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Authors: Linda Warren

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BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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“Yeah, Dad. Now go to the house with Camila.”

The walk back was slower and Camila didn’t mind. It gave her a chance to calm down.

Morris ran toward them, panting. “Wyatt’s on his way. I had to wait for him to call back.”

“Everything’s under control,” Grif said.

“Good. Where’s Tripp?”

“Talking to Earl. I need a damn cup of coffee with a shot of whiskey in it.”

“I’ll put on a pot.” Morris ambled into the house.

“This doesn’t change a thing, missy,” Grif said when they were almost at the door.

“I know.”

She knew that better than anyone. People like Mr. Daniels had to form their own opinion of her. Once he got to know her, he might change his mind, but she wasn’t counting on it, nor did she need it. For Jilly, though, she would be nice and patient.

♦ ♦ ♦

and suppressed a groan. His jaw ached and his stomach wasn’t feeling all that well either, but he wasn’t taking his eyes off Earl. He didn’t trust him for a minute.

Staring at Earl’s set expression, Tripp tried to gauge what he was up to.

As if reading his mind, Earl said, “If I’d had my way, my boys would’ve hurt you bad.”

Now the picture was clearer—Mama Boggs had applied some pressure and Earl wasn’t happy. “What happened to you, Earl?” Tripp brushed off his hat and placed it on his head. “When I was kid, my dad used to take me to the rodeos on Harper’s Road. I loved to watch you ride and I wanted to ride like that one day. You had heart and soul and knew how to have fun without hurting other people. What happened to all that heart?”

“It got ripped out, cowboy, and it’s none of your damn business.”

“It is when you take your anger out on me and my dad.”

Earl reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He shoved it at Tripp and Tripp took the paper. It was a check for a year’s lease signed by Thelma Boggs.

“Ma seems to think that we need to pay our bills, so you got lucky, cowboy.”

“Or maybe you got lucky.”

Earl’s face darkened but he didn’t say anything. At that moment, Tripp could identify with Earl’s pain—a pain that had to do with his son’s death.

On a gut instinct, Tripp decided to finish this with Earl here and now. “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love.”

“You don’t know a damn thing.”

“Not about your situation, but I know what it’s like to live with guilt. That’s what you’re feeling, isn’t it?”

Earl removed his hat and sank onto a bale of hay. Awkward silence filled the barn and Tripp waited for he knew not what.

Then Earl’s voice came, “Roger said the jack wasn’t working right and he needed a new one. I told him he wasn’t buying a goddamn new jack. He had to fix the old one. Two days later it crushed him like a sack of potatoes.”

“Earl, I’m sorry….”

Earl jumped to his feet and jammed his hat on his head. “I don’t need your goddamn sympathy.”

“But you do, Earl and—”

“Stay the hell out of my way, cowboy.”

Wyatt hurried into the barn and stopped short when he saw Earl and Tripp. “What are you doing here, Earl?”

“Came to pay the back lease money. Got a problem with that?”

Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. “No. But why didn’t you do that earlier?”

“I wasn’t in a giving mood then.”

“Everything’s fine,” Tripp said.

Earl nodded and strolled from the barn.

Wyatt stared at Tripp. “If everything’s fine, why is your face bleeding?”

Tripp dug out his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped away the trail of blood. “Earl’s boys came back for another round, but we got it sorted out.”

“Mmm. Guess I’ll have to take your word for that, but if you want to file charges, you know where to find me.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Wyatt.”

Wyatt left and Tripp took a moment to gather himself, unable to get Earl’s tortured words out of his mind. How many secrets were there in this small town? Earl was living with a mighty big one. He was eaten up with guilt, but he wasn’t letting anyone help him. He was too proud and stubborn. No one would ever know Earl’s pain and Tripp wondered why he’d shared it with him.

Tripp made his way to the house, trying to ignore the aches and pains in his body. Each step he took, he wondered what Camila was doing here. He didn’t care. He just wanted to see her. Looking at her calmed him and excited him more than anything in his life—even the rodeo.

Today he was hoping for the calm.

