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The only thing Alana Carey's father ever wanted was to live long enough to see his daughter, Alana, get married and settled down. Alana was only twenty-nine years old, so she had plenty of time to make her daddy a happy man—right up until she came in at noon on a bright, sunny day in the middle of the week and found him sitting in the kitchen in his Sunday jeans and shirt.
"Where have you been, all dressed up?" She rolled the sleeves of her chambray work shirt up to her elbows and washed her hands at the kitchen sink.
"Been to Amarillo." His voice sounded like it was about to crack.
Matt Carey was an old-school rancher and a cowboy. His kind were as tough as nails, and they held their emotions inside their hearts. They didn't cry or whine about anything. He was Alana's rock and had been her only parent since her mother's death when she was a girl. He was all the family she had left—no siblings, no grandparents, and only a handful of cousins that were scattered from coast to coast. He was also her mentor—he'd taught her everything about how to operate a ranch from the ground up.
She'd heard sadness in his voice before, had seen him worry, but she'd never seen such a bewildered expression on his face.
"You didn't tell me about a cattlemen's meeting." She opened the refrigerator and got out some cold cuts to make sandwiches.
"Leave that and come sit down." He used his boot to slide a chair out from the table. "I didn't go to Amarillo for a cattlemen's meeting. I went to talk to a doctor."
Alana felt as if someone had dropped a chunk of ice down the back of her shirt. "Why did you go all the way up there? Doctor Wilson has taken care of us forever."
"I haven't been feelin' too good lately, so Doc Wilson sent me to a specialist for some tests. I didn't want to worry you until the results came back," Matt said. "I never was any good at beating around the bush, so I'm just going to spit it out. I've got stage four cancer, an inoperable tumor in my brain. They told me it's very aggressive, and even if they managed to take it out I might live six months, but there's a high probability I'd be in a coma all that time."
Alana's chest tightened, her breath came in short gasps, and words wouldn't form in her mouth. Matt Carey was a big strong man. He couldn't have cancer, and what did "stage four" mean anyway?
Matt reached out and took both of her hands in his. "If it continues to grow the way it has been, I've got about six weeks."
"Oh, Daddy, what…" A sob caught in her chest. Her mind couldn't begin to process the words he'd said. Her heart seemed to understand better and had tightened into a ball of pain in her chest. Her hands shook, and for a few seconds she thought she might faint.
"Promise me that you'll let me do as much as I'm able and not mollycoddle me in the time I've got left." Matt squeezed her hands. "I want to go out with my boots on, not in a hospital gown with no dignity. Promise me that much. Let me do what I can on my own terms as long as I can."
"I'll do whatever you want, Daddy," she said, tears streaming down her face. "But…" Her voice caught, and the heaviness in her chest felt as if rocks had been piled up on her heart.
He stood up, rounded the end of the table, and gathered her into his arms. His warm tears mingled with hers. "I hate this for you, sugar. On one hand I want to go be with your mother. On the other, I can't bear to leave you."
"Daddy, isn't there anything…" She dried her eyes and straightened her back to try to get her composure. Her father needed her to be strong, but she couldn't do it. She sobbed until the front of his shirt was wet, and she had the hiccups.
"Honey, think of it this way," Matt said as he took a step back from her. "If I'd had a heart attack or a stroke and dropped out in the barn, you would have had no forewarning. The way it is, we've got six weeks. The doctor says that last couple of weeks, I'll sleep a lot more, and then one time when I take a nap, I'll take that final step from earth to eternity." He went to the bar and started making sandwiches. "We're going to live each day to its fullest. Now, let's have some dinner and then get back out there in the hay field. I'll drive the truck, and the kids who've got hired for summer help can throw the bales."
He didn't have to say the words. She had heard them often enough that they echoed through her heart and her mind. "If I can live long enough to know that Alana is settled down with a good man, I'll be happy to go on to heaven with my sweet Joy." The fact that he'd said those words so often the past year made her wonder if somehow in his subconscious he'd known that his time was limited, and he'd soon be in eternity with his beloved wife. "I've had a good life, and my only regret is that I can't walk you down the aisle at your wedding. I'd like to leave this world knowing that you've got a partner in your life, like I had with your mama. You're a strong woman, Alana, but I'd rest easier knowing that someone was beside you to share in your joys and halve your sorrows."
