The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 7

 

 

 

 

“Sorry about that,” she apologized when Dusty answered the phone.

 

There was no answer, so Emily thought she’d lost the connection. “Dusty?”

 

“Sorry, I was… I wish you’d come on home where you belong, Emily. I don’t want to tell you bad news on the phone.”

 

“What bad news?” Emily went to the window and pulled the curtain back slightly, just in time to see a cute little black sports car with its headlights lighting up the snowflakes. “Crap!” she mumbled.

 

“What did you say?” Dusty asked.

 

“It’s not you.”

 

“Someone out there in that godforsaken part of the state has upset you? Well, what in the hell are you still doing there? You know how to drive in bad weather. Come home and we’ll go up to the Golden Spurs in Amarillo and have a drink.”

 

“I’ve still got eighteen days to think about things,” she said.

 

“Well, think how damn far you are from home, Emily. Taylor wants that land, but we all want you to come back, whether you ranch or work somewhere in town. You can live in your house even if you sell the rest of the ranch to Taylor. You are family and it’s your home until you die if you want to live there. We miss you, girl.”

 

“I miss all y’all too, but I don’t want to talk about that tonight. Now what did you say about bad news?”

 

“I don’t know how to tell you gently, so I’m just going to spit it out. Bill died.”

 

She sat down in the rocking chair with a thud. “When?”

 

“Found him this morning.”

 

Tears ran down her cheeks. Bill had come to the farm as a puppy. A big old yellow teddy bear of a dog of mixed breed that tailed behind Gramps everywhere he went. Bill rode in the truck passenger seat with his head hanging out the window when Gramps went into town. If Gramps went to the barn, Bill walked right beside him and waited patiently for him to finish whatever he had to do. He was more than just a pet, though. Gramps had trained old Bill to be the number one dog, the one that he sent in last when a wild bull or cow wouldn’t get its sorry ass back to the herd.

 

“Taylor was too big of a sissy to tell you, but he’s standing here with his hand out for the phone now,” Dusty said. “Y’all can talk while I get my clothes ironed for church in the morning. I wish you were home for another reason. I want to borrow those black platform heels you bought last month.”

 

“They’re in the closet over at the house. I didn’t bring them with me. Go get them,” Emily told her favorite girl cousin, Taylor’s youngest sister.

 

“We buried him out behind the barn and made a wood cross with his name painted on it,” Taylor said.

 

“Thank you,” she whispered.

 

She should have been there. If she hadn’t left, Bill might have taken up with her and he wouldn’t be dead. He had never liked Taylor, wouldn’t even let him scratch his ears. Poor old boy probably thought she’d died too.

 

 

“Are you still there?” Taylor asked.

 

“I’m still here,” she said.

 

“You know I will,” he said softly.

 

“You still taking Melinda to the Valentine’s dance?” she asked to keep from sobbing.

 

“I am still here, Em.”

 

“Don’t forget to take her a pretty corsage and dance the last dance with her. Good night, Taylor.” Emily ended the call before he could say anything else.

 

She heard Greg’s footsteps coming up the stairs, heard him pause at her door, and held her breath, but he didn’t knock. The sob that caught in her throat and hung there was not because of a woman, not even if she was just his friend.

 

The weeping was for old Bill, a big yellow dog. She clamped a hand over her mouth to keep it from escaping. Greg would think she was a big crybaby if he caught her crying twice in one day. When she heard his bedroom door shut, she buried her face in the pillows and let it all out.

 

***

 

As usual, Emily awoke the next morning long before daylight. She could almost see the aroma of coffee swirling around the bed and beckoning her down to the kitchen. She dressed in work jeans, boots, and a thermal shirt and frowned at her reflection in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. She pulled her dark hair up into a ponytail and picked up her weathered old cowboy hat as she followed her nose to the coffee.

 

Dotty was in the middle of a monologue tirade and didn’t even notice her when she poured a cup of coffee. “I damn sure will not tell that hussy that she can come to the bazaar. She’s crazier than an outhouse rat high from smokin’ too much funny weed and drinkin’ old Beamus’s moonshine.”

 

She stopped long enough to slide a pan of biscuits into the oven and stir the sizzling sausage. “She’s not invited. I swear to God, she’d best not show up here.”

