Authors: Linda Warren
He stood there with the noise and the crowd all around him and realized that what he was feeling for Camila was stronger than anything he’d ever felt for any woman. It’d probably always been that way, but he could never admit it until now.
And now Camila didn’t want anything to do with him.
Tripp realized the moment he’d smacked Bert, he’d made a big mistake. Camila had put up with gossip and rumors about her for years. She could take care of herself. The people of this town knew who Camila Walker was by her steadfast love and dedication to her daughter, her friends and the town of Bramble.
Wyatt walked up to him. “You’d better come outside.”
“Why? Is Bert back?”
“No. Your parents are here.”
“What?” He immediately trailed through the maze of kids to the door. His parents’ fifteen-year-old black Cadillac was parked in the middle of the street. Cars were backed up behind them. His dad got out of the passenger side and Morris helped his mother from the back seat.
What in blazes?
Tripp hurried to help.
He took his mother’s elbow. “Move the car, Morris, it’s blocking traffic.”
“Couldn’t find a dat-blasted parking spot and I didn’t want them walking too far.”
“Okay. Just move it.” He guided Leona up the steps. “Mom, what are y’all doing here?”
“We wanted to wish Jilly a happy birthday. We went to Camila’s house, but no one was there.”
“Yeah,” Grif said behind them, walking slower with his cane. “Then old Unie Gimble told us there was party down here for Jilly. Why didn’t you tell us, son?”
“I didn’t think you’d want to come. It’s mostly for kids.” Tripp had never thought for one minute that his parents would want to come. They never went anywhere but to the doctor.
“Then what are all these people doing here,” Grif spouted. “We’re her grandparents. We should be here.”
That didn’t seem to matter all the years before, but Tripp wasn’t getting into that. He was sure Jilly would be glad to see them. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Let’s go through this other door where it’s not so crowded.
They went into Camila’s shop where the older generation were sitting. Grif started shaking hands. “Joe Bob, Slim, Bubba, damn it’s good to see you. Ione, Millie, Rose, you women are looking as good as ever.”
Rose laughed. “Grif Daniels, you’re the biggest liar in the county.”
“Biggest flirt,” Leona said and everyone laughed. “Where’s Jilly?” she whispered.
Tripp wasn’t sure how to handle this and he glanced at Camila, who walked in with Benita behind her. Luckily she came to his aid.
“I’m glad you came,” she said. “I believe you know my mother.”
“Yes. How you doing?” Grif asked.
“Very well,” Benita replied. “Glad you could make it.”
“Would have been nice if we’d been invited,” Grif grumbled.
“Now that you’re here, you’re very welcome.” Camila smiled slightly and Tripp admired her strength of character in not getting angry at his father’s attitude. He could learn from her on how to control his own temper.
If she ever spoke to him again.
“Camila, I have something for Jilly.” Leona held something wrapped in tissue paper. “Do you mind if I give it to her?”
From the size of the object, Camila had a very good idea what it was and she braced herself to be as cool as possible. She took Leona’s elbow and her eyes met Tripp’s and she quickly looked away. She was angry at him and she wasn’t quite sure why. She’d figure it out later.
“Yes. She’s right in here.” She led Leona into the coffee shop with Grif and Tripp following.
Someone turned off the music and the kids stopped dancing and moved aside so the Danielses could reach Jilly.
Jilly’s eyes opened wide. “Mr. and Mrs. Daniels,” she said, surprise on her face.
“I brought you a birthday present,” Leona said, handing Jilly the object.
“You didn’t have to buy me a present. Really.”
“We couldn’t let this day pass without bringing you something,” Grif told her. “We’re your grandparents.”
Jilly’s eyes were huge. The room became very quiet; no one spoke or made a sound as everyone strained to hear what was said next.
“Unwrap your present,” Leona urged.
Jilly removed the tissue from a silver frame and gasped.
“It’s a picture of your father,” Grif said. “We want you to have it so you can see him every day.”
Jilly gently touched the face in the photo. “Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Daniels.” She gave Leona a hug.
Leona stroked Jilly’s hair. “Do you think one day you might call us Grandma and Grandpa?”
Jilly glanced at Camila and Camila could see her nervousness. She put an arm around Jilly’s shoulders and Jilly seemed to gain strength from her touch.
