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Hot buttered rum standal.., p.29
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.29

           Tess Oliver

  “Didn’t realize anyone was watching. Otherwise, I might have toned it down to a PG version of cupcake gobbling.” I held the empty wrapper up proudly. “Although, it tasted so good, I was actually holding back some.”

  “Well damn, don’t let me stop you from thoroughly enjoyin’ the next one. But take your time. I like it slow and easy. You sort of inhaled the last one as if it was ‘bout to jump from your fingers.” His twang was just enough to make me more than interested in seeing his face clearly. But he remained shadowed in the corner.

  “Slow and easy? Huh. Don’t think I’ve ever met a cowboy who liked it slow and easy.” I couldn’t believe how quickly I’d jumped into a flirty conversation with a complete stranger, a man whose face I hadn’t even seen yet. But I was enjoying it.

  He dropped his boots to the ground, one foot at a time, and leaned forward to rest his forearms on his thighs. For a second time, I nearly slipped off the stool. Pale green eyes gazed at me from beneath a head of shiny black hair. And I’d been right about the jaw. In fact, the entire face would look spectacular gazing out from beneath the shade of a cowboy hat. Mostly because the face was nothing short of spectacular.

  A lopsided smile curled his mouth, adding another layer to the layers of heartbreak. “So you know a lot of cowboys, do ya?”

  I shrugged. “Let’s just say I spent my carefree teen years on a cattle ranch. Might have been a few young wranglers passing through for work.” I froze for a second and laughed. “Jeez, that sounds terrible, doesn’t it. Let me reword that. I was a curious teenage girl with more than one crush on a man in a hat and cowboy boots. I never actually—Well, you get it.”

  Footsteps pattered along the floor behind me. I was relieved to have a reason to pull away from his highly seductive gaze. A woman appeared around the corner. She had on a flannel shirt and jeans as if she’d just stepped out of the barn instead of the kitchen. Oddly enough, as she turned the corner, she was much younger than I’d first thought. Something about the way she moved had me confused. Her bright green eyes sparkled with youth, but something about her face assured me she was wise for her age. One thing was certain—the woman knew how to bake a cupcake.

  “Rebecca, or should I call you Becca? I’m Coco, the owner of Silk Stocking Inn.” She held out a smooth, thin hand that went with the young face.

  “Uh—Becca is fine. How did you know my name?” I stopped and waved a finger at her. “Cookies. Not only are you an expert at cupcakes but you are masterful at computer cookies.”

  She blinked an enviable set of long, black lashes at me, acting as if she had no idea what I was talking about. It had to be an act. It seemed she wasn’t planning to hand out any trade secrets.

  She pointed back to the kitchen she’d just come from. “I do have some oatmeal raisin if you prefer cookies.”

  I laughed, letting her know that I was on to her. “No, thank you, Coco. The mocha latte cupcake will do just fine. I suppose my online coffee buying habits are stored in those cookies as well.”

  She continued with a clueless expression. “I’m so sorry, Becca, I’m not following your line of conversation.” She glanced at the empty wrapper on the counter. “Did you enjoy the cupcake?”

  “Best one I’ve ever had.”

  “I’m glad.” Her glittering eyes flashed to the corner of the bakery. “Jackson, are you through with that plate? I want to run the dishwasher.”

  My quest for marketing secrets had temporarily pulled my attention from the handsome, flirtatious diner at the back of the room. I turned around to look at him.

  He pushed the hat down low over his head and stood up. He had the whole tall, broad shouldered cowboy thing going on. He picked up the plate and beer. There was even the usual swagger in his stride, a swagger that came from spending a lot of hours in the saddle. My grandpa used to call it his John Wayne strut. He’d been extra proud of his bowed legs, even though they pained him with arthritis in the end. He’d always boasted that he’d earned every ache and pain.

  The closer the cowboy got, the clearer the picture became. He was amazing.

  “Jackson, I don’t know if you two have met. This is Becca. She’s a producer at a children’s television network.”

