Southern Comfort


The employee lounge was empty when Irene Simmons walked inside. Breathing a sigh of relief that for a least a few minutes she wouldn't have to deal with the questions and the pitiful looks her colleagues were giving her she took a seat. Good grief she was just getting divorced, not dying. A fact she wished she could have kept under the radar. But when a lawyer walks in and hands you a divorce decree to sign, the news flies fast.

It wasn't like she regretted anything, the relationship had just run its course as all relationships do. Nothing lasts forever and eventually they all end. She never was one to believe in fairytales, princes and princesses were never part of her world. She was a realist and for that reason alone she had gotten a lot of gripe from her friends and family over the years. Her cell phone beeped for what seemed like the millionth time today and as with everyone else she ignored it.

Leaning back in her chair she closed her eyes for a minute enjoying the peace and quiet. No questions to answer, no phones ringing, just complete solitude.

"Irene there you are."

And it's over, well at least it lasted a bit longer then it usually did. "Hi, Skippy."

"I heard about the divorce," he quietly stated. "I reckon you just couldn't work things out with your husband?"

"We separated amicably."

"What does that mean?" he asked.

"I mean's it was something we both wanted."

"But, that's silly. You build a life with this person. You become family and you don't give up on family."

She smiled in spite of herself. Skippy could be so naïve. And although his innocence could be refreshing, sometimes it was just downright ridicules. She supposed it came from his age, but it might also have to do with his lack of experience in the world.

"I guess that would depend on the family."

Skippy looked at her like she'd grown two heads which made her laugh. "It was something Alex and I both wanted. He wanted his freedom and I wanted mine. Nothing more, nothing less."

"That's a rather callous way to look at something that's supposed to be so precious."

"Did you just use the word precious to describe marriage?"

"Yes, why?"

"Well, I've heard it called many things, but never that."

"I think that may have been the problem," he stated honestly. "Marriage is a sacred thing. It should be honored and held onto."

"Please, no offense, but I don't need a lecture on what marriage should and should not be."

"I'm sorry," he stated. "But it just seems like such a shame when two people split up."

"You've never known a divorced couple?"

"As a matter of fact, no," he stated truthfully. "Everyone back home stays together. My uncle Lester and Aunt Judy did go through a rough patch for a time. But they worked it out."

"Let me guess, she made him dinner and bought him a beer."

"No, she chained him to the barn door until he was ready to talk to her like a decent human being, her words not mine."

Now it was Irene's turn to look at him like he'd grown two heads. "You can't be serious?"

"Why, yes I am. Right there on the barn door for all too see. She fed him and gave him blankets and such. But until he was ready to help her settle their problems he stayed chained."

"And how long was he like that?"

"Oh, no one rightly knows," he grinned. "A day, two days, maybe even a full week."

"So I'm guessing this worked."

"Like a charm," he laughed. "Although, we were kind of worried, for a while there we didn't see them around too much. They pretty much kept to themselves held up in their farmhouse. But, when they came out they were smiling so we all knew that the worse had passed."

Irene laughed she couldn't quite picture chaining Alex to anything, "Well, I'm glad everything worked out for them."

"Have you talked to your husband?"

Okay, now she was beginning to get a bit irritated. "Skippy, look I know you mean well. But, I'd really appreciate it if we could change the subject."

"Alright, I'm sorry."

The conversation ended and Skippy and Irene ate their meals in silence. Yet, forcing herself to think of anything else other than her divorce was a hard thing to accomplish, especially when she was once again reminded of it a few minutes later.

"So why did you break up?"

"Skippy?"

"I'm just wondering."

"Okay if I answer this question, do you promise not to bring up the subject again?"

"Sure."

"Okay, the truth is he worked a lot of hours, I worked a lot of hours and we didn't really have much time to be together. It's no one's fault. Life just got in the way."

"That doesn't seem right. If you love eachother…"

"Skippy, drop it."

"I believe that love conquers all, including divorce."

"There's no such thing."

"Divorce, but you just got one."

"No, love," she honestly stated as he looked at her strangely. "At least not the kind of love that conquers all, as you put it."

"You don't believe in love?"

"Not the kind that they spew in fairytales."

"But that's the best kind."

"Call me cynical, but I choose to be a realist."

"But, surely you've been in love, you were married."

"Love and marriage don't always go hand in hand."

Again Skippy looked at her strangely, apparently unable to comprehend what she was telling him. Sighing she placed a hand on his arm and smiled.

"You're a sweet boy," she stated before getting up to make herself another cup of coffee.

"What If told you they do."

"They do what?"

"Go hand in hand?" he said. "What if I could prove a love like that does exist."

"Then that would be quite a magic trick."

"Don't tell me you don't believe in magic either?" he stated. "It's all around us, whether we can see it or not."

"Skippy you're preaching to the choir." When he looked around she grinned, "Proving that fairy tale love exists, is like proving that Santa Claus and leprechaun's are real. It's not possible. But, I'm intrigued, how are you planning on doing it?"

"I'm going to show you," he replied with a goofy grin.

"Come again?" she asked.

"Come home with me this weekend?"

"Ah Skippy, you're a nice boy, but…"

"It's not what you think," he stated. "I promise."

"And how would coming home with you prove anything."