What he said wasn't anything new. The same thing had come up often in the past, more so this last year. She'd figured it was because she was getting closer to thirty years old. Alana couldn't snap her fingers and give him more than six weeks to live. She couldn't wish the tumor away or even make it less serious so the doctors could remove it. She sure couldn't pull a boyfriend out of her cowboy hat and plan a wedding so he could walk her down the aisle. Or could she?
The only trouble with the plan that popped into her head was that it would involve a huge lie. Still, it would make her father rest easy, and he'd never have to know she hadn't told him the truth.
No, she told herself. I need to spend every waking minute with my daddy, and Daddy would be so disappointed in me if he found out. The little devil in her head kept showing her smiling, happy pictures of her father's face as he walked her down the aisle and left her in the care of a loving man.
I don't need a man to care for me, she argued.
No, but think how happy it will make your dad, the pesky voice whispered.
There was only one man who might be willing to say yes to such a wild plan—Paxton Callahan. Her father liked him as a man and a cowboy, but Pax had a wild reputation. Scenarios played through her head—one after another until she couldn't think about anything else.
She dried her tears, took a deep breath, and pushed back her chair. She got out a jar of pickles from the refrigerator and set out a banana cream pie she'd made the day before.
She draped her arm around her father's shoulders. They did seem a little bonier than they had been. Why hadn't she noticed that he was losing weight?
Because you see him as the big, strong cowboy he's always been. The voice in her head was definitely her mother's that time. Make him happy, Alana. Don't let him leave with a single worry.
She hugged him a little tighter and then sat down in her chair. "Have you gotten a second opinion?"
"Don't need one," her father said. "I trust our doctor and the team that took care of me in Amarillo. Besides, I can feel it."
Alana took a deep breath. "I have something to say, and you might not like it." Her father was going to have his wish, and by damn, Paxton had better agree or else.
"It's not bad news, is it?" All the color had left his face.
Alana stood up, crossed the kitchen, and picked up the coffeepot and two mugs. That gave her another minute to put into the hardest words that would ever come out of her mouth. "It all depends on how you look at it, I guess, but it doesn't have anything to do with my health." She set the mugs on the table, filled them, and then returned the pot.
"All right then." His blue eyes stared right into her brown ones.
She sat back down, took a deep breath, and said, "Daddy, don't get mad, but I've been dating Paxton Callahan since he came home a few months ago. We both got tired of the way we were running from the attraction we've kind of had for each other for all these years, and well…" She let the sentence trail off.
"Why would I be mad?" Matt asked. "Paxton and I get along fine."
"Well, he and his brother were pretty wild before Granny Iris turned the ranch over to them." She was amazed that she could talk rationally about anything after the emotional bomb her dad had dropped on her. But she knew she had to stay strong to pull this off. She had to be strong for her father.
"I wasn't a saint either until I married your mother." Matt smiled for the first time. "So how serious is this relationship?"
"Very serious." She stood up and and got the chips from the cabinet to keep from meeting her father's gaze. "We've kept it secret because you know how people in Daisy are with their gossiping and spreading rumors. They'd have me pregnant and married by the end of summer."
"I wouldn't mind that one bit. I could walk you down the aisle, and to know I have a grandchild on the way would be the icing on the cake." Matt's tone got lighter with every word.
"Daddy!" Alana rolled her eyes.
How could they be talking about anything but what was going to happen and what needed to be done the next six weeks? There was all kinds of legal stuff to take care of, she thought, and they'd never discussed things like funerals. That last word put a lump the size of a grapefruit in her throat.
"Don't take that tone with me," Matt chuckled. "I'm telling the truth. If y'all are very serious like you say, then you could move things along a little faster, couldn't you?"
"How can you laugh when…" Tears flooded her cheeks again.
He handed her a napkin. "We'll talk about serious things like my will, the ranch, and my burial another day. Right now, I want to feel alive and not think about the end. I don't mind checking out of this life, but I sure hate to leave you alone."