♦ ♦ ♦

, J
to Camila. “Everything’s okay,” Camila assured her. “Pull Mr. Daniels’s chair forward. He needs to sit down.”

Jilly turned the chair and Grif sank down, breathing heavily.

“Where’s Tripp?” Leona wanted to know.

“He’s fine,” Camila said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Where’s my damn drink?” Grif yelled.

Morris rushed in with the coffee. “You’re ’bout as jumpy as a long-tail cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs with the door closed and—”

“Shut up, Morris,” Grif growled, “and give me my drink.”

“Yes, sir.”

Morris set the cup on the end table.

“You put a shot of whiskey in it?”

“You bet.”

Grif’s hand shook as he drank the coffee.

“Are you okay?” Morris asked.

“Better than I’ve been in a long time. We showed those Boggses a thing or two.”

Jilly moved closer to Camila. “Is Tripp okay, Mama?”

“Don’t worry about Tripp,” Grif answered before she could. “He’s a Daniels and can take a bruising.”

“Bruising?” Leona asked with a touch of fright. “What happened?”

“We took care of business,” Grif spouted.

“You’re being cocky.” Leona stroked Button, her eyes on her husband.

“And ungrateful, self-willed and cantankerous.” The words slipped out of Camila’s mouth before she could stop them.

“How dare you!” Grif appeared shocked at her words.

“We better go,” Camila said to Jilly, thinking she’d just ended the visit. And she’d rather not be here when Tripp returned.

“I want to hold the dog,” Grif said, shifting his attention to Button.

Leona handed Button to Jilly. “Take her to the old fool.”

Jilly obliged, settling Button in Grif’s lap. “She’s a little nervous,” Jilly explained Button’s trembling.

“That makes two of us.” Grif rubbed the dog.

“Jilly, come sit by me,” Leona invited.

Jilly walked over and sat by her. “Would you like me to hold your hand?” Jilly asked.

“Oh, yes, please.”

“You’re trembling,” Jilly said.

“I’m a little nervous, too.”

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

“You’re a sweet girl.”

“My mama’s sweet, too.”

“Yes, and very nice, considering.”

Leona and Jilly’s conversation dissolved into a foggy fuzziness. This was like a movie out of focus.

“Think I’ll rustle me up a bottle of scotch,” Morris said. “Can I get you ladies something?”

“No, thanks,” Camila replied.

“Jilly, come sit by me,” Grif said.

“No.” Leona clutched Jilly’s hand. “You have the dog. Jilly stays with me.”

“We have to be nice, remember?” Jilly said.

“Aw, fiddle-faddle,” Grif muttered.

Jilly whispered something to Leona and Leona nodded. Jilly got up and walked to Grif.

“Let me take Button to Mrs. Daniels. She’s lonely.”

“Okay, but hurry back.”

The situation was surreal as Camila watched Jilly sprint back and forth, trying to dole out her attention and affection.

Griffin may not want to admit that Jilly was Patrick’s, but at least he wasn’t being mean to her. Now Camila found it hard to leave.

Then suddenly Grif shot her a look. “Are you after my money?”

“No,” she answered without missing a beat. “I’m able to make my own money and I don’t want yours or anyone else’s.”

“Grif, how could you?” Leona scolded.

“Well, I don’t have any,” Grif said as if Leona hadn’t spoken.

“Thank you for sharing that, now Jilly and I really must go.”

Jilly was standing by Grif and he reached out and caught her hand.

“Let’s go,” Camila said.

“I can’t, Mama, he won’t let go of my hand.”

“Let her go,” Leona shouted. “You stubborn old man.”

“If I gave you three wishes, what would they be?” Grif asked Jilly, seemingly unperturbed by the other two women in the room.

“Well.” Jilly thought for a minute. “I wish Mrs. Shynosky’s daughter would visit her more often so she wouldn’t be so sad and I wish Miss Unie wouldn’t have to pick up cans anymore or eat cat food.” She looked directly at Mr. Daniels. “And I wish people would stop being mean to my mama.”

Grif frowned. “Those are some strange wishes for an almost-twelve-year-old. Don’t you want to wish something for yourself? How about a new bicycle? New clothes? What would you wish for yourself?”

