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Authors: Linda Warren

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BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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Alta had refused to let Camila go. There had been a big argument and, in the end, Alta had won. Camila had stayed with her grandmother, only seeing her mother on the odd occasion—like today.

Benita touched her face. “My little chickadee, you look so sad.”

“I’m just shocked to see you, that’s all.” Her mother had always called her chickadee or chick. Charles Walker had been an avid fan of W. C. Fields and he used to call Benita that, and Benita had done the same with Camila.

“Ouch.” Benita made a face. “Where’s my Jilly?”

“In school,” Camila replied.

“Dammit, I—”

“I’ve got to get to work,” Camila said, suddenly feeling the need to get away. “I’ll bring Jilly by after her ballet class.”

“You better,” Benita warned. “She’s the only bright spot in this dreary town.”

Camila hurried to her shop, not even wanting to speculate why Benita was home. She was sure it was the usual reasons—her husband had kicked her out and she was short of money. Camila couldn’t think about her mother. It made her too emotional, too angry.

She spent the morning pulling orders from the computer and filling them, then she finished the plans for Jilly’s party. With everything that was going on, she should have planned a quiet party in their home, but it was too late to change anything now.

In the afternoon, she worked on a double wedding ring quilt and Ione Farris, an older lady who loved to quilt, helped her. When Camila needed extra help, there were several ladies willing to lend a hand. She had the little fisherman and the cowboy boot to finish, too.

When Ione left, Camila kept working, trying to concentrate on something other than the Danielses, Tripp and her mother. Her shoulders began to ache and she quit for the day, walking into the coffee shop and sinking into a chair.

Millie placed a cup of coffee in front of her. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

Camila took a breath. “My mother’s home.”

Millie pulled up a chair. “You’re kidding. I guess she couldn’t stay hidden forever.”

Camila dragged her hands over her face. “I don’t know if I can take much more.”

“Oh, sweetie.”

“And I haven’t told you what happened at the Danielses’ last night.”

As she relayed the evening, Millie’s eyes grew bigger and bigger. “You fired a gun!”

“Yes.”

“Are you okay?”

“I think so. My shoulder’s a little sore.”

“Life sure gets interesting here in Bramble.” Millie clicked her tongue. “Griffin Daniels actually admitted that Jilly is Patrick’s.”

“In his own way.” Camila rubbed her shoulder. “I keep thinking I shouldn’t have to prove my child’s paternity.”

“Oh, sweetie.”

“Just too many things happening and now Benita is back. I’ve been planning Jilly’s party for weeks and I wanted it to be perfect and—” she looked toward the Bramble Rose “—this is going to sound terrible, but I don’t want Benita there. I don’t want her to embarrass Jilly.”

Millie reached for Camila’s hand and held it tight. “Or is it that you don’t want Benita to embarrass you?”

She bit her lip, looking at Millie. “Probably.”

Millie patted her hand. “You’re a beautiful, talented, successful woman. Stop beating yourself up and enjoy some of that—enjoy the life you’ve built for you and Jilly. No one deserves that more than you.”

“I’ll try,” Camila promised. “Thanks for listening.”

“Any time, sweetie.”

Joe Bob and Bubba came through the door.

“I better get these old coots some coffee.”

“Hi, Camila,” they said in unison.

“Hi, Joe Bob, Bubba.” She tried to smile.

“Where’s Slim?” Joe Bob dropped into a chair. “Thought we were having a domino game.”

“Keep your britches on,” Millie answered. “He’ll be here.”

Their conversation went over Camila’s head. Tripp drove up to the Bramble Rose and her eyes were riveted on him. He strolled into the diner dressed in worn jeans, dusty boots and a cowboy hat. He had an easy, smooth way of walking that drew attention, or at least, it had always drawn hers.

She sat there pondering her fascination with Tripp and decided it was time to talk. That was the only way to get rid of all the guilty, conflicting feelings about the past.

Glancing at her watch, she saw she had about an hour before Betty Sue brought Jilly home from ballet class.

Enough time to talk to Tripp.

Chapter Nine

Camila went out the front door, her concentration on Tripp and what she’d say to him. Her attention was diverted by Unie, who was pulling two large plastic bags behind herself. Lu Lu was under her arm.