"That's for me to know and you too find out," he told her watching as a skeptical look crossed her features. "Besides the ranch is quiet and you could get a lot of reading done. You do love to read."

"How do you know that?"

"I've seen you. You're always reading on your breaks."

Irene wasn't sure about this, not that she didn't trust him, she knew that he was harmless but flying to his family's ranch in Texas seemed a bit much to win what she now thought of as a bet. Still getting away from the city sounded heavenly.

"Alright Skippy, I'll go with you," she smiled. "Just to prove that this little theory of yours is wrong."

"Deal," he grinned.


Two days later they arrived at a small airport near Crystal Lake just outside of Dallas, bags in hand and greeted by what she thought must have been the entire state of Texas, or at least a good portion of them. As she waited off to the side while everyone hugged him. She had to admit she felt a bit out of place. She wondered if maybe coming wasn't such a good idea. But before she could grab her bag and head back toward the check in desk in the hopes of catching a plane home, she found herself being scooped up into a warm hug.

"So this is the little non-believer," the strange man stated. "I do believe we have some convincing to do."

"Jeffery mind your manners," a woman who looked to be around her age if maybe a few years older said while walking over. "You must be Irene, Skippy has told us so much about you."

"He has?" she asked stunned. "Um…yes, I am. Irene I mean."

"Child if you're going to be hanging out with us this weekend, you need to loosen up a bit."

"I'm sorry."

"No need to be sorry. Now let me introduce you. You've met Jeffery, he's my brother in law and Skippy's uncle. Here's Davis my son and his wife Sally. These two little one's are their children Carl and Pamela." Irene simply smiled as the introductions continued she must have shaken at least a dozen hands. "And of course, silly me I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Jillian, but everyone calls me Jill. I'm Skippy's momma."

She was about to say that she kind of figured that out by the way he had called out to her when they first arrived. But instead she opted for the polite route. "It's very nice to meet all of you."

The drive there was filled with fun conversation. Mostly stories of when Skippy was a kid but Jill did fill her in on their ranch. She came to find out that they owned quite of bit and that everyone had houses spread out throughout the valley, but all lived on one big stretch of land.

When they pulled up her mouth dropped. To say it was big was an understatement. This place was massive. The land stretched out as far as the eye could see. Long rolling hills that seemed to meet the sky if you looked far enough. Trees near a lake that sat nearby. She had only ever lived in the city, so she was so used to gazing out the window at tall skyscrapers and brick buildings. This was definitely a treat for her.

"You certainly have a beautiful place here."

"Thank you we take pride in our home," she said. "We take care of it, and it takes care of us. Treat it right and we have a win - win situation." She smiled looping their arms together. "Now let's get you settled before you meet the rest of the family."

"The rest of the family, you mean there's more?"

"Well, not the entire family," she smiled. "You'll meet them at the party."

"The party?" she asked. "I'm sorry, what party is this?"

"Skippy didn't tell you?" she asked a bit surprised. "That boy of mine. I love him dearly but sometimes, I wonder if he's playing with a full deck."

Irene couldn't help but laugh. She liked this woman in many ways she reminded her of her own mother.

"Skippy's grandparents, my mom and dad are celebrating fifty years of wedded bliss this Sunday."

Suddenly it all made sense and Irene knew exactly why Skippy had invited her to join him this weekend. For someone who isn't playing with a full deck, he was sure sly.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"I think this is why I'm here this weekend."

"You mean the bet?"

"Well it wasn't exactly a bet, per say, but…"

"It's a bet," she stated. "We firmly believe in calling a spade a spade. Now come on let's freshen up a bit before you help me throw together some supper."

"I'll be honest with you, I'm not a very good cook. Throwing together a meal goes as far as dialing a number and ordering in," she smiled. "Although I must say I'm pretty handy with a can opener and a microwave."

The two women laughed as they walked into the house arm and arm. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea after all, Irene thought to herself.


"So?"

"So what?"

"Aren't you going to tell me the truth?"

"Davis really," Skippy smiled at his older brother. "There's nothing to tell."

"Are you sure about that?" he grinned. "That's the same Irene isn't it?"

"Maybe."

"Isn't she married?" he asked.

"No, she just got a divorce."

"Hmm…kind of a stroke of luck, ain't it?" he smiled. "Beautiful and single. You know if I weren't already married…" he laughed when his little brother glared. "So when are you asking her out?"

"Never," he told him. "She doesn't see me as anything other than the kid I was when I first started working at the hotel six years ago."

"Okay, so show her you're a man."

"Don't you think she already knows?"

"I mean, woo her."

"I don't think that will work with her," he stated. "She's got some peculiar ideas when it comes to love."

"Peculiar how?"

"She doesn't believe it exists."

Davis was thrown back by that so Skippy continued to explain.

"That's right," he added. "Well, not the story book kind."

"Yeah, but she's never met a real man."

"You're so conceded."

"Well, us cowboys do know a good deal more about love and romance then those city slickers you're so hell bent on becoming like."

"It won't work."

"You've been in love with this woman for the better part of two years, and now that you have the opportunity to show her, you're just going to let it get away."

"That's right."

"You're an idiot."

"Thanks," Skippy sarcastically replied.

