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As Crockett Jefferson stood at his brother Bandera's wedding, he wondered if Valentine Cakes ever realized how much time he spent staring at her. He shouldn't. She was the mother of his brother Last's child. Crockett's deepest, darkest secret was that Valentine evoked fantasies in his mind, fantasies of the two of them laughing, touching, kissing
"Well, that's that," his eldest brother, Mason, said looking to Hawk and Jellyfish, the amateur detectives and family friends who'd come to the Malfunction Junction ranch to deliver news about Maverick Jefferson, the Jefferson brothers' missing father. Before he heard anything else about the mystery that obsessed Mason, Crockett once again found his vision glued to Valentine and her tiny daughter, Annette. His eyes had a habit they didn't want to give up, no matter how much family drama flowed around him.
Hawk looked at Mason. "Do you want to know what we learned about your father before or after you eat your piece of wedding cake?"
Crockett sighed, watching the fiery redhead as he heard the pronouncement about Maverick. With regret he took his gaze off Valentine. She held her daughter and a box of heart-shaped petits fours she'd made for Bandera's wedding reception. Being an artist of sorts, he appreciated both Valentine's lovely baked goods and her beauty. She smiled at him, her pretty blues eyes encouraging, her mouth bowing sweetly, and his heart turned over.
She could never know how he felt about her.
He didn't want to feel the way he did about the mother of his brother's child. So, to get away from the temptation to look at Valentine again, Crockett followed Hawk, Jellyfish and Mason to the shade of a tree so they could talk.
"We were able to confirm that Maverick was in Alaska, for a long time," Hawk said. "Your father lived with an Alaskan woman of Inuit descent. She found him slumped in a boat one day, floating offshore. Not knowing who he was or where he'd come from, she had friends help her carry him to her home. When he awakened, Maverick had no memory. She lived in a remote area, far from any town where a tourist group might have lost a member. Mannie kept him with her for four years, always hoping he might tell her something about himself."
Crockett looked at Mason, who surely had to be feeling the same lead in the pit of his stomach that he was feeling. Finally, some trace of Maverick had been found, but he also feared there must be more to the story.
Jellyfish put a hand on Mason's shoulder. "You should know that Maverick only told Mannie a few things about himself, once some of his memory returned. She awakened one day to find him gone. He'd left behind food to keep her for a long time. Gifts, but not his heart. He was a natural wanderer. During the entire four years he'd stayed with her, she'd sensed he wasn't really with her by the distant look in his eyes when he searched the horizon."
"Oh, jeez," Crockett murmured. They were all wanderers. Right now, their father might still be out there somewhere, searching for what would ease his heart. Even with this new information they were not much closer to finding him.
"Maybe there is more to learn," Hawk said. "But we felt it was important to come back and tell you the news, then let you decide what more you want to know."
Crockett felt a deep tug in his chest. Now they would hold a family council to decide what to do. It was good they'd found out now, since all the brothers were at the ranch for the annual Fourth of July gathering and Bandera's wedding.
Now that so many of the Jefferson brothers had married and moved away, Mason wanted to hold a family reunion at least twice a yearChristmas in the winter and Fourth of July in the summer. Christmas was a natural choice, but Independence Day was a time when the pond was warm enough for the children to swim, Mason had said. But Crockett knew his request really had nothing to do with pond water. Mason just wanted the brothers and their families together at so-called Malfunction Junction ranch, their home.
Crockett had to admit there was something to the power of family bonding as he again watched Valentine help her tiny daughter across a field. Right now, he wanted to get away from all thoughts of familyand Maverick. It simply hurt too much to know that their father had been living on whale meat in a hut somewhere. It was lifebut it wasn't life with them.
Could Maverick have been happy? Had he regained his memory? Or had he given up after their mother died? Crockett doubted they'd ever know all the answers. They'd been haunted for too many years by the questions, and each and every brother had learned various ways of dodging painful soul-searching.
"Thanks, guys," Crockett murmured to Hawk and Jellyfish since Mason seemed dumbstruck. "I'm sure Mason will call a family council after dinner to discuss what you told us. Stick around. Helga's made ribs, sweet peas and grilled corn, and I believe Valentine whipped up some blueberry pies. Comfort food is what we all could use right now. And good friends."
That said, he headed in Valentine's direction. He grabbed the box of petits fours from her so that she could play with Annette. "Go on," he told Valentine. "You jump, too."
"Thank you, Crockett." Giving him a smile that tugged at his heart, Valentine pulled off her shoes and got inside the inflatable house-shaped structure. She bounced gently with her daughter.
With pleasure, he noted that all of Valentine bounced. Her hair, her breasts, even her laughter seemed to go up and down as she played with her daughter. He loved watching her be a mother.