Camila walked over to her. “Unie, where’s your cart?”

“Bert took it away from me,” Unie snarled. “Said it belonged to the grocery store. Hateful old bastard.”

“You can’t be pulling these heavy bags around town. I’ll see if I can find you something else.”

“Bless you, child,” Unie said, then leaned in close and whispered, “Bert’s after my money. Is he watching us?”

“No, Unie. I don’t see Bert.” Unie was stressed and not making sense.

“He’s watching.” Unie’s eyes darted around, clutching Lu Lu tighter. “He’s a sly old bastard and he ain’t gettin’ my money and he ain’t gettin’ my cans.”

“Unie, I’ll go get my car and take you home.”

“Is Bert gonna be with you?”

“No, Unie. Just me.”

“You ain’t gettin’ my cans, either,” Unie warned. “They’re for my son.”

“I’ll be right back.” Camila ran for her Suburban. Why Bert had to be so vindictive she didn’t understand, but she’d have a little talk with him. There was no need to be mean to Unie just because she was different.

Camila loaded the cans in the back and Unie insisted on sitting with them. Camila didn’t argue because she knew it would be a waste of time. Unie crawled into the back and sat cross-legged, her hands and eyes on the cans, her arms around Lu Lu. For someone her age she was very nimble.

Camila jumped into the driver’s seat and drove off.

♦ ♦ ♦

T
RIPP WATCHED ALL THIS
out of the window. He turned to Rose. “What’s Camila doing?”

“Helping Unie. She and Jilly are the only ones who pay her any attention.”

“Unie got into the back of Camila’s Suburban.” He was a little puzzled, to say the least.

“Unie won’t leave the cans. She stacks them in her living room, all over her house. Slim takes her once a month to Temple to sell them. Slim wasn’t too keen on the idea, but Camila asked him and he’d do anything for Camila.”

Camila had that effect on all men. Tripp knew that for a fact. Her dark beauty was hard to ignore and he was just becoming acquainted with her kind heart.

“The cans don’t bring much money, but Unie manages to live on it. She’s always saying she’s saving money for her son,” Rose was saying. “Unie’s never had children or a husband that anyone in this town can recall. So I guess she created one in her head.”

“Who took the cans before?”

“Unie did, but her truck broke down and she didn’t have any money to fix it. She shouldn’t be driving anyway. Doesn’t know where she is half the time and thinks people are trying to steal from her.”

“But she doesn’t think Camila’s trying to steal from her?”

“No. She pretty much trusts Camila and Jilly.”

Tripp settled on a bar stool at the counter.

“So what are you in here for today, hon?” Rose asked.

“Coffee, please.”

Rose poured a cup, eyeing Tripp’s face. “Earl’s boys give you that black eye?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t see any reason to lie.

“You be careful, hon, and if all else fails—” she pointed across the street to the bank “—just tell Mama Boggs. Thelma’s the only one who can control them.”

“Yeah.” Tripp knew that.

“You just be careful, you hear?”

Tripp was about to answer when the bell over the door jingled and Camila walked in.

“Hi, Camila,” Rose called. “Did you get Unie home?”

“Yes. Bert took her cart away.”

“Why would he do that?”

Camila shrugged. “Not sure, but I intend to find out. In the meantime, if you have something she could use, let me know. I have to find her another cart. She can’t lug those plastic bags around.”

“Will do.”

Camila looked at Tripp. “I was coming to talk to you, but now I’m running short on time. Jilly will be home in about thirty minutes.”

“I’ll take it,” Tripp said, getting up from the stool with his coffee in his hand. Would you like anything?” he asked.

“No, thanks.”

“Let’s sit at a table.” They found one in a corner. Camila slipped off her jacket. “How’s your face?”

He grinned. “How’s your shoulder?”

She found herself grinning back. “A bit stiff and sore.”

He took a sip of his coffee. “Yep. Know how that feels.”

“Do you think your trouble with the Boggses is over?”

“Yeah. I had a talk with Earl and I believe we understand each other now.”

“Good.”

Silence followed.

Camila folded her hands in her lap and waited.

“My parents want to see Jilly again and I have to know how you feel about that. I told them we had to respect your decision.”

A smile touched her lips. “I told Jilly she had to respect your privacy.”

