Tina Leonard, New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

Belonging to Bandera

Read the Excerpt

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?” Bandera’s oldest brother and head of the Jefferson family, Mason, demanded.

“I’m talking about our moved-to-town, much-missed next door neighbor, Mimi. If Mimi wants you to be her deputy, Mason, you’ll be in heap big trouble. But you’d probably also be the happiest you’ve ever been, because the path of the sword has always been your way. Mimi being your sword, of sorts. Your lure to the wild side. Everybody needs one of those. In fact, I wish I had a lure to the wild side. Preferably not in female form, or at least not Mimi form. Methinks you miss the gal,” Bandera boldly finished.

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, and he may have been having a sanguine moment, not that your moment is sanguine. Mason, 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 the 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 reply, known as Butt-Out-Ski.”

“I don’t like it. It’s too low-brow, not that I ever really understood the terminology of low and high brows. It’s like Last’s shoes-in-the-road obsession.” He mulled the youngest brother of the family. “Where does a brow come into the picture, anyway?” he murmured, his tone wondering as he stared into the truck. “Hey, you’ve got a duffel in there! Stuffed full. You can’t go off and leave us again! We’re bone thin on the ranch as it is.” His eyes bugged. “Mason, you can’t pull another disappearing act. 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 her with her campaign and that’s it. No more adventures. Say ‘Mimi, our hijinks are at an end. You and I are no longer wayward kids’.” He gulped. “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 hopefully, “or you can use my cell if yours is dead.”

“Gotta be in person.” Mason turned on his truck.

“A duffel means more than one or two days.” Bandera blinked, thinking fast. What if Mason decided not to come back again for months? His brother was under a lot of stress. It wasn’t just the ranch-it was Mimi, too. Mason had never retrieved his heart from Mimi’s clutches, and this deputy thing wasn’t sitting well. It was temptation of the highest order, the thought of working daily with Mimi since they no longer shared the easy comfort of being neighbors. “Don’t you leave this driveway,” Bandera said, “I’m grabbing my stuff and I’m going with you.” Someone had to bring Mason back from the edge of great madness.

“No.” Mason began backing the truck up. From the window he said, “You need to stay here. There’s work to be done.”

But there was a brother to lose, too. There wasn’t time to call a family counsel, and Bandera knew an emergency when he saw one. None of the brothers would allow Mason to go off like this, not with him acting all secretive. A day or two at the max with two brothers down was better than six months of Mason 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 rearview mirror like a hound from hell on your tail.”

Mason sighed, putting the truck 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, he ran into 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 hound from hell threat.”

“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-

Last came into the room. “Running away from home?”

“No, but I think Mason was. He’s got his duffel in the truck and he was heading off to see Hawk.” Bandera threw a toothbrush into the bag, and dug around for other things he might need.

“Why?” Last asked. “Can’t he just call Hawk?”

“Apparently not. Which is why I’m riding shotgun. Unless you want to go?”

“No, thanks. I don’t want any part of Mason.” 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. “What’s that?”

Last slammed the truck bed after he put the cooler in. “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 some 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 from the truck and Last hustle to the side of the drive. “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 from the drive.

“So what’s the adventure all about?”

“Maverick, the long-lost father,” Mason said. “Why else would I need Hawk and his erstwhile loony sidekick Jellyfish?”

“Jelly isn’t loony,” Bandera said. “He’s existential, man.”

Mason grunted.

“So what does Maverick have to do with anything? What do you think you can find now that you didn’t before?”

“Nothing maybe. Maybe Hawk would be better at turning over rocks and running through dead end signs than I would be. I’m hiring him. Or them. Professionalism is what we need.”

“Whatever.” Bandera looked out the window as they passed many miles of their ranch. “Mason, maybe we just better 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 seemingly loud with disapproval. Only Mason could communicate disapproval so effectively without making a sound. Bandera sighed as he looked at 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 withyour little bear, you’d not be off trolling after the past.”

“Lovely,” Mason said. “Why don’t you find your own little 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 little corner of the world is that I like it the way it is. Women bring chaos, and though I appreciate chaos, I prefer low-brow chaos.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I like my women a little on the rowdy side,” Bandera said. “Not too sweet, not too sour. Not too good, and not too bad. Mostly, I like them wearing a white frilly dress with a white, black polka-dotted thong underneath. Or a reversible pattern. I don’t care, just so long as I get the dots. There’s just something about them that spells chaos to me. I like it.”

“Way too much information,” Mason said with a sigh. “Could this conversation not sink to low-brow chaos?”

“You see why I’ll never marry,” Bandera said. “I’m looking for perfection.”

“If that’s perfection, we’re all in big trouble.”

“One day, Mason, someone’s going to tell you the truth about your own perfect-hey, look at that!” Bandera craned his head to look at the woman on the side of a road, waving a large sign. She was wearing blue jean shorts, and a white halter. If he didn’t know better, he’d think the halter had black 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 jiggling breasts in the halter top. White teeth, laughing blue eyes and legs so cute he was sure the fanny she was packing had to be just as sweet. He unlocked his jaw. “Stop, Mason!”

Mason stomped 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 Holly.”

“And Lord only knows we never leave a lady without assistance.” Mason glanced up into his mirror. “I sense trouble in a big way.”

The lady bounced to Mason’s truck door. “Hi,” she said.

“Howdy,” Mason and Bandera said together. “Can we help you, miss?” Bandera asked.

“I’m waiting for my cousin,” she said. “Obviously, you are not he.”

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!