"You won't." She took a deep breath and forged ahead. "Pax proposed to me a week ago and we planned to elope to Las Vegas this summer, but if walking me down the aisle will make you happy, then we'll have a wedding right here in Daisy. How about we have a small, family-only type ceremony at the church?" She glanced at the calendar on the wall to the right of the sink. "Does June sixth sound good? That gives us a month."
"That's the day that me and your mama got married." Matt's eyes welled up, and he took the napkin from her. "I can't think of a better going-away present. I don't see a ring on your hand. Didn't he give you one?"
"Don't talk about going away." She wiped her new tears on her shirtsleeve. "We were going to pick out a ring this weekend."
"All right then," Matt said. "I'd love it if you used your mama's engagement ring. It's in the safe. I'll get it out for you right now. And, honey, for the next month, we're going to focus on your wedding. Your mama made me promise that you'd have a wedding to remember, and I'll see to it that you do. This shouldn't be a little family affair at the ranch. We're goin' to have a big event that folks will talk about for years and years."
Oh boy. How was Alana going to convince Paxton Callahan that they were getting married in a month when they hadn't even been dating?
* * *
Paxton Callahan was soaked in sweat when he brought the last load of small hay bales to the barn. The calendar might say it was the first week in May, but the temperature disagreed and insisted it was the middle of July. At least the heat wave had dried the hay that was down in the field so they could get it baled. He and his brother, Maverick, had noticed dark clouds over in the southwest, so they hadn't even taken a noon break. Maverick's wife, Bridget, had brought sandwiches and a gallon of chilled sweet tea to them right out to the field so they could eat and keep on working. The first big drops of rain hit as he drove the truck into the barn.
Pax removed his cowboy hat from his head and wiped his forehead with a red bandanna. "That was close, but at least we've got it all inside."
"Luck is with us today, brother." Maverick jumped out of the passenger seat of the old farm truck.
"Luck," Pax whispered under his breath as he pulled his work gloves from the hip pocket of his Wranglers and grabbed hay hooks from a nail on the barn wall. "I'll finish this if you want to go on to the house," he said. "It's only forty bales, and Bridget has an appointment up in Amarillo, doesn't she? If you hurry, you'll have time to get cleaned up and go with her."
"Thank you. I'll sure take you up on that. Getting U.S. citizenship takes a lot of paperwork. I'm glad we've got a good lawyer working with us." Maverick hung his pair of hooks back on a nail and took off his gloves. He removed his hat and wiped his brow, then resettled it. "We might have supper up there, and maybe even take Laela to the park before we come home."
"I can fend for myself." Pax sunk the hooks into a bale and tossed it off the side of the truck.
"All right then, see you later." Maverick jogged from the open barn doors out to his pickup.
Pax tossed off a few more bales, then hopped over the side of the truck bed and started stacking them. That word luck kept playing through his mind. Little Laela was lucky to have parents like Mav and Bridget in her life. His own father had died when he and Mav were young, and then their mother remarried and handed them off to their grandparents to raise. Fortunately, their grandparents were amazing people who did their best to bring them up right.
"Laela won't have a mother who ever leaves her behind for another man," he muttered as he stacked the last bale.
He was jumping out of the back of the truck when he caught a movement in his peripheral vision.
He'd know that husky, sultry voice anywhere. He glanced up to find Alana Carey not two feet from him.
Like he'd been doing since high school, he paused to take in her beauty: blond hair and big brown eyes and legs that seemed to go on forever. She was so tall that she looked him right in the eye, and he was over six feet. But even more awe-inspiring than her looks was her attitude. She could outride, out-ranch, and out-dance every cowboy in the Texas panhandle—and she could most likely out-drink all of them, too. Truth be told, she intimidated the hell out of him—and yet her presence was like a magnet at the same time.
But the pain and misery in her normally sparkling eyes brought him up short. "Alana, what's wrong?"
"It's Daddy." She could barely get the words out before she started sobbing as if her heart was broken. Nothing ever rattled Alana, and he'd never heard her voice crack like that.
"What happened?" Paxton stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, coaxing her head to his shoulder. "Let it all out and tell me what I can do to help."
"The doctor said he's got cancer. And only six weeks to live."
