Cowboy Strong - Carolyn Brown

Chapter One

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