His eyes twinkled. “At least we’re on the same page.”

Her stomach flip-flopped at the light in his eyes and words tumbled from her mouth. “I thought Jilly and I talked about everything, but I was unaware she had these feelings about her grandparents. I would never stop her from seeing them. My only fear was her getting hurt. I’ll admit, though, I’m rather paranoid about that.”

“Under the circumstances, I can’t blame you. My parents won’t hurt her now. They’ll probably smother her to death.”

“I just want to take it slow. Jilly has school, her friends and…”

“And you’re nervous as hell.”

Her eyes flew to his. “Yes.” He understood; the realization turned her stomach into a whirligig.

He leaned forward. “I understand, Camila.” His words confirmed what she already knew. A slight pause. “We need to talk about Patrick.”

Those exciting feelings stilled and she got to her feet. “I have to go.”

“You can’t keep running from that conversation.” His eyes didn’t waver from hers.

She slipped into her jacket, knowing he was right. She was running. “Maybe later,” she said.

She took a couple of steps and turned back. “I don’t know if you’ve talked with Nurse Tisdale who sees your parents weekly, but she said your mother has cataracts that need to be removed. Has your mother mentioned that?” This was none of her business. Why was she bringing it up?

He frowned. “Nurse Tisdale has been on vacation for a week. I’m waiting for her to return. The nurse who’s filling in doesn’t know a lot.”

“It could help her sight tremendously.”

Tripp stood. “Thanks for telling me. I was wondering about that, but neither Mom nor Morris has mentioned a thing.”

Tripp was standing so close that his tangy aftershave wafted to her nostrils and familiar, forbidden feelings stirred inside her. She took a step backward. “I’ve got to go.”

“Camila.”

She stopped.

“When can Jilly see my parents?”

“I’ll talk to her and let you know.” Saying that, she hurried out the door.

♦ ♦ ♦

“B
ENITA’S HOME
,” Jilly exclaimed when Camila told her. Betty Sue had just dropped her off. “I’m so happy. I can’t wait to see her.”

Happy—that should have been Camila’s response, too. She wondered if she’d ever feel that way about her mother.

Jilly jumped out of the car as soon as Camila stopped and ran into Benita’s house. Jilly and Benita were hugging when Camila walked in.

“Ah, Jilly baby, you’ve grown so much,” Benita said, looking at her granddaughter.

“I’m going to be twelve on Saturday.”

“That’s the reason I came home,” Benita whispered.

“Really? That’s totally cool.”

Benita was wearing lime-green stretch pants and a yellow stretch top—every line and curve was visible, nothing was left to the imagination. She looked like a hooker. Even as a child, Camila had been embarrassed by the way her mother dressed. That hadn’t changed.

Jilly was looking at Benita, too. “That outfit is, like, way out there,” Jilly said. “How do you breathe in that?”

Camila suppressed a smile.

“Very well, thank you, and all the guys love it.”

Jilly made a face. “I’m not into boys yet.”

“What!” Benita drew back. “You’re going to be twelve. It’s time to start dating.”

“I don’t think so,” Camila said, taking a seat at the table

“We’ve been worried about you,” Jilly said. “You have to start calling us more.”

Benita sat down, crossing her legs. “You’ve been worried about me?” Her gaze was leveled at Camila.

“It would be nice if you phoned once in a while.”

“I called the other day to tell you I was coming home, but I got that
puta.

Camila’s lips tightened into a straight line. “Millie said you called.”

Benita studied her long red fingernails. “How is the witch of Bramble?”

Jilly shook a finger in Benita’s face. “You have to be nice. Millie loves us.”

Benita kissed Jilly’s cheek. “Yeah. That’s the only thing that keeps me from—” Her voice stopped when she caught the look on Camila’s face. “Now, Jilly baby, tell me everything you’ve been doing since I left.”

Jilly rattled on and on, not leaving out much, and when she got to the part about the Danielses, Camila’s stomach coiled into a painful knot.

“How dare that old man.” Benita’s eyes blazed with sudden anger. “Next time I see him, I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”

“No you won’t,” Jilly told her. “He’s an old man and he misses his son.”

“Dios,”
Benita groaned. “You’re just like your mother.”

“Thank you. Everybody tells me that.”