Jilly glanced at Camila then back to Grif. “I wish I could see what my daddy looked like.”

Camila’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach. Twelve years of being a mother came down to this, her one weakness, her one failure—of not talking about Patrick more so Jilly wouldn’t have all these feelings and curiosity about her father. The silence became awkward and Camila just wanted to get Jilly out of the room before Grif could hurt her again.

♦ ♦ ♦

into the kitchen, Morris plopped into a chair with a bottle of scotch in front of him. Morris wasn’t a drinker and Tripp wondered what he was doing.

Morris filled a shot glass and downed it, making a face and hitting the table with his fist. “Damn, that’s good.”


“I got old,” Morris said.

“And what?” Tripp lifted an eyebrow. “You’re going to try and forget that in a bottle of scotch?”

“Naw. I just need a boost.”

“It’s gonna knock you flat on your ass.”

Morris poured another glass. “Then you’ll have to pick me up.”

“Morris, what are you talking about?”

“I couldn’t take the gun away from Grif. I got old and weak. Thank God for Camila.” He downed another shot.

Tripp’s heart skipped a beat. “Where is she?”

“In the den with the folks. That girl’s got spunk. She can hold her own with Grif.”

“I think she can hold her own with anybody.” Considering what she’d done in the barn, Tripp knew that for a fact.

“Heard the blast. Anybody get hurt?”

“Just my pride. I’m getting old, too. I couldn’t take three Boggses.”

“Hell. Another ambush?”

“This time they showed their faces, but that problem is solved. We won’t be bothered by them anymore.” Tripp tapped his shirt pocket. “Got the back lease money, too.”

“Hells bells.” Morris poured another glass. “I’ll drink to that. I’ll drink to anything.”

Tripp headed toward the den, then quickly went back and grabbed the scotch bottle. “I’m taking this. You’ve had enough.”

Inside the den, he stopped short. Grif was holding onto Jilly’s hand and Camila seemed nervous. His mother wore a frown, and tears glistened in his father’s eyes.

“You’re okay,” Jilly said when she saw him.

“Yes.” He tried to smile without wincing. “I’m fine.”

“Son, son,” Grif muttered, hearing Tripp’s voice.

He went to his father, his eyes on Camila. “I’m right here.”

“Everything settled?”

“Yeah. Earl and me had a talk. No more problems.”

“Would you ask your father to let go of Jilly?” Camila spoke up. “We really have to go.”

Tripp looked at Camila. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, now…” Tripp held up a hand, stopping her.

“It took a lot of guts to do what you did.”

“I could see your father was upset and needed help.”

“Like hell! I could have done it on my own.”

“Like pigs can fly, huh, Dad?”

“Okay.” Grif gave in with a snort. “But it doesn’t change a thing.”

Tripp sighed. “Let go of Jilly.”

Grif obeyed and Camila pulled Jilly to her side.

Grif tried to push to his feet, but was unable to do so on his own. Tripp reached for his elbow and gently helped. Grif staggered and Camila quickly reached for his other arm.

“I’m fine,” Grif said, his body trembling. “Just a little too much excitement for one day.”

“Let’s go to the bedroom so you can lie down.”

The threesome slowly made their way to the bedroom with Leona and Jilly following.

“Foolish, foolish man,” Leona murmured.

Grif sagged onto the bed then lay down.

“We’ll go now,” Camila said. “Hope you feel better, Mr. Daniels.”

“I’m fine,” Grif grumbled. “Jilly.”

“Yes, sir,” she answered, moving toward the bed.

Camila caught her arm. “Mr. Daniels, we’ve been through this and I don’t—”

“You wanted to see what your father looked like—” Grif cut her off, pointing to a large picture on the wall. “There he is. There’s Patrick.”

Tripp was dumbstruck. What had changed his father’s mind? He glanced at Camila and her olive skin turned a grayish color as she stared at Patrick.

When she walked out of the room, he followed her.

Chapter Eight

“Are you okay?”

Camila took a couple of deep breaths, trying to still her agitated nerves. It was so eerie seeing Patrick’s picture. She could almost feel his presence, feel all the pain of that night.