“I’m getting picked up by my cousin,” she said. “That’s why my sign says ‘I’m Holly.’”

“I know I’m confused,” Mason said. “And 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.

Bandera stared at her high-piled blonde hair with some fascination. It had pretty twinkly jewels among the strands, which complemented the iridescent sequins he noticed scattered on the white halter top. “So that’s a cue card you’re holding. Also I heard something about wedding, but I’m ignoring that part. It’s a phobia we have in our family.”

She sighed. “You’re just too smart, cowboy.”

“Okay,” Mason said. “You’ll have to pardon us. We need to be getting along, miss. 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 before I leave Texas.” Her blue eyes laughed at him, and the thought occurred to him that 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 caught my fiance in bed with my best friend.”

“Ouch,” Mason said.

“Precisely. So I called my cousin, and this is our prearranged meeting place. A girl ought to be kissed on her wedding day,” she said, looking at Bandera.

Bandera’s heart did a funny ding inside him. She sure did have kissing on the brain. He might be intrigued about that except his danger quotient was already exceeded with Mason the runaway brother.

“So you’re running away,” Mason said. “A bride on the run. Haven’t we had one of those in our family?”

“That was a groom on the run,” Bandera said dryly, giving his brother a pointed look. “Plural, actually.”

“I’m going on a well-needed sabbatical,” Holly corrected.

“Actually, you have an itch to get as far away from your fiancé 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 is chiffon and sequins-this is the top, the skirt I discarded-and I left the ring on the condom box Chuck left on the kitchen counter. I think the dough must have begun rising while they were in the kitchen.”

“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.

Mason groaned.

“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 from the pretty upsweep of her hair brushed along the back of her neck.

Bandera watched her lips bow up as she worried and wondered what man would be stupid enough to cheat on a mouth that could pucker into a perfect bud of plumpness.

“Guess we should be going since she doesn’t need a ride, Bandera,” Mason said uncomfortably. “She looks like she’d like to be alone.”

“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. “Ride with us.”

Holly turned to face him. “With you?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

“Why not indeed?” Mason said dryly. “We have nothing pressing.”

“What about my cousin?” she asked.

A motorcycle pulled up behind Mason’s truck, a loud gunning noise punctuating his arrival before he shut the engine off. A large, ponytailed man got off the bike, walking 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.”

“Whew,” Bandera said. “Well, time for us to hit the road, Mason.” He figured they should. She might be cute, but she had issues. “Too bad about the kiss, though.”

“What kiss?” Cousin Mike demanded, bristling.

Bandera thought many men would probably want to kiss this beauty. “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 with appreciation of her recitation. He reconsidered his fear of blatant seduction and capture. What harm could she do him with Mason around? 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 raised. “Bandera, I’m going to let you drive. I need a nap.”

“He’s not the kissing type,” Bandera explained to Holly.

“No, I’m not,” Mason said, getting out. “Excuse me,” he said to the giant fireplug that was Cousin Mike. Then he crawled into the back seat of the double cab.

Holly’s gaze roamed over Bandera’s face as he got out of the truck and moved to the driver’s seat. He smelled perfume and noticed her size was dainty compared to his-a tiny bundle of femininity.

“I’d best go with Mike,” she said, looking up at him with what he thought was awe. For the first time in his life, he realized he liked being tall. Sweeping her up into his arms would be no problem. Carrying her over his shoulder, her little fanny bouncing by his face, would be fun. Making love to her would be-

“My mother would be upset if I rode off with two strange men,” Holly said.

The fantasy shot, Bandera eased behind the steering wheel and closed the door. He wanted to say that he thought he and Mason had less strangeness about them than Cousin Mike, but figured that might not be the suave thing to espouse. “We’ll be off, then.”

“Thanks for the offer, though. ‘Bye, cowboy.”

Bandera nodded, tipping his hat. “Best of luck to you.” Putting the truck in Drive, he pulled away.

“Thought you were going to do it there for a minute,” Mason said.

“No, you didn’t,” Bandera replied, his gaze watching the rearview mirror. Holly was getting on the back of the giant motorcycle, and putting a helmet on. Even from this distance, it was easy to admire her nice long legs. “I never kiss women who practice seduction on the rebound.”

“Not when they have a Cousin Mike attached to them, anyway,” Mason said. “That seemed like a high-risk scenario.”

“Wonder why her fiancé was such a dope? Why do girls always hook up with losers?”

Mason grunted. “I think any comment at this point should be a sonnet from Wordsworth, but I can’t think of one.”

“Maybe Shakespearean tragedy.” The motorcycle was coming up behind them, traveling at a good clip. It passed them, and Holly waved, one long blonde curl flying out from underneath the helmet. “I hate tragedies.”

“A runaway bride is a tragedy.”

“A runaway anything is a tragedy. Trains, horses, brothers. All four-hanky events.” He was coming up on the motorcycle again. Watching it carefully, he passed, wondering why it was slowing. Holly waved at him, then raised her fingers and shot something through his open window.

He snatched it from his lap. All white. No black polka dots. His gaze flew back to the road, and to her, as she rode away.

Mason sat up to stare over the seat at the lacy white missile. “It’s that thing the groom is supposed to throw to his groomsmen,” Mason said, shocked. “Whoever catches it is next to get married, so the legend goes. I’ve known grown men who wouldn’t be in the same room with a garter.”

Bandera met his brother’s wide gaze in the mirror, his heart thundering harder than it ever had in his life. The satin felt slippery and unusual between his rough fingers.

“You caught it,” Mason said. “Hope you’re ready.”