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Authors: Debra Kayn

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BOOK: Chantilly’s Cowboy
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Chapter Fifteen

“What are you doing up here on the porch, Tilly?” Stuart bent over to lift one of the saddlebacks out of the way, hesitated and walked around it instead. “We’ve got a tack room for this job.”

Chantilly studied the way Stuart held on to the porch railing and shrugged. “It’s a nice day. I thought I’d enjoy the sunshine before summer’s over and our days turn dark and dreary.”

She dipped the soapy brush into the bucket at her feet and scrubbed at a stubborn spot on the side of one of her dad’s favorite saddles. Gritting her teeth, she kept her gaze down on her work and ignored the questioning look she’d become accustomed to seeing on her dad’s face lately.

Aware of his unwavering stare, Chantilly forced herself to hum an upbeat tune. His heeled boots clunked against the porch planks. He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. She lifted her gaze. Her heart melted. What would happen when her dad wasn’t able to walk up to her or even utter the words she so desperately needed to her from him?

“I’m going into town. The doc wants to take more of my blood to make sure the antibiotics are working.” He heaved a breath. “Might even stop in at Valenciennes’ and talk to her for a bit. Don’t worry ’bout supper for me. I’ll have Val whip me up one of those baked potatoes with all the fixins.”

“Okay.” She dropped the bristled brush in a pail of clean water. “I’m almost done here. I just hafta put some oil on those two bits. Is there anything else you want me to do?”

Stuart shook his head. “Nope. Might as well take the rest of the afternoon off.”

She cocked her head.
When did Daddy become so wrinkled around his eyes?

Looking at him closely, she noticed the bags under his eyes. He was also due for a haircut. He had silver-gray hair poking out around his ears from the cowboy hat he was never seen without. On impulse, she stepped up and gave him a kiss on his cheek.

“What’s that for, sweetheart?” He tugged the end of her curl.

She smiled. “Can’t a girl kiss her daddy?”

He winked. “She sure can.” Clipping her under the chin, he turned and headed off the porch. “I’ll be back in a lil’ while. Try to stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”

“I’ll try.” She laughed. “You know me, though. If trouble comes a knocking, it’s hard to say no.”

Stuart continued walking away, shaking his head. “I think you said that same thing when I had to pay Sheriff Roy Lee to get you and Margot outta jail after you painted Miss Reed’s milk cow pink after she gave you a B in English.”

“Oh, come on!” Chantilly laughed. “You thought it was funny too after we pleaded with you to drive by the teacher’s house and you saw our handiwork. That was the biggest pink cow in the world.”

She moved to the railing.
Maybe I should drive him to his doctor appointment.
Waving, she recalled his request for them all to act normal. He didn’t want any special attention or for them to hover over every step he made. His one wish was that his children’s lives continued on and they not mourn him until after he was gone.
I’ll try, Daddy.

While lugging the tack off the porch and to the trailer behind the four-wheel quad parked in the yard, Chantilly glanced over at the feed barn. A flash of Jack hauling grain sacks came and went too fast for her to see if he’d realized she was outside. The past few days he’d cornered her every time she stepped out the door to do some chore around the ranch and tried to talk with her. She carried the last saddle to the trailer. She realized she couldn’t avoid Jack forever.

Chantilly drove the all-terrain vehicle over to the horse stable and proceeded to carry the tack inside where all the supplies were kept in a temperature controlled room. After the last item was put away, she leaned against the saddle stand and let her head fall back against the wall. She closed her eyes. Her memories of what she and Jack shared together, and her love for him was still tangible despite her declaration that it was over between them.

Her dad would not fire him, and deep down, she knew that having Jack on the ranch helped her too. They all needed him now that the truth was out. Stuart had planned everything down to the littlest detail. Even hiring a man capable of running the ranch single-handedly while she and the others helped Daddy. And Daddy needed help. It was as if having the truth come out let him give up his tough exterior. Chantilly saw the wear and tear, the tiredness and the limp in his walk. Opening her eyes, she pulled herself up and shut off the light. With her head down, she walked out of the room and right into Jack.

