When Holly Henshaw, wedding planner extraordinaire, left her no-good fiancé at the altar, she decided then and there: no more true love. Adventure, excitement, freedomthat's what she wanted. She'd change her business, change her life and if she was lucky, she'd kiss a cowboy along the way.
That's when she flagged down Bandera Jefferson, a long, tall Texan offering her a ride into the sunset. Ornery, possessive and handsome as the dickens, he was making wild-at-heart Holly think she just might like belonging to Bandera.
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Effort separates the quitters from the rest
Maverick to his sons when they wanted to quit studying the great classics and read comics instead
"What I think," Bandera Jefferson said, "is that he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Ernest Hemingway, in a not too kind moment, if you ask me."
"What are you blabbing about?" Mason, Bandera's oldest brother and head of the Jefferson family, demanded.
"I'm talking about our moved-to-town, much-missed next-door neighbor, Mimi. If she, as the new sheriff, wants you to be her deputy, you'd probably be the happiest you've ever been, because the path of the sword has always been your way."
Mason grunted. "That soliloquy was philosophical and annoying all at once. And incorrect, I might add."
"I took the road less traveled," Bandera recited. "Frost, of course. I've been looking through Maverick's old books, and did you know Dad liked to underline famous quotations?"
"Which is why you have a healthy respect for them. That doesn't mean you know what you're talking about, though." Mason put his hat on before getting into his truck. "Famous quotations are only useful if you abide by their advice, Dad's notwithstanding."
"Where are you going?" Bandera demanded.
"None of thy business," Mason said, "quoting me, in my favorite conversational tone, Butt-Out-Ski."
"I don't like it. It's too lowbrow, not that I ever really understood the terminology of low and high brows. Where does a brow come into the picture, anyway?" Bandera murmured, his voice trailing off as he stared into Mason's truck. "Hey, you've got a duffel in there! Stuffed full."
Bandera remembered all too well the months that Mason had recently spent Lord knows where, leaving his younger brothers to run the family ranch, affectionately known as Malfunction Junction. "You can't go off and leave us again! We're bone thin at our place as it is. The ranch needs you. We need you." He frowned, staring at his brother, who clearly wasn't listening to him. "This is because of Mimi and that deputy stuff, isn't it? Mason, listen. If you don't want to run for deputy, tell her you're not interested. Tell Mimi you'll help with her campaign and that's it. No more adventures. Say, 'Mimi, our high jinks are at an end. You and I are no longer wayward kids.' Quoth Bandera, from a trough of desperation, on an unseasonably hot Texas day in June."
Mason shook his head. "I need to talk to Hawk, and maybe Jellyfish."
"The phone's in the kitchen," Bandera said helpfully. "Or you can use my cell if yours is dead."
"Gotta be in person." Mason cranked the truck engine.
"A duffel means more than one or two days." Bandera blinked, thinking fast. What if Mason decided not to come back for months? His brother was under a lot of stress. It wasn't just the ranchit was Mimi, too. Mason had never fully retrieved his heart from Mimi's clutches, and Mimi asking him to be her deputy wasn't sitting well. For Mason, it was temptation of the highest order, the thought of working daily with the woman he couldn't get off of his mind.
"Don't you leave this driveway," Bandera said. "I'm grabbing my stuff and going with you." Someone had to bring Mason back from the edge of madness.
"No." He began backing up the truck. Out of the window he said, "You need to stay here. There's work to be done."
But there was a brother to lose. There wasn't time to call a family council, and Bandera knew an emergency when he saw one. None of the other brothers would allow Mason to go off like this, not with him acting all secretive. A day or two of ranchwork minus two brothers was better than six months of Mason being off in the wilds, nursing his obtuse heart.
"If you move from here," Bandera said, standing up to his brother for maybe the first time in his life, "I will follow you in my truck. You will see me in your rear-view mirror like a hound from hell on your tail."
Mason sighed, putting his vehicle in Park. "You're an idiot."
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me," Bandera said.
"And if you recite one thing while we're gone," Mason said, "I promise to do you some type of harm."
Bandera loped off to get his stuff. In the hallway of the main house, he ran into his brother Crockett. "I just discovered Mason in the midst of another Houdini," Bandera said. "Not much time to talk, but go out there and stall him, okay? Just in case he decides not to buy my threats."
"What?" Crockett looked out the window.
"Just go keep him occupied!" Bandera ran up the stairs. He tossed jeans, boots, socks, a passport just in case
His youngest brother, Last, came into the room. "Running away from home?"
