Authors: Ciana Stone
A Book in the Honkytonk Angels series
By Ciana Stone
Copyright 2015, Ciana Stone
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, businesses, places, events, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 Ciana Stone
Cover by Syneca Featherstone
All rights reserved.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Southern Comfort Copyright © 2015 Ciana Stone
Cover art by Syneca
Electronic book publication November, 2015
This book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the publisher , Syneca Featherstone
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000. (http://www.fbi.gov/ipr/). Please purchase only authorized electronic or print editions and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted material. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the authors’ imagination and used fictitiously.
As always, for my honeyman.
Every day I draw breath and beyond …
And for my friend Angela who came up with the title
For this book. Thanks girlfriend!!
Lengthening shadows slanted across the yard like fingers seeking purchase. Riley rocked back in his chair on the porch and took a sip from his coffee mug. It'd been a long day but a good one. He and his crew finished the new fence in the eastern pasture, a job that had taken the better part of two weeks. Riley was glad to have it done, but would likely be feeling it in his back for a week.
He grimaced as he shifted in the wooden chair to prop his booted feet on the carved log that served as a footstool. It was nice to have a little peace and quiet. Particularly after today. One of his new hands, Bobby Daniels, a twenty-two-year-old kid from Dallas, had never worked a ranch before and had to be taught everything. The boy was full of energy and never stopped asking questions. He'd helped out on the fence today and Riley was convinced that if he possessed half the energy Bobby used for talking, he'd be less than half as tired right now.
Not that Riley really minded. Bobby was a good kid and eager to learn. It reminded Riley of his youth and the things he learned from his dad. That brought a ghost of a smile to his face. His father had been gone nearly twenty years, but rarely a week went by that Riley wasn't reminded of him.
It had only been that way since he returned to Cotton Creek. Was it being back on the family land that prompted the memories? If it was, it didn't matter. He was content the way things stood. He liked thinking back on the things he'd learned from his father.
Dust appearing on the road leading to the ranch drew his attention. A minute or so later, an old truck pulled up his driveway. This time the smile that appeared on Riley's face was full blown. Billy Sweet climbed out of the truck with a paper bag in one hand and his cane in the other.
Riley couldn't remember a time he didn't know Billy Sweet. The Sweets, like his people, the Morgan's, had been in Cotton Creek for generations. Billy was a bit older than Riley but they'd been friends since Riley was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Now in his mid-fifties, Billy walked with a limp from an injury he earned helping a woman and her child from an overturned truck eight years back. His tall frame carried more weight than he'd sported in his youth and while his hair was liberally dusted with silver, his eyes were still clear and bright and his smile as infectious as ever.
Riley stood as Billy walked over to the front steps.
"Evening, Billy. What brings you out this way?"
"Stella Mae cooked this up fresh and said I should come on over and bring you some."
"Is that apple fritters I smell?"
"Best in Cotton Creek."
"Well take a load off and let me get you some coffee."
As Billy settled his stocky frame into a rocker, Riley went into the house, poured another cup of coffee and returned to the front porch.
"You not working tonight?"
Billy glanced up and accepted the cup of coffee. "Thanks. Naw, took the night. The Missus wants me to start letting the girls close up. Spend more evenings with her."
"Then what're you doin' on my porch, Billy?"
"Stella Mae's at her book circle or whatever it's called. Said for me to bring over these fritters and be home by nine sharp."
"Well, then I guess you’ve got time to help me polish off these fritters." Riley claimed his seat and reached for the bag sitting between their chairs. He pulled out a fritter and passed the bag to Billy. After settling back in his seat, he took a bite and groaned appreciatively.
"Never tasted anything as good as Stella's fritters."
Billy mumbled agreement around a big bite of pastry, chewed and swallowed. "Hannah says that young buck you got working for you can't talk 'bout nothing but what he's learning here."
"He found his way to the bar ‘for he'd been here a week, and now shows up every few days for a plate of pork and a few beers. Boy can't keep his trap closed two red-hot seconds."
Riley wasn't surprised that Bobby had found his way to Billy's Bar and Barbecue. Not only was it the only bar in Cotton Creek, but the barbecue Billy cooked up every weekend was the best in three counties.
Nor was he shocked that Bobby would find a willing ear in Hannah Sweet. Billy's middle child, Hannah, was as sweet as the day is long. She favored her mother, blond, with peachy skin, bright eyes and a figure that would've made him another eager buck vying for her attention, if he was twenty years younger.
Riley chuckled. "Yeah, he asks a blue million questions. Today it was about roping."
"Getting roped or slinging one?"
"I'm guessing the latter. That reminds me, Cody left her gear here the other day. Want me to get it and load it into your truck?"
"Naw. She'll be by when she wants it."
"That girl's something. She's gotta whole lotta you in her, Wild Bill." Back in the day, Billy Sweet had quite a bit of wild in his blood. It was Stella Mae who'd settled him down, and probably saved him from himself.
Billy laughed. "Don't she just?" He sobered. "I tend to worry some about her."
"Some people don't take hurt well, Billy. When she's ready to let it go, she will."
"It's been three years since that boy done her wrong. And not once has she ever mentioned his name."
"He broke her heart."
Billy turned his head toward Riley. "She talked to you about it, didn't she?"
"You'd tell if she was in a bad way, wouldn't you?"
It wasn't hard to see the concern on Billy's face. Riley knew that Billy would do anything for his family and when one of them was hurting, it worried him a lot. "You know I would. She'll be okay, Billy. You know your daughter. Cody doesn't give her heart easy and if someone steps on it, well, it's gonna take her a while to trust anyone with it again. But she will. Just let her do it in her own way."
"Don't see as I have much choice. And speaking of Cody, I'm supposed to ask you if you're headed to the bar this weekend. Fred, Jimmy and Otis said something about playing and she said it's time you dragged your tired old ass in and made some music.."
"She did, did she? Well then I reckon I better. When?"
"Saturday? Putting a good- size pig on Friday night so there's liable to be a crowd."
"Yeah, I'll be there."
A 'ping' noise had Billy looking in Riley's direction. "That you?"
Riley fished his phone out of his shirt pocket, looked at it and then laid it on the porch rail.
"Naw, just a friend."
The phone pinged again but Riley ignored it. He hadn't told Billy about Analise and he didn't know that he would. This seemed like a good time to change the subject.
"I hear you've been talking to those windmill folks."
Billy grunted and shifted to pluck another fritter from the bag. "Yeah. Cody's doing a fine job on the ranch, but it ain't making a lot of money. And we – Stella Mae and me – we're okay but we've been talking about slowing down a bit."
"And how does leasing your daddy's land for a windmill farm tie in with that?"
"Good old US greenbacks, buddy. There's a tidy sum involved. Good yearly income. With what they're willing to give, we could pay off the house in town."
"Okay, but again where does the slowing down part come in?"
Riley's phone pinged again. Billy gave it a sideways glance and took a bite of fritter. When Riley didn't touch the phone, he responded. "I been thinking of giving the bar to the girls. Hannah spends as much time there as she does at her mama's bakery, and Cody – well if she didn't have the bar she'd just be sittin' out there at the ranch by herself all the durn time."
"You'd walk away from the bar?"
"Well, no. I'd still be around. I just think it's time to give my girls a stake in something."
"And spend more time with Stella?"
"Dang if I know."
Riley's phone gave another ping and Billy gave it another look. "Sounds like that friend again."
Riley polished off the last of his fritter and washed it down with coffee. He knew that look in Billy's eye. Like a dog worrying a bone, the questions would keep coming and truth be told, he didn't know why he was keeping it a secret. It wasn't like he was having sexting with some woman or thinking he was in love. "All right, it's like this. About a year ago I – I went on Facebook."
"That computer thing where people tweep?"
"Tweet. And no, that's something else. Anyway, this lady, Ana Lise, who writes romance books, sent me a message asking questions about ranching. I answered and over time we got to be friends."
"So what does ranching have to do with romance books?"
"Apparently she writes about ranchers and cowboys."
"That right? She live round about these parts?"
"No. New York City. Manhattan."
Billy burst out laughing. "A New York woman writing about ranching? Kinda like Eskimos writing about surfing, ain't it? I sure hope she's asking the right questions."
"Well, she asks a lot of them."
"So you taken with this gal?"
"Billy, I haven't ever met her. We just send messages."
"Well, that being the case, now might be a good time for me to mention that Stella Mae said that Clara Jean Tilton's sister – you know, the widow woman? Anyways, she's thinking right strong about moving back to Cotton Creek. And according to Clara, she's quite a looker and –"
"No. No, and oh hell no. I appreciate Stella thinking of me but the last thing I need is a woman."
"Yeah, I told Stella Mae you'd say that."
"Well thank you."
"Course that don't mean I believe it. Now don't go giving me the stink eye. Them fancy women you took up with in Hollyweird might not a been worth a plug nickel, but having a good woman…well, there ain't nothing better in life, Riley."
"I wouldn't dispute that. But some of the fault was mine, Billy. I wasn't any better a husband than they were wives. Maybe I'm just not cut out for it."
Billy nodded and stared out at the growing darkness. "You ever miss it?"
That was a question Riley had asked himself nearly every week since he'd been back in Cotton Creek. "I did. Well, not at first. At first I was just glad to be away from it. But after about a year I started to miss it some – wondered what it would be like if I went back.
"Then…" he paused and looked at Billy. "Then you got hurt saving that woman and child when they went off the bridge and into the river, and your daddy got killed. Cody came ripping back home, all piss and vinegar, ready to load up the double barrel and go to war. Once she found out there was nobody to shoot, she got all hell bent on being here and taking care of everything. Your mama was a wreck and Stella was a mess, all torn up. Poor little Hannah had her hands full trying to take care of her mama, keep Cody from going off the rails and give little KC some attention."
Billy nodded, and swiped at the corner of one eye. "I didn't know what they were going through."
"Course not. You were unconscious for a week and your girls were all scared to death you weren't gonna wake up."
"I 'preciate all you did for them Riley. I shoulda found a way to thank—"
"Don't you even say it Billy. We're friends. And I did it cause I wanted to. Your family took me in when I got back – made me feel like I was part of a family. I love all those girls like they were my own. But the point is, that made me realize that what I have here is real. Substantial."
"So you don't miss it. Hollyweird, I mean?"
"Not a bit."
"I'm glad to hear that. But let's get back to this New York gal. Your durn phone's done dinged a dozen times. I think you best get on that thing and answer that gal or she might not be inclined to be your friend much longer."
Riley smiled. "Maybe."
"And I gotta get. By the time I get home, Stella Mae will be coming home."
"You tell her I said thank you for the fritters."
"You know I will." Billy shoved himself up out of the chair. "And we'll be seeing you on Saturday?"
"You bet'cha. I'll stop by on Thursday if you want and help you get that pig in the smoking pit."
"That'd be a real help. I 'preciate it."
"My pleasure. Now get on before Stella gets mad at me for keeping you too long.""
Billy chuckled. "Yeah, I'm going. You have a good night, my friend."
"You too, Billy. Thanks for stopping by."
Riley watched Billy amble out to his truck, get in and drive away. He sat there for a few minutes, thinking about what he'd said to Billy. Speaking the words made him realize how much he meant them. He never expected to consider Cotton Creek home again, but that's just what it had become.
It might be a bit lonely at times, but nothing was perfect. His phone pinged and he pulled it from his pocket. Riley read the string of texts and burst out laughing.