 

Emily sipped at her coffee.

 

“I need to call Madge and Rose. We need to compare notes. I bet that floozy done showed up on their sites too, and if she did, they need to be warned that she’s a stripper in a hoochy-kooch bar. I guess we’d best go out to the barn and sharpen up some shovels.”

 

Emily swallowed quickly to keep from spewing coffee all over the spotless floor. “Dotty!” she said.

 

“What?” She turned away from the stove. “When did you get here?”

 

“Been here a while. Need some help?”

 

“With breakfast or the shovels?”

 

Emily giggled. “That’s what y’all gals get for pretending to be Greg. What does this floozy know?”

 

“Too damn much. I’m the best Greg among the four of us. Those other three don’t even know how to talk like a bad boy, but I was married to one so I know,” Dotty snorted. “And she lives in Dallas so she could drive up here in a couple of hours, and she said that she’d figured out that he owns Lightning Ridge and she’s coming up here to see him and that’s going to spoil the whole auction.”

 

***

 

Greg’s inner alarm didn’t go off that morning, so he was awakened by a click and the radio weatherman announcing that north central Texas was in for a late winter storm that had already dumped three inches of snow on the ground through the night. Another inch would fall that morning, the temperatures would hover around freezing through Monday, and then on Tuesday the cold front would move out, the sun would shine, and the snow would melt by Valentine’s Day on Friday.

 

He hit the button on top of the clock and slapped a pillow over his head. Prissy had sure enough caught him at a bad time when she showed up. After the emotional day with Emily and then finally facing the tack room and the cabin, he’d been drained. Then that cowboy, Dusty, darlin’, had called.

 

He wasn’t a sentimental person; even Nana said he was like his grandpa. He was all business, so what in the hell was going on in his heart? He’d never felt like this before, and it was unsettling. From the time he graduated high school he’d had a goal in mind and gone after it with determination, perseverance, and without looking back one time. He was going to be a rancher like his grandfather, and he was going to run Lightning Ridge so well that when he was old and gray, it would be twice the ranch it was when he took over the reins.

 

By the time he’d gotten back from the bunkhouse, Emily was up in her room returning a phone call, according to what Dotty told him.

 

“She told me she wasn’t involved with anyone. What was she doing making out with me and kissing me if she’s calling him darlin’?” he grumbled all the way to the bathroom.

 

He dressed quickly in soft faded jeans, two pairs of socks, and boots and a denim shirt over a thermal undershirt. The aroma of breakfast food and coffee mingled together led him from his bedroom, down the stairs, and to the kitchen.

 

Clarice and Emily were at the table sipping coffee, and Dotty was mumbling about something as she pulled biscuits from the oven. A cold blast of air swept across the floor as Max came through the back door.

 

“I thought I smelled sausage. The cook at the bunkhouse is making pancakes and I’d rather have sausage gravy this morning, as cold as it is. Got to have something to stick to my ribs if we’re going to get all these cattle fed with the help we’ve got today.” Max pulled a plate from the cabinet and helped himself.

 

“I’m helping y’all since there’s no church today,” Emily said.

 

“We’ll take all the hands we can get.” Max nodded.

 

Greg dropped a kiss on Clarice’s forehead. “Good morning, Nana.”

 

He poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. He looked across the table at Emily and willed her to look at him, but she didn’t.

 

“Since you have a date for the Valentine’s party and I always go with you, I decided to have my own date this year,” Clarice said.

 

“Why would you think I have a date?” he asked.

 

“You said so last night when Prissy asked you, so I’ve made other plans.”

 

Max’s fork stopped midway from plate to mouth. Dotty turned around so quick that the kitchen towel draped over her shoulder went flying. Emily looked up and into Greg’s eyes.

 

“Hell, I was just kidding. Who is your date?” Greg shifted his stare to Clarice.

 

Marvin, the old teenage love, was one thing, but to replace Grandpa with a local man was quite another. For her to be seen with a man at the Valentine’s party would be opening up a fifty-gallon drum of gossip that would have her remarried at the age of eighty by the end of the summer.

 

“Emily is going as my date,” Clarice said.

 

His green eyes darted from Clarice to Emily, registering in an instant the look of pure shock on her face.