  My surprised gaze shot Coco’s direction for a fleeting second, but I reminded myself that it would be easy enough for anyone to know my position. My name was listed on the credits and the studio website, not to mention all the social media I was part of.

  Jackson’s handshake was strong and firm as expected. What I hadn’t expected was the sudden rush of heat that swirled through me as I momentarily imagined his hands all over me. He reached up and tipped his hat in a typical cowboy hello. He truly had it down to an art.

  “Never would have pegged you as a television producer type.” His eyes drifted down to my knee length skirt and red leather, slip-on heels. “Guess that skirt and those shoes should have been a clue.”

  Coco poured me a cup of coffee and placed it on the counter. “Becca knows horses. She grew up on a ranch.”

  This time my shocked look stayed glued on Coco. “How on earth did you know that?”

  Jackson answered for her. “You were just telling me about your teen years on the cattle ranch, remember?”

  “Oh, yes, that’s right. I suppose that means you heard the whole conversation?” I asked, feeling more than a little ashamed.

  Coco laughed. “Wasn’t really paying attention.” She reached back to untie her apron and placed it on a hook behind the counter. “I’ll bet you’re tired after your long work week. Follow me and I’ll show you to your room.”

  “What? My room? I can’t stay. I just stopped in for a cupcake.”

  “Oh,” Coco said disappointedly. “I suppose you have big plans. Makes sense that you’d be in a hurry to go.”

  I nodded weakly. If there was one thing I was terrible at, it was lying. “No plans really. It’s just—it’s just my plants need water and then there’s the mail . . .” My voice trailed off as each aspect of my dull, pathetic life was revealed.

  “I’m sure those plants can survive two days without you,” Coco said cheerily. “Anyhow, it’s free. And I can promise you the best cup of Joe—” She lifted her coffee pot. “And the best vittles this side of the Mississippi,” she said with her own practiced cowboy drawl.

  “I don’t understand. How can you do this for free?”

  “Let’s just say it’s part of my masterful marketing skills.” She winked as if she had been reading my thoughts. Something that seemed more plausible with each passing moment.

  Jackson walked his plate into the kitchen. “I’m going to head out and finish the barn chores, Coco. Thanks for the dinner.”

  “Wait, Jackson,” she called.

  He poked his handsome face back into the bakery.

  Coco smiled at me. “I’ll bet it’s been awhile since you did barn chores, Becca.”

  My mind drifted instantly back to Grandpa’s big red barn. I’d spent so much time in the place, Grandpa used to joke that he’d move my bed there. Everything about the memories of living on the ranch warmed my heart and made me feel homesick for those carefree days.

  “It has been a long time. Not even sure I’d know which end of the mucking fork to hold anymore.” I laughed.

  “I’ll show ya,” Jackson said. “Meet you out there, but you might want to trade in those heels for something more practical.” He looked pointedly at the skirt. “But I’m kind of partial to that skirt, so if you want to wear it—I’m sure the horses won’t object.” With that, he walked out, his boot heels pounding the wood floor as he headed through the kitchen and out the back door.

  “He raised a good point. I’ve got nothing to wear for a weekend away. Especially one that involves horses and barn chores.”

  Coco stepped out from behind the counter.
She was smaller and more petite than I’d realized, but she was one of those women with a huge presence, regardless of physical size. “I’m sure I can rummage up some clothes that’ll fit. Follow me and I’ll show you to your room.”

  Chapter 6

  After showing me to a glorious room, complete with floral printed linens and an incredible antique iron bed that was overflowing with pillows and downy quilts, my weekend hostess continued her surprises by bringing me a pair of jeans, a soft flannel shirt and a pair of cowboy boots. It seemed they hadn’t been worn and yet they were comfortable as if someone had walked a hundred miles in them to soften the leather. Most surprising of all was that everything fit as if it had been made just for me.

  “I’ve brought you some supper,” Coco called through the door, as she knocked again.