"Oh, sweetie." The soothing words came naturally to Pax. He knew Alana wasn't the type who needed to be coddled, but he hated seeing her so upset.
"He doesn't want anyone to know, but…" Another round of weeping began. "I have to talk to you before the whole town finds out."
"I won't tell a soul," he promised. "And I'm glad you came to me. You can't carry around something this big and this sad all on your own."
Alana pulled back and wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. "I'm sorry for getting all emotional on you." She took a step back and sat down on the nearest bale of hay.
"Hey, that's what friends are for. When is he starting treatments? Do you need me to take him to the doctor or help you on the ranch? Tell me what to do."
"No treatments." She hiccupped. "It's an inoperable brain tumor, and Daddy says he wants to die with dignity."
"Alana, I'm so, so sorry." Pax blinked back tears of his own. It was hard to imagine the strapping man he'd known his whole life wouldn't be with them for much longer. "Please know that I'm here for you and for Matt. I'd do anything at all for y'all."
She took a deep breath, and he could tell she was fighting to get words past the lump in her throat. "Daddy has said"—her lip quivered and she took a second to compose herself—"so many times that he wants to live to see me settled down and married, and that his biggest wish is that he gets to walk me down the aisle someday."
Pax gave Alana a bittersweet smile. "I've heard Matt say those very words several times, myself."
"I want his wish to come true, Pax." She took another deep breath and then began to talk very fast, as if she had to get the words out in a hurry. "I told him that we'd been dating ever since you came back to Daisy, and that we'd been planning to elope sometime this summer. So you can either fake break up with me right now, and I can go home and tell him the sad news, or you can go along with my story. I said we'd planned to get married on June sixth in a small family ceremony at the church here in Daisy. It'll be a small thing, and after he's"—she sniffled—"after he's…I can't say the word. When he's with Mama in heaven, we'll have it annulled."
"Whoa!" Pax threw up both palms defensively. "You did what?" He couldn't wrap his mind around what she'd asked of him. They'd been neighbors and friends their whole lives. They'd attended the same small rural school and the same church. And there was no doubt that there'd been sparks between them, but to marry her? Sweet Jesus in heaven! "You want me to pretend that we're engaged? To lie to a dying man?"
"But it will make my daddy so happy in his last days," she said. "And you can't tell anyone that it's all fake, not even Maverick, because we have to make Daddy truly believe it. He'd be devastated if he knew I made it all up. Please, Pax. It's not for very long." Her big brown eyes shimmered with tears.
He couldn't say yes to such a crazy idea! But then he couldn't very well say no, either, now, could he? God, he hated to see a woman cry. If he agreed to what she was asking, he'd be a married man in a month.
"I know it's a lot to ask," Alana said. "I shouldn't have told him that we were dating until I asked you if you were willing to go along with it."
Pax took her hand in his and tapped her ring finger. "I wouldn't be the kind of cowboy who didn't even buy you a ring."
"I've got Mama's engagement ring," she said. "That way you're not even out money on this deal."
"All right," Pax said before he lost his courage. "I'll do it."
She threw her arms around him and said, "One more thing, and it's a big one. Would you please, please ask Daddy for my hand in marriage?" He's old-fashioned and…"
Pax liked the feeling of her body pressed against his chest. "Of course," he whispered. "I hope he don't see right through the lie."
"He'll be so happy that he'll never know." Alana hugged him even tighter and then moved back. "Thank you, Pax. From the bottom of my heart and soul, I thank you. It'll mean a lot of pretending, but…"
He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "I'll get cleaned up and go talk to your dad this afternoon, and please put that ring on your finger," Pax said. "If we're going to do this, let's make it believable for Matt's sake."
She pulled a beautiful diamond ring from her pocket and handed it to him.
It's only pretend, he told himself as he took the ring from her, and I'd do anything for Matt. "If we're going to do this, then let's make it as real as possible," he said as he got down on one knee and said, "Alana Joy Carey, will you marry me?"
This might be the right way to propose to a woman, down on one knee with the ring in his hand, but Pax had always figured when he popped the question to a woman it would be in a more romantic place than the barn. In his mind, he'd be dressed up in his Sunday finery and everything surrounding them would be ultraromantic.
