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"We're gonna be in so much trouble."
Eleven-year-old Jilly Walker ignored her friend, Kerri, and pedaled her bicycle that much faster against the cool February breeze. She had to do this, even if it meant she'd be grounded for life. In two weeks she'd turn twelve and her mama had said that she could do something special for the big day. Special meant one thing to Jilly.. meeting her father's family.
And this was the only day she could sneak away to make it happen.
The Danielses lived on a large ranch about a mile outside of Bramble, Texas, population 994 and counting. Everyone kept track of the births. The city council planned a big celebration for number one thousand, but Jilly wasn't thinking about that today. The bike's wheels slid on the gravel as she stopped outside the Danielses' entrance to the Lady Luck Ranch.
Patrick Daniels, her father, had died before her parents could get married. The Danielses shunned her mother, Camila, saying the baby she'd been carrying wasn't a part of their family. Jilly didn't understand how they could have said that, but she respected her mother's wishes and stayed away from the Danielses'.
Over the years, she'd seen Leona and Griffin, her grandparents, in their chauffeur-driven car. She'd never had enough nerve to speak to themshe didn't know if she had enough today, either.
Kerri stopped beside her, gasping for breath. "Are we going home now?"
Jilly stared at the broken boards on the fence and the weeds growing wild around them. She didn't expect the entrance to be so unkempt. The stone pillars with the Lady Luck brand were impressive, though.
"No," she answered and pedaled across the cattle guard to the big house. Her hands trembled on the handlebars, but she wouldn't let her nervousness stop hershe was going to introduce herself to the Danielses. The bike bounced over potholes, jarring her in-sides, and finally she rolled to a stop in the circular drive. A round brick pond with a broken waterfall stood in the center of the overgrown yard. Stagnant water caked with mildew stank like Mr. Wiley's pig farm.
At the odor, she wrinkled her nose and jumped off her bike. She adjusted the kick-stand and scooped Button, her Chihuahua, out of the basket on the handlebars. Button shivered and Jilly tucked the dog inside her navy windbreaker, stroking the dog's ears.
"It's okay. We won't be here long."
Kerri hopped off her bike and joined her. They looked up at the white stone two-story colonial house with the weatherworn and peeling brown trim. Shutters hung like broken arms, dust and spiderwebs coated the windows, and weeds had taken over the flower beds.
"This place is like totally spooky," Kerri said.
"Yeah," Jilly murmured. She hadn't expected this, either. The Danielses were supposed to be rich.
"Let's go," Kerri said. "I don't think anyone lives here."
"Yes, they do," Jilly insisted, clutching
Button. "The Temple paper said he came home to the family ranch."
"I don't understand why you have to see Tripp Daniels anyway."
Sometimes she didn't, either, but from the moment she'd seen his picture in the paper, a handsome man on a bucking horse, she'd wondered if her father had really looked like that. Tripp was a national champion bareback rider and calf roper, and the paper had mentioned all the awards he'd won. The town of Bramble was very proud of him. Her mama had said that the Daniels brothers favored and she wanted to see the man who so closely resembled her father.
Kerri caught her arm. "C'mon."
She focused on her blond, blue-eyed friend. Jilly had dark hair and eyes and they both had long ponytails. They were letting their hair grow, to see whose would grow the fastest and the longest. So far Jilly was winning.
They'd been friends forever and lived two blocks apart. Kerri's parents were divorced and Kerri saw her father every other weekend and two weeks in the summer. Jilly wanted just a tiny bit of thata bit of a father. She marched to the front door before she could change her mind. The bell didn't work so she tapped the tarnished brass knocker.
"We're gonna be in so much trouble," Kerri said from behind her.
"You can go home if you want," Jilly told her.
"Why do you have to do this?"
"I don't know. I just do." She tapped louder.
Wedged beneath the kitchen sink, Tripp Daniels tightened the new drainpipe he'd just installed. He'd heard the knock and thought Morris would get it, then the knock came again.
"Morris!" he shouted.
