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Authors: Linda Warren

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BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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Four years ago, she’d purchased the space next door and expanded. She now had an up-to-date kitchen for making soap and large tables for working space. She’d hired a couple of schoolgirls to help in the store and, of course, Millie was always in the coffee shop. The double doors that joined the two businesses were always open. Millie made homemade
kolaches,
cinnamon rolls and bread, and her place was a hive of activity in the mornings, with people stopping in to get a roll and coffee on the way to work.

Dear Millie. What would she have done without her? Camila had been seventeen when she’d gotten pregnant. Being so young and raising a child alone had been frightening, but she’d wanted her baby. Back then, with Millie’s help, she’d made all the right choices for her daughter. Jilly was the bright spot in Camila’s life. She
was
her whole life. Everything she did, she did for Jilly.

Her mother, Benita, appeared on her doorstep from time to time when she was in between men and needing a place to stay. Even though they were so different, they were still mother and daughter. And Camila never forgot that fact.

Benita was known as the town slut, a tramp. Different people used different words, but even as a child Camila had known what they’d meant. Her mother worked in a bar and drank heavily, and when she did, she danced the Latin dances, and men loved to watch her. Benita had full breasts and long slim legs, and she didn’t mind showing them off. As Benita’s reputation had grown in the town, so had Camila’s embarrassment. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that everyone thought she was the same as her mother.

Everyone, except Patrick.

One night had changed her whole life. After Patrick’s death, she’d discovered she was pregnant and she hadn’t known what she was going to do. Her grandmother had raised her and had passed away six months before. Camila couldn’t stay in Bramble and face the rumors.

She hadn’t seen her mother in three months. Benita was married to husband number four and Camila knew she’d get no support from her so she’d packed her things and sat at the bus stop waiting for the next bus—not caring where it was going. In tears, she felt desperate and afraid. Patrick was dead and no one else cared about her. She barely had a hundred dollars in her purse and she had no idea how long that would last.

Millie found her sitting on the bench in the July heat with tears streaming down her face. She told her everything and Millie took her back to her house and they talked into the early hours of the morning. Camila confided her fears about raising a child alone.

Millie was her lifeline. She gave her a job and helped her adjust to being a young mother. Millie took care of Jilly so Camila could attend Temple Junior College. When Benita finally surfaced, she didn’t like that Camila depended on Millie, but Benita didn’t stay around long enough to voice many complaints.

Camila took business, marketing and computer courses, learning all she could. It was impossible to make a living working for minimum wage and she had to have some sort of skills to build a decent life for herself and Jilly. From there, her business savvy just evolved.

Within a few months of putting up a Web site on the Internet, she’d known it was going to be a success. Camila’s specialty was baby quilts, which were very popular with doting parents and grandparents.

Her most popular style was the photo quilt. She transferred family photos to fabric and people liked that personal touch. The white eyelet was the most popular for newborns. She kept trying to think of new ideas.

Six years ago, she’d saved enough money to buy herself and Jilly a home. The Pattersons had been moving to Temple to be near their daughter and they’d put their place up for sale. When Camila had gone inside, she’d fallen in love with the country style of the three-bedroom brick house.

Benita now owned Alta’s house, where Camila had lived as a child, but she’d wanted a place of her own. Her moving had angered Benita, but Camila had stuck to her decision. She wanted independence. She’d worked hard for that and she wasn’t changing her mind.

Alta’s house was two blocks away and Camila still took care of it so her mother could have a place to stay when she breezed into town.

Camila walked into the coffee shop. A domino game was in full swing. Bubba Carter, Slim Gorshack, Joe Bob Horton and Billy Clyde Yesak were semiretired ranchers and businessmen—widowers and bachelors who came in every afternoon to visit, drink coffee and play dominoes. They were also good friends; people who had not judged her according to the rumors they’d heard. They accepted her for the woman they knew her to be.

Last year they had encouraged her to run for a seat on the city council and she had. She’d won without a problem, which had been a big surprise to her. Then again, she had spent a lot of years building a good reputation for her daughter. Most of the town now saw her as a good citizen and an asset to the town, and she was glad. She never wanted Jilly to be ashamed of her.