Crockett lowered his head for a second, pushing his cowboy hat down. It was a shame that Valentine and his youngest brother, Last, had not worked out as a couple. They had a beautiful little daughter; Annette was such a sweet baby. And, wanting to support the new addition to the family, the Jefferson brothers had backed Valentine in her own business, a bakery she'd named Baked Valentines.
He would never have dreamed that the one-time receptionist at a beauty salon would have been such a smart businesswomanand an awesome baker. It was hard for him to understand why Last didn't love this talented, hardworking woman
. Boy, he was getting in a groove with being jealous of his brothers.
Lately, he'd found himself stewing over things he shouldn't. It was affecting the way he felt about his family.
First Calhoun, then Last.
Before his brother Calhoun had stolen Crockett's thunder and his creativity by becoming a better artist than him. Only more commercial, Calhoun always said, as if that made it more acceptable. Crockett had put his soul into painting. It had been a good life: cowboying by day, painting by night.
But he hadn't been able to paint in a long time. And now all he seemed to think about was Valentine.
The woman in question turned and fell over, laughing. Her jeans-clad bottom jiggledand Crockett's artistic eye was transfixed.
He'd never seen anything with such rounded perfection. Bountiful and sexy. Lush and full.
"Only sculpting would do that form justice," he mused. "The warmth of fired clay, touched with the hue of a rosy"
"What?" Valentine asked, sitting up to look at him. "Do you want to join us?"
His mind ablaze with creative thoughts, a new idea and a fierce desire to be near her, Crockett set the box of petits fours on the ground, pulled off his boots and got into the inflatable house. Annette giggled because he was unstable, not used to being on something jiggly, so he put his hands down and pushed on the floor to make her pop up and lose control, too.
Valentine playfully pushed back, catching him off guard. This time, it was Crockett who flewright into her lap.
Oh, God, she felt good. She was every bit as soft as she looked, and even better, she smelled like cinnamon. Her smile faded as she stared down at him, seeing something in his eyes he didn't want her to see. Bad, bad timing.
Rolling away, he rose to his feet. Valentine watched him, her smile completely gone now, her gaze questioning.
He was going to ruin a good friendship with his curiosity about Valentine. Curiosity? That was a shifty word for what he now realized was full-blown desire.
He was on a path toward certain heartbreak.
Valentine watched as Crockett exited the inflatable house. He put his hat on, tipping the brim to her, and touched one finger to Annette's small hand. Then he left.
Just like that. Gone.
Had he thought she was flirting with him? Something miserably like rejection seeped through heran experience she'd had all too often recently, every time she came into accidental contact with Last.
She didn't know what she would have done without the other Jefferson brothers. In her heart, she knew Last was a good manhe was very good to Annette. But there was always that wall of discomfort between them, and she'd really relied on the kindness of his brothers to make her feel less awkward.
She had been determined to make good in their eyes, to show them that she wasn't the bad girl she'd been. Her sister Nina had made a wonderful marriage to Navarro Jefferson. Navarro and Nina were so happy on their land up North that sometimes Valentine was tempted to follow them up there. She would love to be near her sister, and she would love for Annette to be able to know her aunt and uncle.
What held her in Union Junction, Texas, quite simply, was Last. Although he hadn't started out as the world's best dad, he had begun a relationship with Annette that Valentine believed would strengthen and grow over the years. Annette seemed to know that Last was her special man, her daddy, among all the Jefferson brothers who came and went. There was a different sparkle in her eyes when she asked to be held by Last.
So Valentine stayed, though she knew Last would never be comfortable around her.
It was Mason who'd had faith in her, and he'd helped her turn her life around. She took a job at the bakery in town soon after Annette's birth, and what started out as a way to gain monetary independence blossomed into true love. She was an artist of a different kind. Beautiful baked goods, lovingly crafted. Her reputation for beauty spread throughout Union Junction, and when the owner decided to sell out, it was Mason who had gone to the brothers and suggested that they back Valentine as the new owner.
She would never forget the moment the Jefferson brothers had told her of their gift, to her and to Annette. Her self-worth had been validated for the first time in her life, and she knew she would do anything to show them that she was a different woman from the one who had come to them pregnant and bringing a paternity lawsuit aimed at taking money from their family.
Now, her gaze followed Crockett as he strode away. She sighed. The Jeffersons had been far too good to her. It was ridiculous for her to want anything more than friendship from the good-looking, gentle cowboy.
"Unfortunately," she told Annette, scooping her daughter into her lap, "everything in my life should stay just as it is, the best it's ever been."
Annette looked up at her with a smile, her chubby fingers reaching out to her mom. "One day," Valentine told Annette, "one day I'll find my real prince. And he won't bear the last name of Jefferson."
She lightly bounced Annette some more, but the one thing that no light-hearted playing could cure was the ache she'd felt when Crockett had so suddenly walked away.