"No, but I think Mason is. He's got his duffel in the truck and he's heading off to see Hawk." Bandera threw a toothbrush into his bag and dug around in his drawers for other things he might need.
"Why?" Last asked. "Can't he just call him?"
"Apparently not. Which is why I'm riding shotgun. Unless you want to go?"
"No, thanks." Last backed up. "I'll pack a cooler for you."
"Thanks." Running down the stairs and crossing the lawn, Bandera jumped into Mason's truck. "Crockett, you're a good man."
Crockett shrugged his shoulders as he leaned his forearms on Mason's window.
"I'd go with you, but someone's got to work around here."
Mason grunted. "'Bout time you did something."
Crockett slapped his brother's hat down over his face. Mason moved it back into position.
Last slammed the truck bed after he put the cooler in. "Here's snacks. Stop and get more ice."
"Jeez." Mason looked at Bandera. "We're only going a few hours down the road. Do you think you'll need much more survival gear?"
Bandera pulled licorice strings from his pocket. "I'm good to go on the road less traveled. Frost, of course, again. I really like the wintry old poet."
"Damn it!" Mason gunned the truck, making Crockett jump back and Last hustle to the side of the driveway. "I swear I'll strangle you with your licorice. And then you'll die by your own sword."
"I can tell it's gonna be fun," Crockett called. "Goodbye, Huck Finn! See ya, Tom Sawyer!"
"Just a regular bunch of comedians," Mason mumbled as he pulled away from the ranch.
"So what's the adventure all about?"
"Maverick, our long-lost father," Mason said. "Why else would I need Hawk's detective talents and the help of his erstwhile loony sidekick, Jellyfish?"
"Jelly isn't loony," Bandera said. "He's existential, man."
"So what does Maverick have to do with anything? What do you think you can find now that you didn't before?"
"Nothing. But Hawk will be better at turning over rocks and running through deadend signs than I was. I'm hiring him. Or them. Professionalism is what we need."
"Whatever." Bandera looked out the window as they passed the many miles of their ranch. "Mason, maybe we should just accept the fact that we're never going to know what happened to Dad."
He knew it was the wrong thing to say the second he said it, and Mason's silence was loud with disapproval. Only Mason could communicate censure so effectively without making a sound. Bandera sighed as he took in the picturesque view speeding past his window. "We have one pretty spread of land. I'm going to miss Malfunction Junction."
"We're only going to be gone a few days," Mason said. "It's not like you need your teddy bear or anything."
"I wouldn't make fun of sleeping with teddy bears," Bandera said. "If you were sleeping with your little Mimi-bear, you'd not be off trolling after the past."
"Lovely," Mason said. "Why don't you find your own bear and keep your nose out of my business?"
"Because I like your business," Bandera replied. "It's much more interesting than mine. All I know about my corner of the world is that I like it the way it is. Women only bring chaos, though I can sometimes appreciate a little lowbrow chaos."
"What are you talking about?"
"I like my women on the rowdy side," Bandera said. "Not too sweet, not too sour.
Not too good and not too bad. Like a white frilly dress with a polka-dotted thong un-derneathhey, look at that!"
Bandera craned his head to see the woman on the side of the road waving a large sign. She was wearing blue jean shorts and a white halter top. If he didn't know better, he'd think the halter had polka dots on it, big ones. "Probably a car wash," he murmured. "Slow down, Mason."
"No," Mason said. "There's no time. This is going to be a fast trip. It's an information-seeking venture, not a woman hunt. Nor do I need a car wash."
They whizzed past so fast Bandera could barely read her sign. The blonde flashed it at him, holding it up high so that he got a dizzying look at her jiggling breasts. White teeth, laughing blue eyes and legs so cute he was sure the fanny she was packing had to be just as sweet.
His brother stomped on the brake, sighing. "Why couldn't you have stayed home?"
"That woman's sign says she needs assistance," Bandera said righteously, although he really thought it had read I'm
"And Lord only knows we never leave a lady without assistance." Mason glanced into the rearview mirror. "I sense trouble in a big way."
The lady bounced up to Mason's door.
"Hi," she said.
"Howdy," Mason and Bandera said together. "Can we help you, miss?" Ban-dera asked.
"I'm waiting for my cousin," she said. "Obviously, you are not him."
Mason was silent. Bandera took off his hat. "Did your car break down, miss?"
"No." She smiled, and dimples as cute as baby lima beans appeared in her cheeks. Bandera felt his heart go boom!
"My cousin is coming to pick me up," she said. "That's why my sign says I'm
"I'm confused," Mason said to Bandera. "Nowhere on her bright white placard do
I see the word assistance. Or even help!'" He sent his brother a disgusted grimace.
