to bring closure to her life, so she'd chosen to return to Tulips, Texas, to confess the secret she'd kept all these years: she had done her own bit to increase the tiny town's population on the sly.
But while she would be proud to introduce her sons to friends and family alike, Pepper hoped that no one would suspect Luke was the father.
She comforted herself by thinking about how he had taken off after high school to find his way in the world, never to be seen again, and only heard from infrequently.
Pepper packed the last box, looking around at the place where she and the twins had lived for the past thirteen years. They'd been happy here, and yet to her, Tulips and the Triple F ranch were home, sweet home. She looked forward to the move home even though she knew her brothers were going to be mad and hurt thatshe'd kept their nephews from them. Duke and Zach had been adamantly opposed to their own women having a baby without themno child of theirs would be unaware of who their father was! Unbeknownst to them, Pepper had done just thatdeprived her sons of their father. She wasn't proud of it.
This would be a shock for everyone. The citizens of Tulips considered her to be an intelligent and responsible person.
Pansy Trifle and Helen Granger, town elders, members of the Tulips Saloon Gang and two of her dearest friends while she was growing up, would be stunned. Bug Carmine and Hiram Parsons, two of the local men who kept Tulips running, would have plenty of thoughts on the matter.
Pepper dreaded the confession. Thirteen years wasn't long enough for people's memories to fade. Back then Pepper had been a bright-eyed girl who'd recently lost her parents, and Luke had been her hero. She'd fallen so deeply in love that still, after all these years, she wished their relationship had been more than a high school dream.
Too bad he'd turned out to be such a rat. Pepper had been an excellent student, determined to get into college and then medical school. Imme-diately following her high school graduation, after Luke had made his own departure from townand before she really began to showPepper had fled to the North. Her aunt Jerry loved her in spite of every-thing, and helped her out with the twins while Pepper attended classes. She felt guilty for keeping the boys from their father, but knew from her brothers that Luke had never returned to Tulips, not even for a holiday. That salved her conscience somewhat.
She'd recently purchased a house in Tulips, as well as a building she'd converted into a medical clinic to service the small town. It was her way of giving back to the people who had taken such good care of her over the years; it was her way of return-ing with grace and honor and hope for belonging.
"Come on, boys," she said, "it's time to go home."
"I guess you're sure this is the right thing to do," Toby said. "No. I'm not." She locked the door behind them.
"But now I have my own clinic and so we're moving to where my job and your family are."
"They don't feel like family. Aunt Jerry is family," Josh said.
Duke and Zach might never forgive her for this. "Aunt Jerry may come live in Tulips next year."
"Really?" Both boys perked up.
They all piled in the car, and Pepper nodded. "I think so. After I have some time to get us settled."
"So, will our father be there?" Toby, who sat be-side her in the front seat, asked.
Pepper swallowed hard. "No. He never returned to Tulips. I don't know where he is. I'm sorry."
Toby shrugged and took a last look out the win-dow; in the backseat, Josh had his face pressed up against the glasstwo sad boys saying their good-byes to the only home they'd ever known.
"I love you both so much," she said.
"People are going to make fun of us. The kids are going to know we don't have a father," Josh stated.
"I don't think that will happen. I believe you'll be embraced with open arms. It's me everyone is going to be a little surprised by, but, " She took a deep breath, "I never said I was perfect. And you guys are my saving graces. My life is good because of you."
They accepted that in silence, and Pepper didn't begrudge them their mood. At least she didn't have to face the one thing she probably never could: Luke McGarrett. From him, she was safe.
Although after she jumped this hurdle, she really was going to have to think about introducing Luke to his sons. Somehow.
LUKE MCGARRETT HELPED three women onto the luxury yacht with his usual courteous smile. Then he assisted their father, the general, on board, as well, scanning the landscape to make certain they weren't being followed by paparazzi, mischief-makers or beggars.
It was a tough life having to guard beautiful, leggy blondes every day of his life, but someone had to do it, he thought with a grin. Being a world traveler and in the employ of the general definitely had its re-wards. Mainly the scenery.
The "scenery" was untouchable, of course, since protecting them was his job, but he had to admit he wasn't attracted to the girls. If anything, he was at-tracted to the traveling and the money and the fact that he'd never have to return to Tulips, Texas.
He sat at the stern once everyone was seated and pulled a letter from his inside shirt pocket to reread.
Luke, you've been gone a long time. I'm getting older and need some help with the family real estate business. I'd like my only son to learn my profession and I'd like to spend some time getting to know you. I've missed that. Love, Dad
Luke put the letter away, resisting the urge to toss it into the sea. There was nothing in Tulips for him.
