Authors: Vicki Lewis Thompson
Her father looked over at Clay. “Would you see that she puts on a hat before she goes out? I know we have extras lying around somewhere.”
“Excuse me.” Emily inserted herself between the two men. “I will not be treated like an obstinate female who needs to be managed by the men who know more than she does.”
Clay laughed. “Then don’t be obstinate. Wear a hat.”
“Why should I?” She was intrigued by the fact that he was joking with her instead of getting irritated. She liked that kind of easygoing attitude.
“Because you’re at a higher altitude here than you’re used to, so the ozone layer’s thinner and you could still burn. Besides that, if you’re going to help me this afternoon, you’re going to sweat, and the hat will keep the sweat from running in your eyes. I suppose you could wear a do-rag, instead, but personally I think the hat would look better on you.”
Well, then. She hadn’t thought about the value of a hat as an accessory. She should have, after being conditioned in that direction for most of her twenty-seven years by her fashion-conscious mother. If Clay thought she’d look better in a hat, no further argument was needed.
She turned to Sarah, who had been standing to one side watching the action with obvious amusement. “Got a hat I might be able to borrow?”
Sarah nodded. “Come with me.”
MMETT GLANCED AT
. “Look, I hope she won’t be in your way this afternoon. I didn’t ask what you had on your agenda.”
And Clay wasn’t at liberty to discuss that. “It’ll be fine.” He would make it so, regardless of his strong attraction to the golden California girl.
“I invited her to come with me so she could do some shopping—my treat, of course. To my surprise, she wanted to stay here, instead.”
“Huh.” That surprised Clay, too.
“I know. I thought she loved to shop. Three years ago when she came to the ranch, we made a couple of trips into Shoshone, but the stores there aren’t what she’s used to. So when I took her back to the airport, we built in extra time for her to browse through those fancy places in Jackson.”
“She was here three years ago, then. I wondered how often she’d made it over.”
Emmett looked sad. “Not often enough, but I can’t blame her for that. It works both ways. Like I told her this morning, I could have made more trips to Santa Barbara.”
“Yeah, but…” Clay thought of the freeways and the traffic snarls and grimaced.
“I don’t relish that area, either. But until this time, I didn’t think she relished staying on the ranch—yet she comes to see me, even so.”
“What do you mean
until this time?
Emmett rubbed the back of his neck. “I took her on a tour of the barn, like always. In the past, she acted like that was no big deal. I could tell she liked the horses, but she wouldn’t let herself really get into it. I figured her mother had brainwashed her pretty damned well. But this morning was different. Apparently she’s starting to think for herself.”
“That’s great.” Clay hoped the foreman wasn’t making too much of a passing fancy on Emily’s part. He didn’t want the guy to get his hopes up that Emily would suddenly turn into a cowgirl.
“I know what you’re thinking, son.”
Clay’s chest tightened with emotion. He loved having Emmett call him
, even though he knew that cowboys used that word loosely and Emmett probably didn’t mean it in a literal sense. “I’m not thinking anything, Emmett,” he said.
“Sure you are. You’re thinking that I’m an old fool who imagines his daughter is going to magically fall in love with ranching.”
Clay sighed. “You’re not an old fool, but it would be only natural if you—”
“Don’t worry. I made that mistake with her mother. I knew California was where Jeri wanted to be, but I thought I could convince her otherwise.”
Something in Emmett’s expression told Clay that those wounds had never healed. That might be another reason Emmett hadn’t taken many trips to see Emily. He would have had to see his ex, too, which would have been painful if he was still in love with her.
Clay thought he might be and wondered if Pam Mulholland had any inkling of that. The two had been dating for more than a year without making a commitment. Emmett said that was because Pam had way more money than he did, but that might not be the whole story.
By now the dining room was empty except for Clay, Emmett and Watson, who had recently started helping Mary Lou clear the dishes in exchange for extra dessert.
Mary Lou bustled over, her gray hair in disarray as usual and her cheeks pink from working in a warm kitchen. “Did you two get enough to eat? I’m about to serve Watson an extra piece of cherry pie, and you’re welcome to have a second serving if you want one.”
Emmett patted his flat stomach. “Thanks, Mary Lou, but I couldn’t fit in another bite. You outdid yourself again.”
“Thanks, Emmett.” She beamed at the praise. “I do love my job. How about you, Clay? More pie?”
“It’s tempting, but no thanks.”
“All right, then.” She began stacking the dessert plates from each place setting at their table.