“Whoa, darlin’.” Jack grabbed her arms to keep her from tumbling backward.

Chantilly’s breath caught in her throat and she stared up into Jack’s face. She swallowed. His brows lowered over the bridge of his nose and he seemed to study her. The love and heartbreak in his beautiful face hurt the pit of her stomach.

She hated causing anyone pain, even those who deserved it. Jack had lied to her and kept her in the dark about the most important thing in her life. She couldn’t feel something for him, could she?

“Excuse me.” She stepped out of his hold.

Jack dropped his hands. “Chantilly…?”

She stopped her retreat but didn’t answer him. He’d hear the indecisiveness in her voice, and she didn’t want him to know that she battled with her judgment on punishing him for his actions.

“How are you?” He hooked his thumbs on the back pockets of his jeans. “Are you hanging in there?”

She nodded. “Florentine’s not finishing the rest of the season. She…helps me.”

“Good. That’s real good, darlin’.” Jack dug his heel in the ground, but she could feel his gaze on her. “Listen, Chantilly. I—”

“I’ve gotta go.” She hurried out of the barn toward the house.
Why now? I can’t deal with this on top of everything else.

 

Jack gazed at Chantilly’s back. Her was head held high, her arms stiff at her sides and her stride long and intent on taking her far away from him. He spit on the ground, tugged his hat down farther on his forehead and turned back to the work at hand.

She thought it was over between them, but her eyes said something completely different. The woman was no more over him than he’d ever walk away and leave her. Opening up the stable door, he clicked his tongue. Chuck stepped over to the opening and nudged Jack’s chest with his nose. “It’s best she gets used to having us around, huh?” He patted the side of Chuck’s neck. “She’ll appreciate that my word is solid and someday—” Jack led Chuck out of the stall, “—her life will start to make sense again, and when it does, I’m gonna love her forever.”

Chuck nickered and danced in place in the aisle of the barn. Jack ran his hand down the horse’s mane. “Feel like cooling off, Chuck?”

Without a saddle or bit on the horse, Jack swung up onto Chuck’s back and rode him outside. He fisted his hand in the mane, tapped his heels against Chuck’s underbelly and headed toward the river.

Chapter Sixteen

The front door softly clicked behind Chantilly, and she tiptoed barefoot over the porch into the grass. Heading toward the barn, she found herself smiling for a change. Florentine always found a way to blackmail her into doing something crazy.

“Hurry up, sis.” Florentine sat on Ginger, her horse, and leaned over with her hand out. “You’ll hafta ride with me now. You took forever sneaking out of the house. It’ll take too long for you to grab a mount.”

Chantilly clasped Florentine’s wrist and swung up on top of the horse behind her. “Explain to me exactly why we’re sneaking out at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night.” She snorted. “Twenty-four years old and you’re acting like we’re sixteen. Besides, Dad was sitting in the living room and waved to me as I came down the stairs.”

Florentine looped the horse around and pointed her toward field C. “Drat!” She leaned over and unlatched the gate. “He must know something is up.”

Chantilly kicked the gate closed. “It didn’t help that Margot and Bisette kept calling for you on the phone all day.” She focused on the land in front of them. “I don’t understand why you all are keeping me in the dark. What do you plan to do out here?”

“Just wait, you’ll see.”

The soft clomping of the shoeless horse across the prairie filled the sisters’ silence the rest of the trip. Chantilly shook her head, putting her hair down her back. She should have braided the curls off her neck. It was hotter than blazes out here, and even with the moon up the humidity was high.
Florentine better be heading toward the river. I could go for a midnight swim.

Florentine pulled up beside the river. The rest of the sisters were already there sitting on a blanket. A wave of happiness washed through her at having everyone once again back home together.

“Sorry.” Florentine pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “Slowpoke McDougal here took forever to come out of the house.”

Chantilly swung her leg behind her and slid off the back of the horse. “Well, it would have been nice if one of you’d filled me in on what we’re doing out here and why we had to wait until almost midnight.”

“It’s a going-away party for Bisette.” Margot opened the cooler Chantilly just noticed sitting off the blanket they’d spread out. “Here sis, have a cold one.”