 

“Emily is going to Happy to a Valentine’s party out there with some cowboy named Dusty,” he blurted out.

 

“I am not. I told Dusty that I didn’t want to drive that far. What gave you the idea that I was going?” Emily asked.

 

“You said that you’d love to go with Dusty, darlin’… remember?”

 

“And then Clarice called us into the study and I called Dusty back and said that I wasn’t going. And for your information, Dusty is Taylor’s sister, not a cowboy. She’s my cousin and we often go to parties together.”

 

Damn!

 

The day couldn’t get any worse.

 

Clarice patted Emily’s hand. “Well, you can just go stag because Emily is my date this year. I checked the weather. It’s going to clear up by Wednesday and we’ll go over to Tressa’s in Sherman to shop. The party is Friday night, so we’ll be okay. I saw the cutest little red number over there last time I was there and you’ll look lovely in it. I’m thinking of buying a white pant outfit trimmed in red sequins and we’ll be the belles of the ball.”

 

 

“But…” Emily started.

 

“As my assistant, you will be my date. I need someone to drive me, and for the first time in his association with this ranch, my grandson made me believe that he wasn’t taking me, so he can live with his cute little lie.” Clarice’s eyes twinkled.

 

Dotty picked up the towel and tossed it on the cabinet.

 

“Well, that’s just great!” Greg jumped up and turned his back to the table and loaded a plate with biscuits and sausage gravy. Max was right; he’d need some good hot food to stick to his ribs if he expected to make it through a long cold morning of feeding cows.

 

“So?” Dotty asked. “Who was on your mind when you told that lie?”

 

“I was talking about Nana. I always take Nana. It’s a standing tradition for us to go to the Angus parties together,” Greg answered.

 

Max finished eating about the same time that Greg sat down. He carried his plate to the sink, rinsed it, and put it in the dishwasher. “Thanks, Dotty. That was wonderful. Just like you used to make in the lunchroom for breakfast when we were kids.”

 

Dotty smiled for the first time that morning. “Glad you liked it.”

 

Emily stood up. “I’ll go with you and help.”

 

“Would love to take you along, but I done got Louis ridin’ shotgun with me this morning. You can go with Greg. Besides, he’s got that pasture full of the wild cows to move today, and he’s going to need all the help he can get.” Max grabbed his coat from a hook. When it was buttoned up, he crammed his hat down on his head and waved over his shoulder.

 

“Helluva day to be moving the wild bunch,” Clarice said. “Emily, you got any experience with cows that carry a wild gene?”

 

She nodded. “Gramps had a pasture full of them. I never understood why he’d keep them around when they kept reproducing more calves with that gene. Then that first year after I finished college and came home to take care of him, I learned real quick that they were throwing the best sale calves we had. They might be wild, but by golly, they grew off thirty percent faster than the other calves and they weighed in heavier every fall. Plus, they’ll herd up and circle around the calves to protect them from coyotes and cougars. They are fearless and we seldom ever lost a calf to wild animals.”

 

Clarice nodded. “That’s exactly what we’ve discovered. Lester kept them away from the other cattle, though, because he didn’t want the gene bred into the prime stock. They do a good job of filling out the sale bill and bringing in the revenue, but if someone is buying for breeding stock, they usually don’t want a wild gene in the mix.”

 

“Sounds like Gramps,” she said. “Y’all use dogs?”

 

Greg nodded her way.

 

Emily swallowed hard and said, “Dusty called last night to tell me that Gramps’s number one dog, Bill, died yesterday. He was old so it wasn’t unexpected, and I guess he just didn’t want to go on without Gramps. I loved that old boy. The ranch won’t be the same without him.”

 

Greg reached across the table and laid a hand over hers. “I’m so sorry. I can’t image losing Coolie, the number one dog on the Lightning Ridge.”

 

“Thank you, Greg.” She pulled her hand free, pushed back her chair, and carried her plate to the sink, keeping her back straight and stiff the whole time.

 

She didn’t fool Greg one bit. He could feel her pain, and he would have felt the same way. It seemed like he’d known Emily his whole life, like they’d grown up on adjoining ranches right there in Ravenna.

 

 

 

 

 

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