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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 responsible.
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 yearsand 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 forgetGod'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 aloudnot to his youngest brother, Last, not to anyone, not even Mimiit was that he would never, ever crack as his father had.
"Damn it," he whispered under his breath. "I 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.
There 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. "No."
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 completely 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 MasonMimi 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.
Somehow Mimi made it through the night, but by the next day, she knew she was going to need help getting through to Mason. He wouldn't answer either the house phone or his cell phone. She was growing desperate. How long did he intend to keep their child away from her?
"Dad," Mimi said, striding into the living room, where her father sat playing cards with Barley, Calhoun Jefferson's father-in-law. Calhoun was one of Mason's younger brothers, and he was crazy in love with his wife, Olivia, as she was with him. "When you have some time, I really need to talk to you."
Barley stood. "Good. I'm going to Baked Valentines to get a box of cookies, Sheriff.
Me and you are going to go hit some skeets and snack on some chocolate chips."
When her father had fallen ill with liver disease, Mimi had spent a hellish year thinking she was going to lose him. But he'd recovered miraculously, thanks in part to the scrawny rodeo clown who spent so much time dragging the sheriff to social events. But skeets weren't a social occasion that required chocolate chip cookies, since skeets weren't real birds.
"I don't remember skeets liking cookies from Baked Valentines," she said.
Barley laughed and waved goodbye. "Be back in a bit."
"He's crazy," her father said happily. "He's determined to fix me up with Widow Fancy, so we're going over there tonight."
Mimi blinked. "Widow Fancy? I had no idea you"
"No. Now don't you get started on that." The sheriff chuckled. "Barley's just stirring things up. I'm fine the way things are. I've got you and my granddaughter, and that's all I need." He walked into the kitchen, taking out a big pot. "But I am going to make some soup to freeze for winter. Widow Fancy gave me a recipe." He grinned. "Think I can make the base for tortilla soup?"
"Yes," Mimi said, amazed that her father was apparently taking up cooking lessons from the widow.
"Now, what's on your mind? Tell me while you chop some poblanos for me. Got them fresh the other day, and they are hot!" He looked around. "Nanette gone to Mason's? Or Olivia's?"
Mimi told the tears rimming the sides of her eyes to go away, and when they wouldn't, she wiped them.
"Hay fever?" her dad asked.
"I told Mason the truth," Mimi said.
The sheriff stopped, turning to give her his full attention. "The truth?"
Her father frowned. "What truth?"
Mimi sank into a chair, her legs no longer holding her. "Dad, I've made a big, really awful mess."
He sat across from her, his face etched with concern. "There's nothing that can't be fixed."
"This cannot be fixed." She took a deep breath, gazing toward the ceiling for a few moments. "No one knows this except Bandera and Holly. And Brian. I mean, of course Brian always knew. Bandera I don't know why I told him. The guilt was beginning to eat at me. Or maybe it wasn't guilt. Conscience. Was I right, or wrong?"
"Honey, you're not making any sense."
"Dad," Mimi said, desperate to sort her emotions, "Mason is Nanette's father. Not Brian."
Her father blinked. "Mason?"
"Yes," Mimi said, feeling shame and embarrassment sweep over her. "Oh, God."
"And Brian knows."
"That's why the two of you didn't stay married."
"Well," Mimi said miserably, "we never planned to stay together. I got married so that you would know I was happy in my life. I thought you were going to die, and I wanted you to see me settled with a good man and security." She breathed deeply, though it never felt as though her lungs fully expanded. "I wanted you to have a grandchild before you passed away. We just wanted you to be happy. Both of us did." She wiped errant tears away. "So you two were never husband and wife."
"It was never a true marriage, but somehow there is Nanette."
"The night before," Mimi whispered.
"Yegods," her father said. "Mimi, I do not want to know one more thing than what you just told me." He leaned back in the chair, staring at her. "Damn it, I do! Mimi, if you and Mason were together the night before your wedding, why didn't you just call the whole damn thing off?"
"I couldn't!" Mimi jumped to her feet. "What would it have changed, Dad? Mason wasn't going to walk with me down the aisle! I could have spent the rest of my life loving him, and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. And at that point, I had you to think about! How many years did you think of me first before yourself, Dad, after Mom left?" She shook her head, her tears too great to keep back. "I was determined that you leave the earth knowing I was happy if it was the last thing I did.
And I did it."
"Yes, you did." Her father rubbed at his chin. "And that baby brought me right back, I'll admit. Brought out the fighting spirit in me. But, Mimi," he said, his tone still surprised, "what does Mason say now?"
"Mason is a miserable mule." Mimi tore at her eyes with a piece of tissue, swiping away the water but not the pain. That would never go away. "He took Nanette."
A frown crossed her father's face. "Took her?"
"To live with him. For good." Mimi sat again, feeling faint. "He said that a child needed its father."
"And its mother, when matters work out best," her father said.
"I don't feel any differently than he does," Mimi said, recognizing a trace of bitterness in her own voice. "I know the pain of abandonment. I would never allow Nanette to grow up without her mother."
"I'm sure Mason isn't thinking clearly right now," he said, "but you two need to talk."
Mimi shook her head. "He's not in the mood to talk to me."
"I don't care about moods. I care about Nanette." Her father patted her hand. "She's blessed, you know. She has two parents to love and care about her, even if they neither one think straight all the time. Surely it's not as bleak as it seems, honey."
"It feels horrible."
"Mason wasn't walking out on you," her father said. "It's really all about his child."
"What does that mean?" Mimi asked. "I should stop loving Mason? Or be glad that he's so stubborn about being with Nanette?"
"Maybe yes, maybe no. But you've got two different emotional paths warring inside you, Mimi, and that's no way to help yourself. Or Nanette. Decide if you want to fight for your daughter, or fight for Mason. Because right now your heart is breaking two ways." He rubbed her cheek and touched her hair. "I'm sorry I made you feel that you had to take care of me."
"Oh, Dad," Mimi said, taking his hand in hers to rest against her cheek. "I'm never going to apologize for loving Mason, and I'm never going to be anything but deliriously happy that Nanette is my daughter. You got well. Brian married his girlfriend. Somehow I thought everything would work out ."
Mimi lowered her head. And that was when she realized what she'd really thought would work out, her deepest secret: she'd been waiting for Mason.
She was his for the taking, and she always had been.