Chantilly planted her hands on her hips. “Nuh-uh. You’re not getting me shitfaced and leaving me sleeping it off in some odd place only to wake up wondering what in the heck happened.” She shook her head. “You can only pull that off once—”

“Twice.” Margot giggled. “You’re forgetting the time we put you in the foreman’s cabin and threw all those clothes we borrowed from Dirk around the room.”

“That wasn’t funny.” Chantilly grinned. “You had me thinking I’d slept with three guys that night. It took me a week to beat the truth out of Bruce ’bout what you all did.”

“Come on. We promise not to play with you tonight.” Margot pressed the can into her hand. “It’ll do us all good to let loose and send Bisette back in true McDougal girl style.”

Chantilly popped the top on her drink. Stepping over to the blanket, she sat down. She brought the can to her lips and paused. The last time she’d drunk, she’d ended up with Jack and fallen in love with him. Wanting to forget how much she missed his presence in her life, she swallowed three gulps before setting the can between her legs and gazing over at her sisters.

“How long does it take you to fly home?” Margot sat down between Bisette and Chantilly.

Bisette leaned over and dragged a brown paper bag to the middle of the blanket they sat on. “’Bout four hours.” She removed a bag of potato chips and threw them at Val. “I wish I could stay, but I have two more concerts before the tour is over.” She handed Margot a chocolate bar. “Once that’s over, though, I’m canceling everything else and coming back to stay at the ranch with Dad.”

“Bisette…Daddy doesn’t want you hovering over him. He wanted you to keep singing.” Chantilly took another sip. “Didja bring anything for me? I skipped dinner and I’m starving.”

Bisette tossed a bag of soft caramel squares in Chantilly’s lap. “I know he doesn’t want us all standing vigil, but there is no way I can go on acting normal when I know he’s gonna…”

All the girls nodded. No one dared speak of what the near future would bring them. Chantilly used her teeth to peel back the plastic wrapper on her favorite candy. “Where’s your ice cream, Bisette? You brought us all our comfort foods, don’t think you can skip out. If we’re all gonna gain five pounds, you are too.”

Bisette stuck out her tongue. “Damn right I brought ice cream. A pity party ain’t the same without eating away our troubles.”

“I thought you said this was a going-away party.” Chantilly lifted the beer bottle again and washed the caramel out of her mouth.

“It is.” Val held out her drink and waited for them all to clink their bottles. “Bon voyage, Bisette.”

Margot laughed. “You all are pathetic.” She threw her arm around Chantilly. “We need to have a talk with you.”

Chantilly narrowed her eyes, but she was afraid the warning didn’t come across under the moonlight. “’Bout…?”

“Jack.”

She tipped back the bottle and drained it before standing up. Stumbling over the blanket, she stepped off into the grass and crossed her arms. “Off-limits.”

“We ended that rule when you graduated high school.” Val stood up and moved over to wrap her arms around Chantilly’s waist. “Think ’bout it, Tilly. If you were gonna be mad at anyone, you should be upset that Daddy didn’t tell you why he’d hired Jack. Hell, we’re all steamed ’bout him keeping his illness to himself.”

“Jack was only doing what Daddy hired him to do.” Bisette crawled over to the cooler, removed more drinks and passed them around. Before handing one to Chantilly, she popped the top and placed it in her sister’s hand. “Drink.”

Chantilly followed Bisette’s orders.

Florentine reached up and grabbed her hand. Chantilly sat back down and sighed. “It’s not that simple.” She drank another swallow. “I fell in love. I dreamt ’bout a future with Jack. We were past the point of learning ’bout each other, and he never said one word ’bout knowing Dad’s secret or caring enough ’bout me to realize that this was going to destroy me.”

She snorted, took another drink and then heaved a big breath. “It hurts so bad inside.” Tapping her chest, Chantilly gazed at her twin. “I wanna run to Jack, because I know he can make me feel better…”

“Then go to him. Don’t be so stubborn you lose someone you love.” Florentine rubbed Chantilly’s back. “Love is everything, sis. Daddy taught us all that in the way he loved Mom…even to this day. Why waste another moment on something that you can fix by talking?”