"It needed to be said. Besides you do realize you're not the only man who's set his sights on her."

"I know."

"Jeffery is harmless, but he's used to getting what he wants, and from the way he was eyeing her, I'm guessing she's he's next conquest."

"That's none of my business," he replied through gritted teeth. "She's a desirable woman who can do whatever she wants."

"Okay, then you don't mind the fact that he's over there talking to her on the front porch," he stated pointing over to the front of the house.

"I'm okay with that," he hesitantly stated as he watched the transaction.

He was used to seeing men hit on her day in and day out. They worked at a hotel with different people coming and going all the time, including men who seemed interested in their concierge. Why should this time be any different? Still he could feel that all too familiar hint of jealousy roaring up within him.

Before he knew what happened, he let out a yelp and found himself flat on the ground as his legs were pulled out from under him. As everyone including Irene came to check on him to see if he was alright. He looked up to wear his brother stood, and dang, if he hadn't winked at him aided by that mischievous smile of his.

"Skippy are you alright?" Irene leaned over to check on him. "Are you hurt?"

He could see his brother mouth the word moan, but he wasn't sure if he should. Then when he looked over at his uncle, he found himself playing along. Moaning and groaning as if the world were ending he was helped up to his feet. Apparently he hurt his back quite a bit and had to lean on her for support as she helped him onto the porch swing.

"Should I get something?" she asked concerned. "Maybe a heating pad for your back or a blanket?"

"No I'm good…" he began but felt a hard kick to the back of his leg. "Ouch, I mean, ouch it really does hurt. If you wouldn't mind, maybe a blanket would be a good idea."

"Of course it would," Jill replied getting the jest of what her two boys were up to. "Come with me sweetheart, let me show you where the blankets are kept. The rest of you can skedaddle, there's nothing more to see here."

When the two women had gone inside and everyone else returned to what they were doing. Skippy turned on his heel and glared up at his good for nothing brother.

"What was that all about?"

"What was what all about?"

"I don't need your help," Skippy stated. "I'm perfectly capable of wooing a woman on my own."

"You're welcome," Davis grinned as he strode off the porch just as Irene walked out with a blanket and some lemonade.


"Are you sure you're alright?" she asked genuinely concerned. "That looked like a pretty bad spill."

"I'm fine," he smiled.

"Well then I guess I better go and see if your momma needs any help in the kitchen."

"Could you stay a while and talk to me."

"Of course," she smiled sitting down next to him on the swing. "What do you want to talk about?"

"I don't know," he said. "Surprise me."

"Alright," she replied. "I really love the scenery here. It's quiet and peaceful. You can breathe here where in the city it doesn't always feel that way. Was that a silly thing to say?"

"No I know exactly how you feel."

"What made you leave this place?"

"Well, my father and brother's dreams always revolved around ranching. In fact it's a way of life for most of my family. This land has been in our family for three generations and we're proud of it. You take care of the land and it will take care…"

"Of you." She finished for him. "You're mother said the same thing when we drove up."

"Ahh."

"That still doesn't answer my question?"

"I want something different, my family knows that."

"What?"

"There's a piece of land not far from here near the river that would make a perfect place for a bed and breakfast," he smiled. "I guess that sounds silly."

"No, that would be a good fit for you."

"I've always wanted to own my own hotel or bed breakfast in this case. But, I knew if I stayed here I could never accomplish that. My family is not rich but we're not starving either, so when I decided to leave to take some business classes they said they would match whatever I made and help me buy the land I needed to build the hotel on."

"It's nice to have a family that is willing to do that."

"Yes it is," he stated. "But, it's not something I want them to do. This is my dream and I want it to come true because I worked hard for it. Not because I got a hand out from my family. I know that sounds strange, maybe a bit ungrateful. But I really want this to be something of my own, something I built from the ground up that no one can lay claim too."

"That makes sense."

"What about you," he asked. "Did you have any dreams that you wanted to see come true?"

"Too many to count," she sadly stated. "When I was little I was full of dreams and hopes for the future. When I was a child I remember making out a list. You know the one, what I think will happen by the time I'm such and such an age. Who I wanted to be, what kind of man I wanted to love and share my life with, how many kids I wanted to have, where I wanted to live, the list is endless. But then life just happens, you get older each year and more and more responsibilities are tacked on to the one's you already have. And soon you seem to lose track of that list, and of the person who wrote that list. You lose sight of what you wanted. The world becomes an empty place, you become empty. Still you drag on, holding on to something, anything that will keep you going one more day, one more hour. You learn to muster through. No longer living, just surviving."

When she was finished she turned away with a bit of a blush on her cheeks, "I'm sorry, I don't know why I told you all of that."

"That's okay," he smiled and she caught a glimpse of something more. "It needed to be said."

They were both quiet for awhile, "Mom likes you and I know dad will."

"Where is your dad?"

"Oh, he's on a business trip with a couple of other ranchers around here. He should be back by morning. He doesn't want to miss the party."

"Speaking of the party," she grinned. "Is that where your proof lies?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"Sure you don't," she laughed knowingly. "Isn't this supposed to be an anniversary party, a fiftieth anniversary party?"

"The cat's out of the bag I see," he stated. "I'm not surprised around here. Who snitched?"

