He may be a grown man, but daredevil Last Jefferson is running away from home. Yet in escaping his own family, he runs right smack into another! Esme Hastings casts a spell under the big top as alluring magician Poppy Peabodybut being mom to her orphaned niece and nephew is her most important job. Unfortunately, convincing a judge she can provide a stable home will take more than a wave of her magic wand.
Before Last takes off halfway around the world, he wants to help Esme. He brings her and the kids back to the Malfunction Junction ranch in Texas. There's room to spare and they need to settle down, but Last can't stay. Sure, he loves spending time with Esme and the kids, but this cowboy isn't ready to be a family man. But is he ready to say goodbye?
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If it wasn't for the very shapely woman standing at the bottom of the California cliff, Last Jefferson might not have miscued his hang-glider landing, ending up in three feet of ocean instead of on the beach as he'd planned.
Last appreciated the female form, as did all of his brothers. Hers, he thought as she walked toward him, was worth the ocean water bath.
Until he saw the little boy and girl beside her.
Had he realized from his airborne position that the beautiful lady had two young children with her, he might have stayed dry. Unfortunately he'd been mainly focused on her sinuous shape and on the lovely cleavage gleaming above her bikini top.
The water was warmish, at least. He pulled off his helmet, grimacing.
"Are you all right?" the little boy asked. "You made a big splash when you hit the water."
"A big splash," his sister confirmed. "I bet the sea lions on their rocks heard it."
Last dragged himself out of the water, checking his canopy to make certain it was still in good shape. "You two remind me of my niece and nephew back home. And they're nothing but trouble," he said wryly. "You two run on back to your mom. I'm fine." And I don't need any more wisen-heimer children in my life.
Nor did he need a woman. He'd had enough trouble with the female gender. He should have saved himself the crash landing. He was on a mind-clearing sabbatical here in California, and he'd learned the hard way that one-night stands were not mind-clearing exercises.
His toddler daughter was proof of that.
The shapely brunette finally caught up with her children. "Are you all right?" she asked him.
His mouth watered as he got a closer look at her face. "Yes. Thank you." Okay, God must have let one of his angels drop from the sky, because this woman was stunning.
Maybe she was a model. Wasn't California full of models and actresses?
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Only by staying away," he said bluntly, although he appreciated her sun-browned waist above a long black sarong. Beneath the crepe fabric he could see very shapely legs. Orange-painted toenails peeped from her leather thongs. "I'm a loner."
"We're loners, too," the young boy said. "My mom's a magician."
Great. Just what he neededsomeone who excelled in disappearing acts.
The Jefferson clan already possessed more disappearing acts than they needed, from their missing father, Maverick, to their eldest brother, Mason, who had a habit of running off when he didn't want to deal with his feelings for a certain lady. Right now Last was focused on his own disappearing act, while his brother Crockett tried to make a family with his new wife, Valentinewho just happened to be Last's former one-night stand and the mother of Last's daughter, Annette. Privacy had seemed like the proper thing for Last to give the new family, and he'd chosen not to hang around like a disgruntled shadow.
No matter how pretty this young mother was, he wouldn't hang around here, either. "Goodbye," he said, hauling his hang glider down the beach.
"Hey," the boy said, running after him. "My mom can pull a quarter from your ear."
"Look," Last said, not wanting to be mean, "I'll pull a ten-dollar bill from yours if you scram."
"Really?" The boy beamed while his sister looked on with doubt.
"Sure." Last took a ten from the elastic-covered hidden pocket of his long swim trunks, folded it, then handed it to the boy.
"Hey! That wasn't my ear!"
"But it is a ten. Now scram."
"I beg your pardon!" The gorgeous-vixen mother with dark hair and snapping blue eyes snatched the money from her son and handed it back to Last.
It had been in poor taste. Last opened his mouth to apologize, except the woman whirled around, dragging her kids, one in each hand, away before he could speak.
Hellfire. He shouldn't care, should he? He'd wanted them to bug off, and that's what they were doing. But he hadn't meant to hurt anyone's feelings.
"Jeez," he said under his breath, situating his canopy carefully on the sand. He ran after the brunette, noting that her rear view was as eye-pleasing as her front view.