“Camila, are you okay?”

Through the pain, she heard Tripp’s voice. “Yes…yes,” she lied.

There was a tense pause, then Tripp asked, “What happened before I made it to the house?”

She shrugged. “Nothing much. Your father asked if I was after his money, then he grabbed Jilly and wouldn’t let her go.” She told him about the wishes.

“So that’s what that was about.”


He watched her for a moment. “I’m sorry. My father can be tactless, but it seems he’s coming around.”

Her eyes flared. “Am I supposed to be happy about that—happy to have my child’s paternity questioned at every turn? Happy to deal with all the…” She stopped unable to finish.

“I’m sorry, Camila. Jilly is a wonderful girl. I noticed that the first time I met her. Now my parents have, too. You’ve done a great job raising her.”

Camila was feeling so many conflicting emotions being here at Lady Luck, and Tripp being nice to her made her want to bawl like a baby. But she would never let him see that weakness.

Her eyes narrowed. “Am I supposed to say thank you?” She could hear the anger in her voice and she didn’t like it. This wasn’t like her.

“I can see you’re angry.”

“Yes. I’m angry about your father’s interrogation and your demands for a DNA test. Maybe I should have it done and put it in the newspaper and post it at the community center so everyone would know. But then I’d be sinking to your level and—” She clamped her lips shut, not able to believe the pathetic words coming out of her mouth. Why was she acting like this?

Her chin jutted out. “Jilly and I have to go.”

“Seeing Patrick’s picture has upset you?”

All the anger inside her seemed to dissipate with those compassionate words. She inhaled deeply, surprised that he understood a bit of what she was feeling. “Yes, it has. He looked just like that the day he died.”

“My mother put away the rest of the photos. They were too painful to see every day. My father refused to take that one down. It was taken a few weeks before he died.”

“I know. He hated having to go to the photographer.”

“Yeah.” Tripp stared at her. “I guess he shared a lot with you.”

“He was my best friend.”

There was a painful silence that was always going to be there between the two of them—because Tripp was Patrick’s brother.

But it didn’t stop her from reaching out to touch the bruise on his face. His stubble felt warm and masculine to her sensitive fingertips. She cleared her throat. “Hope they didn’t hurt you too badly.”

“Naw. I’m tough as nails, but I appreciate the help.”

“Jilly had heard in school that you were hurt and I had to bring her out here so she could see you were okay. We arrived as Morris and your mom were trying to take the shotgun away from Mr. Daniels. He was reluctant at first, but then he gave it to me—as long as he could go with me to find you.”

“You didn’t have to do that, but I’m awfully glad you did.”

She rubbed her shoulder. “I might have a sore shoulder tomorrow.”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry. That old gun kicks like a mule.”

“I’ll survive. It…” Her voice trailed away at the softness of his blue eyes—soft as a cloud and as warm as any sunshine she’d ever felt.

“Jilly and I really have to go.” She quickly turned toward the bedroom. “She has a basketball game tonight.”

“We have to talk about Patrick.” The words came out so low she almost didn’t hear them. She kept walking, though. She wasn’t talking about that now. She just wanted to leave.

That night was her secret and she’d never tell him. Not even when he looked at her like that.


♦ ♦ ♦

in the Suburban and headed for Bramble. Jilly was very quiet and Camila was still shaken about all that had happened. Not speaking seemed the best thing to do. The only thing she could do.

They were almost home when Jilly said, “Mama, I guess the Danielses now believe that Patrick is my father.”

“Yes, but they need time.” She pulled into the driveway. “It’s been years since Patrick died, but the Danielses are still grieving.”

“I’ll go back tomorrow and try to cheer them up.”

“No.” Camila turned in the seat to face her daughter, hating the sternness in her voice. This time she had to be for both their sakes. “You have school and homework and tomorrow is your ballet class. I went along with this today because I could see how upset you were, but we’re not invading their privacy again. We have to respect that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re not going back until you’re invited.” She hated to be harsh, but she had to set boundaries for Jilly for her own benefit. Camila needed a boundary, too—to keep her from thinking about Tripp.