"You're mom told me earlier."

"Well you were bound to find out sooner or later, especially once the rest of the family shows up."

"Speaking of that, how many family members do you have?"

"It's an average number."

"How average?" she asked.

"Two hundred and twelve…" he almost choked when her mouth dropped open. "In Texas."

"How many total?"

"Well, I don't rightly know. For that you'd have to ask mama."

"And how many will be here on Sunday?"

"We estimate around three hundred."

"Wow!"

"It is a sight to see," he smiled.

"How do you keep track?"

"We keep track up here," he stated pointing a finger to his head. "Of course the name tags help a bit too."

"Okay everyone the picnic tables are set up in the back. I hope you're all hungry, because we have a humdinger of a meal prepared."

"I guess that includes us," she smiled.

"Shall we," he asked extending his arm.

"I don't mind if I do, oh but wait, what about your back?"

"It feels a lot better."

"I'm happy to hear that," she replied when a funny thought hit her.

She never realized his eyes were hazel and that they held little specks of silver in the sunlight. She blushed as she turned her head. That was a strange thought, he was six years her junior. It must be this place. She forced herself not to think about it, besides if she was back at the Tipton she would never have noticed such a thing.

"Come and get it, the vultures are circling and there won't be much left."

Irene started laughing, "Is mealtime always such a production around here?"

"It is when momma's cooking, which is about seventy five percent of the time."

"Well then we better dig in," she stated.

"Yeah, I guess we better."


Irene woke up the next morning to the sounds of birds chirping and the smell of fresh cut grass. It took a minute to remember where she was but when she sat up she thought this must be what heaven was like. The sounds of the city were long gone. She knew how badly she would dread stepping on that plane on Monday morning.

There was a soft knock and Irene heard Jill through the door. "Can I come in are you decent?"

"Yes, I'm still under the covers," she smiled greeting her friend as she opened the door.

"I can see that."

"What time is it anyway?"

"After eleven."

"What?" Irene was stunned she'd never slept in so late. But then she was used to being at the Tipton by eight. Even on her days' off her mind was set to six o'clock.

"That's right sleepy head," she smiled. "You must have really been tired."

"I suppose I was," she replied. "We did stay up pretty late getting ready for the party tomorrow."

"Yes we did and I want to thank you for all your help."

"Oh, it was fine. I'm used to arranging events."

"By the way, I hate to ask," Jill began. "But I was wondering if maybe you and Skippy wouldn't mind running some errands in town for me today. I missed a few things on my list and I want everything to be perfect tomorrow."

"It would be my pleasure," she replied seeing the relief in the others woman's face.

"I don't know how in the world I missed so many things. Usually I'm right on the ball."

"Oh, don't worry it happens to the best of us. Besides, with everything that you've had to take care of to throw this little shindig, I'm not surprised that you forgot a few things."

"That is a fact and did you just use the word shindig?"

Irene smiled, "I suppose I did."

"You're becoming one of us," they both laughed.

"And what is that?" Irene smiled.

"A bonafide Texan."

Irene couldn't help but smile at that thought as Jill left the room to let her get ready for the day.


After insisting that Irene couldn't live on a muffin alone, Jill was kind enough to make her a late breakfast before she and Skippy headed into town. The drive was a pleasant one, land as far as the eye could see. She was falling in love with this place, and she knew it. But still she was a realist. In Boston she had a livelihood. A good job, a nice apartment, her friends and family, little there was. She felt as if she were in a dream which saddened her, because like with all dreams, she knew eventually she would have to wake up.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, I was just thinking about how open and vast this place is compared to Boston."

"It is that."

"I mean, all you see there is concrete buildings and sidewalks. I wish that..."

"You wish that what?"

"Never mind it's nothing."

"Are you sure, I'm a good listener," he stated.

"No, I'm sure," she replied. "By the way, I've always meant to ask, but…"

"But?" he looked over. "You can ask me anything."

"What is your real name? I mean surely it's not Skippy."

"I don't really like my real name."

"Why not?" she asked now curious to find out what it is. "It can't be that bad."

"If I tell you," he hesitated for a moment before continuing. "Do you promise not to laugh?"

"I promise," she said crossing her fingers.

"It's Sylvester."

"That's not a bad name."

"Really, I hate it."

"Well, how did you end up with Skippy as a nickname?"

"When I was a child I used to skip everywhere I went. So people began to call me Skippy, and I guess it just stuck."

"That makes sense," she replied. "It must've made you happy. I imagine that's probably why London does that."

"I suppose so."

"It must be nice to be that carefree. No worries beyond what outfit to put on."

"I suppose."

"Sometimes I wish I had her life," Irene hadn't realized she'd admitted that out loud.

"London's why?" he asked. "I don't see anything special about her life."

"Are you kidding me, she's rich, she's beautiful…" she began. "Well, she's beautiful."

They both laughed. "She does have that going for her anyway."

"She's still not as beautiful as you are."

Irene turned to face him a bit stunned at what he'd just said. "Thank you, no one's ever really said that to me before."

"No one," he asked. "Not even your ex-husband?"

"Nope," she sadly stated. "He did say I was a knockout once. But he says that to everyone."

"He does?"

"Well, everyone in his family."

