Simple Gone South
Gone South - 3
Alicia Hunter Pace
For the fabulous Lynn Raye Harris, our plotting partner and friend of our hearts, who has taught us that the more we hurt them, the sweeter the happily ever after. We love you. J.P.H and S.L.J.
This story, more than any other in the Gone South series, has been a journey. Though this story has little resemblance to the first version, it all started with Lucy and Brantley. It was with them that Merritt, Alabama, was born and the Gone South gang came to life.
There is something special about creating the unsold story, something wonderful about continuing to write page after page based not on a contracted deadline or for readers who are begging for the next story but on the love of the characters, the story, and the hope that this will be the one.
We owe thanks to:
Our families and friends who lived with us in the early stages of Gone South. It wasn’t always easy.
Rhonda Nelson, who read for us and believed that Merritt was a place readers would want to go.
Sandy Callahan, the best proofreader in all the land.
Tara Gelsomino, Julie Sturgeon, and Jess Verdi at Crimson Romance, who not only always help make a better book, but help us to be better writers.
Getting hit in the head with a taco will make a man rethink a relationship.
Brantley Kincaid was at Mateo’s Grill and Cantina with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Rita May Sanderson when she took exception to his lack of enthusiasm for her suggestion that they take a long weekend and go to Paris. And she wasn’t talking about Paris, Texas, either. He had just returned to Nashville from a three-month stint in San Francisco where he’d been consulting on a project to restore a group of Queen Anne row houses. If he had wanted to go anywhere, it would not have been Paris and even if he had wanted that, he damn sure wouldn’t want to do it in three days. He was in no mood for a city as big as Paris and, besides, apart from escargot and oui, he couldn’t speak a word of French. Who wanted to run around for three days dodging cars and bicycles, saying yes, snail? Not him.
Rita May did not agree.
So she threw the taco at him. It had guacamole on it, which he normally liked—when it wasn’t being hurled through the air in his direction. It wasn’t the first time. Rita May was a thrower and a breaker—coffee cups, CDs, books, assorted food. He’d seen it all—headed right for his head.
“Rita May,” he said as he picked lettuce out of his hair and wiped salsa off his ear. “I know how it’s gotten to be kind of our trademark for me to offend you in some way and then for you to throw something at me. And then I apologize for the offending and you apologize for the throwing and for destroying my property, if that has been the case, which it usually has. Then we have sex and go shopping to replace whatever it is you broke, which I pay for. But now you have hit me with a taco in a public place, and I am shutting this freak show down.”
Having already made short work of the paper napkins, he pulled his handkerchief out and finished cleaning himself up as best he could.
He’d had enough. This was possibly the twelfth time they had broken up, but it was the first time he’d done the breaking. So it was understandable that she was all surprised with open mouth and big eyes. Her eyes were still the brightest blue he’d ever seen, but not worth it anymore, no matter how many Keith Urban and Jackson Beauford videos she’d been in. He got to his feet and threw a wad of bills on the table. There was a fire fall of cheese down the front of his bespoken shirt that he hadn’t noticed. He brushed it into his plate.
“But we came in my car. How will you get home?” she asked.
“You let me worry about that, Tradd.”
Her face turned red and she said through gritted teeth, “Don’t call me that! Never call me that in public!”
Time to walk away. This was turning into an argument—and he didn’t argue. Ever. It was one of his rules.
“I am not calling you anything anymore,” he said pleasantly as he fished steak out of his pocket. Tradd Davenport might be a little too uptown ball gown for her persona of aspiring country music star, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t her real name. No matter.
As Brantley walked away, the chip basket hit him in the shoulder but he didn’t look back.
He bought what passed for a barbecue sandwich from a street vendor and walked and ate for four blocks. Ordinarily he would not have chosen barbecue, because God knows they didn’t have any real barbecue in Nashville, Tennessee, but that was all that was available at the moment and he was hungry. Real barbecue came from where you were raised, but he had no plans to return to Merritt, Alabama—not even for the best pulled pork in the south. Maybe he should have taken his fajitas with him, though they would have made for messy walking food. Not that he wasn’t already a mess.
He flagged down a taxi.
His townhouse still had that musty, closed up smell. And it still looked like a hotel room. His clients who lauded his “impeccable taste and attention to detail” would be shocked to see how he lived. He had some nice antique furniture because his grandmother had seen to it, but he’d never even bothered to unroll the Oriental rug she’d sent. Who had time? Or inclination? Clean was about all his domicile had going for it and that was because he hired that done. Well, that and his bed. He liked a comfortable bed with a good sink effect. All those extra pillows and gewgaws had cost a lot but the sink effect was excellent.
He could hardly wait to get in that bed—without Rita May complaining about how he kicked and stole covers. He was surprised at how downright cheerful he was about it.
Having washed the taco out of his hair, he’d just stepped out of the shower when his cell rang. That would be Rita May, who would have thought of a whole new batch of his shortcomings that she needed to apprise him of. Brantley had no interest in hearing—again—about how he didn’t know what a relationship was, so he let it go to voicemail.
It was kind of cold in the house. He had to dig deep to find his favorite flannel pants because he hadn’t worn them yet this year. They had ducks on them. It was the kind of night that called for favorite pants. He had fewer opinions about t-shirts so he didn’t have to dig.
Finally, he reached for his phone. He was only going to listen to enough of Rita May’s message to enjoy her fury at finally being the one who got dumped. After peeping at the caller ID, Brantley relaxed.
It was Missy, aka Mrs. Harris Townshend Bragg, III, aka the demon spawn who, at ten months old, had put her hand in his first birthday cake before he got a chance. But apparently they had bonded over that torn up cake because she was his best and oldest friend. Before dialing her back, he settled himself into his leather chair in case it was going to be a long conversation—which was likely. Of course, she might just be calling to tell him a joke or give him an order.
She didn’t ask after his health, the weather, or any of the things a woman of her social standing and breeding should have. She didn’t even say hello.
“Brantley!” Missy said his name like she was in charge of it and he needed reminding of that fact. “Listen! I want to talk to you.”
Clearly, Missy, or you wouldn’t have called.
“Hello, Missy. This is Brantley.” He always made it a point to greet her and identify himself. It had not rubbed off on her, not in the twenty-odd years since she had been capable of dialing his number. “How is the sainted Harris Bragg? And my godson? And baby Lulu?”
“Oh, they’re fine.” He could see her waving her hand like she did when she didn’t want to talk about something. Not that she didn’t love her husband and children. At this moment, they just were not her mission. “Listen! I need you to come home next weekend.” From where Missy sat, “home” was still Merritt because that’s where she was. It mattered not to her where he paid taxes, had set up his architectural restoration business, and got dumped. “I’m in the Junior League Follies and I need you to come.”
He and Missy had been to the Follies a few times when they were kids because their mothers were in it. It involved grown women dressing up like famous people and lip-syncing and dancing, all in the name of charity.
“Don’t tell me they are still doing that.”
“Not for a while, but it’s been resurrected. And not they, Brantley. We—meaning me and you—because you’re coming.”
He could tell her yes now or he could tell her yes later, but in the end, people always told Missy yes. Besides, he hadn’t seen his dad and grandmother since before he left for San Francisco. If he didn’t visit soon, they’d land on his doorstep.
“All right,” he said. “What else?” Because it just wasn’t going to be that easy. Of course, going to Merritt was never easy. How could it be? Too many graves.
“I need you to come to the after party too.”
“How much is this going to set me back?” It wasn’t going to be cheap. Junior Leaguers were never cheap.
“Twenty-five for the show and a hundred for the party.”
“Must be some party. Generally people like me enough that they let me come to their parties for free.”