He didn't care about the family business. The last thing he was ever going to do was find a wife and settle down and start having kidsand he knew very well that was on his father's mind. Oh, no, sir, not me. I'm single and proud of it.
One of the blondes smiled at him, and he felt much better. The scenery was just so damn good it nearly hurt.
THERE WAS NO EASY WAY to do this. Pepper had
thought long and hard for years about how to tell people her secret. Just imagining herself saying the words was difficult.
But it was time. So Pepper called a meeting at the Tulips Saloon, knowing it was best to tell her family and friends all at once.
Duke and Zach were seated in the antique chairs of the saloon with their wives, Liberty and Jessie, beside them, their children bouncing on their knees. Pepper turned her attention to their friends Helen Granger, Pansy Trifle, Hiram Parsons and Bug Car-mine. This was her family, extended and otherwise, and the best thing to do when spilling a secret was to do it surrounded by people who loved her.
She stood, and everyone smiled at her. "Thank you for coming today and spending your Sunday afternoon with me."
There were murmurs of "That's all right" and "We're glad to have you back, Pepper." She felt tears prickling at the back of her eyes. Having left the boys in the car, instructing them to come inside the saloon in ten minutes, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. Had she ever?
"Today I'm going to tell you something I possibly should have told you long ago," she began. "I should have told you, but I couldn't." She glanced at her brothers for understanding and support. "I want to apologize to you in advance for that. A teenage mis-calculation on my part, because you're the best men I've ever known, ." She stopped, not knowing how to continue. They were going to be so shocked, so dumbfounded, .
"Mom?" Toby said, walking through the door just ahead of his brother. "Is it time for us to come in?"
The whole room went very still. Each face was riveted upon her sons, who looked back at them shyly, their expressions holding nervousness and maybe embarrassment.
Thank you, Pepper thought. Always my heroes, riding in to rescue me from myself. "Yes, it's time to come in, boys." She went to hug them. Taking a deep breath, she held their hands and turned around to face the small assembly. "I'd like to introduce you all to my sons, Toby and Josh. They're my family and the reason for my being."
No one said a word. Pepper thought she saw sym-pathy in Liberty's and Jessie's faces, but everyone else sat thunderstruck.
Helen rose first, walking to Toby and Josh with an expression of determination and interest behind her black-rimmed glasses. "I'm Helen Granger," she told the boys, with a solemn handshake for each. "We're so glad you've come to live in Tulips."
"Oh, absolutely," Pansy Trifle said, hopping up to join her friend. "This is a wonderful place for boys to grow up. You'll really like it here."
The twins shook hands with each woman, but Duke and Zach couldn't seem to move from their chairs. So their wives got up, dragging their hus-bands with them.
"I'm your aunt, Liberty, and this is your uncle, Duke. He's the sheriff of Tulips," Liberty said. "You also have three small cousins."
"Uncle?" Duke repeated. "How old are you boys?"
"Thirteen," they said together.
He nodded, giving Pepper a swift glance. "I've been an uncle for thirteen years." Looking back at the twins, he shook their hands. "Guess I'm the lucky one."
"Me, too," Zach said swiftly, following behind.
"I'm your uncle, Zach, and this is your aunt, Jessie, and our babies, Mattie and James."
Everyone else in the room got up to introduce themselves, but the boys were stilted and awkward with the adults. After a while, Pepper knew it was time to take them to the Triple F. "We're going home now," she said, looking at her brothers. "We're going to spend the night at the ranch until we can get our things unpacked at the house. If you don't mind, I'd like to take them there by myself for some alone time. Just about an hour." It meant a lot to her that her boys not be nervous or worried. She knew how they were feeling. If she could, she wanted to keep them from being completely overwhelmed, sothat they could acquaint themselves with the Triple F slowly.
"By all means," Duke said, "it's where you all belong." He looked at his young nephews. "You'll like it at the ranch."
"Mom says she's bought a house and a clinic," Toby said. "We get our own bedroom."
Duke nodded. "You like to bunk together or separately?"
"We're used to sharing," Toby said. "One room is enough." He looked up at Duke. "Will you have enough space for us?"
"Space is something we don't have to worry about at the Triple F," Duke said. "I promise you'll be in good shape while we get your house fixed up. And anyway, the Triple F will always be your home, too. You've got two, now."
Pepper felt the tears coming again and brushed them away impatiently. "Thank you."
Zach shook his head. "No need for thanks. It's your house just as much as ours."
She hadn't been sure her brothers would still want her there. Liberty and Jessie hugged her, and the tears Pepper had been determined to hold back poured from her eyes. She reached out to hug her boys to her, fiercely proud of them, glad she'd finally brought them home.