"Strange fellow," he told her. "And blind to boot."

The welcome sign into town sat just up ahead. Crystal Lake Texas, population twenty two hundred. The shops were lined up and down Main Street with parking spaces slanted inward. It reminded her of a mom and pop type of town with no big box store to be seen. Everyone knew everyone and the doors were always kept unlocked. She loved it.

"Sorry we don't have a big one stop shop here in town. But if you want we can drive the forty five miles into Dallas."

"No, this is perfect."

"Alright then I'll park here we'll start at one end and work our way back," he told her. "But, be prepared."

"Prepared for what?"

"Skippy!"

"That…"

"My goodness boy is that you?" a man asked as he strolled up to them.

"Hi Fred," he smiled. "How are Flo and the kids?"

"Skippy!"

She suddenly had to take a step back to accommodate all the people who had bombarded them. She did have to admit it was quite a welcome wagon. Which fascinated her, as she watched as Skippy hugged and greeted each one of them by name. Even taking the time to chat with many of them, that's when something inside her changed. When did Skippy the boy turn into Skippy the man? A heat rose in her and she had to turn away before anyone noticed. But as she did so she came face to face with another woman.

It was something that wouldn't have fazed her if the woman wasn't currently shooting daggers at her. Her eyes were a piercing blue and she used them to her advantage as she sized her up. It was evident that Irene had done something to upset this person but what she couldn't fathom.

"Bridgette don't you want to say hello to Skippy?" An older woman asked.

The stranger looked exactly like her daughter, except for a crop of gray hair where the blond used to be and the age around her eyes, she was the spitting image. They both glared at her once more before turning toward the group. Everyone fell silent as Bridgette slowly and seductively sauntered over toward Skippy and captured his mouth in a very sensuous kiss.

Irene was never one for jealousy. She thought it was childish and petty. But as she looked at the scene that played before her, she saw red. She knew she had to control herself as soon as thoughts of scratching the girl's eyes out and yanking out her hair in painful chunks crossed her mind. Turning from the scene she began to walk, she didn't know where she was going but she knew if she stayed she'd make a fool of herself.

She knew she was acting like an idiot. They weren't together, not even close. But then why did she have the urge to run over the blond slut with his pickup truck. She couldn't help but smile at the thought as she suddenly felt a hand grasp her arm. Turning she came face to face with Skippy's worried expression.

"Are you alright," he asked taking a breath from the run he'd just made. "Didn't you hear me calling you?"

"I didn't think you would notice," she sneered knowing full well what she sounded like. "Since you seemed rather busy, I thought I'd start on the list myself."

"Bridgette and I are just old friends."

"Since when do old friends throw themselves at you like that?" she shouted and then suddenly she knew she'd said too much. What the hell business was it of hers who he did what with. She had to get a grip.

"Are you jealous?" he smiled and the thought of ripping that expression off his face materialized in her mind.

"Pfft, no, what jealous me," okay now she just sounded like a bumbling idiot. "Why would I be jealous? We're friends, that's all, no more, no less, just friends…yup, just friends."

"Who are you trying convince," he smiled. "Me or you?"

"You know what, I think I will take this list and run the errands myself. I'll meet you back here in a couple of hours which should give you plenty of time to spend with…Bridgette," the name left a vile taste on her lips.

"Bridgette and I are just friends, we went out for six months our sophomore year in high school. There's nothing between us."

"Does she know that?" Irene asked.

"Where is this coming from?" he shouted.

"Nowhere, never mind," she calmly replied. "You're mom is waiting for these things so we better get started."

"Irene?" he quietly said turning her back to face him. "Answer me, are you jealous?"

"No," she meekly replied looking down at the sidewalk. "Maybe…I don't know, we aren't together but when I saw…never mind. It's not your problem so don't worry about it." Turning on her heel she left him eyeing her as she made her way across the street.

She just knew the day was going to get worse before it got better and she knew she was partly the cause. Why couldn't she have just kept her emotions in check instead of acting like a jealous girlfriend. Why was she starting to care for him after all this time? It just didn't make any sense. She pondered if maybe it was part of a rebound thing, because she needed to feel something, anything. Since her divorce she didn't want anything to do with men, hell, anyone for that matter. But maybe this could be what she needed?

She must be going nuts, absolutely fruity. That's it; as soon as she got back to Boston she'd find a good shrink and maybe then she'd start to think rationally again. He's a friend, that's all. Still she had to wonder why she felt the need to keep reminding herself of that fact. She fell so deep in thought she hadn't realized that she'd passed up about a good four blocks of shops. Shops that, according to the signs, she needed to go into.

"Great, I am losing it," she stated not realizing she'd said the thought out loud.

"Maybe I can help you find it?" she turned at the familiar voice and sighed.

"Hello Jeffery."

"Please call me Jeff." He reminded her. "I heard what happened."

"How?" she asked surprised. "It happened like five minutes ago."

"News travels fast in a small town."

"Apparently," she stated. "I'm sorry, I'm being rude. How can I help you?"

"Skippy decided to spend some time with Bridgette so I thought I'd help you with that list."

"Of course, I'd be glad for the company," she smiled but inside she felt hurt.


"Bridgette, I need to get back to Irene," he told her. "She's not familiar with the town and I need to show her around."