She stretched her aching shoulders. “Do you mind locking up?” she asked Millie. “I’d like to spend some time with Jilly.”

“No, sweetie, you go ahead.” Millie poured a round of coffee for the men. “I’m giving these old coots thirty more minutes then I’m kicking them out.”

Joe Bob held a hand over his heart. “Aw. You’ve wounded my manly pride.”

“Yeah, right,” Millie laughed, then she turned to Camila. “Got the party all planned?”

“Yes,” Camila answered, her tiredness easing at thoughts of her daughter. “I told Jilly she could do something special for her twelfth birthday and I’m sure she wants to have a slumber party. She’s going to be really surprised that I’ve planned a party here for all her friends. Thought we could push back the tables and they could dance.”

“Do I get an invite?” Slim winked.

Camila patted his gray head. Slim was the youngest of the group. His wife had died of cancer about five years ago and he was lonely. “You’re always invited. Now I’d better call and see if my daughter’s ready to go home.”

Picking up the phone, she dialed Kerri’s mother. “Hi, Betty Sue, I was just checking to see if Jilly wants a ride home.”

There was a long pause on the line.

“Betty Sue, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m just a little shocked.”

“Why?”

“The girls are supposed to be working at your house.”

Camila was at a loss for words, but she recovered quickly. “What are those girls up to?”

“I don’t know, but it makes me nervous.”

“Me, too,” Camila admitted. “It’s not like Jilly to lie to me.” She’d never had a problem with her daughter. She made sure she was involved in her life and that she knew where Jilly was and what she was doing at all times. But something had slipped by her. Jilly wasn’t where she was supposed to be today. She’d really be worried if this weren’t Bramble, where everyone knew each other.

“I’m going home, Betty Sue. I’ll call you when I get there. Maybe they just wanted to be alone. They’re almost twelve, but Jilly assures me she’s grown.”

“I don’t like them lying to us.”

“I don’t, either, and I will definitely get to the bottom of this.”

Hanging up, she grabbed her purse and headed for her Suburban parked in the rear of the shop. Within five minutes, she was driving into her garage.

The house was quiet and the lights weren’t on. Jilly wasn’t there. She ran to her daughter’s room. Button wasn’t there, either. That meant Jilly had come home after school and gotten her, but where did they go?

She ran back to the kitchen and before panic could take root, she glanced out the kitchen window and saw Jilly ride into the garage on her bicycle. Camila took a deep breath, trying not to get angry. Jilly had thought that she’d be home before Camila and Camila would never have known she hadn’t been at Kerri’s today.

Camila busied herself at the sink and turned to Jilly with a smile, like always, as she entered with Button in her arms.

“Hi, baby,” Camila said and kissed Jilly’s warm cheek. Her daughter’s face was red and she looked flustered. Camila held the back of her hand to Jilly’s forehead. “Do you have a fever?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Jilly replied nervously. Button jumped from her arms and scurried for her bed in Jilly’s room.

“What’s wrong with Button?”

“I took her for a bike ride and I guess she didn’t like the wind.” Jilly avoided eye contact and Camila knew she was lying. Whenever Jilly had done something wrong, she couldn’t look at her mother.

Jilly grabbed some bottled water out of the refrigerator and drank thirstily.

“Did you and Kerri finish your project?”

“What?” Jilly looked at her with rounded eyes.

“The solar system you were working on, did you finish it?”

“Ah…ah…I…” Her bottom lip trembled. “I’m sorry…Mama…I’m sorry.”

Camila guided her to a chair at the table, then she sat beside her. “What are you sorry about?”

“I did something and…” She leveled a teary glance at Camila. “You know I wasn’t at Kerri’s, don’t you?”

Camila nodded, glad her daughter wasn’t going to lie further, and wondering why she’d had to in the first place. They were always able to talk about anything. But evidently there was something bothering Jilly that Camila didn’t know about. “I called to see if you wanted a ride home.”

Jilly winced. “Were you mad cause I wasn’t there?”

“No, just worried. Why did you lie to me?”

Jilly twisted her hands. “You’re going to be mad now.”

“Why?”