“Okay. I’d like that.” Jilly’s smile was priceless.
“Now if someone will find me a chair—” Grif looked around “—I’ll sit in here and talk to these pretty women.”
“Behave yourself,” Leona scolded.
Benita brought him and Leona a chair and they chatted with friends they hadn’t seen in years. The kids started dancing again and Jilly was showing her picture to everyone. Camila felt that stab of loneliness again and she didn’t understand why. It was a nice thing Leona and Grif had done and she was trying to see it that way. But after twelve years, a part of her was feeling a lot of things she didn’t want to feel.
The afternoon came to a close and slowly the people began to leave. Parents arrived to pick up their children and Tripp left with his parents. His eyes caught hers across the room, but she quickly looked away.
Millie dropped Jilly and several girls at Camila’s house. They were having a sleepover. Benita and Betty Sue stayed behind to clean up. It took over an hour to get the coffee shop back into shape.
“It was nice what the Danielses did today in front of the whole town,” Betty Sue said, slipping into her coat.
“Yes,” Camila replied, still having doubts.
“I’ll pick up Kerri in the morning,” Betty Sue called, going out the door. “See you later.”
Camila carried the remaining cups to the trash, wondering why she was having so many conflicting feelings about this day.
“You okay, chick?” Benita asked, helping her bag the trash in the kitchen.
“Sure. Why?” She tied a plastic bag.
“You seem a little down.”
“It’s been a busy day.”
Benita put a clean bag in the trash can. “Earlier you were a bit hard on the cowboy.”
“I’m used to the nasty things people say and I can take care of myself. I don’t need Tripp fighting my battles.”
“Hey, there, wait a minute.” Benita caught her by the fore-arms. “It was a pretty heroic thing Tripp did knocking Bert on his ass. Everyone out there wanted to do the same thing. Tripp just beat them to it.”
“You saw what happened.”
“Yes. I was trying to keep Jilly inside.”
“Thanks. I’m glad you did that.”
Benita lifted Camila’s chin. “So what are you so angry about? It has to be something more than Tripp throwing a right at Bert.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
Camila inhaled deeply and sank onto a stool. “Everyone keeps saying how nice it was what the Danielses did today. I’m sorry, I just keep thinking about all the years they denied who she was—about all the years they thought I was a tramp and didn’t know who was Jilly’s father. Am I supposed to forget all that now?” She heaved a sigh. “I can’t believe I’m saying these things. I’m happy for Jilly. I really am. It’s what she wanted but…”
“But you’re feeling left out, hurt and a little lonely,” Benita finished for her.
Camila looked at her mother. “How’d you know that?”
“Oh, chick.” Benita sat on the stool beside her. “Even though my situation is different than yours, I’ve been through those emotions—every time you’d run to
instead of me, every time people would say what a good job
did raising you, every time you looked at me with those critical eyes. Of course, I deserved all that, but, Camila, you’re a wonderful mother and you’ve built your life around Jilly and there’s nothing for you to feel lonely about. Your relationship with Jilly is solid. And the people in this town, well, did you see all the people who were here today? They weren’t here just for Jilly. They care about you, too.”
“Yes. There are nice people in Bramble.”
“The others—they just don’t count.”
“No. They don’t count,” Camila agreed, glad she could talk to her mother.
“I’m sorry your childhood was so stressful because of me.”
Camila blinked away an errant tear. “I’m sorry I wanted you to be someone else.” It hadn’t escaped her notice that Benita had dressed in black pants and a dark colored blouse that hung loosely instead of being tucked in to show off her breasts. Her hair was up and she wore very little makeup. “You didn’t have to dress down today to please me.”
“It’s about time I did something to please you.”
“Thank you.” She smiled. “Just be yourself. That’s what I plan to do—to be the best mother and to love and to support Jilly.”
“Don’t forget about the woman in you.”
She frowned. “What?”
“You already are the best mother, but what about your needs?”
She sprang to her feet and began to wipe the counter.
“Are you going to keep repressing her for the rest of your life?”
“I’m not like you. That part is hard for me.”
Benita watched her. “You were pretty happy last night, but now it’s a different story. What happened to change that?”
She turned around. “I let myself dream.”