"My cousin and I haven't seen each other in a while," Holly said. "He might not recognize me."
Bandera stared at her high-piled blond hair with fascination. It had pretty twinkly jewels among the strands, which matched the iridescent sequins scattered on the white halter top.
"Okay," Mason said. "You'll have to pardon us. We need to be getting along. Normally, we don't stop for ladies holding signs, but we thought you needed help."
"Actually, I do," she said. "I could use a kiss."
Bandera's jaw dropped. "A kiss?"
"Sure. I'd like just one kiss from a cowboy before I leave Texas." Her blue eyes laughed at him. Mason was far closer to her than he was, and that was a durn shame if she was wanting kissing.
"Why?" he asked.
"I'm feeling dangerous," she explained, "since I just left my wedding after I caught my fiance in bed with my best friend."
"Ouch," Mason said.
"Precisely. So I called my cousin from the church phone, and this is our meeting place. But now that you're here, I'm thinking a girl ought to be kissed on her wedding day," she said, looking at Bandera.
Bandera's heart gave a funny ding inside him. She sure did have kissing on the brain.
"So you're a bride on the run," Mason said. "Haven't we had one of those in our family?"
"That was a groom on the run," Bandera said dryly, giving him a pointed look.
"I'm not running, I'm going on a well-needed sabbatical," Holly corrected.
"Actually, you have an itch to get as far away from your fiance as possible," Mason theorized.
"You understand me totally. I am trying really hard not to cry," Holly said. "You might have noticed my hair is done. My gown was chiffon and sequinsthis is the top, the skirt I discardedand I left the ring on the condom box I found on the kitchen counter."
"In the kitchen?" Mason asked.
Holly shrugged. "They'd moved to the bedroom and didn't hear me come into the house. There was a red bra lying in the fruit bowl and a trail of clothes leading into the den." She sighed and blinked her eyes quickly, which made her look like a doll. A doll trying not to cry.
"I think the condom box was the right place to leave your engagement ring," Bandera said, trying to be sympathetic. He really did not want her to cry. She was too pretty to be sad, he thought. I would make her smile all the time.
"So about that kiss " Bandera began, unable to resist.
"Mike should have been here by now," Holly said. Her gaze sought the long, empty road behind the truck. A stray curl fell from her pretty upsweep and brushed along the back of her neck. Ban-dera watched her lips bow as she worried. What man would be stupid enough to cheat on a mouth that could pucker into a perfect plump bud?
"Guess we should be going, since she doesn't need a ride," Mason said uncomfortably.
"Not so fast." Bandera looked at Holly again. "Haste makes waste, you know."
"Who said that?" Mason demanded, his tone low.
"Some wise man." Bandera took a deep breath and turned to Holly. "Ride with us."
She peered into the truck to see him better. "With you?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"
"Why not indeed?" Mason said dryly. "We have nothing pressing."
"What about my cousin?" she asked.
At that moment a motorcycle pulled up behind Mason's truck. A loud gunning noise punctuated the arrival before the driver shut the engine off. A large, po-nytailed man got off the bike and walked toward them.
"Cousin Mike?" Holly said.
"Yeah. Hey, Henshaw."
They embraced briefly before Mike looked at Bandera and Mason. "They bothering you?"
"No," Holly said hastily. "They thought I needed help."
He shook his head. "Your mother's going to be worried."
"My mother will understand," she said. "She wouldn't want me marrying a man with the morals of a.bull."
"Well, time for us to hit the road, Mason," Bandera said. He figured they should. She might be cute, but she had issues. "Too bad about the kiss, though."
"What kiss?" Cousin Mike demanded, bristling.
Though Bandera thought many men would probably want to kiss this beauty, he said, "No kiss here."
"I was feeling the desire to rebound," Little Miss Adventure said. "Love the one you're with and all that."
Bandera blinked, appreciating her recitation. She looked like a Holly. She looked like a rosebud. Gosh, he was certain she could be a Gertie May and he'd still find her ravishing. "You probably get kissed all the time."
"I've never been kissed by a cowboy," Holly said.
Mason's brows rose as he looked from his brother to Holly. "Bandera, I'm going to let you drive. I need a nap."
"He's not the kissing type," Bandera explained.
"No, I'm not," Mason said, getting out of the driver's seat and into the back of the double cab.
When Bandera stepped out of the truck Holly's gaze roamed over his face. He smelled perfume and noticed she was dainty compared to hima tiny bundle of femininity.