“Okay.” She glanced sideways at Camila. “Wallis did beat up Tripp like Cameron said. Why do the Boggses have to be so mean?”

“I don’t know, baby. Sometimes people take great joy in being mean. It somehow makes them feel big and important.” She knew that very well.

“I don’t like Wallis Boggs.”

Camila didn’t, either. Nor did she like Vance Boggs. They were the boys Patrick had wanted to be friends with, but they had turned out to be his worst enemies. Camila saw them all the time and her stomach churned every time she did but she lived her life the best she could.

She glanced at her watch. “We better hurry or you’re going to miss the game and Coach Smythe will be very mad.”

They hurried and made it to the gym on time. Jilly went to change into her uniform and Camila rushed over to the concession stand she helped run with Betty Sue and Jolene Boggs. Jolene was married to Mason, the twin of Betty Sue’s ex, but Betty Sue and Jolene were still friends.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Camila said, tying on an apron.

“Busy day at the shop?” Betty Sue asked.

“No. I’ll tell you later.”

For the next thirty minutes, they were busy selling hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks. When there was a lull, Camila told Betty Sue about her afternoon.

“Oh my goodness. Are you okay? Is Jilly okay?”

Jilly dribbled down the court, then leaped into the air and made a basket. Bramble was up by six.

“Yes. I think she’s fine, but I’m so afraid my past is going to hurt her.”

“Camila, nobody believes those rumors anymore,” Betty Sue said, munching on popcorn.

“Oh, yes, some people still do.”

“Just egotistical idiots.’

“I agree,” Jolene said, coming back into the booth. She’d gone to check on one of her children. She fixed a soft drink for herself and leaned against the counter. “One night we were having dinner with Vance and Debbie at the Bramble Rose. You were working late and came in to get something to eat. After you left, Vance started bragging about how he’d slept with you. He’d had a few beers and was rather loud so I asked him where he slept with you and when. Mason gave me one of those looks that said keep my mouth shut, but I’d had a beer myself and I felt like calling his bluff.”

Two girls came up for popcorn, interrupting the story. Camila served them, thinking it strange to be talking about her past with Jolene. They never had before.

When the girls left, Jolene continued, “Vance stuttered and couldn’t answer and I told him that he was lying and that he’d never slept with Camila Walker. Vance told me to shut up and Mason said for him not to talk to me like that. It was a very sticky evening, but men just love to talk about their triumphs even when they’re only in their heads. Believe me, that’s where most of them are.”

Betty Sue laughed and Camila joined in, letting her guard down, letting herself relax. “Thank you for doing that,” she said, touched that Jolene had actually taken up for her.

“In school, you seemed standoffish,” Jolene said. “Now I know you were just shy. The more I get to know you, the better I like you, and anyone who could raise a child like Jilly is tops in my books. My son, Cody, has a big crush on her.”

Jolene was right about Camila being standoffish. In those days, she never got close to anyone but Patrick.

“Look, who’s coming,” Betty Sue said before Camila could say anything. “The number-one bitch of Bramble.”

Lurleen Boggs, Wallis’s wife, headed for the concession stand. One of her twins, Dulsey, was on the team. The other twin, a boy, Cameron, played on the boys’ team.

“Two Diet Cokes,” Lurleen said to Jolene.

“Good game, huh?” Jolene said, filling the order.

Camila waited on another customer, but she could still hear the conversation.

“Yeah, but I don’t understand why Dulsey doesn’t get to play more. Jilly Walker plays all the time and she’s only a sixth grader, too.”

“Are you watching the game?” Jolene asked. “Jilly’s making most of the points and that’s what the coach wants. He wants to win. We all want to win.”

“Or maybe her mama is sleeping with the coach. Why would he let a sixth grader play so much?”

Frissons of fire shot up Camila’s spine, but before she could respond, Jolene set the Cokes on the counter then knocked one into Lurleen—the cold drink running down her blouse and jeans.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Jolene said. “It slipped out of my hand.”

“You bitch,” Lurleen snapped. “You did that on purpose.”