Benita lifted an eyebrow. “About what?”
“About happiness. About love.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Yes, when it’s not reciprocated.”
“How do you know it’s not?”
Camila folded the cloth and laid it on the counter. “It was very nice last night and this morning he called and said he’d come by early to help, then he arrived late. I think he’s made it very clear that he’s changed his mind.”
“Camila, chick, he does have two elderly parents.”
“They didn’t even know he was here and I don’t really care. I made a fool of myself acting like some pining spinster. One kiss and I had stars in my eyes and I let myself dream that I could have a relationship with a man—with Tripp. But I’m happy the way I am and that’s the way I’m staying.”
Benita slipped off the stool. “For crying out loud, let the man explain.”
Camila glanced around. “Do you see him here?”
“No, but trust me. If I know anything, it’s men, and Tripp Daniels will be back.”
“Of course he’ll be around to see Jilly, but I won’t get caught in an emotional grinder with him.”
“Chick, that grinder hasn’t even been turned on yet.” Benita patted her cheek. “Now, I think I’ll go home and put up my feet.” Benita stared at the ceiling. “What are you going to do with all the balloons?”
“Those that are still floating I’ll take home and put in Jilly’s room for when she wakes up in the morning. I’ll pop the rest. I really did too many.”
“Yes, but it was very festive.” Benita kissed her cheek. “See you tomorrow.”
The door opened and Slim came in. “Benita, how about if I buy you supper at the Bramble Rose?”
“Slim Gorshack, you take my breath away.”
Slim grinned. “It takes a lot more than supper to take your breath away.”
“You got that right.” Benita winked. “I’ll go if it’s okay with my daughter.”
“What?” Camila looked up, surprise on her face. Benita had never asked her that question before and she was a bit taken aback. “Oh. Sure.” Things were definitely changing.
“Just don’t think I’m easy,” Benita said, going out the door.
“Never crossed my mind.”
“If you’re breathing, it crossed your mind.”
Camila heard Slim’s laugh as the door closed.
♦ ♦ ♦
at the balloons, then went into her shop to get a pin. She pulled a clump of balloons down and started popping. Pop. Pop. Pop. The sound and the action released some of the pent-up emotions in her. “This is for Tripp Daniels,” she muttered under her breath. Pop. Pop. Pop. “This is for being a fool.” Pop. Pop. Pop. “This is for dreaming.” Pop. Pop. Pop.
She sank to the floor with the busted rubber and ribbons around her. Now she had a mess and she felt like laughing. This was better—much better. She’d clean this up and go home to her daughter.
And Tripp could go to hell.
♦ ♦ ♦
RIPP STOOD OUTSIDE
watching her through the glass in the door. What was she doing? Before his imagination ran away, he turned the knob and walked in. She glanced up, startled.
“Hi,” he said.
She got to her feet, gathering the debris on the floor. “The party’s over.”
“I’m aware of that.” He could feel the chill in the room and it had nothing to do with the weather outside.
She carried her load into the kitchen and came back for more, kneeling on the floor.
“I’m sorry I upset you by hitting Bert.” He tried to explain, thinking that would be a good starting point.
“Bert’s an idiot and most of the time he deserves to be hit.”
This puzzled him more. “Then why are you so angry?”
She leaned back on her heels, her dark eyes clouded. “I’m angry for allowing myself to dream.”
He squatted down. “What are you talking about?”
“Last night, when I went home, all I could think about was seeing you again. I kept watching the door and when you didn’t come, I realized I was putting a man before my daughter—like my mother had so many times in my life. I can’t do that. I can’t put my daughter through that kind of emotional turmoil.” She didn’t even realize what she was feeling until she heard her own words. She would not put Jilly through an emotional hell. That had been her goal since Jilly had been born and for a brief moment she’d lost sight of that.
She pushed to her feet and he did, too, catching her hands. “You’re not your mother and Jilly would want you to be happy. Besides Jilly knows how much you love her. It’s a totally different situation.”
“Still, I will never do anything to embarrass her.”
“You make it sound as if we’re having sex in front of the whole town.”
Her eyes flared. “That’s—”
“Silly—just what I was thinking.”
Camila put a hand to the throbbing in her temple, feeling foolish.