Which meant spoon-style lovemaking would be a very pleasant option.
Whoa, he said to his unruly thoughts. With determination, he took his eyes off the swaying black sarong. "Excuse me."
She didn't turn around.
He jogged in front of her, holding up his palms in surrender. "Look, I'm sorry," he said.
"A sorry excuse for a gentleman," she snapped, passing him. Gentleman? No one had ever accused him of being that. Gamely, he hustled past her. "My name's Last Jefferson. From Texas."
She marched past him.
The boy turned huge eyes toward him as the family walked away. "That's a weird name," he told Last. "Sort of like my mother's stage name."
Last trotted after the child, figuring he was the more receptive target for an apology. "What's your mother's stage name?"
"Poppy Peabody?" That was a stage name.
"The hottest female magician performing today," the little girl said proudly. "Get your popcorn, take your seats, fellas"
Poppy grimaced, tugging the children up the beach faster.
The "hot" part they had right. Last kept jogging alongside the boy, recognizing that the stubborn set of Poppy's shoulders meant he wasn't getting anywhere with her. "So what's your name?" he asked the boy.
"Curtis. My sister's name is Amelia."
"Thanks. Is Last your stage name?"
"No." Last wished Poppy would slow down. Her legs were nearly as long as his and obviously far more used to sand power-walking. "It's all mine. Does your mother have a real name?"
"She's not really my mother," Curtis said in a confidential tone. "She's our aunt."
Aunt. Hmm. Last ignored the pleasure the knowledge gave him. "Name?"
Finally Poppy stopped. "Esmerelda Hastings," she said curtly. "I prefer Aunt Poppy to Aunt Esmerelda, and Poppy in general."
He blinked. "I can see where you might, although Esme is kind of cool, you have to admit. Not as dramatic, I guess."
"Poppy and Last," Amelia murmured, frowning. "That won't do. You're not The One."
"Amelia!" Poppy said. "I apologize," she told Last, her blush quite appealing. "They are homeschooled and quite precocious."
"I was homeschooled, for the most part," Last said. "We did go to public school for a few years, but more as a social exercise." Now that he had her attention, he refused to let it go. "Can we start over?" he asked with a smile.
"I suppose," she said reluctantly. "Although I try to discourage the children from talking to strangers. And certainly taking money from them is inappropriate."
"You speak just like Mary Poppins," Last said. "Very proper. Are you British?"
"Mary Poppins flew by parasol," Amelia interrupted. "And Mr. Last flew by hang glider, though not very well," she finished thoughtfully. "It's something in common."
"I thought Mr. Jefferson did quite fine, except on the landing," Curtis said. "They probably have lots in common."
"Whew," Last said, "these two are certainly trying to set you up. I'm sorry I'm not available, if for no other reason than to see what they're up to."
Poppy smiled sadly. "My sister passed away a year ago, and it is the children's opinion that if they can marry me off, they will have a whole family. Like most children, having a whole family is their greatest wish."
"No father?" Last asked quietly, watching as the children were sidetracked by a bird flying overhead.
Poppy shook her head. "No one knows where he is."
"I know that routine," he said with a sigh.
"Sorry?" Poppy said.
Last hadn't seen his own father in years, though Mason kept up a diligent search. But Last wasn't ready to go into that, not here and not with a woman as pretty as Poppy/ Esmerelda. "Hey, let's have lunch," he said instead. "I want to hear more about this magician's life you lead. Wasn't it 'the hottest female magician performing today'?"
Poppy blushed. "The children hear that every night from the announcer. Pay no attention to it."
"How can I not?" He grinned at the kids as they turned their gazes back to him. "It's trueat least the hot part. Now, magic, I don't believe in."
The children gasped. Poppy looked horrified.
"How do you think Mary Poppins flew?" Amelia demanded. "Ropes and pulleys?" Last asked.
They all stared. Must be British, Last thought.
"Don't you believe in firefly magic and baby turtles that run to the sea without ever knowing what the sea is?" Curtis demanded.
"Instinct," Last said. "It's all instinct, a very good thing to have." Right now his was telling him that if he was smart, he'd be doing the cowboy-bachelor crawl away from this bunch.