  I click clacked to the door in my boots to answer it. For the briefest, strange moment, as I opened the door, I was sure Coco’s face looked older, with fine lines and creases around her eyes and mouth. Then the faint wrinkles faded. I pushed the incident out of my head when she walked past with a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and coleslaw.

  “Figured you’d be hungry after a long day at work.”

  “I am. Although I’ve already had dessert.” I chuckled. “Best cupcake I’ve ever had, by the way.”

  “My theory on dessert is you should eat it whenever the need for sweet happiness arises. And, Becca, I know you’ve been through some unhappiness lately. I can see it in your eyes. So, I think dessert first is completely justified.” Coco lowered the plate onto the small table sitting in front of an upholstered window seat. She drew back the heavy drapes. A silver moon shined through the wavy glass pane.

  “Is it really still that obvious? That I’ve been through something? I was hoping it didn’t show much anymore.”

  “It’s starting to fade, I think. This weekend might just erase it for good.”

  There was no possible way she knew what had gone on in my personal life, but with the way she looked at me, it seemed she knew just what I was feeling. She really was a remarkable person.

  The aroma of her fried chicken was making me nearly dizzy with hunger. I walked to the window seat and looked down at the crispy golden chicken and fluffy mashed potatoes. A dollop of butter melted in the center of the potatoes like a golden pool in the crater of a mountain.

  “This reminds me of my grandfather’s cooking. He made fried chicken that could make your mouth water just thinking about it. Thank you for this. It’s bringing back memories that I needed to find. I hadn’t lost them, after all. I’d just been too busy to reminisce.”

  “I’m glad then. Everyone needs to hold on to the things that matter most. Even a broken heart can’t take them away. It’s those little, nostalgic moments, those epiphanies, that keep us grounded and happy.”

  She took a breath and beamed excitedly down at my outfit. “You look great, by the way. Like a girl ready to sling a mucking fork and look darn sexy doing it.”

  I laughed. “Well, I don’t know about darn sexy, but the boots and jeans will definitely work better in a barn. I’m looking forward to the familiar sights and sounds.”

  “And smells,” she added.

  “I know this sounds nutty, but I’ve always been comforted by the animal smells.” I rocked back on my heels to lift the toes of the boots. They were two toned leather beauties with an intricate pattern and stitching. “These are beautiful. They remind me of a pair I grew up in. I had them so worn out, they were more like socks than leather boots by the time I shelved them for good. Not that I wanted to give them up, but when the rocks started seeping in through the holes I knew it was time to let them go. I still have them in my closet.”

  After yet another stroll down memory lane, I sat down to the plate of food. “I know you call this an inn, but where do the horses come in?” I lifted a drumstick to my mouth and took my first glorious bite.

  “Horseback riding is one of the activities we offer at the Silk Stocking Inn. I hired Jackson recently to look after the horses. He was in need of a place to stay.”

  I swallowed fast, nearly choking on the bite. “He stays here? At the inn?”

  “For now. My needs and this place change a lot. Let’s just say, I like to adapt activities to my clientele.” Something about the twinkle in her eye told me there was more to the statement than just changing things up a bit. “Although, cupcakes are standard. Sometimes it seems as if the Silk Stocking Inn was built up around a batch of cupcakes. Like the chicken and egg conundrum. What came first—the cupcake or the inn? Either way, they are both here to stay.” She took a deep breath. “And so are you, for the next few days. So enjoy. I’ll point you in the direction of the barn when you’re finished with your plate.” She headed to the door, opened it and then looked back at me. “And, Becca, remember everything happens for a reason.” She walked out and closed the door.

  Chapter 7

  I carried my plate down to the kitchen. Coco was sitting at her massive kitchen island writing on a recipe card. She glanced up over a small pair of spectacles, once again making her look older. But her young smile wiped away the illusion.

  “I thought I’d write down the recipe for the mocha latte cupcakes before it flitted away through my Swiss cheese brain. Thanks for the flavor idea. I think they turned out great.”