Camila let out a long breath, not even realizing she’d been holding it while Jilly’d been talking.

“Your mama is one of a kind.” Benita winked. “Is everyone hungry? Enchiladas are in the oven. Beans and rice are on the stove and there’s a salad in the refrigerator. I made rice pudding for dessert.”

“Oh, boy. Benita makes the best enchiladas and rice pudding.” Jilly jumped up. “I’ll help put it on the table.”

For the next thirty minutes, there was no arguing, just quiet family conversation. But Jilly did most of the talking. For the first time, Camila acknowledged how much her daughter talked. She didn’t get that from her or Patrick. They’d both been quiet, shy teenagers. She must get it from Benita. That was not a comforting thought.

“Benita, there’s a lot left over. Can I fix a plate for Miss Unie?” Jilly asked.

“Jilly, are you still worrying about that old can lady?”

“Yes. She’s alone and doesn’t have a lot. Sometimes I think she eats cat food because that’s all she buys besides bread and milk.”

“Okay.” Benita touched Jilly’s cheek. “Anything to please my granddaughter.”

Benita and Camila did the dishes in silence while Jilly looked for a movie on TV. Afterward, Camila and Benita sat at the kitchen table.

“Why did you come home?” Camila had to ask. It wasn’t for Jilly’s birthday, though, she knew Benita loved Jilly.

“To lick my wounds—as usual,” Benita replied.

“So the marriage didn’t work out?”

“No. I filed for divorce and came home. And I can see you’re excited to see me.”

Benita pushed every emotional button in her, but she didn’t react. “I hope you plan to stay for a while, and please try to get along with Millie.”

Benita lifted an eyebrow. “Like you do? Suppressing every emotion you have?”

Another button pushed. She wanted to scream, but she suppressed the feeling, just like her mother knew she would.

“Yes, Benita, that comes from being raised the way I was—never being secure about anything.”

“It always comes back to me—the awful mother.”

“It comes back to the truth.”

“Same thing.”

“I don’t want to argue with you.”

“Oh, chick.” Benita got up and hugged her. “Something about being here brings out the worst in me.”

“Jilly and I have to go. She has school tomorrow.” Camila stood. “Do you know when you’re leaving?”

“No, but I’ll let you know before I do.”

“I’d appreciate that—for Jilly’s sake.”

“Yes, for Jilly’s sake,” Benita murmured, following her into the living room.

They said their goodbyes and left. Camila drove to Unie’s and Jilly took the food inside. Camila had lit the heater earlier so she didn’t get out. Unie didn’t like a lot of people in her house. Soon Jilly was back.

“Miss Unie wouldn’t open the door and I had to scream real loud that it was me before she let me in. She said she thought it was Bert after her cans.”

“It doesn’t seem like Unie’s doing too well.”

“Can’t we do something, Mama?”

“It’s hard since she doesn’t have any relatives. I guess we’ll have to start checking on her more.”

“Okay.” Jilly nodded. “She said Bert took away her cart.”

“Yes. I carried her cans home today.”

“We have to find her another.”

“I plan to do that tomorrow.”

“Good,” Jilly said. “If anyone can do it, Mama, you can.”

“Ah, such faith.”

“Mama’s the greatest.” Jilly raised her arms in a victory sign.

At that moment, Camila said a silent prayer that nothing or no one ever ruined her relationship with Jilly. She could survive a lot of things, but not that.

♦ ♦ ♦

T
RIPP WALKED
into the kitchen. Morris was at the table polishing silver that had been neglected too long.

“Morris, have you talked to Nurse Tisdale?”

Morris looked around. “Is she here?”

“No, she’s not here.” He was trying very hard not to get annoyed. “I meant, have you talked to her about Mom’s eyes?”

“Yep. Several times.”

“And?”

“Your dad now, he’s stubborn, but your mom takes it to a higher level. She’s like an old coon dog that’s been hunting all night and hasn’t treed one coon, and when he finally gets wind of one he just lays down too tired to make the effort and—”

“Dammit, Morris, I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about. Why hasn’t Mom had cataract surgery?”

“Like I told you, the effort is too much for her.”

“My mom is not a coon dog and we’re talking about her sight.”

“Well then, you ask her yourself because I never could get anywhere with her. Stubborn as a coon dog.”

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