Watkins came out of the kitchen and headed toward them. “Hey, quit doing my job, Lou-Lou.”
Her cheeks turned a shade pinker. “Then speed it up there, Watkins. We need to get this place clean.”
“We will, we will. Leave those for me and go cut me a nice big piece of your delicious pie. And put some ice cream on top.” The stocky cowboy winked at her as he reached for the dishes in her hand.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. If you insist.” She handed over the dishes and walked back toward the kitchen.
Instead of stacking plates, Watkins gazed after her. “What a woman.”
Clay watched in fascination. He’d thought something might be going on between Watkins and Mary Lou, but he hadn’t been sure until now. “Are you sweet on her, Watkins?”
Watkins nodded, which made his handlebar mustache twitch. “Have been for years. Once I tried to get her to marry me, but she claims she’s never marrying anybody. So I backed off, but lately…let’s just say I might be making progress.”
Emmett clapped him on the shoulder. “Clearing dishes and complimenting her on her cooking just might get the job done. Not that I’m an expert on women. What’s your opinion, Clay?”
Clay held up both hands. “Don’t ask me about women. They’re a mystery.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Watkins glanced toward the kitchen. “Well, my pie should be about ready. Catch you later, boys.”
After he left, Clay looked at Emmett and raised his eyebrows.
Emmett shrugged. “He’s been carrying a torch for a long time,” he said in a low voice. “You may not believe it, but she used to be a real babe.”
“You know, I can believe it. And I’ve always loved her spunky attitude. I—” He stopped talking when Emily walked into the room. Talk about a babe. The snug T-shirt and form-fitting jeans would make any guy take a second look, but Clay had a thing about women in cowboy hats.
This one was tan straw, a warm-weather alternative to felt. The brim curved downward in both the front and back so it partly shielded her eyes in a sexy, flirty way. The more Emily adopted a Western style, the more Clay liked what he saw.
“How’s this?” she asked as she came toward them.
Clay dialed back his response several notches. “It’ll do.”
“Good choice.” Emmett’s weathered face glowed with pride. “Fits nice.”
Sarah appeared and crossed to where they were standing. “Looks good, huh? Fortunately we wear the same size.”
“Sarah said I could keep this,” Emily said. “But that seems silly if I’m only going to wear it while I’m here.”
Some of the glow faded from Emmett’s expression, and Clay ached for him.
No matter what Emmett had said about not expecting too much, it was obvious he’d allowed himself to hope that Emily wouldn’t abandon her newfound interest in the ranch once she left. He nodded. “Guess so. Wouldn’t want to let a good hat end up in the back of a closet. Well, I’d better get going if I intend to finish up those errands in town.”
“Oh, that reminds me.” Sarah pulled a slip of paper from the pocket of her jeans. “Here are a few more things I need while you’re there. Also, Pam called and asked if you’d stop by the Bunk & Grub, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d look in on my mother and make sure she remembers about the party tomorrow night.”
Emmett looked over the list. Then he trained that piercing blue gaze on Sarah in a manner Clay knew well. It meant that Emmett suspected something was going on and he intended to find out what. “You wouldn’t be stacking up the errands to keep me away from the ranch all afternoon because of some scheme or other, would you now, Sarah?”
“Goodness, no! Why would I do a thing like that?”
“Because I’ve known you for thirty-some years, and you look like you’re up to something. I’m warning you, if I come back from town and a passel of folks jump out of the bushes yelling ‘surprise,’ I will be one unhappy cowhand.”
Sarah patted his arm. “I promise that won’t be happening. Besides, your birthday’s tomorrow.”
“Which means the only way you could surprise me is to stage the party tonight. I wouldn’t put it past you, either.”
“You are so suspicious.” Sarah gave him a big smile. “You will love your birthday party, Emmett, and it will take place on your birthday, not the night before.”
“Time will tell if you’re putting me on or not. Anyway, I’ll see you folks later, and there had better not be any shenanigans taking place while I’m gone.” Settling his hat on his head, he left the dining room.
Sarah studied the beamed ceiling of the dining room and twiddled her thumbs as his footsteps receded down the hall leading to the living room. Only after the front door had opened and closed did she drop her gaze to Clay’s and burst out laughing. “He’s
a baby when it comes to birthdays.”
“He knows something’s going on,” Clay said.
“What is it?” Emily looked eagerly from one to the other. “
you going to surprise him tonight?”