"Yes." She smiled.
He slipped the ring on her finger and kissed her on the cheek.
"Thank you," she said with a rather sisterly peck on his forehead. "Now we won't be lying about the proposal."
Not much made Paxton Callahan nervous. Usually, he was as solid and steady as a rock. He could walk right up to a woman in a bar and have her in his arms and dancing in five seconds. He could sweet-talk his way around a deal when it came to buying cattle for the ranch without blinking an eye. But that afternoon, he was sweating bullets when he climbed the three stairs up onto the porch at the Carey house. On the way over to talk to Matt that afternoon he'd practiced several different versions of what he would say, but now none of them sounded right or even plausible in his head.
He raised his hand to knock on the door, and Matt swung it open.
"Come on in, Pax." Matt stood to one side.
Paxton wiped his feet and stepped out of the blistering heat into the cool foyer. He removed his cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his dark brown hair.
"This humidity is a killer, ain't it?" Matt said as he led the way into the living room. "Never seen it this damn hot in May. I hate to think about what it'll be like in July, but then…" He stopped talking and sat down in a recliner. "Have a seat. Want a beer or sweet tea or something?"
"Alana told me, sir." Pax sat down on the end of the sofa and laid his hat on the end table. "I'm so sorry. If you need anything at all, call me, and I'll come runnin'. And I'll pass on the beer for now."
"Thank you, son," Matt sighed. "I'm glad y'all have moved the wedding up. Getting prepared for the big day will keep Alana so busy she won't have time to worry."
Pax cleared his throat. No matter what he said or how he said it, the next words out of his mouth weren't going to be easy. "I really came to ask for your blessing on our marriage." He spit the words out so nervously that he was sure Matt would figure out something was up.
"Most fathers would ask a future son-in-law to take care of their daughter. Alana doesn't need that from you." Matt's tone and expression were serious. "She can take care of herself and this ranch. What she needs is for you to love her, respect her, and stand beside her until death parts you, like the wedding vows say. You think you can do that?"
Pax nodded slowly as he tried to figure out a way to agree to the terms without it being a big ugly lie. To love her, respect her, and stand beside her he could do, but that until-death-parts-you thing was throwing butcher knives at his heart. Then he realized that it would be death that parted them—maybe not with his death or Alana's death, but Matt passing on. "I can do that," he finally said. "I've always respected Alana and loved her. Standing beside her won't be a problem, sir."
"Stop calling me that." Matt shook his finger at Pax. "You've both got my blessing, and I'd sure like it if you'd call me Dad after y'all are married." He slid his phone from his shirt pocket and touched the screen.
He waited a minute and then said, "Alana, honey, can you come to the house?" Whatever she said put a grin on his face. He ended the call and turned back to Pax. "She'll be here in a few minutes. I want to thank you so much for agreeing to move the date up so I can walk her down the aisle. We're both struggling with this whole thing, Pax. I'm trying to be strong for her, but this sucks."
"I can't even imagine," Pax said. "But like I said before, I'm here for both of you. All either of you have to do is pick up the phone and call me."
"Thank God for that," Matt said. "Knowing she won't be alone will make it easier to go when I have to leave."
Not knowing what to say, Pax nodded.
"I don't want you kids to worry about a thing. I'll take care of the whole wedding so you can enjoy your short engagement. I've already called the preacher and got the date on the church calendar. That's one thing y'all don't have to worry about."
"That's great," Pax said with a smile. But thoughts circled in his head like buzzards flying over a dead bull out in the pasture.
How fast would word get around? The preacher would have told Trudy Mason, the church secretary, to put the date on the calendar. Then she was sure to tell her son, Billy Ray, who had worked on Callahan Ranch for several summers while he was in high school. Pax hoped he had a chance to tell Maverick and their grandmother the news before they heard it through the grapevine.
- "Carolyn Brown is one of my go-to authors when I want a feel-good story that will make me smile."—Fresh Fiction
- "Carolyn Brown always manages to write feel-good stories."—Harlequin Junkie, Top Pick, on Cowboy Brave
- On Sale
- Jun 30, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages