Southern Comfort

By: Ciana Stone

A Book in the Honkytonk Angels series



Chapter One



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."

"Sounds good."

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."

"Oh?"

"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.

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