"It looks like someone else is doing that for you," she smirked pointing over toward where Irene stood with his uncle. "So it seems you have the afternoon off."

"It looks that way," he replied hurt by what he was seeing.

"Come on sugar, let me show you a good time. You used to like that."

Skippy gently unwrapped her hand from around his arm and turned to face her, "I am sorry but I've made other plans and I suggest you do the same." Before she could say a word he was running over to where Irene stood with his uncle.

His brothers words were playing over in his mind and he suddenly realized it was time to take matters into his own hands, even if that meant falling flat on his face.

"I'll take over from here," Skippy argued. "Thanks anyway," he added taking Irene by the hand as they made their way into the first store.

"Don't you think that was rather rude?"

"Nope."

"Skippy, he was trying to…" she said.

"I know what he was trying to do," he stated.

"Trying to be nice, maybe," she added for him. "Where's your friend?"

"I left her standing by Shirley's diner."

"But I thought you left with her?" she said. "That's what Jeff said."

"Jeff lied."

"Oh," she stated.

"We better get these things and get back. Knowing mom she's already burnt her candle at both ends and needs all the help she can get."

"Alright," she replied not really sure what else to say.

"You'll get to meet Gram and Gramps when we get back."

"That will be nice, which reminds me I have to get them a gift," she stated taking his hand and leading him into an aisle. "But I don't know what I should get for them. Any ideas?"

"You don't have to get them anything."

"Nonsense, of course I do," she smiled. "I'd also like to get your mother something for being so kind to me."

"Irene really it's not necessary."

"Are you going to stand here and argue with me," she stated picking up a pretty white lace shawl. "Or are you going to help me."

He chuckled as he shrugged in defeat, "women and their shopping." He added earning a cocked eyebrow from her.

In spite of the way the day began they enjoyed themselves. They were finished with his mother's ridiculously long list in no time at all and so had plenty of time to take in some of his old haunts. Irene marbled in all the excitement the small town offered. The main excitement being the party that was going to be taking place at the ranch the following day.

When Skippy said three hundred family members, she quickly realized that the entire town, which they considered to be extended family were going to be present. Everywhere they went people were saying hello and letting them know what they would be bringing or what time they'd be arriving. She was especially surprised when they began to address her by name.

"Skippy?"

"Yes," he stated picking up yet another item from the list.

"How do they know my name?"

Skippy started laughing but at the look on her face held back a bit. "They knew before we arrived at the ranch."

"They did," she looked surprised. "How?"

"It's a small town," he replied with a shrug as if that explained everything.

"Oh," was all she could come up with in response to what he had said.


Now they were driving down a dirt road in the opposite direction of the ranch. She would have mentioned the fact except that she was so enthralled in the scenery; she honestly didn't care where they were headed. Long rolling hills met them once more, a sight she was getting very used too. The humid heat in Texas was definitely very different from that of Boston. As she took in the cool lake that ran parallel to the road they were on and she relished taking a dip before they headed back.

He pulled over and stopped the truck near a pretty little spot that overlooked a clearing near the lake. "Come on I wanna show you something."

"But what about your mom?" she asked.

"She's already seen this place."

"That's not exactly what I meant," she smiled. "But while we are on the subject, where are we?"

"Irene you're looking at the future."

"Okay, and what precisely am I supposed to be seeing?"

"The future location of my new hotel," he exclaimed with pride. "Just picture it, a retreat from the city with a welcoming touch and a homespun feel."

"Nice."

"Inside you have picture perfect rooms with all the comforts of home and the luxuries of a four star hotel. Plus the combination of being near a small town and a big city doesn't hurt. On top of that you jump out of bed early in the morning to fresh bagels and coffee then gaze out the window at the amazing scenery and crystal blue stream," he stopped when he saw the small smile on her face. "Too much?"

"Just a bit," she laughed. "But, I like it."

"Thank you."

For the next half hour or so Skippy continued to describe what his hotel would look like from top to bottom and where each room would be situated. He was so thorough that she could almost draw out a blue print. As he continued she watched his expression more than listened to his words. There was such happiness and hope in his face.

"I have no doubt that you will come home soon and build this dream of yours."


They returned to the ranch in the midst of chaos. Everything was being set up to accommodate the three hundred plus guests that were due to arrive at ten am the next morning. Skippy and Irene pulled up to the side of the house and parked. They had a pleasant afternoon in spite of the fact that they both refused to bring up the incident with Bridgette.

"Did you get everything, Mom's driving us nuts."

"Yup, everything on her list and then some," Skippy told his older brother.

"Let me help take those," he offered grabbing a few bags as they followed Irene inside.

Nudging to his brother to wait a minute he leaned in to warn him. "Did you happen to run into Bridgette anytime today?"

"Yeah in town, why?"

"She's inside with her mother."

"She's here?"

"That's what I said. They're driving everyone crazy."

"I thought I told her to find something else to do," Skippy was obviously annoyed.

"We could always sick the dogs on her," Davis grinned making his brother laugh.

"And your wife wonders who your kids get their ideas from."

"I'm in the clear."

"Yeah, right," Skippy laughed. "You're the picture of innocence."

"Well seeing as you're my brother, I guess you would know better than anyone."