“No.” Sarah glanced over at the door to the dining room as if worried that Emmett might have crept back down the hall. “Emily, go make sure he’s left.”
“Be right back.” Emily hurried out of the dining room.
Sarah moved closer to Clay. “He really will love this cookout. But if he knew about it in advance, he’d pitch a fit because we’re going to extra trouble on his behalf.”
“You’re right, he would.”
“But it’s going to be so perfect. I realized this morning that you’ll need to dig two fire pits, one for the bonfire and one we can let burn down to coals for grilling the steaks.”
“I can do that.”
Emily came back in, her face pink with excitement. “He’s really gone. So what are you planning?”
“Clay can explain it all. I need to go check with Watkins, if he’s still in the kitchen. His guitar was missing a string and I need to make sure he’s fixed it.”
“He’s still there,” Clay said, “but you might want to knock before you go in.”
.” Sarah grinned. “Thanks for the warning. Catch you two later. Call if you run into any glitches.” Then she walked toward the kitchen. “Sarah Chance is on the move!” she called out. “If there’s anything going on you don’t want me to see, you’d better cease and desist immediately!”
Emily looked at Clay. “What the heck is that all about?”
“Just a little romance between Watkins and Mary Lou. Come on. We have tables and benches to load into the back of a pickup.”
“Okay.” She fell into step beside him as they headed down the hall lined with windows on the right and family pictures on the left. “This visit is turning out to be way more interesting than I expected.”
That patronizing remark set his teeth on edge. Added to her comment about not needing the hat once she went home to California, he decided to broach the subject of her attitude. “You know, this ranch may not be your favorite place in the world, but could you pretend it is, for your dad’s sake?”
She stopped in her tracks. “Wow. You are definitely hostile.”
He spun to face her. “I suppose I am. I love that man like a father, and you—”
“I love him like a father, too.
father, in fact.”
He wondered for the first time if she resented all the attention Emmett had devoted to him. “Point taken.”
She gave him a brief nod, as if at least that much was settled. “Anyway, I don’t want to give any impression that I might like to live in Wyoming. To me, that would be crueler than being honest about my feelings. My mother gave him that kind of false hope, and I think he’s still hurting because of it.”
Clay hated to admit it, but she made sense. He wished she loved ranching the way Emmett did, but if she didn’t, pretending could possibly do more damage. He took a deep breath. “You’re probably right. I apologize. I have no business sticking my nose in, anyway.”
“Sure you do. You love him. And from the way he raves about you and your accomplishments, I think he loves you, too.”
“Oh, yes. He brags about the way you carefully saved your money for tuition and then worked odd jobs while you took classes in Cheyenne. He was so proud of your grade point average. And when you got that scholarship, he mentioned it to me several times.”
Clay gazed at her as his understanding grew. “It’s a wonder you don’t hate my guts.”
“At times I did, although I don’t like admitting that. Besides, he was born to be a dad, and I haven’t given him much chance at that. Knowing you were here relieved my feelings of guilt.”
“Still, I’ll bet you got tired of hearing about my accomplishments.”
She shrugged. “It’s hardly your fault that I’m not focused like you and can’t for the life of me figure out a career. My dad’s not likely to brag about my surfing ability, so that leaves him with nothing to boast about when it comes to his only child.”
“Do you have a job?”
“Of course I have a job. How do you think I support myself?”
He decided not to mention that he’d been convinced she didn’t support herself, that she was living off the money Emmett sent her every month. She might not appreciate knowing that most everyone at the Last Chance knew he sent checks and wondered why when he was no longer financially obligated. They all assumed Emily was living on that money, or at the very least, only working part-time to supplement his generosity.
But her finances and her job situation were absolutely none of his business. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was out of line starting this conversation in the first place, and we have a lot of work to do before your dad comes home. We should get going.” He started back down the hall.
“Going where?” She lengthened her strides to keep up with him. “You still haven’t told me the plan.”
Briefly he outlined the details. He wondered if she’d find it hokey, but she responded with enthusiasm.
“That sounds like so much fun! Sometimes we have bonfires on the beach and cookouts, too. Usually somebody brings a docking station for their iPod instead of having live music, but a guitar player sounds terrific. Will there be dancing?”
“That’s an excellent question. Knowing the Chance family, there should be dancing.”
“Yay! I love to dance. I…just realized that I have no idea if my dad dances or not. I should know that, shouldn’t I?”
“Not if you’ve never been around when dancing was part of the program.” He reached the front door and opened it for her.