He'd had a helluva time getting his long frame under the sink and he didn't want to quit until he'd finished the job. Another loud knock. Dammit. He uncurled himself and saw Morris sitting at the kitchen table knitting, the needles clicking, the yarn in his lap. Tripp shook his head in aggravation.
"Morris!" he shouted again.
The older man jumped. "Yes, sir." He pushed to his feet, blinking.
"There's someone at the door."
"Really?" He laid his knitting down and scratched his bald head. "I didn't hear a thing." He didn't move, just kept standing there.
"Morris, would you get the door, please? I'm rather busy at the moment."
"Oh." Morris gazed at him with a blank look. "Did you say something, sir?"
"The door, Morris."
"Yes, yes." He shuffled away in the direction of the front door. By the time he reached it, he'd probably forget what he was there for. Morris had worked as a butler and a housekeeper for the Daniels family ever since Tripp could remember. At seventy-two, he was hard of hearing and forgetful, but he was the only person to care for his parents.
A stab of guilt pierced him. It had been almost thirteen years since he'd seen them. After his brother's death, his father had told him to leave and never come back. They blamed him for what had happened. Tripp, too, blamed himself. He'd thrown himself into the rodeo scene, but he checked on his parents constantly through Morris.
His father had fallen and broken his hip six months ago. Tripp had gotten a call from Morris, who'd said Tripp needed to come home. He'd spent thirteen years avoiding the past, avoiding thoughts of Patrick, but he couldn't avoid the fact that his parents now needed him. He wasn't sure if he'd be welcome but he'd come anyway.
The moment they'd seen him, they'd begun to cry and he'd hugged them. The arguments and the pain over Patrick's death faded away. He'd realized then he should have returned long ago.
Nothing had prepared him for the dilapidated sight of the ranch and the house. Everything was in disrepair and run-down and his parents had gotten old. His mother's sight was so bad that she couldn't see the dust and cobwebs. His father had sunk so far into depression that he didn't care about anything.
How could he let this happen to his family? Guilt hammered away at Tripp, but all he could do was be here for them now and restore the place to its original splendor. That would take money, and he'd soon found there wasn't any. The oil wells had dried up and his father now leased the land for ranching. With that small income, along with their social security, they were barely getting by. Tripp had a little money and he'd spend every dime to make his parents comfortable.
Morris ambled back to his chair. "There's two young fillies to see you, sir."
He raised an eyebrow. He wasn't expecting anyone. "How young are we talking here, Morris?" He spoke loudly so Morris could hear.
"Schoolgirls," Morris replied with a twinkle in his eye.
Tripp frowned. "Do they have the right house?"
"No. They're not riding a horse." Morris picked up his knitting.
Tripp didn't respond. There was no need. He and Morris were seldom on the same page. Shoving to his feet, he laid his wrench on the counter. He grabbed a rag, wiped his hands and hurried to the door.
Two young girls stood there, one dark, the other blond. The dark-haired girl held a small dog inside her jacket. Neither spoke.
"May I help you? I'm Tripp Daniels." He ran a hand through his tousled hair.
They stared at him, mouths open.
"Are you selling something?"
The dark-haired girl shook her head.
The dog grunted and shivered. "Did you find a lost dog?"
She shook her head again and held the dog tighter against her chest.
"Well, I'm running out of questions so you'd better tell me what you want."
There was no responsejust wide-eyed silence.
"I have to get back to work," he said and stepped back to close the door.
"I'm Jilly Walker," the dark-haired girl blurted out.
Tripp paused. Was this Camila Walker's kid? Yeah, she had the same gorgeous hair, skin and eyes. That would mean
"I make straight A's and I'm going to be a doctor."
"I'm a good kid, everyone says so, and your family missed a lot by not knowing me. You missed even more by not knowing my mama. That's all I have to say." She took a step backward and ran into her friend, who seemed to have turned to stone. The two of them locked hands and ran toward their bikes, then quickly rode away.
Tripp gazed after them. Camila's daughter. The rumor mill in Bramble said Camila didn't know who the father was. There were some who named Patrick as the father, but the Danielses didn't believe that for a minute. Camila, a tramp like her mother, had slept aroundthat's what his father had said and his mother had agreed. Tripp had had reason to believe them. But now.