Skippy sighed, "Something happened today."

"Yeah."

"I think Irene is jealous of Bridgette," he replied.

"You think she might have feelings for you."

"I don't know," he solemnly sighed.

Davis eyed the two female figures that were currently walking toward them. It was no secret that Bridgette knew how to keep a man happy, and why not she had plenty of practice. But what he didn't understand is the fact that she threw herself at every man in town while his brother was away, so why did she care so much now that he was back. He didn't like her and didn't trust her. But then that was no secret since she'd played every man in town for a fool at one time or another.

"Skippy, I'm so glad your back. I was beginning to wonder if I'd see you at all today."

"Bridgette you saw me earlier."

"That was a whole two hours ago."

"What do you want?"

"I just missed you," she cooed. "You being so far away and all, I never see you unless you come home. And even then your only home for a couple of days and then you're gone again."

"Bridgette you're nice and all but…" he noticed Irene walking out onto the porch and he almost lost sight of what he was saying.

As it had done so many times before his mind went to mush when he caught a glimpse of her. Her hair was blowing in the wind and the breeze caught the hem of her dress. Her skirt just barely blowing above her knees showing off her shapely legs.

Ignoring Bridgette as if she were never there he walked toward Irene while she made her way toward him. There was an urgency in each step, everything inside him calling out to her. Yet, they stopped frozen a couple of feet apart, neither one knowing what to do.

"Um…you first," Irene said excitedly.

"No you."

For the life of her she couldn't bring herself to remember what it was she was supposed to be telling him. "No you?" There went her mind again.

"Um, okay, well. Did mom need something?"

"Mom, mom right, your mom, yes, I mean, she needed something," she replied stumbling over her words.

"And that was?" Skippy gave her a knowing smirk. She was so cute when she was incoherent.

"Oh right, she needed your help in the kitchen."

"That's it?"

"Yes," she told him as she stared at her shoes. "That's it," Irene was getting irritated with herself over the silly fact that she couldn't form two sentences together when he was around her. What was going on with her lately? She was an adult for goodness sakes not a bumbling pre-adolescent teen with her first crush. She needed to get a grip before she made a complete fool of herself.

"I better get in there then," Skippy told her looking a bit disappointed as he made his way over to the house leaving Irene standing there watching him go.


"Nice view, don't you think?"

"I don't know what you mean?" Irene turned away hoping the other woman didn't see her blush.

"Come on we're both women you don't have to play the innocent card with me."

"Bridgette is there something you wanted?"

"Yes as a matter of fact there is," she grinned licking her lips seductively. "Mouthwatering isn't he?" she stated waiting for a reaction. "Great in bed too. Not that you'll ever know."

"Your disgusting."

"I'm surprised a woman your age running after him like that. As old as you are, I'd be a bit embarrassed to let people see me throwing myself at a man. But then I guess a woman your age can't help themselves."

"I'm not the one throwing myself at him."

"This, this is just a game we play," Bridgette smiled. "No matter what you've heard, every man loves the attention of a beautiful vibrant woman chasing after him."

"Is that right?"

"That's right?" she smiled. "Have you slept with him?"

"I beg your pardon?" Irene looked shocked. "I don't believe that's any of your business. In fact I think that question is in poor taste."

The blond girl laughed as she folded her arms across her waist. "You must really be itching for it huh?"

"This conversation is over."

"The way everyone's been talking…"

"Been talking?" she asked suddenly interested in what this she devil had to say. "What have they been saying?"

"Just that it's sad for a woman your age to be drooling over a man who's already betrothed to someone else."

"Skippy is engaged?" Suddenly the floor seemed to fall out from under her while her stomach tied in knots. "I'm glad. He deserves to be happy."

"Aren't you wondering who he's marrying?"

"If he wants to tell me than that's fine," she replied. "Otherwise I'm sure I'll meet her soon enough."

"Darling, you already have," Bridgette grinned at the shocked expression on the other woman's face. "Care to see my engagement ring?" she asked as she reached inside her v-neck top and pulled out a long chain. Irene's eyes grew wide at the sight of the diamond ring dangling from it.

"Irene," Jill's voice echoed across the yard and Irene silently thanked the woman for an excuse to get away from Bridgette. Without a backwards glance she made her way over to her friend and walked inside without a word. That night Irene explained her absence away with the excuse of a headache. Affording her time to think and be on her own.


"Ouch, what the…" Skippy growled at his brother who had just slapped him upside the head. "What was that for?"

"Tell me your not marrying that tramp?"

"Which tramp are we talking about?"

"The one that's seen more action then all the hore houses in Texas combined."

"Oh…that one, what about her?"

"Your marrying her?"

"Hell no."

"Then why did you get her a ring?"

"What ring?"

"The one she's wearing around her neck?"

"She's wearing a ring around her neck?" Skippy asked stunned.

"Yeah, she claims you gave it to her."

"When?"

"Skippy, the straight truth, did you give her that ring?"

"I've never given her a ring."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Skippy told his older brother. "I think I would have known if I'd asked her to marry me…oh…wait."

"Oh wait what?"

"I did ask her to marry me."

"You did what?" Davis was floored.