“Because I did something and I should have told you first.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I knew you wouldn’t let me do it.”

“I see,” Camila murmured, getting a bad feeling in her stomach. “What did you do?”

“Remember you said I could do something special for my birthday?”

“Yes.”

“When I saw Mr. Daniels’s picture in the paper, I wondered if my daddy looked like him and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see…to see what my daddy’s brother looked like in person.”

“Jilly, you didn’t.”

“Yes. I went to see Mr. Daniels.”

That bad feeling exploded into tiny pinpricks all over Camila’s body, leaving her nauseous and weak, but she had to concentrate on her daughter and not a past that she’d managed to put behind her. Yet sometimes that past had the power to make her feel frightened and alone, as she had when she was seventeen.

She gathered herself. “You should have told me what you were thinking.”

“I didn’t want to upset you,” Jilly mumbled.

“It upsets me more when you lie to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

Camila scooted closer and caught Jilly’s hands. “If you wanted to see your father’s family, I wouldn’t have said no. But they’ve made no attempt over the years and my only concern is you getting hurt.”

“I wish I hadn’t gone,” Jilly mumbled again.

The pinpricks turned to a cold chill, but she had to know what her daughter meant, “What happened?”

“Kerri and I rode over there on our bikes and the place is really run down and kind of spooky.”

“I heard the Danielses are having a difficult time.”

“It’s like nobody lives there and I was so scared, but I knocked anyway and Morris answered the door. I had to ask three times if I could speak with Mr. Daniels before he heard me. Then he came and his hair was a mess and he didn’t look too friendly.”

Camila’s stomach clenched. She’d seen Tripp’s picture in the paper, too, and she was hoping he wouldn’t be staying long in Bramble.

“I couldn’t say anything for a long time, my tongue wouldn’t work. He was going to close the door so I blurted out my name and told him I made straight A’s and I was going to be a doctor and his family missed a lot by not knowing me…and you.”

“Oh, Jilly.” Camila wrapped her arms around her. She thought she knew her daughter, but she’d never dreamed she harbored these feelings. “Why didn’t you tell me you were thinking about your father?”

“’Cause it makes you sad.”

“There’s nothing you can’t talk to me about…even if it makes me sad. Don’t you know that?”

Jilly’s mouth trembled into a smile. “Yeah, and I won’t go back.”

Camila cupped Jilly’s face. “It’s okay to be curious about your father’s family, but next time, please talk it over with me first. I don’t like you riding that far on your bicycle.”

“Okay.” Jilly looped her arms around Camila’s waist and squeezed.

“Mama?”

“Hmm?”

“Do my grandparents live there?”

Camila swallowed. “Yes, they do.”

“But it’s so dirty and unkempt. Do you think they’re okay?”

This was her Jilly, always worried about everyone. There wasn’t an old person in Bramble who didn’t know Jilly. She ran errands and helped anyone who needed it. Jilly had a big heart and Camila cringed inside at the thought of anyone ever hurting her.

“Yes, they’re fine. Nurse Tisdale checks on them three times a week.” The nurse came in the shop occasionally and talked of the disrepair at the Lady Luck.

“I guess I’m like grounded for life,” Jilly muttered against Camila.

“Pretty much.”

Jilly drew away, her eyes worried. “But, Mama, I have to take out Mrs. Shynosky’s trash and pick up Mrs. Haskell’s groceries when she needs something and take Miss Unie food or she’ll just eat cat food.”

Camila tucked wisps of stray hair behind Jilly’s ear. “Do you know how special you are?”

Jilly grinned. “Then I can still help out?”

“Yes, but no TV or listening to music for a week.”

“Ah, piece of cake.” She kissed her mother. “I love you and I’m sorry I lied.”

“Just don’t do it again.”

“I won’t. I’d better check on Button.” She disappeared down the hall.

Camila buried her face in her hands.
Oh, Jilly. What have you done?
She’d thought she’d put the past behind her, closed that door forever. But now it was wide open and Camila didn’t know if she had the strength to go through it, to face a past that was painful, to face her daughter if she found out the truth. But she would make sure that never happened.

She’d guard the truth with her life.

Chapter Two
BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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