SOUTHERN COMFORT

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Copyright © 2011 Mari Carr and Jayne Rylon

“Welcome home, Jody.” He stepped forward and bent down to give her a hug. Her shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair smelled like honeysuckle. He had to force himself to keep the embrace quick and brotherly. His cock stirred, and he closed his eyes briefly, trying to ignore the usual arousal that accompanied her arrival. She was the boss’s daughter and even at twenty-one, she was too damn young for him.

She’d been a tomboyish twelve-year-old when he first came to work on the ranch and the other hands had given him shit when it became obvious the young girl had a crush on him. Her infatuation hadn’t abated until last Christmas, when he’d foolishly kissed her under the mistletoe and then shoved her away.

Since then, the easy camaraderie and innocent flirting they’d engaged in since her graduation from high school had evaporated. She’d only been home once since Christmas, but he could see in her face she was still angry with him. He was determined now that she was back to stay, he’d make things right again. He’d been thinking about her return a lot lately. Things were about to change between him and the little wildcat. He grinned at the thought.

“Thanks, Seth. Good to be back.”

“Didn’t get the impression you were staying,” Thomas muttered.

“Daddy. Don’t you think you were kind of rude to Paul?”

“Paul?” Seth asked.

“I mean we only just got here and told you our good news.”

Thomas frowned. “Is that what we’re calling it?”

Jody’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, it is. Didn’t you tell me you wanted me to find a nice man and settle down?”

“What the—” Seth crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly worried about the direction of this conversation. “You were pissed as shit when Thomas gave you that advice. Said women these days didn’t need a man to be happy and you didn’t plan to ever get hitched.” The fight she and her father had had at the end of last summer was epic. Seth had tried to stay out of it, mind his own business, but when Jody and Thomas went toe to toe, it was hard not to hear. Neither of them understood the concept of inside voices.

Jody glanced at him and gave him a small smile that seemed too sad to be genuine. “Turns out I was wrong.”

Seth fought to restrain a growl from escaping his chest. She’d brought home a man? Paul? Seth’s fists clenched at the thought. “How so?”

Thomas shrugged, the helpless gesture at odds with his legendary ability to handle anything. Of course, now that Seth thought about it, Jody was the exception to her father’s confident approach to life. Her mother had died when she was five, and Thomas had struggled to understand and raise his daughter since then.

Jody lifted her left hand, flashing a diamond the size of Dallas in his face. “I’m engaged.”

“The hell you are.” The words left Seth’s mouth before he could catch them. While Thomas laughed at his reply, he could see he’d sent Jody’s temper into orbit.

She retracted her hand and studied the ring, sarcasm dripping from her tone. “Really? I’m not engaged? Because I think this ring and the fact Paul got down on one knee and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ sort of proves that I am.”

“Who the fuck is this Paul character?” Seth took two steps toward the main house, ready to confront the asshole who’d dared to propose without even bothering to meet her family first, but Jody stepped in front of him, stopping him.

“Back off, Seth. You know perfectly well who Paul is. He’s been my best friend since freshmen year of college.”

That Paul? What the fuck? I thought he was gay. Hell, he spent his entire last visit here flirting with the ranch hands.”

Jody closed her eyes and took a deep breath. But long before a ten count, she replied, through gritted teeth, “Obviously, he’s not gay.”

“Since when?”

“Since he fucking proposed to me. Why am I even having this conversation? This is none of your damn business.”

He bent down until his face was mere inches from hers. “Is that right? Well, I beg to differ.”

She leaned closer, and he could detect the slight scent of chocolate on her breath. Jody clearly hadn’t lost her sweet tooth, though he was beginning to wonder where she’d misplaced her common sense. “You are not my boyfriend and you are not my brother. Hell, you’re not a part of this freaking family at all. You are my father’s foreman, which means my decision to get married is none of your damn business.”

He struggled to keep his hands on his hips, rather than reach over and prove to Miss Jody Kirkland how very wrong she was. His fingers were itching to take her over his knee and spank some sense into her.