Poppy drew herself up tall, which stretched her torso and raised her bikini top a bit, his practiced masculine eye noted. She had wonderfully taut skin, golden and plump with vitality.
"Magic is everything'" Poppy said. "It moves the world. It heightens your senses. It's at the heart of your most fabulous moments."
"Nope. Those happen when I'm drinking a cold beer, and there's nothing magic about that except how fast I can make it disappear." He grinned, pleased by his own humor.
"Mr. Jefferson!" Poppy said.
"Oops. Another lapse. I am sorry." He gave her a crooked smile. "Neither I nor my eleven brothers are known for being role models."
Poppy sniffed. "I'll keep that in mind. Were you ever a child, Mr. Jefferson?"
"Most of my adult life," he said cheerfully. "Although having a young daughter has certainly matured me."
"I doubt the veracity of that," Poppy said, "but I'll have to take your word for it. If you'll excuse us, we must decline your offer of luncheon. We have studies before tonight's show."
With the thought that he might not see Poppy again, he was suddenly in the mood to take in a show. What could it hurt? "Where will you be performing?"
"Goodbye," she told him, walking away.
"Damn," he said. "I'm not as smooth as I used to be."
From the way she'd said it, he knew better than to follow her. But for some reason he followed her anyway.
Poppy walked away from the handsome stranger wishing her charges were just a bit less in shopping-for-a-father mode. It wasn't going to work. She had no desire for a permanent man, due to her lifestyle, and the children had no idea that marriage wasn't always filled with glittery magic.
It was hard work, and right now her efforts needed to be focused on the children. Amelia was ten, Curtis eight, and there would be many changes in their lives in the teen years. She had to think only of them, and a man would make things in her once-free life even more complicated. Five months ago, she'd been a happily traveling gypsy with no greater care than daily performances. She liked the bohemian lifestyle. But she'd had to settle down a bit since she'd inherited the children. That kind of focus was hard enough without the further distraction of a man.
The children didn't understand this. Amelia and Curtis only wanted a family, and were she in their circumstance, Poppy probably would have reacted the same way. But even if she was looking for marriage, the right man did not simply drop from the sky. Hunting for The One took effort and kissing lots of frogs.
She had an aversion to smooching frogs.
"You two must stop," she said now to Amelia and Curtis. "Please try to be satisfied that, for now, we are a family. And a good one. We're making it, aren't we?" she asked, bending down to look in their faces.
They nodded slowly, not convinced.
"The judge said it would be better if we were placed in a two-parent home," Amelia reminded her. "He said he'd examine our progress in a month."
"He doesn't like the fact that we travel with you in a circus," Curtis said, his blue eyes round. "He said it wasn't stable."
"True," Poppy agreed. "It's something to consider."
The judge certainly had been put off by her stage name and gypsy lifestyle. His suggested alternative was that the children live with Poppy's parents. Though they were far past the age of wanting to be responsible for children, the judge knew her parents personally and felt more comfortable with the stability he thought they would give the children.
It would be better for everyone if she could find a way to settle down, Poppy knew. And she was trying. "I will try harder," she said slowly. "I guess I could give marriage some consideration. But not to that man," she said quickly, dimming their suddenly hopeful faces. "He's just not for me."
They nodded, accepting her reason.
"We like living with you, Aunt Poppy," Amelia said. "We just want to stay with you."
"Maybe I should give up the land of make-believe and take a job as a teacher. It might impress the judge."
Surely it would. A sense of permanence was what he'd seen lacking in her resume. The only reason she'd been temporarily awarded custody of the children was that she was the only family member who'd come forward at the time of her sister's death to claim them. Frankly she felt her family's matters were none of the court's business, but in order to adopt the children, she'd had to file for custody.
The judge had taken exception to her, preferring, he'd said, the security of her parents' home. Or for Curtis and Amelia's father to reappear.
Old goat, Poppy thought angrily. "What does he know about me anyway?" she said. "I've been in the same job for ten years. I have a master's degree in English and a minor in business. A degree and job stability should speak favorably for me."
"It was the magic," Curtis said. "I think it bothered him."
Certainly it had bothered Mr. Jefferson. She had seen him visibly step back from her. If she was a teacher maybe none of this would be a problem. She'd have the children as hers. They would be a family.