  I froze halfway to lowering my plate into the sink. My face flashed her direction. “What do you mean? How could I have given you the idea? You had them baked before I reached the inn, an inn that I hadn’t planned on stopping at.”

  “Really? Huh. I guess you’re right.” With an innocent blink of her lashes, she looked back through her wire rimmed glasses and moved her pen again.

  “Is the barn through that back door?” I asked, remembering that my handsome cupcake eating audience had left through it.

  “Yes.” She pointed with her pen. “Through that door and then travel the path along the rose bushes until you get to a wide green pasture. You can’t miss the barn. It’s big and red, and it looks, ironically enough, like a barn.”

  “Great. I’ll see you later then.”

  “Have fun,” she said, without looking up from her recipe.

  I pushed through the screen door. A warm breeze carried the familiar scent of fresh grass and horses my direction. It was home. I was home . . . almost. Grandpa’s booming laugh and the pungent scent of his tobacco pipe were, of course, noticeably absent.

  The full moon showered the path with its eerie glow. The roses lent their fragrance to the already sweet smelling night air. Unlike the dead rose vines clinging to the facade of the inn, the bushes bloomed with buoyant clusters of pink and yellow petals.

  I meandered along the path, suddenly feeling a bit nervous about seeing Jackson again. The few moments in the bakery had been the first time I’d flirted overtly with a man since I’d met Nate. Mentally, I’d blamed it on the sugar rush I was experiencing from the cupcake. But in truth, it was as if the man, the exact man who had often traipsed into one of my romantic dreams, had landed in my path. I was instantly attracted to him. And after spending the last three weeks in near social seclusion, other than my nightly threesome with Ben and Jerry, it had felt good to act a little wanton with a man.

  As promised, the big red barn loomed in the distance. I picked up my pace, suddenly feeling like a carefree teen again. I was nearly running by the time I reached the two round pens in front of the barn. The soft snorts of horses, who were happily grazing on dinner, rolled out from the building. The warm earthy scent that followed made me grin with anticipation. I was transported back in time again.

  I stepped inside the well-lit barn and walked right up to the first stall. A thick, stout draft horse with a feathery white mane looked up from his dinner. Concluding that I hadn’t brought anything better than his mound of hay, he dropped his muzzle back
into his feeder.

  I turned and saw a wheelbarrow standing in the breezeway, sitting right outside of the end stall. I combed my fingers through my shoulder length hair and headed toward it with the tender nerves of a girl working up the courage to talk to the boy she’d been crushing on.

  Jackson stepped out of the stall just as I reached it. I ran smack into his hard chest. I bounced back with a gasp.

  “Sorry. Bad timing,” I said, taking another step back.

  “And here I was thinking just the opposite.” His green eyes flickered under the barn lights. He’d left his hat off for mucking. As hot as he looked with the black hat, my heart was racing just fine looking at him without it.

  “If you get me a fork and a wheelbarrow, I can shovel some manure for you. Used to be pretty good at it,” I boasted and then realized how silly it sounded. “Real poop, I mean. Not bull shit. I’m actually really bad at that. Lying, that is.”

  He lifted his arm and leaned it up against the stall door. “I see you decided against the skirt. But the jeans work too.” He lowered the tip of the fork to the ground with his other arm. “This is the last stall.”

  “I guess I wasn’t much help then. Sorry about that. I sort of got lost in a plate of fried chicken. Almost brought tears to my eyes, it was so good.”

  He laughed as he turned and lifted the wheelbarrow. “Yep, Coco’s food will do that to ya.”

  I followed him out into the summery night. We walked across the yard to the manure pile, and he dumped the barrow.

  “It sure is nice out here.” The only lights on the horizon were the tiny twinkling porch lights, front and back, on the inn. The old house looked taller and more majestic from a distance, as if it had stood proudly in the same spot for a century. Which, no doubt, it had.

  “Want to take a ride?”

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