Chantilly tilted her chin up and stared at the stars. Her heartbeat accelerated.
Is it really this simple?
A part of her hoped and wanted to make things right with Jack, but the underlying sadness of the changes in her life scared her to death. She’d never forgotten what it felt like to have a mother one day, and the next, she was gone. The hurt, confusion and sorrow lived inside her every day.

“Maybe it’s better to lose him now than later when Jack’s my whole life.” She drank from the can. “Does that make sense?”

Margot scooted closer. “I understand, but you also know that no matter how much we’ll mourn Daddy and miss him, you have your whole life ahead of you.” She squeezed Chantilly’s hand. “I don’t put my trust in people very often, you know that, but I trust Jack.”

Chantilly nodded and took another sip of beer.

“I don’t even know Jack the same way you do, but I hafta tell you, he’s got a place in my heart forever.” Margot leaned back and stretched her legs out.

“I don’t understand…just because I love him?”

Margot unwrapped more chocolate. Popped a piece in her mouth. “Nope, has nothing to do with it. When Daddy needed a confidant the most, Jack stepped up to the plate and kept his word. That rates pretty damn high in my book. Jack didn’t do it to hurt you, Tilly. He did it because he’s a man of his word.”

Chantilly dropped her chin to her chest and closed her eyes. Her thoughts were all fuzzy from the alcohol. “Dammit. I shouldn’t have drunk anything tonight.” She raised her head and opened her eyes. “I’ve gotta go.” Struggling to her feet, she almost tripped over Florentine.

“Whoa…” Bisette jumped up and scrambled out of the way. “I don’t think you’ll get very far.” She laughed. “It always cracks me up how fast you get hit when you drink.”

Florentine wrapped her arm around Chantilly’s shoulders. “Where do you wanna go, sis?”

“Stop moving.” Chantilly clutched at Florentine’s hand. “I was gonna…” She licked her lips.
What did I wanna do?
She propelled Florentine around in a circle and stopped when she saw the horses standing in the field.
Oh yeah. Jack.

“I’ve gotta talk to Jack.” She pulled away from Florentine and headed toward the horses. Her feet didn’t work right and she felt herself falling. Her face met the ground. The air rushed out of her lungs and she gasped for breath. She brushed at the grass poking her cheeks and groaned.

“Up and at ’em.” Florentine pulled her off the ground and stood Chantilly up. “Let’s get you over to the horse.”

Bisette flanked her other side. “You’re gonna hafta hold on to Florentine or you’ll find your lightweight ass on the ground and you’ll never make it to Jack.”

“Jack.” She hurried her steps. “I’ve gotta talk to him.”

Florentine giggled. “So you’ve said.”

“I do.” Chantilly glanced back and forth between her sisters. Her head seemed heavy. “Didja know that he’s an older man?” She laughed. “It’s true what they say ’bout men like him.”

“What’s that?” Florentine asked.

“They’re really good in the sack.” She reached out and leaned on the side of the horse. “The field. The truck. The river…”

“Is she mumbling ’bout the places she’s had sex with Jack?” Bisette bent down and wrapped her arm around Chantilly’s leg.

Florentine grabbed Chantilly’s other side and together they hefted her up onto the back of the horse. “Sure sounds like it. Hey, Tilly, how big is Jack?”

“Florentine Lace!” Margot reproached them. “If you make her say more than she would if she was stone-cold sober, I’ll tell Chantilly what you did tomorrow and let her deal with you.”

“Jack’s mine. I’m gonna tell…I’ll tell him sorry.” Chantilly leaned forward, sinking her hands into the horse’s mane. “I love him so, so, so, so much.”

“Geez. You take the fun out of everything.” Florentine laughed and swung up behind Chantilly. “Watch it or I’ll dump you on the front porch, knock and run away.”

“Don’t you dare.” Chantilly tried to muster up a frown but laughed instead. “I’m gonna walk in the house like I belong there…’cause I do. Jack’s my cowboy and I’m gonna get ’im back.”

BOOK: Chantilly’s Cowboy
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