The only good things she'd ever gotten from a cowboy were her daughter and her son. And rodeo gypsy Olivia Spinlove had vowed she'd never again let an elusive, sexy cowboy corral her heart. This single mom had been born racing barrels and had no trouble outrunning loveuntil Calhoun Jefferson strolled into her arena. Unlike any cowboy she'd ever known, he had artistic vision, concern for her kids and dark eyes that said, "Hey, pretty lady," even from a distance. He almost made her wild heart want to stop wandering. Because the promise in his kiss said that catching Calhoun might make it worth getting caughtfor good.
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By Tina Leonard
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
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Chapter OneThe treasure lies within.
- Mason to his sons when they wanted to know if there was such a thing as fairy dust on butterfly wings and a box of Civil War gold in the well on Widow Fancy's farm.
At exactly midnight, as a chilly November turned into a stormy, cold December, Mason Jefferson walked back into the main ranch house at Union Junction, wondering if he was ready to return home after being gone for so many months.
There were ten women in sleeping bags around the fireplace, where the fire had burned nearly to embers. His jaw dropped and he felt a sweat break out along the back of his neck. There were pretty faces, openmouthed faces, snoring faces, faces mashed into pillows.
Clearly nothing had changed around Malfunction Junction. Possibly the situation had worsened.
It gave a man pause about the reason he'd stayed gone so long: Mimi Cannady, his next-door neighbor and wife to another man.
If women were so easily found around his fireplace, if they dropped easily into a man's life like blossoms from a cherry tree, if there were always many unattached females hanging around the Jefferson ranch, then why couldn't he get over the woman he thought he could only love like a meddlesome baby sister?
I came home toosoon, Mason thought.
A crash sounded upstairs and a baby wailed. Mason closed his eyes. I stayed gone too long.
And after all his journeys he still had not a single lead on what had happened to Maverick, the father of the twelve Jefferson brothers.
"Hi, Mason." One of the women raised her head. It was Lily of the Union Junction hair salon in Union Junction. He and his brothers had helped her and her co-stylists set up shop in town, after Delilah Honey-cutt had to let them go from the salon in Lonely Hearts Station.
"Hey, Lily," he said. "Go back to sleep. Didn't mean to wake you." He jerked his head toward the ceiling. "Think I'll go scare my brothers and see whose baby they're torturing."
Lily smiled. "Welcome home." She put her head down and Mason saw her eyes close. Sighing, he headed up the stairs.
In the second-floor family room, there were five brothers and a baby. A sweetly chubby baby, maybe a year old, he guessed, from the three tiny blond curls on the back of her head and her consciously erect posture. The brothers were arranged in a semi-circle, all of them flat on their chests staring at her as she stared back at them. It was like a Mexican standoff, and the baby was winning, clearly bemusing her older companions.
It wasn't worth wondering whose baby it was. What mattered was that it seemed nothing had changed around Malfunction Junction. Still fun and games. "Howdy."
His brothers looked up and stared at him. Calhoun was the first to jump to his feet. "Mason!"
Mason tossed his hat onto the sofa. "I wasn't gone long enough for any of you to have a baby."
The other brothers halted, midrise.
"True," Calhoun said. "And this is not our baby, per se."
The baby turned her head to look up at him, and Mason felt his heart stop inside his chest. He would know that baby in a field of children; he could pick her out with ease. Fair, fine blond curls, big blue eyes that were her mother's, the sparkle of mischief in her expression as she'd enjoyed commanding the attention of her covey of "uncles."
"It's Nanette," Bandera said. "We're helping Mimi out 'cause she's been cooking for all of us and the ladies downstairs."
"Heat went out over the salon. Been out for three days," Last said. "Seemed the right thing to do to bring Lily and her crew here."
Crockett nodded. "They stood it as long as they could. We found out they weren't telling us, and had Shoeshine bring them over here in his bus."
Mason ignored his brother's blabbering, bending instead to scoop up Nanette and hold her to him. She didn't cry out at the chill in his fingers. Instead, she touched his face, patting it with curiosity, though he told himself she touched him because she recognized him.
"Been a long time since I held you," he murmured to her, so that his brothers couldn't hear. "You can sit up now. When I last saw you, you were just a tiny potato. I didn't know you would grow so fast," he said, nuzzling her. "You weren't supposed to grow up without me. I missed you." She patted his face again, and his eyes welled up with tears he wouldn't let his brothers see. "I shouldn't have left you."
The softness of her skin and her instant trust of him shattered his barely healed heart. Being gone hadn't solved a damn thing. He still loved Mimi, in a way he knew he should not. And he loved her child, the child he'd helped deliver, as if she were his very own.
In his heart, she was his very own.
Mason gruffly cleared his throat, aware that his brothers were uncomfortably silent. "What else did I miss?" he demanded.
The brothers glanced at each other. Last looked ill.
"How about we talk later?" Calhoun asked.
"We can talk now," Mason said.
"Not really," Calhoun said, glowering. "We've been amusing twelve months of dynamite. We're torn between using pacifiers, sippie cups, back rubs and guitar lullabies as good-luck charms to ward off the displeasure this child seems to feel at being out of her element. She doesn't like us, and quite frankly, we're beginning to wonder why babies aren't stored in pods until they ripen."
"We've had some ripe occasions," Archer said.
"That one, delicate flower that she may be, can put forth some really ripe diapers."
"What we're trying to say, Mason," Bandera said, "is that we're tired. We're actually ragged. Let's get one thing straight from the start. You left. You took your bad moods and your broken heart and you deserted us. We've handled everything while you were gone. Now, we're of no mind to have you walk in here demanding answers."
"That's right," Crockett said, "we get first shot at Answer Number One."
Excerpted from Catching Calhoun by Tina Leonard Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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