Jolene graciously handed her a towel. “Lurleen, you’re about thirty pounds heavier than me, but I bet I could still kick your ass, so you’d better watch your mouth. And if I were you, I wouldn’t believe everything Wallis tells you.”

“Every man in this town has had her, Jolene, and you know it.” Lurleen dabbed at her clothes.


“Am I invisible that you don’t see me standing here?” Camila had had enough. She didn’t need anyone taking up for her, though, it felt good. “I haven’t slept with the coach or any other man is this town. If Wallis told you that, he’s lying.”

“Stay away from my husband.” Lurleen looked at her with contempt.

“That’s a pleasure,” Camila said. “I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole.”

“You’re missing a lot of the action.” Betty Sue prompted Lurleen to leave. “And Dulsey is playing.”

The game ended and the Bramble Bobcats won. Shouts of joy echoed through the gym. After lots of hugs, the girls headed for the locker room. Camila, Betty Sue and Jolene sold a few more drinks then they cleaned up and closed the stand.

Out of the corner of her eye, Camila could see Tripp shaking hands and talking to some of the townsfolk. Jilly and Kerri came out of the locker room and Jilly spoke to him. Camila kept her distance, not ready for another meeting with Tripp.

♦ ♦ ♦

, Camila stopped at Unie’s and lit her heater. She knew Unie would never light it and Camila couldn’t stand the thought of her being cold. Soon Jilly was in bed and Camila took a quick shower. Her shoulder was a purplish color and sore. She’d have a reminder of this day for a while.

She sat on Jilly’s bed—which was their nightly ritual—to talk about their day. Jilly chatted about the game and how they might win their division this year. She didn’t mention the Danielses and Camila was relieved. She’d had all of the Danielses she wanted for one day.

In her room, she brushed her long dark hair. With her head down, she brushed it over her face with long strokes. Jilly sometimes brushed Camila’s hair and she loved it—she loved being with her daughter. Although there had been other people in their lives, it had been just the two of them facing life, facing everything. Now their lives were changing.

She was so surprised when Grif had shown Jilly Patrick’s picture and she was almost afraid to think what that might mean. Jilly wanted to know her father’s family and Camila had to accept that with dignity. She’d do anything to make Jilly happy.

Her hand paused. Tripp wanted to talk about Patrick, but she needed some breathing space. She’d rather not have that discussion at all.

Turning off the light, she curled beneath the covers. She was exhausted emotionally. She closed her eyes and drifted into sleep—drifted into her favorite fantasy of Tripp Daniels. Her eyes popped opened. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t seventeen any longer.

And Tripp wasn’t a fantasy.

He was very real—too real.

♦ ♦ ♦

, Camila dropped Jilly at school and drove to her grandmother’s house to check on things. As she entered the back door, loud music greeted her and she knew her mother was home.

Camila’s first instinct was to turn around and leave, not in the mood for a confrontation with Benita. But she hadn’t seen her mother in a while and she couldn’t just walk away.

“Good morning,” she called.

“Oh, my baby,” Benita cried, hugging Camila in a cloud of Chanel perfume. “Look at your mama.” Benita whirled around in a red skimpy nightgown, her long dark hair falling down her back. “Don’t I look great?”

“Yes, you look great.” At forty-eight years old, Benita still looked incredible, slim and trim, but curvy, although her olive skin was slowly beginning to show signs of aging around the eyes and mouth. Her mother’s world revolved around herself. Camila had learned that at a very early age.

Benita was the only child of Alta and Charles Walker. They’d spoiled her terribly and Charles had doted on her. Benita was fourteen when he’d died and her whole world had changed.

Benita had gotten pregnant in high school, like Camila, and Camila had been born before Benita had turned eighteen. Alta had forced Benita to marry the father, Travis Holden. The marriage had only lasted a short while and Benita had never taken his name. People said Travis had wanted it that way because he didn’t believe Camila was his.

Travis and his family had moved away and Benita had gotten a letter about a year later saying that Travis had been killed in an accident. So Camila had grown up without knowing her father or having a male role model in her life—just the many men her mother had dated. When Camila was ten, Benita had married for the third time and had planned to move to Houston and take Camila with her.

BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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