"It's a long story. But I need to get that ring back," Skippy stated rushing to where he'd parked his truck. "Tell everyone I'll be back soon."

"Skippy wait," Davis called to him but it was too late as he'd already pulled out and began driving. Sighing he walked inside hoping this wasn't going to end in a bloodbath.


The next morning was filled with more chaos as breathing room became scarce. It seemed that every inch of that ranch house was filled to the rafters with family and friends. Irene found she couldn't get away fast enough. She needed fresh air, she needed quiet, she needed Skippy to tell her it was all a lie. She spotted Davis standing over by the corral talking to another man. As she made her way over she noticed a pair of eyes glaring at her with hostility. No surprise who they belonged too. Choosing to ignore the blond woman she quietly tapped Davis on the shoulder and asked for a favor.

A few minutes later she was driving his truck away from the ranch in the desired direction. As she looked out onto the scenery she felt her eyes going blurry and knew that she was crying. She would miss this place, these people. She'd only known them for a few short days but they'd become familiar to her. She thought about her life on that short drive. About what waited for her back in Boston and she found she was once again dreading getting on that plane.

Pulling off the road she drove up to the open meadow with the pretty blue and silver lake that would one day become home to Skippy's hotel. And in her heart of hearts she wished she could be here to see it. Maybe that was what she was really dreading leaving behind. But as she thought about it there was no question that this wasn't the case. The truth was, even with the people and the valley, this wouldn't feel like home without Skippy.

"Irene you have to stop thinking like that. He's getting married, you need to let it go," Irene said out loud hoping that by voicing that little bit of truth she could come to terms with it.

"Do you always talk to yourself like this?"

Irene almost fell off the boulder she was sitting on," Skippy when did you get here?"

"I've been here for awhile…that's not true. I ran into Davis when he went to grab his keys and he told me that you were borrowing his truck. I gotta admit I sort of followed you here."

"Skippy, I don't think Bridgette will be too happy about this."

"Irene there's something I want to get straight with you…" he began before she interrupted his train of thought. Too late.

"Congratulations, I'm sure you and Bridgette will be very happy together. Now if you'll excuse me I would like to have some peace and quiet before returning to the party."

To Irene's dismay he plopped down on the boulder right alongside her. "Bridgette and I are not getting married."

"But she has your ring," Irene replied.

"Correction, she had my ring," he told her.

"You must have loved her very much to propose marriage."

"I guess you could say that, but then again, how much do thirteen year olds know about love."

"thirteen?"

"We were sitting on a bench at the park across from the jewelry store where I had my mom's ring cleaned for her birthday. After I picked it up, I gave it to Bridgette for safe keeping. She said she would only take a ring from a guy if he were to ask her for her hand. I said okay then Bridgette marry me. She said okay took the ring and as far as I knew lost it several days later when I asked her to return it. Needless to say my dad whipped my hide for that one. But, I never thought of it again. From what Davis told me about your conversation with her yesterday, it appears she'd always had it with her."

"Wow, I don't know what to say," she stated. "Crazy story."

"Crazy woman."

That last statement made her smile but another thing occurred to her. "Did you give your mother her ring back?"

"No actually, my dad was so ticked off because he had to replace it. So it in essence it became mine."

"I see," she replied not sure of what else to say. "You should save it until you find that special someone."

"Would you be interested in it?"

"Skippy," she replied trying not to let her blush show. "I don't think it would be fair to whoever you end up marrying. That is after all an engagement ring."

"It also symbolizes a promise to one day wed."

"That's true," she sadly replied thinking about what kind of a woman Skippy would eventually fall in love with.

"Irene?"

"Yes?"

"I'd really like you to wear it."

"Skippy I…"

"I care for you," he'd been holding those words in so long they almost sounded strangled. "Please before you say anything I need to finish this. I have for a very long time. Irene you amazing, your sweet, and caring and honest to a fault. You're always thinking about other people even when they don't deserve it. Your beautiful, intelligent and…"

"And what?"

"I'm in love with you."

"Skippy, I…"

"You don't have to say anything," he said standing up. "I understand."

They were both quiet for a few moments. Moments that seemed to stretch out for them both. "Skippy can I have my ring please?" he wasn't sure if he'd heard her right. He turned just as she'd stepped over to him so that he was now facing her.

"Irene do you know what your saying?"

"I do know what I'm saying and I do know what I'm doing."

"And what are you doing?"

She leaned into him, and wrapping her arms around his shoulders as she lifted herself on tippy toes and kissed him, lightly brushing her lips against his. He melted into the touch and before she knew it he picked her up so her feet dangled in midair and he was supporting her weight against him. She almost giggled, feeling like a school girl. Which was absurd considering how old she truly was.

He kissed her passionately then twirled her around a few times before placing her back on the boulder. They sat in content silence while she placed her head against his shoulder as they gazed out into the lake. A minute later he placed the ring on her finger and heard the three little words he'd always dreamed he would.

"I love you."

A few weeks later they returned to the Tipton put in their notice and were on a plane back to Texas before the month was out. The family was thrilled to know that their prodical son had returned. They planned the wedding for one year from the day they broke ground and placed a banner where their hotel would one day stand.

Irene felt two warm arms wrap around her and she melted into the embrace. For once in her life feeling truly happy and free.


The End