She’d made herself his business the very first day he’d come to work here and she’d climbed atop Coy, her father’s newest addition to the stable. The far-from-tamed horse had taken exception to its rider and bolted across the yard, jumping a fence and sprinting across the lower pasture. Seth had chased her on Charlton for close to a mile before managing to catch up and pull the fool girl off the runaway roan.

He could still recall the way she’d trembled in his arms and looked at him like he’d hung the moon for rescuing her. By the time they’d returned to the stable, they were laughing like old friends and his position at the ranch had been solidified. As he looked into her blue eyes now, he missed the admiration and wished to hell he could get rid of the anger that had crept in instead.

“Jody,” Thomas broke in. “You know full well I consider Seth a part of this family. If he takes exception to your asinine engagement, then perhaps you should listen to why.”

Jody released a furious breath. “You can’t object to a man who’s been my friend for years.”

Seth leaned back a bit. “Don’t you think it’s a little strange that one minute the guy’s gay and the next he’s not?”

“He never said he was gay.”

“That’s not something we needed to be told. It was kind of obvious. Is he bi?” Seth could understand bisexuality. He’d seen glimpses of it in his older brother, Silas, when they were growing up and he suspected now that his brother was back home in Wyoming, Silas would be acting on some of the feelings he had for his best friend, Colby.

Jody sighed loudly. “No. He’s in love with me. Just me.”

Seth knocked his hat against his jeans in frustration. “Never heard you talk about him like he was your boyfriend. You were home for Easter, Jody, and you didn’t say one word about dating him. When did this so-called love affair start?”

“It turned into something more than friendship recently.”

He tried to beat down the twinge of jealousy that accompanied the thought of her being more than friends with any other man. She was right. He had no claim staked on her. But it sure as hell felt like he did. “So why the rush? If you’ve only started dating, I don’t see why—”

“Because I want to. I don’t need any more reason than that.”

“Just like that?” Seth tried to understand what the hell was going on inside her pretty head. The only thing missing from her haughty proclamation was for her to stamp her foot on the ground like a three-year-old. She wasn’t like this. She’d never been a spoiled girl, never been prone to temper tantrums or selfish demands. She’d been a fun-loving tomboy who’d grown into his laughing, easygoing friend. This angry woman was a stranger to him, and he missed the real Jody.

“That’s right. And we’re not waiting. We came home to have the ceremony performed here.”

“When exactly?”

Thomas cleared his throat. Bewilderment crossed his boss’s face. He was sure the same confusion resided on his. There would be no help from that camp. “They plan to bring the justice of the peace out to make it official here at the ranch in two weeks.”

Hell to the no! Seth would see her married to some stranger only over his dead body. He started to say exactly the same thing, but the argument that came out was much different than what he’d intended. “What about love, Jody? Do you love him?”

His softly spoken question seemed to jar her a bit and for just a second, he saw the trace of his old friend before she disappeared again behind the indifferent, cold woman who’d replaced her.

“What kind of question is that?”

Thomas leaned against the horse stall and crossed his arms over his chest. “A pretty valid one, if you ask me.”

Jody turned to look at her father and shook her head. “You two really are a matched set, you know that? Way to gang up on me.”

“Answer me, Jody,” Seth persisted. “Are you in love?”

She studied his face and a glimmer of pain shone in her eyes. Then she nodded, turned on her heel and walked out of the stable.

It wasn’t until she disappeared around the corner that it began to sink in. Seth had missed his chance with her. He’d pushed her away for too long.

“You realize you made a mistake there, right?” Thomas asked.

Seth nodded sadly. Mistake was putting it lightly. He’d fucked up. Big time. “Yeah. I guess I did.”

Thomas studied his face and then chuckled. “Think we’re talking about two different things. Of course, maybe not. She may be in love, son, but she didn’t say with who.”

COMPASS BROTHERS SERIES ORDER

1. Northern Exposure

2. Southern Comfort

3. Eastern Ambitions

4. Western Ties