"Tripp, where are you?"
"I'm here, Mom," he called. He closed the door and found his mother in the den. Leona Daniels had once been tall, regal and sophisticated. Now Tripp hardly recognized the stooped lady wearing thick wire-rimmed glasses. Her white hair was cut in a short style and she looked much older than her sixty-five years. Patrick's untimely death had devastated his parents, and him, too. It had been years since that awful car crash and still the family hadn't recovered.
"What do you need, Mom?" he asked and gently clutched her elbow.
"Oh, Tripp, there you are." She stroked the hand on her arm. "I was looking for Morris and I can't find him. I think he's hiding from me."
Tripp smiled slightly. Morris probably was hiding. Tripp sometimes wondered about the man's hearing problems. He could hear certain things, like the TV, just fine, but his parents' constant orders, he could shut out completely.
"Why do you need Morris?" He guided her toward the sofa.
"I was wanting a cup of tea."
"You have a seat and I'll fix it."
"Okay, dear. You're such a sweet boy." She slowly sat down.
A sweet boy. He was thirty-eight years old and he didn't think his mother realized it. His parents' frailty tore at his heart.
"In the bedroom watching sports. Sports, sports, sports, that's all he watches. It gets on my nerves."
"There's a TV in here. Why don't you watch a movie?"
"It's all sex and violence and not fit to watch. I can't see it anyway. No. I'll just sit for a while."
Leona had once been an energetic woman involved in all sorts of activities with the town, but now she barely went out and Tripp knew she was bored to death. Death. An eerie feeling came over him. His parents were marking time, waiting to die.
Filling the kettle, he thought how wonderful it would be if Camila's daughter was Patrick's. Life would return to this house again.
What did she say her name was? Jilly. Yes, Jilly with the flashing brown eyes, just like Camila's. Camila. Her dark Latin beauty flashed through his mind. Something about her sensuous, sad eyes always got to him even though he knew she was his brother's girlfriend. He set the kettle on the stove with more force than necessary. Maybe he should have a heart-to-heart with Camila.
The mere thought caused his pulse to accelerate.
He could break a wild horse. Rope a calf in a split second. But speaking with Camila about her child's paternity could prove a bit harder for a man whose main goal in life was never to see, speak or think about Ca-mila again.
"Tripp," Leona called.
"Coming, Mom." He poured water into a cup. This might be one of those times he'd have to bite the bullet for the sake of his parents.
And that meant talking with Camila Walker.
Camila glanced at the clock. It was after five so Jilly should be finished. She and Kerri were working on a school project at Kerri's house and Camila thought she'd call and see if Jilly wanted a ride home. They could put her bike in back of the Suburban. This was the best part of her daythe time she spent with her daughter.
She stuck her needle in the pincushion, rubbed the tight muscles in her neck and looked around. The sign on the door read Common Threads and below that was printed Camila's Quilts, Soaps and Gifts. Every time she saw that sign, her chest swelled with pride. She owned her own business and was doing very wellbetter than she'd ever planned. She sold handmade quilts and homemade soaps on the Internet and people came from all around to buy them in the shop. Specialty shops in Houston, Dallas, Austin, College Station and Temple also stocked her soaps.
She'd bought the store from Millie, who owned the adjoining bakery and coffee shop. Millie used to have a craft shop and Camila had worked for her as a teenager, trying to make a living for her and Jilly. At that time, Mrs. Ida Baker had made the soap that Millie sold, but the arthritis in her hands had become so bad she couldn't do it anymore. People had come in regularly asking for it, so Camila had asked Mrs. Baker to teach her. And she had. Camila now used her own recipe, perfected over the last few years. She never dreamed it would sell so welleven younger people used it, young girls wanting something different.
Her grandmother, Alta, was born in Puerto Rico and sewed for people. She'd taught Camila how to quilt. When Camila, a young single mother, had been searching for ways to make money, she'd brought a quilt she'd made to the store. It had sold immediately. She couldn't seem to make them fast enough. Hand-stitched quilts were a dying art and people came to Bramble looking for antiques and rare goods. From then on, her store had been busy and profitable.
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.